The Acolytes of Beltane: Re-examining the Sabbat Through the Tarot

The Lovers. Centennial Waite-Smith Tarot.

Beltane is the last of the three Planting festivals. In the old days these festivals revolved around the agrarian year, and for some they still do. However, my urban self relates to all the festivals in a slightly different way. For me these are more personal festivals, encouraging and celebrating more personal types of growth.

Beltane is usually the hardest of all the sabbats for me to find personally relevant. I’ve written about it before, and every year it’s still a bit of a struggle.

However, this year I took a new approach and examined Beltane through the lens of Tarot. It works for almost everything else, right? The most obvious Tarot card to start with for Beltane is the Lovers, but as you’ll see my examination rapidly expanded out from there.

 The Lovers

Beltane is almost always associated with love and marriage. The union of the Lord and Lady (as seen through any number of sacred marriage stories) is perhaps the single most common symbol of the holiday. The aptly named Lovers card perfectly encapsulates that whole concept.

However, no card of the Tarot exists in a vacuum. The Lovers is linked, by both image and theme, to other cards too. In fact, it’s one of six Acolyte Cards.

So I had to wonder. If one of the Acolyte Cards relates so well to Beltane, could the other Acolyte Cards somehow relate too?

The Acolyte Cards

In addition to the Lovers, the Acolyte Cards also include the Devil, the Hierophant, the Chariot, the Six of Pentacles, and the Tower.

The Acolyte Cards are called that because, in all six cards, we have two “acolytes” at the feet of a larger figure or archetype. The visual composition of each card is almost identical, and their meanings are similar too. In all six cards the two figures in the foreground are submitting to whatever the figure behind them represents. The only difference lies in what precisely that happens to be.

The Lovers. Centennial Waite-Smith Tarot.

The Lovers. Centennial Waite-Smith Tarot.

In the Lovers, the figures commit themselves to each other under the eyes of an angel, making this a sacred marriage. By so doing they collectively place their relationship above their individual desires, submitting to its influence in their lives. While it depicts a sacred marriage, this card can refer to any great love to which we commit ourselves.

The Devil. Centennial Waite-Smith Tarot.

The Devil. Centennial Waite-Smith Tarot.

The Devil is often called the shadow card of the Lovers, and it’s easy to see why. The figures in this card don’t submit to each other, but to the worst parts of themselves. The chains represent the attachment of the figures to fears, addictions, self-serving behaviors, and hedonism. They’re wholly committed to that which holds them prisoner, but they retain the ability to free themselves from bondage any time they choose. The Devil is ultimately a helpful card, because it points out that which holds us back and encourages us to pursue self-improvement, independence, and true freedom.

The Hierophant. Centennial Waite-Smith Tarot.

The Hierophant. Centennial Waite-Smith Tarot.

The monks of the Hierophant submit to the leader of their faith, and by so doing commit themselves to a higher purpose. I also think it’s significant that, out of all six cards, the monks of the Hierophant are the only figures with their backs to us. Part of their devotion is a rejection of the world, while the other five cards are of the world and face it more directly.

The Chariot. Centennial Waite-Smith Tarot.

The Chariot. Centennial Waite-Smith Tarot.

The sphinxes of the Chariot submit to their princely driver, who is completely focused on worldly conquest. Since the world can never truly be conquered by one person, the drive to succeed is never-ending. Total success isn’t really the point, though. The sphinxes are committed to the journey itself and carry the driver onwards regardless.

The Six of Pentacles. Centennial Waite-Smith Tarot.

The Six of Pentacles. Centennial Waite-Smith Tarot.

As befitting the only Minor Arcana of the set, the Six of Pentacles shows a more scaled-down version of the dynamic seen in the other cards. Here the two acolyte figures submit to their need for aid from a wealthy benefactor, who is committed to helping them. Unlike the other cards, though, the benefactor isn’t a larger-than-life archetypal figure. He’s human too, and a quick reversal of fortune could cause the acolytes and the benefactor to switch places. This unites the acolytes and the benefactor in a way not permitted by the other cards.

The Tower. Centennial Waite-Smith Tarot.

The Tower. Centennial Waite-Smith Tarot.

The Tower is also considered an Acolyte Card, but it differs from the others in two fundamental ways. For one, the archetypal figure in this card – the Blasted Tower – represents the destruction of commitment. The figures in this card were dedicated solely to their own egos, and that is the sin that could not be borne. That’s why the lightning physically removed them from their high station and returned them screaming to the earth below. None of us are immune to natural law or natural forces, and the figures of this card were required to submit to that if nothing else. And that leads to the second fundamental difference between this card and the others: the lightning didn’t ask for or require the consent of the figures in the card.

If the other cards are facets of life we’re invited to explore, the Tower tells us that the worst thing we can do is ever think we’re done exploring.

The Acolytes of Beltane

As a culture, we’re kind of obsessed with the values represented by the Lovers card. It makes total sense that the type of submission and commitment explored there is the one that gets its own holiday, especially when we consider the history and focus of modern Paganism.

However, maybe this singular focus is unnecessarily limiting. The Acolyte Cards invite us to explore love, self-improvement, faith, drive, and a recognition that we’re all in this together. They also caution us against the idea that we’re ever done growing and provide an ego-check when we need it.

All of the Acolyte Cards, even or maybe especially the Tower, provide us the tools we need to grow into our best and most authentic selves. That sounds like the very definition of what Beltane is supposed to be, and to my mind makes this holiday much more interesting and personally relevant.

Now I’m eager to see what kind of light a similar study might shed on Midsummer!

Head Covering and Mental Health

A bright and happy hijab.

I started covering my hair way back in 2013, and posted about my reasons when I started. Since then I’ve gone from covering full-time to covering sporadically to going right back to covering full-time again.

Through those changes and over that time my initial covering reasons (piety, modesty, and feminism) haven’t substantially changed. Something I didn’t know when I started, though, is how beneficial covering would turn out to be for my mental health*. It’s been quite the experience!

I’ve seen improvement in these three key areas:

  1. Self-Esteem and Self-Care
  2. Emotional Vulnerability and Boundaries
  3. Social Anxiety and Depression Management

So let’s talk about those.

Self-Esteem and Self-Care

Saying that I had low self-esteem in the past would be misleading. I know what I’m good at, where I shine, and playing to my strengths is second nature. I’ve never had a problem accepting that I’m an awesome person with a lot to offer the world.

However, my appearance has never factored into that. Almost all of the attention I’ve ever received for it, positive and negative, in some way circles back to ideas of sexual objectification. I’m either someone bangable or someone not bangable, and being assessed like that before someone even knows my name is profoundly uncomfortable and unsettling. Even worse, those judgments are based on an aspect of self I don’t enjoy, don’t value, and have minimal control over. I’m just not down with that.

Thing is, though, rejecting that whole concept resulted in me rejecting my body. I dealt with it when necessary and categorically ignored it when not. For most of my life I’ve felt more like a brain in an ambulatory jar than anything else, and who devotes a lot of time or attention to caring for a jar? I’ve done the bare minimum required to keep my body mostly functional and never really gone beyond that.

Until I started covering. Covering my head has helped me reconnect to my body.

My head coverings are beautiful. They’re also perhaps the only part of my appearance that has zilch to do with sex. In fact, covering my head often seems to remove me from objectification-based assessments entirely. Every day is a new chance to be artistic with scarves I’ve chosen and techniques I’ve practiced, and when people see me in the streets it’s the results of my creativity that elicit commentary.

A beautiful double braid tichel-style wrap from Wrapunzel.

A beautiful double braid tichel-style wrap from Wrapunzel.

I’m more inclined to properly care for my body when it’s not attracting unwanted attention. Maybe it’s a bit backwards, but covering makes me feel more like my body is mine as opposed to some kind of public commodity I’m obligated to keep in top form for someone else’s enjoyment. Since I started covering I’ve found myself naturally focusing more on what makes my body feel good. As a result I’m drinking more water and eating better. I’ve actually developed a skin care regimen and work on getting enough sleep. I’m even slowly but surely working towards physical fitness goals.

I don’t know that any of that would ever have become a thing for me without covering.

Emotional Vulnerability and Boundaries

Being vulnerable around others is something with which I’ve struggled. All too often in my own head “vulnerability” equated to “weakness”, and being weak led to being hurt. Not exactly encouragement to do it, you know?

Covering seems to provide a psychological layer of protection, a kind of buffering. I think it’s maybe even spiritual, since I focus on my Lady and Her goals for me when I wrap. Regardless of the reason, covering my head helps me open my heart.

It’s easier to talk about my hopes and dreams when I cover. My fears and inadequacies are easier to share too. It’s like I’m wearing a hug, like I’m supported and loved no matter what, and I can be more open because I’m less defensive.

629a9219f62422dfcec13795255fc57d-scarf-styles-hijab-styles

A bright and happy hijab.

For me, being less defensive also results in my being more assertive. I know it’s not that way for most people, but in my life safety and security have been assured more by meekly going along than by bucking the system. Whatever that system might happen to be.

Covering is like a physical boundary I maintain every day, and it weirdly serves as a reminder for me to maintain my other boundaries too.

Anxiety and Depression Management

I covered full-time from the tail end of 2013 until about mid-2015. By that time my year of covering had ended and I started tapering off a bit. I left the house uncovered more and more often, until eventually I rarely covered at all.

The tapering off of the covering coincided with a deepening depression. I can’t say if the depression contributed to not covering or if not covering contributed to the depression, but they do seem to have been related.

Depression has always been something I’ve had to manage. For the most part I’ve succeeded remarkably well. However, it has always marched hand-in-hand with social anxiety. By mid-2016 my depression was deeper than I can ever recall it being, and my anxiety started spiking so badly that I essentially became agoraphobic. I started having health issues and migraines around this time too, which did not help. I was about as low as I could get.

A white wimple and veil.

A wimple and veil. In many ways they kind of look like flowy hijabs. They’re just made differently. While traditionally they’re white linen, I’ve been experimenting with other colors and fabrics.

I lit a candle and begged my Lady to help me. I didn’t know what else to do. About two weeks later I found myself reaching for my coverings again. I found that when I covered things got… easier. I wasn’t as overwhelmed in social spaces. My migraines became less frequent. I anchored some shields on my volumizer (the poofy thing worn under scarves to give them shape) and that helped too. The more I covered the better I felt, the fewer my symptoms, the higher my energy level. Lather, rinse, repeat.

I’m not going to sit here and say that covering cured my depression. That would be an incredibly simplistic statement for a complicated issue, and it’s not like covering was the only approach I took. Besides, it’s not like I’m cured anyway – I still have good days and bad days, the same as anyone struggling through. But I will say that I personally find covering to be an incredibly useful way to help manage my depression and anxiety symptoms. I checked with other ladies who cover and a few of them reported the same type of thing, so it’s not isolated to just me, either.

Moving Forward

As of now I’m back to covering full-time. I usually find hijab styles more comforting than tichel styles because they cover my neck, and I switch between them depending on exactly how much comforting I need on a given day. I’ve lately started experimenting with wimples and veils, too, and find that those styles make me feel more connected to my ancestors.

I currently live in Ohio, and at least in my area there is a sizable Muslim population. My covers don’t really stand out here, and I don’t feel alone either. That changes when I leave the area, though. Covered women are often targeted these days, and it’s something I have to consider before traveling elsewhere in the US (*cough* Texas *cough*) or interacting with a new group of people.

My covering is still an act of piety, one that brings me joy and reverence. It’s still a symbol of modesty, too, and it’s changed my entire relationship to myself and the world. It’s still very much a feminist statement for me, and since November it’s become a political statement too. Add in the mental health benefits and covering is a part of my life that is here to stay.

Covering is not a very common practice in Pagan and polytheistic circles, although I do think it’s growing. Because of that, it can be baffling for folks encountering it in our communities. I hope that my open sharing can inspire some conversations. Covering has become a fundamental part of my polytheism. Maybe it can help others, too.

 

*Note: This whole post is about MY mental health and how covering affects it. No one else’s. I am in no way saying that covering is the best/final/only method of managing mental health issues. It works for me in the way I’ve stated. If your mental health is a concern, please do whatever works best for you and seek the help of a mental health professional if needed. 

Seeing the Wheels

A close-up of the armillary sphere on my altar. It is on top of a black wooden box, and flanking it on either side at the bottom are two burning jar candles.

I recently felt a deep, overwhelming need to change up my altar. Specifically, I needed a statue to represent my Lady, Arianrhod.

Thing is, I couldn’t find anything that fit Her. The most common statue of Her simply doesn’t work for me. Nothing wrong with it – it’s beautiful work – but I can’t get over my quibbles with it enough to put it on my altar.

Maxine Miller's Arianrhod statue, in bronze, on a black background.

Maxine Miller’s Arianrhod statue.

Then I had a completely different kind of thought. One of the first concepts my Lady shared with me is that of the Center. It’s been fundamental to my worldview since I figured out what it is, and I always associate it with Her. She is the Lady of the Silver Wheel, after all!

Which is why an armillary sphere to represent Her on my altar is perfect.

A close-up of the armillary sphere on my altar. It is on top of a black wooden box, and flanking it on either side at the bottom are two burning jar candles.

The armillary sphere on my altar. Isn’t it awesome?

Once I got everything on my altar sorted and rearranged I lit some candles and settled in to spend some time with Her.

And then I had a vision. I Saw the Wheels, my Lady’s Wheels, and touched a Mystery.

After recovering a bit, I realized that this vision can be shared. You can have it too!

So here it is. I invite you to See the Wheels with me. If you don’t have an armillary sphere of your very own Google some images (or simply use the picture above as a reference) to see a manmade model of what I’m talking about. It’s worth the time.

The Vision

I open my eyes and gasp. I’m floating in space, surrounded on all sides by velvety black skies spangled with gleaming stars. They’re silver, yes, but also icy blue and blazing red and warming gold. Celestial fires burning, beacons in the dark.

A picture of a field of stars taken by the Hubble Telescope. These are from the Sagittarius sector.

Like this, all around me.

I wonder if I can reach out and cup one of those fires in the palm of my hand. They look so close I think maybe it’s possible. As I reach out I hear a voice like bells say “Not today!”, and lower my hands back to my sides. Maybe tomorrow?

I feel gentle winds caressing my skin and fluttering my hair. I’m confused for a second – since when did space have wind? – but I’m soon distracted by a glow at my feet. First I see a dot of light, growing ever larger, until it forms an arc. It suddenly clicks that I’m seeing part of a ring spinning around me. It contains all the colors I think I’ve ever seen, and it rotates clockwise as it rises to meet me. 

This is the first circle of the armillary sphere, the Wheel of the Day. In this Wheel is contained every moment of a day in my life. I even see a section of the Wheel that looks like my current vision! Sunrise and sunset, work and home and worship and sleep and play, all the seconds that make up my day, spin around me in a dance of light and shadow. 

Beyond the borders of the Wheel of the Day I see another glowing ring of light. It too rotates clockwise, although much slower, and it’s angled differently. This Wheel encompasses both the Wheel of the Day and me, still floating in the Center. It’s the Wheel of the Year! I see, in glorious procession, the flowers of Spring melting into the verdant fields of Summer, which meld into the golden fields of Autumn and then the barren snows of Winter. Along the ring are eight shining gems of light, and in them I see the colors of the surrounding seasons magnified and clarified. And I understand sabbat celebrations in a way I didn’t before. 

In a different part of the star-strewn velvet in which I float I see another arc rising, another Wheel spinning. It’s further out, and that ring encompasses me and the other two Wheels too. It too spins clockwise, but it’s offset from the others and rises on its own plane. Peering at it more closely I see it’s the Wheel of my Life. All the years I live, all together, with my memories in gleaming color and my future in shadows that are broken with seemingly random flashes of intense light. I realize that even here I can’t see my future clearly, because it’s not set. Those flares in the shadows show me that events are coming that cannot be changed, only managed, even if I can’t figure out what they are yet. My Lady’s presence surrounds me and I relax, knowing She is preparing me for them even now and will be with me when their time comes.

In yet another part of the sky I see another Wheel rising, on yet another plane. It too spins clockwise, but more slowly still. It gleams red like blood and flows like water, with an infinite number of glittering flecks swirling through it. This is the Wheel of the Ancestors. Every person who has ever lived is represented here, and the glittering flecks that glow most brightly are the people who have directly contributed to my line. They’re family! I see some flecks growing equally brightly, but in different hues, and know that these are family members of the heart instead of blood. It’s humbling to see all the people who have died so that I might live, and I promise to lift them high by living with honor and purpose. 

Beyond that Wheel I see another, also spinning and rising. This one is green and gold, copper and bronze, the dark brown of rich soil and the glowing red of molten lava. It glimmers with hidden gems and shines with metallics as it spins with aching slowness. This is the Wheel of the Land, and since Land moves in a timescale that’s hard to comprehend it’s only here that I can see it moving at all. It makes sense that this Wheel surrounds the Ancestors too, because without the Land the Ancestors would have no place to stand. I see the colors getting paler and dustier as this Wheel spins, like they’re losing saturation as it turns, and realize with a sinking sensation that I’m seeing the effects of humanity on the Earth. I see shrinking habitats and strip mines, pollution and disease and death, and acknowledge my contributions to the fading while vowing to do my very best to ease them.

At the very edges of everything I see another arc rising, another Wheel encompassing the whole. This one is crystalline and iridescent, and so bright that the only reason I can bear to gaze upon it is because I’m being allowed to See. This is the Wheel of the Gods, where all the divinities who have ever been dwell. I see Olympus, and Valhalla, and the Otherworld. I see nations rise and fall as the Gods play chess on a board, except I know both chess and boards and this is too incomprehensible to be either. The more I try to understand the brighter the light, until I have to blink to get the spots out of my eyes. 

Far beyond the edges of the crystalline Wheel of the Gods I see the shadows of other Wheels spinning, other cycles of which I am vaguely aware but are too distant for me to grasp. I feel blessed to have seen them at all.

I turn my attention back to myself, at the Center of all the spinning Wheels. With a bit of a jolt I realize that I too am a Wheel! I spread out my legs and arms like a starfish, like DaVinci’s Vitruvian Man, like a pentacle, and feel myself spinning within the Center of all the other Wheels. I peer into myself and see an endless number of Wheels spinning inside me too, each smaller than the last, and feel myself falling. Or am I flying? It’s hard to tell, and I start to get dizzy, so I pull my attention elsewhere.

I look at all of the Wheels together, for the smallest to the largest, and suddenly know that each and every Wheel’s spin is necessary to the spin of all of them. They’re interconnected and interdependent. Epiphany strikes. They’re not distinct Wheels at all! They’re all part of one big spiral! I hear my Lady’s laugh as Her hands continue smoothing and spinning the spiral, feel Her determination that it continues to spin, and know that I have a part to play in all of this too. But what?

I feel my Lady’s regard as She patiently waits for me to work through what I’m being shown. I gently spin for what feels like hours while I search for what She wants me to know, until suddenly it becomes obvious. By Centering myself, by opening myself to change while smoothing the spirals over which I have influence, I make Her job easier. In my own small way I contribute to the spinning of ALL the Wheels, even those I can’t clearly see, because I am one. I’m part of the whole. 

I hear her voice, full of pride, whisper “well done” as the Wheels flicker and vanish.

I open my eyes and gaze once more at the armillary sphere on my altar, serene and still as it represents this great Mystery.

 

After the Tower Falls

I staunchly maintain that there’s no such thing as a bad Tarot card. However, I have to admit some are a damn sight more uncomfortable than others. One of the best illustrations of this concept is the Tower, and that’s the card I’ve been living for the past few months. I’ve finally moved into the realm of the Star, though, and looking back I’m once more reminded that the Tower is only scary until we gain perspective from its passing.

The Towers leads into the Star. Both cards from Le Tarot Noir are shown with an rightward-facing arrow between them.

My life in Tarot card form. Images from Le Tarot Noir.

The Tower’s Fall

The first brick of my personal Tower fell when I was suddenly laid off last May from my job of three years (hence my lengthy blog hiatus around that time). Everything – and I do mean everything – kind of dominoed after that.

As might be expected my professional life profoundly changed with the layoff. My finances went into a period of freefall and necessitated an unwanted change in location too. My personal life and health both experienced dramatic flux. With all of that going on I fell face-down into a rather wicked lake of depression, which led to a period of withdrawal that was extreme even for me (I tend to be fairly naturally withdrawn to begin with).

Thing is, I stubbornly (and perhaps obliviously) thought all of these changes were isolated. It can be hard to see the whole Tower when you’re dodging individual bricks! It was only when I stopped dodging that I could see the true extent of the devastation.

Standing in the Rubble

There’s a clarity that comes in the aftermath of a disaster, a quiet shock that allows us to observe our surroundings without filter or bias. As the dust settled I stumbled into the middle of what once was a pretty cozy life and looked around.

What exactly had been destroyed? What random parts still stood, and did they need to be rebuilt or further demolished? Going deeper, what weaknesses and strengths were exposed by the Tower’s fall? What lessons had this all taught me?

And then I had to go deeper still. Previously I had thought that I was made up of all the things that had fallen down. That obviously wasn’t true, though, because I was about the only thing left standing. So who exactly was the Me standing dazedly in the rubble?

I’ve spent months diligently answering these questions. At times it’s felt like my own little archaeological excavation. There have been bits and pieces I’ve tossed over my shoulder with a shrug and a “good riddance”. Others I’ve further destroyed with a sledgehammer while laughing in maniacal glee. There have been heirlooms I’ve bitterly wept over before deciding they couldn’t be salvaged, things that inspired a sense of vindication by their very survival, and a few lost items newly exposed that I had to learn about all over again.

I’ve reassessed who I am and the foundations on which I stand. It’s been an interesting journey, this sorting and evaluation process, but after all of it was done I was left with one overwhelming question: what now?

Star-Gazing

In the Major Arcana the Tower is immediately followed by the Star. There’s a reason for that. When all of our walls have come down and we’re ready to rebuild, the Star’s gifts of hope, faith, and renewal guide us forward.

What I’ve seen by the Star’s light has been transformative.

For years I’ve known that my Lady wants me to live a life grounded in my spirituality. Even more than that, She’s pushed for a more holistic and integrated life, one where all of the pieces work together instead of against each other. After all, it’s not like I can grow into my full potential when my life is shoved into tidy but limiting boxes.

Thing is, I’ve agreed with Her. The need for a holistic life is an obvious conclusion to draw and I’ve been fine with the idea of it. It’s just that every time I actually started Doing the Work to make it happen something stopped me. Often I stopped myself. Some changes required tearing down support structures in my life that I thought I needed or relied upon. Other changes were intimidating, overwhelming, or even baffling.

All the motion without forward progress resulted in nothing truly changing at all.

Dithering over taking action is a luxury I no longer have. Despite my best efforts everything crashed down anyway. What was incredibly scary at the time has turned out to be freeing, because there’s nothing left to block me anymore. My life is open and receptive, the walls are down, and I can build whatever I want to encourage me to grow however I want. The Tower’s fall wasn’t a disaster, it was the start of a brand new opportunity.

I’m still working on what this looks like, to be honest. I don’t know where it’s going, only have the vaguest end game in mind, and I’m feeling it out as I go.

The biggest and arguably most profound change is that I am now working full-time as a diviner, spiritual consultant, and content producer. This swings from intimidating to thrilling by the day, and sometimes I wonder if it’s the right thing long-term. It’s honestly too early to tell on that yet. Things are looking good so far, though, and I do know that it’s absolutely the best thing for me right now. I need to pursue paying work that feeds my spirit, and this fits that bill admirably.

When I’m not reading for clients I’m working on my own Tarot deck, wrapping up the book I’ve been writing, prepping classes I’m teaching, taking classes as a student, and learning about alternative methods of interacting with our political process. I’m also toying with the idea of writing a devotional for my Lady, since there isn’t one for Her and I find that to be not ok. MystikNomad’s new internet home is being prepped as we speak and will hopefully go live over the next few months. I’m presenting at a conference this summer, too, and will likely be relocating sometime in the next year or so.

So many changes! So much forward momentum! So much amazingness in store! And none of it would have been possible had my personal Tower not fallen. I find that comforting, actually, because it reaffirms my faith that even utter destruction is a way to clear the path for future growth. I’m excited to see the harvest from what I’m currently planting, and I’m so glad all of you are here to appreciate the blooms too.

 

Reclaiming My “No” and Consent Culture

The elements of Consent: Freely Given, Reversible, Informed, Enthusiastic, and Specific.

I walked out of a leadership training session this past weekend.

There were close to 200 people there, most having incredibly transformative experiences. I was encouraged to attend by a friend, and people I’ve never met worked behind the scenes to ensure I could. Investments were made with me, for me, to get me through the course. I met other people I liked there. And five hours before it was over, when all the hard stuff was out of the way, I calmly and lovingly explained myself to six different people who wanted me to stay and walked out.

It was one of the most empowering things I’ve ever done.

Prologue

A large bulk of my childhood was a series of abusive situations, and for awhile my adult life wasn’t much better. I learned early on, back when I was a very small child, that resistance – resistance of any kind at all, to anything – led to harm and pain. So I never really learned how.

I had exactly as much resistance to anything as a glass of water has to incoming ice. Picture shows a glass of water with a dropped ice cube just before it breaches the surface.

I pushed back as much as this water will when that ice cube finally hits it.

I filled whatever container I was given. I said, did, and became whatever was asked of me. I meekly accepted whatever happened, nodded and smiled, stuffed down every “bad” emotion and put on a happy face for everyone’s benefit but mine.

And all of it was a lie. Every single solitary bit of it. Because how could any “yes” be real when “no” wasn’t an option?

The Value of Consent

When I was in my early 20s a friend invited me out to a BDSM event. She said I would find myself there. I was a bit hesitant about the whole thing but I went anyway.

I’m glad I did. It was there that I was introduced to “Consent Culture”. It completely changed my life. (I talk about it here too, albeit in a sexual context. If you’re not familiar with consent as a code of conduct – or even if you are – maybe click the link and check it out. It’s that important.)

Consent Culture is based on the idea that every single one of us is independent, autonomous, and empowered. The rules are simple: a “no” is to be assumed in the absence of permission, stated boundaries are to be immediately honored and respected, and the power of the “yes” always resides with the one who gave it.

Consent – the “power of the yes” – is as easy as FRIES.

The elements of Consent: Freely Given, Reversible, Informed, Enthusiastic, and Specific.

Hooray for the elements of consent in an easy-to-remember form!

So let’s look at that.

  • Freely Given: A “yes” must be given only because the person giving it wants to. No guilt-tripping or other emotional manipulation. No ultimatums. No coercion or threats of any kind. The person saying it also can’t be in a highly vulnerable or chemically-altered state at the time. Permission is freely given or it’s not given at all.
  • Reversible: The person who said “yes” can change their mind at any time, for any reason, and that’s absolutely ok. Even if they agree to have a boundary pushed past a stated or signaled “no”, they still get a safeword that recognizes the reversal of their “yes”. The power remains theirs.
  • Informed: People can’t agree to do something if they don’t know what they’re agreeing to. It’s important to be clear at the start. Changes or unexpected developments require additional permissions, which must also be FRIES.
  • Enthusiastic: The person saying “yes” must be into it, excited about it, saying “Bring it on!”. This point especially relies on examining body language and tone. Reluctance of any kind is an assumed “no”.
  • Specific: Agreeing to one thing in no way implies agreeing to something else. Agreeing to something today in no way implies agreeing to it tomorrow. Each permission given is for that specific thing in that specific moment. Anything beyond that requires another permission.

Empowering and supporting people with the concept of consent is what allows us all to have real, valid choice. And it’s the act of choosing that moves us from a life we have to live to a life we are blessed to live.

“Yes” has no meaning without “no” to give it context.

The Training

Consent Culture is pretty much a given in the BDSM scene, most Pagan/Polytheist groups I’ve encountered, and feminist-oriented spaces. It’s also the baseline from which I operate. Sadly, however, it’s not widely understood in more mainstream society (although progress is being made all the time).

It was absolutely foreign to the training in which I was engaged. And while I get that the program is designed to push our buttons, and for some folks the framing is helpful, I found it all to be incredibly manipulative.

Throughout the course, over and over, it was reiterated that any resistance we felt towards the material wasn’t about the material. Of course not! It was, instead, the result of something undesirable in ourselves, something that the material would help us break through and/or overcome. They told us that our inner voice was not to be trusted and listening to it was self-sabotage. They told us that every trauma/illness we’ve ever experienced (up to and including cancer – that was specifically mentioned several times) was because we invited it in by not being positive enough.

And according to their rhetoric, anything other than agreement with all of the above was by definition wrong. Add in the fact that the speaker was speaking from a position of “authority” and it all seamlessly worked together to invalidate our “no”.

Furthermore, the whole premise was that we’re blocked or stymied by unnecessary internal walls we build throughout our lives. And I agree with that to a point. I even talk about it here, although using different terminology. Some of our boundaries are indeed arbitrary. However, some of them are necessary for health and safety. Never once were we offered a single tip or technique to help us discern the difference. I found that disturbing, and for some folks that could be downright dangerous.

With all that said, though, I’m a very results-oriented person. I’d heard amazing things about breakthroughs people had with these techniques. The friend who encouraged me to take the class said it changed his life. He had dozens of people on speed-dial who told me amazing things, too. I decided that, for the weekend, I would do my best to trust the process and go with it.

That worked until the last exercise of Saturday night.

It was completely based on platonic physical contact with other people. At first we were given a choice about our level of engagement. However, it was made very clear at the start that choosing anything less than the highest engagement level was deficient.

Ok then. I didn’t like the setup but I was still game. After a bit of that, though, even the illusion of choice was taken away. Not cool. I almost balked completely at that point, but I just wanted to be fucking done. So. Continue.

Then a guy grabbed me, painfully groped me, and propositioned me. In the middle of the exercise. Amidst 200 people.

A clown stands in the doorway of a scary overgrown building.

Not exactly a vibe that encourages trust.

Three strikes and I’m done. I found the entire exercise, from beginning to end, to be a demo of consent violations. The groping was just the cherry on top.

Between the low lighting, the speed we were moving, and my shock I honestly couldn’t say what the guy looked like. With no one specific to report I didn’t have much recourse. And if this guy was willing to behave that inappropriately in a room with almost 200 people, what would he be willing to do if there were fewer people around, or if he caught me alone somewhere? I couldn’t answer those questions, but I did know that someone there had already blatantly crossed a line. Given the tenor of the training I also had no reason to trust that anyone on staff, with the notable exception of the friend who encouraged me to go, would have my back. (That was later substantiated, but I’m getting ahead of myself.)

So I did what I always do when threatened: put on my happy face, kept my back to the wall as much as possible, moved with purpose, and removed myself from the situation with urgency.

Once I got home and processed I realized that I didn’t want to let one guy ruin what until then had overall been a good experience for me. I decided to go back and finish it out. I’d already invested so much and worked so hard that staying home felt like quitting.

Vintage image of a woman in an apron rolling up her sleeves. Text reads

Rollin’ up my sleeves and gettin’ to work. Aw, yeah.

Sunday started out ok. I was trying my best to focus on the constructive parts of the event and could see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Then we had an exercise where I stood in one place and answered the same question over and over while someone got in my face and yelled at me. I knew what was coming, knew it could be triggering, and knew I was still shaky from the night before. Because I knew these things I was careful to pick a partner for the exercise that in no way registered as threatening. I was as safe as I could arrange to be.

It was fine until two staff members I didn’t choose unexpectedly joined in. Suddenly I had three people – two of them in authority positions – getting into my face and yelling at me. The switch flipped.

I did not consent to that level of interaction, and my repeated attempts to say so – my “no” and “quiet” and “time” and even “red” – were ignored. Once more my consent was hugely violated. I no longer felt safe.

I immediately escaped the area, regrouped in the bathroom, and assessed my options.

  1. Stuff it all down, pretend everything was fine, and power my way through the little that was left. I was almost done, and I could have managed it without anyone being the wiser. However, the whole experience would then have been tainted for me, because I’d know I’d only gotten through it by falling back into my established patterns after a violation. I’m trying to break old patterns, not reinforce them!
  2. Create a huge scene, making the rest of the event all about these consent violations and how I felt as a result. However, no one would have been served by that. It wouldn’t have done anything to make me feel better, the feelings of my attacker were so not my concern, and it would have disturbed the peace and accomplishment everyone else was feeling from all of this.
  3. Exercise my power and agency by quietly informing staff about what had happened and then leaving. That choice allowed me to support my integrity by not accepting continued consent violations or behaving inauthentically, support the rest of the attendees by not interrupting their experience with mine, and support the aims of the program as a whole (even if I personally disagree with the approach and implementation).

With it laid out like that the choice was clear. I am, after all, a woman of power and integrity. So I walked.

Picture of Christopher Walken holding up a pair of boots. Text reads

Sorry. Couldn’t resist.

Walking Out

I didn’t just grab my shit and hit the door, however tempted I was and justified I may have been. I’m proud of that.

And let’s be real, they could have maybe talked me into staying with the right approach. I was almost done, and gods know I enjoy completion. What I needed for that to happen was threefold:

  1. Staff to acknowledge that there were consent-based issues that needed to be addressed.
  2. Assurance that I had their support if I decided to move forward with the program.
  3. Some sense that my experience (and the experiences of a few others I heard about while there, because no it wasn’t just me) would maybe inspire them to work on ensuring a safer space was created and maintained in the future.

That’s it.

The friend that originally encouraged me to attend got it, but he couldn’t do anything except help me leave.

The first (male) staff member I spoke with who had any authority tried to gaslight me, supported my attacker’s intent while calling me “reactive”, and majorly guilt-tripped me. The second (female) staff member tried more emotional manipulation, complete with tears, to get me to stay. Both of them, representatives of a program supposedly based on integrity and authenticity, advised me to fake my way through the rest of the training so I wasn’t disturbing the other attendees, abandoning my exercise partner, or blocked from further trainings with their organization.

Every non-supportive thing they did further violated my consent. Swallowing that, not standing up for myself and my integrity and my choices, would have let me down.

And they didn’t even see it.

As soon as that first staff member started spouting his nonsense it ceased to be about me. It’s not like I needed their understanding or some sense of closure for myself. All I could think about is what could happen if someone who wasn’t entrenched in Consent Culture encountered the same things I did. How much of that rhetoric would they internalize? I can resource other people as sounding boards and sanity checks – what about those people who can’t? How would someone else respond in the face of the non-support I received?

That shifted everything into a matter of principle. I put my teacher/priestess hat on and began to educate.

I openly and lovingly explained my stance, empathized with their confusion, and listened to their input. I acknowledged their experiences, offered mine, and even found some common ground. I didn’t shut down, didn’t get defensive, and used my active listening skills to create an environment of collaboration and sharing. I also did not cave and did not move.

When they were as at peace with my decision as it was possible for them to be, and I had at least introduced the foundations of consent, I drove away with a huge smile on my face.

Reclaiming My “No”

The whole experience put so much into perspective for me.

I guess I’d taken it for granted before that an organization offering this sort of emotionally intense training would understand the concept of consent. It absolutely blew my mind that they didn’t. When I brought it up I might as well have been speaking Swahili.

I don’t find that to be acceptable. How is consent not a universally understood concept yet? It’s 2017! I now have a burning desire to fix that, to bring Consent Culture to more mainstream people. I don’t know what that looks like yet, but it’s something I’m actively thinking about.

An arm in a suit passes a flaming torch to another arm in a suit. Caption reads

Some torches need to be passed on.

I’ve been inspired to consider other, similar programs too. We’re all a work in progress, and parts of my experience were helpful. The one I attended doesn’t have a lock on guided self-exploration! Now I’m just looking around for a program based on consent. And you know what? If I can’t find one maybe I’ll make one.

I also take a lot of pride not just in leaving but in how I left. The gentle-yet-firm stance I took is one that felt beautiful and right. It’s also one that’s been difficult for me to reach in the past. I feel like everything snapped into alignment with that event, in that moment, and what would have before been a difficult thing to achieve instead became as natural as breathing.

Interestingly, walking away gave me the transformative event I was looking for. It wasn’t in the way I’d imagined, of course, but I’m learning that detours from my preconceived path are actually ok. That’s new for me too.

Overall I feel like I’ve entered a new zone, a new phase, and I’m really excited about what the new, powerful, secure-in-her-boundaries-and-choices Caer can accomplish this year and beyond. All because I reclaimed the power of my “no”.

Candles for an Uncertain Spring

I am an American.

I am also Polytheist and queer. My queer roommate is here in the US on asylum. My sister, who also lives with me, has a Hispanic last name. Of the two children in our house, one of them is disabled. Two of the above-listed people are trans.

We are 11 days into the Trump presidency, and while I am American I am also scared.

The dawn of this year’s Imbolc illuminates what is for many of us an uncertain spring. It’s challenging, I think, to appreciate the growing light when so much appears so, so dark.

sunrise

Sorry, I couldn’t find a picture as apocalyptic as my Facebook feed.

Maybe it’s just me, but Imbolc feels more poignant than it usually does. I find that I desperately need candles, and torches, and even bonfires to beat back the dark. I need purification and renewal, illumination and inspiration.

So I will take my inspiration from the following and let it define my Imbolc ritual:

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.” ~Frank Herbert, Dune

Soon I will take a long cleansing shower, washing away the tension I’ve held since November. I will then go to my altar, and light candles, and invite the Powers to attend.

After that, I will stop compartmentalizing and burying my sorrow and fear. I will instead sit with them, and honor them, and then let them pass away. I will acknowledge that I could have maybe done more, and done better, but I will also recognize that the time for regrets is done now. It’s time to look ahead. Despair and hopelessness are luxuries that we can ill afford. I will do my best to leave them behind in this passing winter as I step into the coming spring refreshed and renewed.

And when I light a candle to honor a new dawn, I will do it with purpose. I will take the energies of this Imbolc and become a candle. I will commit to holding my small, fragile flame against the coming darkness. I will pay attention, and speak out, and help my neighbor as best I can, because only by combining all of our candles together will our light be bright enough to show a better path.

I will do these things. I Will these things. I WILL.

So mote it be.

Hierarchies and Devotions

When people first start establishing a devotional practice they often focus on actions they can take, such as extending hospitality, planning major holidays and festivals, and building altars and shrines.

How we think doesn’t usually rate a second glance until much later.

Here’s the thing, though. The hierarchies we carry around in our heads can completely derail our devotional work before any of those actions are even a blip on the radar. Even once we’ve got something established, those hierarchies can still spring out like a possessed jack-in-the-box and catch us unawares.

censored

I looked for a pic of a jack-in-the-box but creeped myself out. I figured I’d let you imagine your own horrors instead. YOU’RE WELCOME. 🙂

What’s a hierarchy? 

Hierarchies are the systems we use to rank things by status or authority. We rank everything: jobs, physical attractiveness, workplace chain-of-command, preferred handbag brands, etc.

We learn the importance of hierarchies as soon as we learn that our parents have authority over us. As we grow we add on to and refine that initial ranking system until we have an entire series of hierarchies, all nested together in our heads.

And we automatically use them to compare ourselves to other people.

high-school-social-hierarchy

Here’s an example of a high school popularity hierarchy. Did you automatically look for where you’d have ranked on this when you were in high school? I did.

It’s a pretty simple process. We rank a bunch of things from worst to best, or least desirable to most desirable, figure out where we fit in that ranking system, and then use that as a basis for how we feel about ourselves. The higher we are in rank the better we are as people.

Given how much we rely on these hierarchies to navigate our lives, is it really a surprise that we use tend to use them for our spiritual practice, too?

That makes sense. Why is it a problem, though?

For one, it’s dead easy to start ranking the ways different people practice according to some arbitrary scale we make up, compare ourselves to that ranking, and then start drawing conclusions based on whatever we come up with.

In other words, we either think our practice is lacking because someone else out there is doing “better” or we think our practice rocks because someone else out there is doing “worse”. That’s of course a completely ridiculous comparison to make, but people do it anyway.

Lots of people have talked about that particular issue, though. A more serious problem, to my mind, happens when we start comparing ourselves to the Powers.

It’s an easy trap to fall into, too. Once we start thinking of the Powers as individuals with Their own agendas and personalities, it’s really tempting to put Them on a hierarchy just like we do everyone else. Again, it’s just habit. And since They’re always at the top of whatever hierarchy we’re working with, we’re always beneath Them.

Some folks may feel so far beneath Them that they’re too intimidated to interact with Them at all. How can we have a relationship with Them if we can’t even talk?

It’s the exact same thing that happens when we’re attracted to someone at a bar.

girl

Maybe this girl? I dunno, go with me here.

We see someone who pushes all our buttons, who seems like the most amazing person ever. We look at them longingly from across the room. We ask the bartender about them, maybe, or see if our friends know anything about them. We fantasize about saying something hilarious to make them laugh, having a good time, maybe even getting their number.

Then the comparisons start, and our inner monologue runs amuck. “Should I say hi? Naw, they’re outta my league. Who needs that kind of humiliation? I need to find someone attainable.” We psych ourselves out before we make a move and let our internalized feelings of inferiority hold us back.

Or maybe we see a favorite author/musician/celebrity around town and want to gush about how meaningful their work has been in our lives. Once again we fantasize about what interacting with them would be like, once again we compare their place on our internal hierarchy to our own, and once again we psych ourselves out before making a move.

If we’re inhibited by a perceived distance between ourselves and other people, how much more inhibited might we be by a perceived distance between ourselves and the Powers? And how much more likely are we to avoid interacting with Them because of it?

It takes a different form with devotional work, of course, but it’s the same idea. The self-talk sounds similar, too. “I’m a mess right now. I’m sure the Powers are busy and have better things to do than talk to me anyway. If all relationships are reciprocal, what could I possibly bring to the table that would interest Them? I’m just human! I’m not going to ask Them for help. After all, if I was as together as They deserve or expect me to be I wouldn’t even need Their help. I’ll reach out when I’m not so embarrassed. When I’m not so scattered. When I’ve got a better offering for Them. When I’ve studied more. When I’ve accomplished more. When I know what I’m doing. When I’ve sacrificed enough to earn Their attention. When I’m better. When I’m deserving. When I matter.”

It’s a vicious cycle. We feel lesser, we feel intimidated, we avoid interaction. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Avoiding interactions with Them doesn’t exactly help our devotional practice flourish.

So how can we fix that? 

The answer is an easy concept with difficult implementation, but the more we do it the easier it is to keep doing it. Momentum is our friend.

Human hierarchies tend to be based on the things we can easily see and assess (socioeconomic level, appearance, accomplishments, etc). But we have to remember that the Powers aren’t human. Why would They use human-based hierarchies?

The hierarchies on which the Powers rely (at least in my experience) rank traits, or virtues, and judge off of that instead. The harder we try to meet the standards by which They want us to live, the higher the regard in which the Powers hold us. Our effort makes us worthy, not our perfection.

But what exactly do They look for? 

That depends on the Powers you follow. In my experience this is loosely answered on a pantheon basis – for instance, most of the Greek deities tend to value the same set of traits, and the Norse another set – but individual Powers within that pantheon may rank those traits differently.

As usual I’d ask Them first. What do They tell you?

Beyond that, I’d suggest consulting source documents or, if possible, living traditions. Most faiths with written records have some sort of “right actions” guideline to follow, whether it be explicit or inferred. That’s a fantastic place to start sorting things out.

For instance, as someone on a more Celtic path, I do my best to use a hierarchy based on a system of Celtic values (and wow does this need to be a post all on its own!). Wiccans and Wiccan-flavored Pagans often use the Wiccan Rede or Rule of Three the same way. Those on an Asatru-type path might prefer to work with the Nine Noble Virtues, while Egyptian/Kemetic folks might look to the Forty-Two Negative Confessions.

anubis-and-maat

After death, Anubis weighs the heart of the deceased against a single feather of Ma’at, the Egyptian goddess of law and morality. If the heart is the same weight or lighter than the feather, it proves the deceased led a virtuous life and so deserves a reward. If it’s heavier… well, there are consequences for that too.

Outside of all that I can’t think of any Power offhand that doesn’t value Authenticity, Integrity, and Hospitality in some form or fashion. If nothing else start there and see what comes to you.

Make those right actions the basis of your life, and then assess yourself accordingly. Are you keeping your word? Are you working hard to meet your goals? Are you treating yourself, other people, and the Powers with respect? Are you living authentically? That’s where you need to focus your attention. The rest is just noise.

The beauty of this system is that even missteps and mistakes are ok because we show honor by handling them appropriately. Every single choice we make allows us to demonstrate right action, and thus further right relationships with the Powers. They bring us closer together instead of pushing us further away.

Once we’ve sorted this whole issue out we can then engage the Powers from a place of security and strength, making the devotional work we do even more meaningful and effective.