Everyday sacred

I’ve been struggling for inspiration for what to write about lately and so, inspired by Endless Erring‘s most recent post, part one of a 30 part challenge on Druidry, I thought I’d seek out some witchy/pagan writing prompts online to clear the cobwebs. Coming full circle back to where I started blogging so long ago that I believe the word ‘yonks’ would be apt, Live Journal had a community called Pagan Prompts, so I thought I’d mine that for inspiration when I can’t think of anything else to say. Scrolling through the posts, the first one that caught my eye was a question from ns_kumiho:

Do you believe it necessary to clean or ritually purify yourself in anyway before you perform a ritual?

This one caught my eye because I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. To many pagans it seems to be a given that you would purify yourself, your tools or your space in some way before a ritual. Indeed, many cultures around the world have the idea of sacredness, from Judeo-Christian blessings to Buddhist stupas and statues. I’m fascinated by the Maori idea of Tapu, the innate sacredness of everything, while some things have greater tapu than others. The rules surrounding the transfer and physical handling of people and objects based on their level of tapu are elaborate and strictly observed. Many cultures have the practice of somehow purifying, blessing or consecrating people, places or objects before communicating with the divine or spiritual.

Indeed, it’s so prevalent that I’ve often struggled with the fact that I don’t believe it at all. By purifying yourself or something else for ritual, it’s implying that you’re normally impure, unclean, profane. The reason I’m fascinated by tapu is that, while I agree that everything is inherently sacred, I don’t believe that anything is more sacred than anything else or that anything is impure, much less that impurity can be transferred. If I approach my altar after a hard day of work and I’m tired and distracted, sitting there, touching the candles and crystals, does not tarnish that space but rather puts me back in touch with the sacred. But I can tap into that any time if I simply remember to. My altar is an external projection of my own connection to that which is sacred about myself and all living things; I don’t need it, I just like it.

Where I think purification does have a place is in psychologically preparing a person, focusing their mind on the intention at hand. While I don’t believe that you have to be at your altar, or grounded and centred, in order to connect with the sacred, I do believe it helps you step out of your daily life and create a different psychological space. Often I achieve this just by meditating for a little while or wreathing myself in smoke from incense or sage. Only very occasionally do I take a salt bath before sitting at my altar. It’s sometimes nice to mark that time out and it feels like an act of self-care. But I think it’s equally important to cultivate ways of connecting with the sacred throughout the day. When I’m walking I usually touch any plant I come within arm’s length of – a gentle bow of respect to nature. When I step outside I’ll often take a few deep breaths and appreciate the sacred act of breathing for a moment. Any time I see the moon, I greet it with a smile and often say aloud, “Hello, lovely!” There is something beautiful about connecting to the sacred when you feel messy and scattered and not even a little bit mystical.

I’m definitely willing to admit that I could be wrong about all of this. Perhaps I’m just a deplorably lazy witch who can’t be bothered following the proper protocol. Maybe I would be more powerful if I did observe purification rituals and charged my tools under the full moon every month and only performed rituals on the appropriate day of the week. But if your intention is simply to connect with the sacred, it’s all around you all the time. It’s inside you, whether you’ve bathed in rosemary or are covered in a layer of grime. It’s in the hedges and highways and bustling crowds as much as in your altar. You may observe certain practices to focus your mind on it, but it is always with you and you can always connect to it whether you’re surrounded by a circle of salt or sat at your desk at work.

Most of all, I don’t believe that we are ever profane. Just as we love what we love at its worst as much as at its best, we ourselves are sacred, whether messy or clean, angry or calm, focused or distracted. You don’t need to purify yourself because you are never, ever impure.

The turning of the wheel

The December new moon seemed to lift a veil I’d been under for much of 2017. This year has been characterised for me by feeling a bit stuck. So many things never seemed to really get off the ground. I did a lot of clearing out and purging of my space over the summer, but everything I started seemed to hover in a half-finished state. There was a lot of planning and wanting, and very little manifestation. Since September I’d been feeling pushed toward Shadow work, but somehow never grasped how to do it. I kept asking myself what to let go and telling myself to release it. I kept wanting to step into greater energy and the desire to move my body more and it never came. I wasn’t taking care of myself, I wasn’t doing things that made me feel in balance and I wasn’t moving forward.

That is, until I stopped trying. The December moon waned, went dark and suddenly I seemed to step out of a fog I’d been in since around July. Suddenly everything – the frustration, the feeling I was stuck, the inability to pull myself out – had meaning. The reason I was clearing out and getting rid of possessions was to make room for the person I wanted to become. The Shadow work that never seemed to get off the ground was to exist in that frustration and not have control. Sometimes standing still IS moving forward.

I’m also aware that there are things I need to let go of still, and that I’m heading into more change in my life. But I’m ready to be in a bit more active phase of my life, in which I’ll be actively moving forward instead of just riding along in the wake of changes. I believe we are moving into a time of action as individuals and collectively. Perhaps we needed a longer time this year to get used to a changed understanding of the world, to acclimatise to outrage, to shift how we relate to others in the world, and that’s why it felt both breathless and also like it never really seemed to get started. All I know is that this New Years more than most I feel the blank page before me, waiting for me to leave my mark. My perpetual struggle to balance self-focus and activism seems not to be a struggle at all. Kindness to myself and kindness to others go hand in hand.

So, before turning toward progress, I want to thank 2017 for teaching me patience. It has been a struggle, for others much more so than for me, and I mourn for the lives that have been and will be lost needlessly as a result of this year’s events. But it’s important to learn from difficult times such as these. On my own small scale, if I hadn’t felt so lost, I would not have been able to strip away so much of what was harming me.

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I wish you a new year full of powerfully positive change for yourself and for the world!

Love,

Violet Sphinx

** The featured image is, alas, not one I took. It was by my wonderful and talented partner from a hike we went on last week in the Lake District. **

Footsteps

The first hike I clearly remember was with my dad and my brother when I was about eight or nine years old. We hiked up a mountain in the North Cascades to stay in an old fire lookout cabin. It was the sort of cabin that Gary Snyder and Jack Kerouac stayed in over the summer to watch for forest fires that might otherwise cost timber companies lots of money. We hiked across snow banks and through the clouds and it was so cold in the cabin that my brother had to wear his spare pair of socks on his hands that night. We averaged one hike per summer when I was growing up, and usually camped overnight before hiking out the next day.

I still love hiking and camping, and luckily my partner has learned to at least like a good challenging hike, if not the sleeping in a tent part. We’re both into challenging scrambles and steep climbs and we want to start some basic mountaineering training at some point. This year I managed not only to get him into a tent overnight for the first time, but both of us had our first multi-day hike with camping at the end of each day. We were carrying our tent, sleeping bags, clothes and a bit of food in massive rucksacks along a stretch of the South West Coastal Path, one of the brilliant National Trails in the UK.

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It was my first experience with long distance hiking, but honestly, I’m hooked already. As soon as we were done I was excited about what the next one would be. It was very hard work, especially as the stretch we did was a bit of a roller coaster, and we made things tougher on ourselves with a few detours and a few extra hills. But the payoff for that is worth the difficulty. Nevermind the amazing views and cool wildlife we saw (I nearly stepped on two adders in a single day, when I’d never seen one before). What I love about long distance hiking is the feeling of freedom that comes from carrying everything you need on your back, the rhythm that emerges as you arrive at each campsite and pack up in the morning, the well-earned rests, the quiet and the simplicity of putting one foot in front of the other over and over and over again.

I’d love to do a week of hiking every year if I can, not to mention shorter day hikes in the mountains where possible. Some day I’d love to tackle some even longer hikes, like the whole of the Pennine Way in one go, a through-hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, maybe even New Zealand’s Te Araroa someday. At the very least I would like over the course of my life to section hike the entire coastline of England and Wales, joining them up with a coast-to-coast hike.

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There’s a lot of things I love doing but few bring me such uncomplicated joy as strapping on a backpack and going for a long walk in nature. Every walk is different. I want to hike in every season. I want to hike all over the UK. I want to climb mountains, scramble through gorges, tramp across fields and drift along the coast. If hiking all the time wasn’t incompatible with a full time job you can bet I’d be doing it all the time.

I started a journal that’s a log book of all our hikes, at the very least capturing distance, elevation, climb and duration if not some details and memories from the hike. I’d like to write more about them here, too. I think it fits with the content; to hike with me is to know me. Or at least to know that when I get dehydrated I start singing.

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Arising in December

As the year winds down I think it’s pretty standard to start reflecting on the last 12 months, though the demarcation is relatively arbitrary. December often seems to be a month of change for me, or at least preparing for change.

A lot has changed in the last year and change is on the horizon for the next year. If I had expected my 30s to be more settled relative to my 20s then I misunderstood the nature of life and of my approach to it. It’s odd – I tend to have very absolutist thinking on the surface (a habit I’m trying to diminish) while constantly shifting in my interests, habits and ideas. Change and nuance are all around, while I seem to have a monochrome filter over things that I think and say.

This year has been hard for pretty much everyone I know for a variety of reasons. My own disappointment and setbacks with physiotherapy and impostor syndrome pale in comparison to the hardships friends and strangers around the world have been through. There has also been defiance, however, and unalloyed happiness this year (my dear friends welcomed a new baby after a lot of uncertainty, SOME people in positions of power are being held accountable for their abusive behaviour). There has been adventure (my partner and I did our first multi-day backpacking trip on the South West Coast Path), reunions (visiting my brother and sister-in-law in Salem was both wonderful in and of itself and one of the things that pushed me back to magic) and deep lessons in patience and self-acceptance. I’ve learned a lot but I’ve also abandoned a lot of former ideas I had about myself, or at least I’m in the process of doing so.

Taken as a whole, 2017 felt like a year of stripping away in order to start again, not with a clean slate, but perhaps with a new relationship to the problems we’re facing. Therefore, I have relatively few prior expectations for December. I want to take care of my physical and mental health better than I have been doing before and to approach 2018 with the energy to make the world a better place, not in any big way but in small, consistent ways that are based in care for others as well as myself.

Sorry, this is a pretty boring post. That’s what comes of having very few expectations about the road ahead, I guess!

November favourites

I can’t believe November is already ending! I’ve been rather busy and with so much going on I haven’t been very good at self care this month. My 50-ish day meditation streak was broken in early November, my physiotherapy exercises have been more of an exception than a rule, and my body is telling me in no uncertain terms that things aren’t in balance; eczema, IBS, shortness of breath and neck pain. Meditation teachers are fond of saying that when you feel you don’t have time for meditation it’s the most important time to do it, to which I normally respond, ‘Yes, well.’

However, turns out that, as usual, my body is right: I need to take better care of myself and make self care the focus of my intention until I get back into more compassionate habits.

Luminous Tarot App

For that reason, my November favourite is the Luminous Tarot app. This app acts both as a quick-reference guide for readings and as a guide to setting and manifesting intentions using the lunar cycle. It uses imagery from a physical deck that you can buy if you’re so inclined and like things with holographic backs (which I do). The art is simple pencil drawings, a little like A-ha does occultism. They definitely get the modern witchy revival aesthetic, and I’m not mad at it.

But what’s more impressive to me is the card descriptions the app provides. Since I’m early on in learning to Tarot, I tend to compare a few tarot guides for each card, and while I still love my Rider-Waite-Smith deck for actual readings, I’ve basically abandoned using the book that comes with it, usually in favour of using the Luminous Tarot database. Unlike the RWS book’s list of fairly random adjectives, its descriptions are evocative and often ask questions rather than listing attributes. I find they resonate a lot better with my reading of the cards.

Incidentally, its companion, the Golden Thread Tarot app, was the first one I downloaded, and this one gave you a daily card to draw. I deleted this after a few weeks, however, because I felt like the frequency was sort of diminishing how insightful they felt. Pulling a Major Arcana card like The Star on a random Wednesday felt a little overkill.

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I’ve now used the Luminous Tarot app for a full lunar cycle with the intention to have more balanced energy levels. At each different moon phase there was a different spread, representing different phases of bringing about your intention. It takes you through planning and understanding your barriers, laying out the path to get you where you want to go (or making you question why you want to get there) and finally reflecting on your progress. What I particularly like about this app relative to the Golden Thread one is that for each card you have a text box to write your interpretation of the card. These are saved so you can go back and see the cards you drew but also what you thought they meant at the time. It makes it a really useful tool for anyone who reflects in writing.

While I didn’t achieve perfect balance in the first month of using the app, it prompted me to reflect that it’s a moving target that takes constant work. I’m not going to be ‘better’ instantly and constantly striving toward ‘better’ has led to me thinking in absolutes and being really harsh on myself. Case in point was the card in the penultimate reading pointing to the lesson I needed in order to manifest my intention. I pulled the Ten of Swords reversed, a rather… challenging card. I quote from the app’s description below:

‘When we see any version of the ten of swords, the feelings are powerful. Whether reversed or upright, the card signals the finality of defeat. There is no way to avoid this tragedy… With that also comes the release that things can only get better and the cycle can start anew. But like with the eight and nine of swords, this release must be initiated by you.’

I wrote in response, ‘Every dark night of the soul teaches you something. I have the power to release it and not think in absolutes.’ I need to love the difficult parts of my brain chemistry, forgive myself for not being perfect and be patient if that takes me a long time to achieve. Pretty profound stuff for a free app.

The one annoyance I’ve encountered is that in the tarot database if you look up the reversed meaning of a particular card, it defaults to the reversed meaning for all the subsequent cards you look up and I can’t figure out how to reset it other than exiting the app and coming back in. Picture me sat in the gloom in front of my altar, wreathed in incense smoke, swearing and prodding angrily at my phone.

Though I’m pretty sure that’s the stark reality behind the perfectly manicured nails and wide-brimmed felt hats that populate #witchesofinstagram.

Bonus fave: WTF is Tarot? by Bakara Wintner

Bakara Wintner is the proprietor of the American pagan/witchcraft shop Everyday Magic, a tarot reader and a writer. I’m only two chapters in to this excellent guidebook, but I’ve already found it equal parts funny, helpful and blow-the-damn-roof-off insightful. She starts from the radical premise that everyone already instinctively knows how to read tarot and all you need to do is hold up the centuries-old symbolism as a mirror for what’s going on in your life and it will tell you what you need to hear. ‘The tarot does not shy away from the jagged edges of existence,’ she writes. ‘This is not some fluffy angel deck where every card is a positive affirmation, because that ain’t life, fam.’ The cards do, however, bring as much honesty and care to you as you bring to yourself.

You could use the book as a reference for the cards, but the explanations are a little long-form for that. I’m preferring to just read it cover to cover to get a sense of the flow of the deck – the cards are numbered for a reason as they do have a sequence and they tell a story. I’m especially looking forward to the author’s take on what she calls the ‘shitty cards’.

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I hope you’ve had a good November and that you’re looking after yourself. Let’s all be self care bosses together moving into December!

Creativity

“Creativity requires the courage to let go of certainties.”

– Erich Fromm

Oh the irony. I want to write about creativity and I’m finding it hard to know what to say. Maybe it’s that for me the creative process is very instinctual and automatic. I like having a pile of materials in front of me or a blank page and I just let my hands move. I like listening to music and moving without prescribed steps. I’m writing now in a flow and not stopping to think too much about what’s coming out, but if I sit down to plan a post I often find myself stuck. It feels like work, when the flow state of writing feels… basically as good as it gets.

I just got back from a conference about creativity and play in learning and libraries and I think I’m not alone in feeling like it was a transformative experience. I want to blog about it but not the way I usually blog about work conferences and courses in terms of who spoke, what they talked about and so forth. I just want to try to recapture something of the feeling I left with, holding my head high like an archetype of quiet power.

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Something about having the space to be creative, being told it’s okay to fail, to get things wrong, to be MESSY, was just what I needed at this time in my life when I was already poised and ready to let go of striving for perfectionism. I wish I could come up with a word or phrase to encapsulate this, like a mantra or touchstone that could bring me back when I eventually lose this feeling but that’s not how it works. I don’t even know what changes I might make as a result. I just know that some perception of my capability has shifted. How can I put it..?

At the end of the conference, we wrote postcards to ourselves from the conference. Here’s what mine said:

You’re a creative person. Do more of that. Don’t worry if it doesn’t look like what anyone else is doing. It’s authentically you.

I think that’s the key – I always want so much to be liked that it’s as if I’m hiding from disapproval by lurking inside someone else’s outline instead of taking up my own space. The work we have to do on this planet requires that we each bring our unique strengths to the greater good. However, I’ve spent a long time feeling like creativity couldn’t be one of my strengths because I lacked the natural talent at any particular art form to make it worthwhile, not realising that it’s the quality of thought that makes creativity valuable, not just the technical skill to realise it. Nor is creativity about feeling pressure to constantly innovate. Maybe to satisfy my creativity I just need to approach every day as a blank canvas on which I can improvise and see what comes out, not afraid of disapproval, not afraid of the mess, not afraid to fall.

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Sketch notes from the conference

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Cambridge Repair Cafe

Photo from Cam Carbon Footprint on Twitter

By way of thinking globally and acting locally, I’ve recently joined a group called Cambridge Carbon Footprint as a volunteer and yesterday was my first outing with them. I was helping out at the Circular Cambridge Festival and Repair Cafe registering people who had signed up for electrical repair slots and running to get photocopies of the forms as we ran out multiple times! In my downtime, however, I was able to check out the rest of the event, which included a cake stall run by the local WI and some upcycled gift stalls.

Repair Cafe

The event was planned as an attempt at breaking the record for the world’s largest repair cafe in terms of number of successful repairs. What is one, you ask (much as I did when I was first asked to volunteer)? They’re community events where volunteer repairers fix items for free, and often teach the owners of those items how to make repairs themselves. It’s great if you don’t have tools at home and it meant quite a few items got saved from the skip today! Where things were irreparable, there were knowledgeable folks to responsibly recycle the items, or to tell people where they could get them repaired.

What sorts of items? I had a necklace repaired in mere minutes, while I think the longest fix was a coffee maker – at least two repairers were working on that for over an hour. Clothing and bikes were among the most popular items coming in, but there were also microwave ovens, hair straighteners, irons and stereos. One guy had come from Norwich to have his headphones repaired. Another woman said as she was leaving that she put £10 in the donation bucket because she was so pleased about getting her coffee urn fixed.

I was by the door of the event and so got to see all the coming and going and I was really encouraged, not just by how many items were successfully repaired, but by how many people were just curious to see what it was all about and how many different generations, professions and demographics were represented there. I had a great time chatting with my fellow volunteers and I’m really looking forward to working with CCF, Transition Cambridge and the other associated groups again.

And, good news! We broke the world record! We had to beat 150 and apparently over 230 were successfully repaired that day.