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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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.

 

Season of the Witch

“Magic at its core is just operating instructions for an interconnected world.”

– Milla Prince

I can’t remember when I first self-identified as a witch. It began when I found a book about witchcraft abandoned in the choir room when I was 12 years old and sometime between that and casting my first spell I had slipped into the identity, like trying on a garment made of an inky-coloured silk. I found it fit me well and so I wore it off and on for over ten years. Somehow it always settled in comfortably next to my interest in science. They were my twin stars of intellectual and emotional rigour; neither seemed quite complete without the other. Science gave me a deep and satisfying curiosity about how the material world works, while magic gave me a sense of awe about why it mattered, illuminating the thick web of interconnections between living systems. I practised alone through high school, then with others at University, then alone again when I moved to the UK, though less and less as time went on.

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Similarly, I can’t remember when I stopped identifying as a witch. I dismantled my small library of dictionaries of crystals, encyclopaedias of herbcraft and guides for solitary practitioners when downsizing books over a year ago, but by then I had long-since stopped thinking that magic mattered to me. While I knew other witches and magical practitioners, it felt like I had shed that identity when it was no longer appropriate for my life, like ‘High School student’, or ‘room mate’.

What has brought it back again? I keep asking myself this question and I’m not sure I can point to a single answer. A dozen little things pulled me back toward witchcraft over the last year, and what’s more, I think I’m not alone in this. We live in a pivotal time for human rights and environmentalism and I get the sense that others are feeling called to witchcraft or other forms of healing practice at this moment too.

I can honestly say that I don’t know what magic is, how – or even whether – it ‘works’ (for whatever given value of ‘work’). All I know is that it’s important to me and it helps me engage with the work I want to do in the world. Of course you can’t simply wish the world’s problems away through magic. But I believe that reflecting on a situation, performing a ritual and setting an intention, whatever that looks like, has a profound psychological effect on the practitioner. Even if there’s nothing ‘supernatural’ going on, it’s important to feel like the pragmatic effort you’re putting forth to change the world is working toward something bigger and subtler than the conspicuous gears of predictable cause and measurable effect. Witchcraft needn’t be anything beyond what is present in front of us, but is perhaps a map for inward- and outward-, backward- and forward-looking compassion.

“A witch is a someone who understands the language of the seasons and the skies, who cares deeply for the hearts and the hands of those who surround her.  She is one who recognizes the sacredness and the essential nature of the cycles of both Life and Death, honors the fertility of the soil and the self, and sows seeds, not just for this season, but for the generations who will come forever after in the future, if only we can remember how to live well and walk lightly on this Earth today.”

Sophia Rose

Witchcraft is self-care. Witchcraft is revolutionary.

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A witch is a fearsome creature, inspiring terror and awe, channelling a primal, visceral energy in the name of peace, progress, justice and harmony. A witch is a conduit for transformation. A witch taps into the power within and harnesses the power without in service of a better world.” W.I.T.C.H. PDX

This is from the manifesto of an intersectional feminist, anti-fascist group of activists who don the archetypal black robes and pointed hats to leverage the ‘otherness’ of witches in opposition to a status quo that can be cruel and neglectful to those who are different. This is the same status quo that treats animals, plants, ecosystems as subjects, divorced of feeling, waiting to be exploited. It treats indigenous people, immigrants, working class people and future generations as irrelevant to calculations of value. Being present with nature and people around us, seeing what we are consistently asked not to see, means practising a radical awareness. We have to look into the shadows of our society and of our own souls and do deep, difficult work to heal what needs healing. Witchcraft reminds me that I have the power to face that darkness, that change is possible, and that nature needs me to pay attention.

The world is scary and frustrating and anything that gives us the strength to keep fighting for justice is worthwhile.

“The world may be on fire, but so are we. We’re fire-makers, tenders, keepers, control burners, and fire-breathers. We’re motherfucking dragons, y’all.” – Milla Prince

So, light your candles in their grinning gourds tonight and, whether or not you call yourself a witch, may your power shine on places that need uplifting.

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So, these are my random thoughts about the word ‘witch’ as an identity and my history with that word. I hope you enjoyed this bonus Halloween post and that you have a safely spooky or satisfyingly spiritual evening, depending on which you prefer!

October favourites

For the first of my monthly features I want to do a monthly favourites post. This is part blogger/vlogger standard fare – what products, books, music etc. did I most enjoy this month – and part gratitude practice, so hopefully there’s a nice mixture of tangible and intangible things to enjoy.

October was not what I would call a spendthrift month, in that there was considerably more spending than thrift. I had spent the previous two months culling a large number of our possessions, hoping to have a more intentional relationship with my belongings, then promptly fell for the allure of the Halloween season and came out the other side looking like I’d rolled around in Wendy Beauchamp’s closet.

Guilt aside, I really love the things I chose to bring into my life this month. They jive with who I feel I am at my best. I could (and likely will at some point) go on about the real and positive influence that the prevalence of ‘girl power’ and strong female characters in the media in the 90s and early 2000s had on people my age, but something about the circa-millennial TV witch aesthetic makes me feel really, uncomplicatedly good about myself. So, without further ado, here are some of my October favourites:

Tiny witch hat pendant from Girl Burke Studios on Etsy.

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This tiny silver witch hat necklace is so sweet! It has lovely details: the inside is hollow so it looks like a real hat, there are stars engraved on the crown and the brim has a slightly rumpled look to it, which is amazing for such a tiny pendant. I’ve actually switched the chain out for a 30″ one so it hangs lower than any of my other necklaces for layering and it hits me around the solar plexus. I got it for Halloween in lieu of a full size witch hat, but I’ll definitely wear it year round!

Soy wax melt in pumpkin spice from White Witch Box (and wax burner from Etsy).

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I subscribed to the White Witch Box in September, just in time for my first box to be the Samhain/October box. It arrived full of lovely treats, including a protection spell, an obsidian chip bracelet (which I’ve been wearing most days since it arrived) and some incense. But one of my favourites is this soy wax melt. It smells of autumn and has lasted for a few hours so far, even when I broke the original disk in half. I didn’t have a wax burner so I bought this cute one from Etsy that casts little stars and a sun onto nearby surfaces.

Bonfire scented candle by Sand + Fog.

I am really enjoying this candle! It comes in a velvety black glass holder with a copper lid and on the side it reads ‘Traditionally crafted – Tastefully fragrant’. That’s a pretty apt description. I sniffed a LOT of candles on this particular shopping trip and the majority smacked you on the nose with scent. I tend to live in fear of scented candles that when lit seem to replace all the oxygen in the room with lily of the valley, but this is not one of them. The scent is unmistakably smoky; all of the delightful smells of a bonfire without any of the eye-stinging, throat-searing, stay-in-your-hair-for-days traits. I smell it less when it’s burning than when it’s not, strangely, but that’s no bad thing. Near the candle you just get the subtle smell of wood smoke without it taking over the room, with another hit of scent when you blow the candle out. I’ve been burning it every evening and I’ll definitely seek out other scents by this brand.

Sidgwick Avenue filled with autumn leaves.

In the first week of October I found myself cycling down Sidgwick Avenue in the sunshine, feeling positive. The golden and orange leaves were drifting down and collecting on the sidewalks and new arrivals to Cambridge were exploring the colleges and faculties. It was a glorious day and it made me feel so lucky to live in Cambridge.