Doing Battle Against the Noonday Demon

Since the death of Robin Williams on Monday, there’s been a lot of talk in the media and online about depression and suicide, so I thought maybe now would be the time to jump on the bandwagon and give my two cents about it. It’s something I’d been meaning to do already anyway, especially when the subject of mental illness comes up on pagan mailing lists or blogs. Especially when people seem to be romanticizing it in some way. That always bugs me.

I do sometimes get sad about celebrity deaths, if their work was significant in my life in some way. Of course, it’s a lot different than if someone I know personally dies, but I still appreciate what they contributed to my life, even if we never met. I’m a huge Beatles fan, so I took George Harrison’s death hard, and I’m sure Paul and Ringo will be hard as well (I was born a month after John died). Even though we never met, my life is better because they existed.

With Robin Williams, I honestly never really thought of him that much before, but when he died, I just started remembering all those movies he was in that I liked. I guess I was just about the right age to see a lot of his movies in the 80’s and 90’s, not to mention watching Mork and Mindy on Nickelodeon as a little kid. I’m not sure if that makes me a “fan” of his, but he was definitely part of my childhood. It’s hard to believe there won’t be any more.

But what’s really getting to people is that he committed suicide. Why would someone like that kill themselves when it seemed like he had so much going for him?

I’m reminded of Kurt Cobain’s suicide, since I was a kid when it happened. People also wondered why he would do that when he had become so rich and famous. Not to mention serving as a poor role model for us teenagers who may also be depressed. I was a depressed teenager myself, and after Kurt Cobain died, I became a bit obsessed with him, and read books about him, and thought about suicide quite a bit. I was already depressed. Kurt’s death didn’t cause the depression, but it might have put the option in my head more than if it hadn’t happened. I came really close to it when I was 17, but didn’t go through with it, and thankfully have not come quite that close ever again.

I assumed that it was teen angst and hormones, and maybe I had grown out of it. I mentioned to my therapist a while ago that I’m doing better now than I did back then, but that’s probably just because I’m older and more mature. He said he didn’t think so at all, and said I’m getting better because I’ve been fighting it, not because I just grew out of it.

I thought about that when I heard about Robin Williams, because he was 63. Maybe my therapist was right and it doesn’t have to do with maturity after all. Depression has become something I can work around, or work through. I can get up in the morning and at least get the stuff done that I absolutely have to get done. It comes and goes, so when I’m feeling good, I try to get as much done as possible so that when I feel bad, I can take it easy and wait for it to pass without getting too behind. I still have a lot of room for improvement, but it’s not life-threatening anymore.

But it’s still a hindrance. I am absolutely sure I would be better off without it. My therapist has compared depression to a parasite (knowing I’m a biologist), and I think the comparison is very good. Most of the time parasites don’t kill their hosts, but they do weaken their hosts, and make it harder for the host to deal with other stressors. If a hard winter or drought comes around, the animals with the largest “parasite load” are the first to die. Recent reports have said that Robin Williams was suffering from the early stages of Parkinson’s disease, and that could have had something to do with it. I know I have no idea what was going through his mind, but I do know that if you’re already prone to depression, it can make it harder to deal with the other things life throws at you.

That’s why I know I still have a lot of room for improvement, because even though I can still drag myself to work when I’m in the middle of a depressive episode, it would still be nice to not have that burden to carry with me at all.

But let me get back to paganism. There’s this annoying tendency among mystical types to romanticize mental illness (and perhaps physical illness too). Some kind of “wounded healer” archetypal stuff maybe. I don’t know, maybe it’s different for others, but I don’t think my illness helps at all. Depression sucks all the joy out of everything, so it makes it hard for me to even enjoy the company of my husband or friends, let alone gods or spirits. When it’s hard to get up the energy to take a shower or cook a healthy meal, I certainly don’t have the energy to do any kinds of rituals or devotions. Really, it makes it so I don’t even think the gods exist. Without depression, I am absolutely sure I would function better in every single aspect of my life, including spiritually.

The only thing that it may help is in the sense that any hardship might make a person stronger. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” they say, which is a very Odinic way of seeing things. I think hardships can also make a person more compassionate towards others who are going through tough things as well, so that’s good. But I don’t think mental illness or depression is unique in this regard. The same effect might happen if I had to deal with any other hardship, mental or physical.

Maybe one of the reasons why romanticizing mental illness worries me is that it may make some people reluctant to get help. I know I was at first, because depression was such a big part of my life, I didn’t know what I would be without it. I was afraid I wouldn’t be myself anymore. But really, when the depression gets better, I just become a better version of myself. I gain much more than I lose.

I’m afraid mystical-type people might think that if they get treated for their condition, they will lose their connection to the gods, or something like that. But if your connection to the gods is based on an illness, what does that say about your relationship? Shouldn’t they be able to still connect with you when you’re healthy? If not, I think something must be messed up here.

I don’t think Odin or my other gods want me to stay depressed. I think they want me to fight it. They want us mortals to live our short lives to the fullest, and depression prevents you from doing that. It’s sad that not everyone wins the battle, but that doesn’t excuse you from fighting.

Pagan Community (or Lack Thereof)

I’m often jealous of people who have found good religious communities to be a part of. Being a solitary can be very lonely.

John Beckett goes to the UU Church in Denton, which apparently has a very active CUUPS group. My husband and I tried going to the UU church here for a while, but they all seem to be either disgruntled Christians who left overly conservative sects but are still Christians at heart, or atheists. When we said we were pagans, they had heard of it, but honestly seemed a bit put off by it. We never really ended up fitting in. My in-laws go to another UU church, and have found a community for themselves there, but my husband and I haven’t really gotten involved with that either.

UU’s are great people, but it seems to be all about social justice and very little spirituality. Don’t get me wrong, social justice is great, but if I start talking about spirituality they look at me like I’m some kind of weirdo. (And I am a weirdo, I just need to find people who appreciate that.)

One of my good friends is active in an ADF druid grove, but it meets about an hour and a half away from where I live now, and I don’t know anyone else there.

I have made an online acquaintance of one of the members of Hrafnar. I once got to meet her in person. I have her friended on Facebook and occasionally get to see her post about cool things Hrafnar does and be jealous. I went to a Heathen event in Texas once, and they weren’t very friendly.

Finally, last year in February, I started a Meetup Group, inviting all pagans and heathens in the area to meet once a week at a coffee shop. It’s been about a year and a half now, and so far it hasn’t really gone anywhere.

I have only one guy who showed up to the first meeting who still sometimes shows up. He says he’s a mixture of Druid and Discordian. Later, a Heathen guy and his wife started driving all the way from San Antonio and became “regulars” as well. He found out about me through the Troth email list. Maybe two or three other people have come to more than one meeting before, but that’s about it. I have 72 members now, but the vast majority has never shown up, and the rest only show up once and then I never see them again.

Meanwhile I’m paying $12 a month to host the Meetup site, and no one else wants to chip in. Other members sometimes suggest ideas for things they want to do besides the monthly coffee socials, but when I tell them to post it, they never do it. I set the site so that any member can post an event, but so far no one has done that.

Nobody but me wants to actually do the work to maintain a group.

I keep thinking, “Why do I even bother?” I’m the only one who cares enough to pay actual money for this and to post events for this, apparently.

I guess it doesn’t help that I’m not completely sure what I want out of this.

Well, no, actually I do know what I want. Basically, I want a pagan church, and I want to be a “regular” there but not on the leadership team. I want to show up for full moons and solstices and equinoxes and maybe sometimes have a bigger role in the occasional ritual, but not have to be completely running the entire thing myself. I’m not a natural leader; I only lead when no one else will step up. I want us to have our own building instead of borrowing one from the UU’s (though UU’s can be great allies to pagans), and I want there to be potlucks and charity drives, and Ostara egg hunts and Samhain pumpkin carving for the kids. (Yeah, I want there to actually be kids too. I want there to be something for everyone, at any stage of life, not just 20 and 30-somethings hanging out at a coffee shop talking about D&D or Lord of the Rings.)

But that doesn’t exist.

I really wish pagans could get their shit together enough to make something like this exist, but they don’t. They can hardly be relied on to show up for a Meetup once a month, and if you ask them to pitch in a few dollars for the Meetup site fees, they won’t even do that.

Forget buying a building to make into a church, or putting in the time and effort to keep a thing like that running.

I know that some pagans don’t want it. Maybe it’s because I was never a Christian to begin with, so I don’t have bad feelings about the whole concept of having some type of organization in my religion. I think it’s possible to do that without being oppressive. I was always jealous of my Christian friends who could find community and support in their churches.

Some pagans hate anything that reminds them of Christianity, so they balk at the idea of a pagan church. Or we can call it a temple if you like, or a community center. But really I’m looking for something that fills the niche that a church would fill in the life of a Christian person, or a synagogue for a Jew, or a mosque for a Muslim. I want a pagan version of that. Even Baha’is and Sikhs and Hindus have temples in some of the bigger cities. But I don’t know of any pagan temples or churches or anything like that. Why  not? I seriously doubt there are more Sikhs than us in the country.

There used to be a Lutheran church near where I live that went up for sale. It got turned into a dog grooming place. Ugh, what a waste. It has a good parking lot, the building itself is pretty, and there’s a yard in the back with a chain-link fence around it. I bet it has a kitchen inside that could have been used for ritual feasts, and we could have put a labyrinth in the yard. We could put up pictures and statues of pagan gods and goddesses inside. The First Pagan Church of Texas! That would have been great.

Then again, the UU church my in-laws go to has been vandalized more than once. Ugh, seriously? A UU church attended mostly by white-haired retirees being vandalized? That’s Texas for you. For similar reasons, my pagan Meetup group has all its info except for a short description hidden from non-members, and I moderate who gets to join. They have to fill out a few questions first so I can be sure they’re a real person. I also don’t have my picture or full name on the site.

That’s why I wish someone else would do it. Someone who isn’t as worried about being outed and losing their job, or worse. Then I can just attend quietly and if someone Googles my name, no pagan stuff will show up.

Which is another reason why I think we need better community, for mutual protection. The irony is that I think if we had a proper temple or something, it would make us seem more like a legitimate religion.

Instead, it seems like all pagans do is fight with each other. That’s certainly what online pagan “community” looks like. First it was Neopagan vs Reconstructionist, then Monist vs. Polytheist, or Devotional Polytheist vs. Immersive Polytheist… I don’t even know what that last one is about. Hair-splitting taken to the extreme, I’m sure.

I mean, I’m probably the only Nature-based Germanic Heathen in my town, which is why I opened my Meetup to all pagans, in the broadest sense.

And yet, I’m still lucky if more than a couple of people show up.

How Lammas Went

I celebrated Lammas last Saturday. Didn’t do much fancy stuff. To me, holidays are all about food, so I smoked a whole pork loin in the brick smoker in our backyard. Pork loin is a lean meat that’s easy to overcook, so I was sure to use a meat thermometer and bring it up to only 140 degrees before pulling it out (carryover heat brought it up to 155 by the time it was done resting, which was perfect). Before cooking it, I brined it, and then glazed it with molasses, brown sugar, and apple cider. It came out of the smoker a beautiful mahogany color (sorry, I didn’t take any pictures). Roasted a head of cauliflower for a vegetable.

I also made a loaf of bread from scratch, which I haven’t done for a while. I tried out a new recipe: no knead bread. That was trendy for a while, and is in my red checkered cookbook, but I hadn’t tried it out yet. You mix a very wet dough the night before, then bake it in a Dutch oven. It turned out really well, but my husband and I couldn’t resist cutting into it before it was cool, which you’re not supposed to do with bread. It makes the rest turn gummy once it’s cool. But the recipe made only one small loaf, so we ate most of it while it was warm anyway.

The apple cider I used on the pork was left over from Midsummer. One of my best friends is now dating a Heathen (she herself is a Celtic pagan), and he brought some homebrewed apple cider for sumbel. He left the rest in my fridge. It’s very good, nice and dry, almost like a white wine in flavor. I poured a glass of that for Frey and put it on my altar in the bedroom in front of his statue, and put a nice thick slice of bread and a slice of pork in the altar in the middle of the sacred circle outside for the land spirits. (I don’t like to put meat on my indoor altar because I have cats. Outside, cats and opossums dispose of my offerings.)

That was pretty much all I did, ritual-wise. I used to be a lot more mystical, but I just can’t seem to get into the right mindset for that anymore. It doesn’t help that I’ve been really stressed out and depressed lately. The subject of mental illness comes up from time to time on pagan blogs and email lists, and it always bugs me when it gets romanticized, like being mentally ill makes you more mystical or spiritually attuned in some way. Well, I’ve had clinical depression for as long as I can remember, and in my case it’s the exact opposite. When you barely have the energy to get out of bed and get through dressing yourself, going to work,  making sure you eat something, and all those other things you absolutely must do, there’s very little energy left over for the gods. Not to mention all the thoughts in my head saying, “you’re wasting your time.”

I’m actually doing a little better today. It comes and goes.

The day before, I went to my altar and asked Frey what he wanted for Lammas. If he wanted anything else besides the physical offerings I was already planning, that is. I drew three runes to see what his answer was, and got Othila – Isa – Uruz.

Some pagan bloggers like to say that anyone can get messages from the gods through divination, but it still frustrates me. I’m terrible at doing divination for myself. I don’t know what that means! I can do rune readings for other people, but for some reason for myself, I just can’t figure it out for sure. Too personal, I guess. Those three runes are still sitting on my altar in case anything comes to me.

Well, I just hope Frey liked his offerings.

By the way, it was pretty nice to have a rare summer cold front last weekend. Usually the first half of August is the hottest time of year, but last weekend it dipped down by 10 degrees, into the low 90’s. It made spending some time outside bearable, even though we didn’t end up getting any rain out of it. Now it’s back up to over 100 every day like normal for August.

Lammas is Coming

Summer is rough.

I’m an adjunct professor, so I teach every summer, because if I don’t,  I’ll go three months without a paycheck and have to go on COBRA for my health insurance (I know I’m very lucky to have health insurance at all). Summer classes are on a compressed schedule of 4 hours a day, 4 days a week. Being revved up leading my class for that long with no break is pretty exhausting. Usually when I get home I just want to crash. To cram everything in, I have to give a test every week, so I have a lot of grading to keep up with when I’m not in class. I also have to get up very early every morning (5 am!) and have been having trouble getting to bed in time to get enough sleep.

I’m really dragging here.

Then there’s how summer just IS in Texas, regardless of what’s going on in my own little life. This summer hasn’t actually been too bad. Here at the end of July and beginning of August, we’re in the Dog Days of Summer, the hottest time of year. It’s been at least in the high 90’s if not 100 every day for at least a week and at night it doesn’t get below the mid-70’s because of the humidity.

Maybe this is why Lammas is a difficult holiday for me. It doesn’t have any secular equivalents in my culture, and it takes place during the most uncomfortable time of year. At Midsummer, I still feel like doing some things outside, like cooking barbeque, but by Lammas I just want to stay in air-conditioned buildings and avoid going outside as much as I can.

Maybe this is similar to what my European ancestors felt during January and February when it was too cold to do anything but huddle inside by the fire.

But just because something is difficult doesn’t mean you give it up. I know the Eightfold Wheel of the Year is a modern invention, but it is based off a combination of Celtic and Germanic holidays, so it’s not too far off the mark for a Heathen like me, and I like the idea of having seasonal holidays evenly spaced out like that. I think it’s good to mark the turning of the seasons, even the seasons I may not like very much. Texas is my home, so I just have to deal with it being scorching hot at this time of year.

So what does Lammas mean to me?

Traditionally, it was an English holiday (Loaf-mass), which may or may not have had pagan origins, but was mostly about the wheat harvest. I know some Heathens associate it with Frey, since he’s an agricultural deity. I’ve even read about Heathens and Northern Tradition folks celebrating Frey sacrificing himself and being reborn around this time of year. I have no idea if that’s historically accurate or some sort of modern UPG. I’m leaning towards the latter, but I’m OK with that, really. We know so little about the Vanir, and the idea of Frey being sacrificed and reborn to keep the Earth fertile is in line with other harvest deities from other pantheons.

It just seems in-character for him. Frey is such an optimistic deity. That’s how I relate to him, anyway. Sure, things are rough now, but the harvest will eventually come in. Frey may die, but he will come back.Perhaps that makes it appropriate to honor him at this time of year, when things can be a bit rough. Frey helps me endure the rough times because good times will come again. He reminds me that nothing is permanent, good times or bad.

And I already celebrate Frey’s marriage to Gerd on February 1, which is exactly six months away. It makes a nice balance to celebrate a slightly different aspect of Frey on August 1.

I haven’t done much spiritual stuff since Midsummer. At least back then I had just started summer classes and was still energetic, but now I’m just exhausted and can’t wait until that week I get off in August between the end of summer session and the beginning of the fall semester. When I get stressed out, tired, and depressed, I neglect a lot of things in my life like sleeping enough, eating right, getting enough exercise, and yes, doing any kind of spiritual devotions.

Maybe that’s another reason why celebrating all the modern pagan holidays is a good idea for me. It helps me get back on track every six weeks.
The fact that I’ve been stressed out and depressed a lot lately is another reason why it would be a good idea for me to do a ritual in Frey’s honor. He cheers me up.  I’ve already decided I’m going to make pork loin on the grill, and have it in the fridge thawing. Don’t know what else yet. I’m too tired to come up with some elaborate ritual. I barely had enough energy to type this post! I have laundry to do so I’ll have something to wear to work tomorrow.

Maybe some inspiration will come to me. I’ve still got a few more days.

Celebrating Midsummer

Last weekend was the Summer Solstice, and I celebrated it in my traditional way: I had a barbeque!

John Beckett wrote about building a summer solstice tradition, which is exactly what I’ve been doing, but I disagree with him that Midsummer is not an important holiday. It’s Yule’s counterpart, and it’s still widely celebrated in Northern European countries. I actually have a lot more trouble feeling a connection with Lammas/Lughnasadh than Midsummer.

However, that doesn’t mean that it’s not necessary to build new Midsummer traditions. I’ve written before about the necessity of adapting pagan holidays to the local environment in order to fully appreciate the spirits of your own ecosystem. I’m a Heathen, but I live in Texas, so even if I celebrate Heathen holidays like Midsummer or Yule, I think they should be celebrated in a Texas way.

So what does June 21 mean in Texas?

Well, this is not quite the hottest time of year just yet. Statistically the first week of August is the hottest time of year here, so really Lammas is the hottest holiday. This year we haven’t yet hit 100 degrees, though we’ve come close a couple of times. It’s actually been kind of nice lately. Mostly in the low-90’s with some thunderstorms which have been very helpful putting a dent in this severe drought. Hail Thor! Everything is still green. The grass hasn’t dried to a crisp yet.

I’m harvesting lots of green beans, okra, and tomatoes from the garden. Squash and eggplant is coming soon.

The sunflowers, Indian blanket, esparanza, roses, and Mexican oregano are all blooming nicely.

 

I have decided that the traditional feast for Texas Heathen Midsummer is barbeque. And by that I mean real southern barbeque, not just some hot dogs or burgers on a grill. Every year on Midsummer (or the weekend day closest to it) I get up early (yes, on a Saturday!) and start a big slab of meat or two smoking in the brick BBQ pit in my backyard. To Texans and other southerners, barbeque is slow-smoked meat. In Texas that meat is usually beef brisket, and the wood for smoking is usually mesquite. And “barbeque” also means the social event where such meat is served, because roasting big hunks of meat and celebrations go hand-in-hand. (Sorry vegetarians!)

I sometimes vary a little bit from the traditional beef brisket. I’ve also done pork shoulder, ribs, turkey, and chicken in my smoker. I always fill up the smoker no matter how many guests I’m having since it’s the same amount of work whether the smoker is full or not, and smoked meat makes great leftovers. Smoking the meat becomes a ritual in itself. It forces me to be outside in the backyard, with all the nature spirits and birds and plants and bugs and heat and humidity. I’m serenaded by cicadas as I tend the fire, turn and mop the meat occasionally, and get all sweaty and smoky. It’s a lot of work, but I think that preparing a ritual feast should be.

(Meanwhile, my husband mowed the yard, which is a really big deal when you have a yard as big as ours, with only a push mower.)

This year I cooked two chickens and two large fillets of steelhead trout, which my guests all thought was salmon until I told them otherwise. Farmed steelhead trout is a “Best Choice” on the Seafood Watch list, costs half as much as the sustainable wild Alaska salmon, and the same amount as the unsustainable farmed salmon. I’d never done fish in the smoker before, but it turned out amazing. I used the recipe for smoked salmon from amazingribs.com, and based the chicken off his Simon and Garfunkel chicken recipe (using almost all herbs from my own herb garden). I sometimes wonder things like what would Meathead think if he knew his recipes are being used in a ritual feast to honor pre-Christian Norse deities.

I ended up using oak for the fish, and a mixture of oak and mesquite for the chicken, since that’s the kind of wood I have on hand. We have a lot of oak wood from a few of our trees that died in the horrible summer of 2011. Oak is a pretty good all-purpose smoking wood, but mesquite has a powerful flavor that can overwhelm fish, which is why I didn’t add it to the fire until the fish was done and I was just doing the chicken. I also feel good about using wood that my husband and I harvested ourselves to cook the meal. I wanted to put as much connection to our land as possible into the meal, which is why I tried to put something I’d harvested myself into every dish, even if it was just an herb from the herb garden.

To go with the meat was pasta salad containing green beans and cherry tomatoes from the garden, sweet tea with some peppermint from the herb garden, and a pound cake with seasonal fruit on top.

OK vegetarians, I also made a pot of beans. I usually put pork products of some sort in my beans, but I had some vegetarian guests coming, so I wanted a vegetarian protein that was just as special and delicious as the meat. So I got some heirloom Anasazi beans (not just ordinary pintos!) and cooked them in my Lodge cast-iron camp Dutch oven in the bottom of the smoker. I pre-cooked them a little the day before because dry beans take a really long time to cook, but finishing them off in the smoker let them absorb some smoky flavor.

I prayed to Frigg before I started cooking to ask her to help make everything delicious, and apparently it worked. I always make tons of food for these kinds of things, and everyone happily ate their fill, with just enough left to offer some to the deities and land spirits, and for my husband and I to take some to work for lunch for the rest of the week.

 

As the sun finally set on the longest day of the year, we made a Midsummer fire of juniper wood in the backyard fire pit. Juniper (a.k.a “cedar”) has a wonderful smelling smoke that also repels mosquitoes. There were several Heathens in attendance, and the rest of the guests were all pagans of some sort, so we decided to do a Symbel in my ritual circle. One of the heathens brought his drinking horn and some home-brewed cider. We first gave an offering to the gods, and then did rounds of boasting and gratitude. Instead of making oaths, which I think is more of  a Yule thing, I thought boasts would be more appropriate. During the dark time of year, you can think about what you lack in your life that you want to change, but under the abundance of the Midsummer sun, it’s time to focus on what you DO have.

Focusing on the positive is a difficult thing for me, so I think doing a ritual like that is especially important. It takes me out of my comfort zone much more than a more somber ritual would. During the boasting part, I was forced to say nice things about myself, and during the gratitude part, I had to hear other people saying nice things about me. But perhaps getting out of your comfort zone is what good rituals are all about.

 

So that is how you celebrate Midsummer, Texas-style! With wood, fire, and smoke, meat and beans and garden-fresh tomatoes and sweet tea, ale and cider and citronella candles and the smell of fresh-cut grass and a bunch of good friends. I would say this is one of the best Midsummers I’ve had in a while.

Building a Maypole

I thought I’d share with you how we built our Maypole this year.

I mainly used instructions I got from, believe it or not, Martha Stewart’s website! It was one of the first on the list when I Googled “how to make a maypole.” Her instructions can be found here: http://www.marthastewart.com/269203/making-the-pole

I have a friend who’s called me “the Pagan Martha Stewart” due to my love of cooking, gardening, and general do-it-yourselfing, though I think I’d rather be the Pagan Julia Child because she seemed to be a lot more fun. But still, when I brought the Maypole to the campout and told everyone I got the instructions to make it from Martha Stewart, they were very amused.

We did make some modifications to Martha’s basic design.

DSCF3073

The base of the pole.

Martha says to sink the pole in the ground, which was not an option for us. She says as an alternative you can use a patio umbrella stand, but instead my husband said he could make a base out of wood. We found a wooden tabletop at Lowes in their woodworking section and used that. He attached a piece of cedar 4×4 he already had in the garage, and drilled a hole in it to insert the pole. Making the hole perfectly vertical turned out to be difficult, so he ended up making the hole wider than it needed to be, then using a wedge to get the pole to stand straight. That turned out to be an even better option because then we could adjust to compensate for any slope the land might have.

We also got the pole itself from Lowes. They had 10 foot poplar poles which were just the right size.

For the top of the pole, we used a finial which my husband already had in his stash, but we couldn’t find 6 inch wooden disks at the craft store, so used 4 inch ones instead, which seemed to work fine.

Painting the parts of the Maypole

Painting the parts of the Maypole

We also picked up a small can of exterior glossy white latex paint, and painted the parts with three coats. At first I was tempted to varnish the pole instead, since I usually prefer a natural wooden look to things rather than paint, but I finally decided on glossy white because I thought it would stand out nicely in the field and look nice with the pastel ribbons.

Now, on to the ribbons, which turned out to be the hardest part.

Martha says to use six, 10 yard rolls of 1 1/2 inch wide satin ribbon. She says to attach each ribbon in its middle between the wooden disks, so 5 yards hangs off each side.

We soon found out that 10 yard rolls of satin ribbon are extremely hard to find! The nearest craft store to us is Hobby Lobby, which we would rather not patronize. We drove about 30 miles to the nearest Michael’s, and almost all of their 1 1/2 inch satin ribbon was in 4 yard rolls. We were able to find only 1 green 10 yard roll, and one turquoise 15 yard roll. We went ahead and bought those, and then bought a few 4 yard rolls anyway. We kept the receipt in case we found some more 10 yard rolls somewhere else.

A few days later I drove 20 miles in the opposite direction to Joanne’s Fabrics to see if they had any 10 yard rolls. They only had 4 yard rolls, but they were cheaper than the Michael’s ones, so I bought some of those too. We decided to cut the 15 yard roll down to 10 yards, use our two 10 yard rolls the way Martha says, and staple the 4 yard rolls on their ends instead of their middles and just hope they’re long enough.

However, when we attached the ribbons to the pole, for some reason the 4 yard rolls ended up being longer than the 10 yard rolls. I have no idea how that happened, since the 10 yard rolls should have had 5 yards on each side, unless the length they say on the roll is not exactly the real length for some reason. We ended up removing the 10 yard rolls and using all the 4 yard rolls we had from both stores so they’d all be the same length.

Phew! That was a bit of a pain, but at least it all worked out in the end, and I didn’t have to buy anything from Hobby Lobby. (I did go there just to see if they had 10 yard rolls, but they only had 4 yard rolls too.) I used a lighter to melt the ends of the ribbons so they wouldn’t unravel, and they turned out to be just long enough. When it comes to Maypole ribbons, the longer the better, but good luck on finding any satin ribbon longer than 4 yards! I couldn’t even find any listed online. I have no idea where Martha got her 10 yard ribbons from.

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The finished Maypole ready to be danced with

Now we have a Maypole that will hopefully last us many May Days to come.

Celebrating May Day

Last weekend was the Beltane festival I’ve been going to for the last ten years or so. We’re actually a splinter group from a large pagan festival around here, though I wasn’t directly involved in whatever caused the split, and I used to regularly go to both festivals. But in the last several years I’ve only been going to this one since it’s smaller (and therefore more introvert-friendly) and costs only about half as much as the bigger one. I just don’t have the time or energy to go to both anymore, so I’m picking the one that’s not only cheaper and easier, but also more enjoyable for me.

We have one festival at Beltane and one at Samhain. At Samhain we do a dumb feast in honor of the Dead. Then we put offerings and notes for the Dead into a small wooden coffin and burn it on a funeral pyre. It’s always a very moving ritual with few dry eyes once it’s done. Last year one of our long-time members died of breast cancer, and it was pretty poignant realizing that now here we were honoring her as one of our Dead. This is how you build traditions. Maybe one day people will be giving notes to me in that coffin.

However, we never really had any sort of ritual for Beltane, so that campout ends up being not much more than a party. Which is fine, but it seemed out of balance to have this intense, moving ritual for Samhain and nothing for Beltane.

As it happens so often when I think of something that ought to be done and no one else is doing it, I finally went ahead and decided that my husband and I will have to provide a Maypole for Beltane. I’ve danced around a Maypole twice before, once at the big pagan festival, and once when I lived with some pagan roommates in college and we set one up in a vacant lot. Both times were lots of fun. And while Samhain is about remembering the dead, Beltane is about celebrating new life, so the ritual should be fun and full of laughter, rather than serious and solemn like a Samhain ritual. But it should still be a ritual where the gods and spirits are acknowledged and invited to join us in the festivities, rather than just a party with no spiritual component.

So I made the commitment that I would provide a Maypole this year and lead the ritual.

And then my father died of cancer.

I almost backed out. I almost said I couldn’t handle it right now. Maybe next year.

But then I decided to go ahead with it anyway. It would be good for me, I thought. Part of the healing process. To show that in the face of death, life goes on. Plus my devotional practice has really fallen by the wayside during all this, just like everything else (you should see how dirty my house is, and I’ve been eating way too much fast food since I haven’t had the time or energy to cook and eat healthily). So here it is Beltane, and I decided I would put together a fun, live-affirming ritual to mark the beginning of summer.

I set up an altar to the Vanir at the campground. Last Samhain I set up an altar for the dead that was appreciated, with several people placing offerings on it. I thought an altar for the gods and spirits of fertility and growth would be a good counterpart. I put a white tablecloth on it, and in the middle I placed a vase of spring flowers. The vase itself was one that held a bouquet of flowers given to us by my husband’s coworkers with a sympathy card attached when they heard my father had died. It crossed my mind that reusing the vase for a happy purpose might be disrespectful, but I went ahead with it anyway. I filled it with roses and yarrow from our garden. I also brought my statues of Frey and Freya, a prayer candle for Ostara, Frey’s deer antler I usually keep on my altar, and some marble eggs that I use for Easter décor. The altar didn’t get as much attention as the altar to the Dead got at Samhain, but I did get some compliments on how nice it looked. I hope Freya, Frey, and Ostara thought so too.

The Maypole dance went really well. Of course what always happens is we start going over-under-over-under just fine, until someone gets confused, then it spreads, and next thing you know people are running into each other and getting tangled in ribbon and can’t stop laughing. That’s my definition of a Maypole dance “going well”.

Afterwards when everyone had dispersed and the Maypole was left standing there with the colorful ribbons woven around it, I poured out an offering of beer at its base.

It was fun, but this past weekend didn’t quite turn into the clear-cut, “OK now I’m moving on with my life” type of event I had intended. For one thing, I inherited half my dad’s property and some of that included some nice camping equipment that I used for the first time at this campout, and we drove there in his pickup truck he told me he wanted me to have before he died. That felt weird, like I was borrowing his stuff temporarily and it’s not really mine. It also felt haunted in a way.

This is the time of year when I feel the presence of the Vanir in my life more, and Odin tends to step back a bit. But Frey and Freya are no strangers to death either, even though they’re not thought of as “dead gods” like Odin is. Freya does take half the battle slain, and Frey is associated with burial mounds and there’s the (possibly modern) notion that he’s sacrificed at Lammas and is reborn. So while I was trying my best to honor them last weekend, my mind would still wander back into grief from time to time. I just hope they understood that I was trying my best.

Death reminds us that life is precious. Maybe this is how Samhain and Beltane complement each other. The last time I saw my dad healthy was at my wedding. How was I to know then that he would die of cancer before he even reached 65? He was perfectly healthy until he was diagnosed with esophagus cancer only last fall, then he was dead within six months. Meanwhile my husband’s parents are in their late 70’s and are still in pretty good shape. You just never know. My husband is 14 years my senior, so before I married him, my mom (never missing an opportunity to bring down a happy occasion) was sure to remind me that he’ll die before me and I’ll be alone. But I could die in a car accident next week on my way to work, and then he’d be the one who’s alone.

You really just never know. It’s certain that everyone is going to die, but nobody knows how or when. The lesson here is to embrace life as much as you can. All my gods seem to be in agreement about that.

maypole 2014

Our Maypole

Taking Some Bereavement Leave from this Blog

My father was diagnosed with esophagus cancer in September, and lost his life to it on March 27. I read that his kind of cancer was an especially aggressive one, but I’m still reeling from it happening so quickly. He was only 64.

Whatever I was thinking of writing about on this blog next seems unimportant right now. And the petty bickering on other pagan blogs also seems pretty stupid and pointless when real problems come up.

This weekend I’m going to have to go to his house to start going through his belongings with my sister figuring out what we want to keep, donate, or sell. I’m really not looking forward to it.

My dad wasn’t religious, but he wanted to be cremated, and for his ashes to be sprinkled on top of Pike’s Peak so he can “become part of the mountain.” My sister and I will honor his wishes this summer when it gets warmer up there.

This time of year, around the Spring Equinox and Easter, is one of the prettiest times of year, with so many flowers in bloom. It’s so incongruous with what’s going on in my own life.

Goodbye Dad. I love you.

The God of Science

Sunday was the first episode of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, which is Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s update of Cosmos: A Personal Voyage with Carl Sagan.

I grew up watching Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, and it’s probably one of the reasons why I went into science as a career. The remake is good so far (despite lacking the excellent soundtrack of the original), but I was more excited about the marathon of the original series that was on the National Geographic Channel before it. I hadn’t seen some of these episodes since I was a child. It is nice to watch them all again now that I’m older and can appreciate it in more mature ways. I remembered how Carl explained to me, through the TV, all of these advanced scientific concepts like the theory of evolution, the theory of relativity, and the concept of black holes, giving me a scientific understanding way ahead of my years. I had forgotten about the biographies of scientists sprinkled throughout, and about Sagan’s ominous prophecies about what could happen if science is misused, especially in the last episode “Who Speaks for the Earth?” I’m sure those parts must have made an impression on me as well, because even by first or second grade I was known to my classmates and teachers as a science geek and environmentalist. I remember getting picked on for that.

I know Sagan was an atheist, but he still inspired a lot of pagans, including me.

It also reminds me of why Odin is my main god, even though I’m not a warrior. Odin is most often portrayed as a war god, but I interact with him more as a god of wisdom, knowledge, and curiosity. To me, Odin is the God of Science

It may seem strange to have a god of science in this era where science and religion are seen as being opposed to each other, but that attitude is a recent one, and many polytheistic cultures had gods associated with knowledge and learning, such as Ganesh, Thoth, and Athena. Even when Christianity came along, many scientists were also Christians. Gregor Mendel, the father of genetics, was a monk. He studied biology as a way to understand the Creator better.

Odin’s best myths don’t have to do with war, but with his quest for knowledge. He consults with the volva to find out the future, sacrifices his eye to drink from the Well of Wisdom, and hangs himself from Yggdrasil to discover the Runes.

Scientists, like Odin, have this thirst for knowledge, and like Odin, usually have to make great sacrifices for it. Going into this field is difficult. The three years I spent in grad school were some of the hardest years in my life. Then, despite all the hype about STEM fields and how easy it would be for anyone graduating with a science degree to find a job, I graduated right at the beginning of the Great Recession and spent 10 months unemployed. (It also probably didn’t help that I studied things like ecology, wildlife biology, and environmental science instead of something profitable like petroleum engineering.) I thought I had ruined my life.

It was also the time in my life when Odin was the most present. This was the time for me to hang from the Tree, and Odin reminded me how difficult that was for him, how he wasn’t sure if it was going to survive the ordeal either, or if he was even going to discover anything useful from it. It was a comfort to me to think that Odin thought I could get through this, and I just had to trust him that everything will be OK in the end. Even though I don’t fully believe in the gods (I still often think they really are just all in my head), Odin reminded me that he believes in me, and that’s the important thing.

odin hanging

Despite the stereotype of being a bunch of stiffs, scientists are actually quite a passionate lot, and Odin is a passionate god. If you’re going to dedicate so much of your life to the study of something, you had better be passionate about it. One of the problems I had in graduate school was that I got into a program I wasn’t passionate about. It was all about ecological modeling and population genetics. I spent my days in front of a computer working out simulations of ecosystems, rather than outside in the real thing. After about a year and a half of this with no thesis even started, I was changed to the non-thesis option, so I could still get some kind of degree. Except then I was free to take any classes I wanted (and I now had to take more classes to make up for not doing a thesis), and I started taking some of the field biology classes that were not part of the “population biology” program I had signed up for, but the “wildlife biology” program (the biology department did little to explain to me what the difference was between those two, which seemed to me like splitting hairs, and it was only after being in grad school for a couple of years that I realized the latter was what I really should have enrolled in). Finally I could be outdoors with my beloved plants and animals, and I was reminded of why I went into biology in the first place.

The great thing about Carl Sagan is that he could express his passion and wonder about the universe to a lay audience. He did this without condescension or dumbing things down. He’d just chat with you through your television, and by the end of it, you understood not only the scientific concepts, but why they are so amazing. He could pass his passion on to you. I want that job.

Odin is often considered to be a dangerous god. How does that fit in to his role as the God of Science? Even though Sagan portrays science as mostly a force for good, throughout Cosmos he brings up how technology can also lead us to destroying ourselves, perhaps through nuclear war (a big concern during the Cold War era), or perhaps through climate change (which he hints at in the original Cosmos, but that show was produced before climate change was well understood). I am reminded of Prometheus who gave fire to mankind and was punished for that. This is generally considered to be a myth about technology, and I believe that Odin and Loki together play this role in the Norse pantheon. (There may have even been a more obviously Prometheus-like myth that’s been lost to us, as I’m sure many myths known to our ancestors have been.) In Voluspa, Odin, Hoenir, and Lodhurr (who may be the same as Loki) created the first humans. Since we now know how humans were “really” created, thanks to Darwin, perhaps this can be seen as a myth about when humans were set apart from the rest of nature, when we ceased being just another animal wandering the savannas of Africa, and became capable of understanding the wonders of the universe. Yet this intelligence also gives us the capacity to destroy ourselves and take a lot of our fellow species along with us.

Scientific knowledge itself can also cause discomfort. Science deals with how the universe is, not how we would like it to be. In the first episode of the new Cosmos, Neil DeGrasse Tyson tells the story of Giordano Bruno, who believed in an infinite universe, going against the geocentric view of the universe that most people believed at the time. He wasn’t the first scientist to propose something like that, but it took a long time for the idea to catch on that the universe is unimaginably vast. Tyson illustrates this right at the beginning of the episode, showing our cosmic “address” in the context of the known universe.

Later in that episode, Tyson illustrates how the universe is not only vast in space, but in time, borrowing Sagan’s “Cosmic Calendar”, where all of human history happens in only the last 14 seconds of the last hour of December 31. I see parallels between the Young Earth Creationists of today with the geocentric view of Bruno’s time. Back then they believed in a universe small in space, and today they believe in a universe young in time, but I think the motivation is the same. It’s just hard to believe that humanity is so tiny. We want ourselves to be big and important. If we’re not the center of the universe in physical space, then at least the universe should be young, and not have had those many billions of years with no humans around. I admit that sometimes even I can fall into despair and nihilism when contemplating Deep Time, or how far away the stars really are, and remembering how tiny and insignificant I am, but just because people may not like an idea doesn’t make it untrue.

Tyson acknowledges that this view of the universe makes us feel small, but then attempts to cheer us up by reminding us how neat it is that we have the ability to even understand these things at all. I say this is the Gift of Odin that he and his brothers gave humanity, or perhaps the Curse of Odin, depending on how you look at it. They say ignorance is bliss, and that can be true. My cats don’t have to be burdened by the knowledge of how short their lives are or how insignificant they are in the grand scheme of things. They can just enjoy their little lives blissfully ignorant of all that.

But Odin believes that knowing is always better than not knowing, even if that knowledge is uncomfortable. Knowledge is especially important now that we have the capacity to destroy ourselves and a lot of our fellow creatures along with us.

In the Autumn 2013 edition of Idunna, I was delighted to find an article by Diana Paxson titled “Staving off Ragnarok: A Heathen Response to Climate Change.” I had never seen anyone else make these connections before, so it’s nice to have that external validation from another Odinswoman that Odin is concerned about climate change. My early exposure to Asatru was mostly through very conservative Heathens who would never support environmental causes (or anything else supported by the political left except for freedom of religion). Some of them might have tolerated that sort of thing from a follower of Frey or one of the other Vanir, but certainly not from Odin’s people, who are supposed to be hawkish about war and gun enthusiasts, not environmentalists. (A Book of Troth by Edred Thorrson even has an entire chapter titled “The Earth and the World” explaining why Heathens are not “nature-worshippers”, and in fact, the gods are in rebellion against nature, personified by the etins.)

I think that people forget that Odin is a god with a specific mission. His battles are not just for the sake of killing and destruction, but for a greater purpose. He’s not gathering warriors together in Valhalla just for fun. Even though he knows that Ragnarok is inevitable (just as scientists know that extinctions and endings are inevitable), he tries to put it off as long as possible, and prepare for it as best he can.

In my Environmental Biology class I teach my students about mitigating climate change. Few people understand climate change, and fewer still realize that it’s already too late to stop or reverse it. Yes, we have now released enough greenhouse gases that even if all emissions stopped tomorrow, the Earth would continue to warm over the next several decades. And we’re not going to stop all emissions tomorrow.

Now the task is to mitigate it. We can only slow it down, put it off, make it not as bad as it would be if we did nothing. If we do nothing, it will be a total catastrophe for the human species. If we work hard, something may be able to survive. Sounds a lot like Ragnarok. The best Odin can do is to make sure something survives after Ragnarok to rebuild the world.

In “Staving off Ragnarok”, Paxson writes, “Because I am known as an Odinswoman, other people who have had close encounters of the Thridhi kind tend to talk to me. Far from being special, I am only one of many who have unexpectedly found themselves in a relationship with this god. Several people at a workshop I gave at Sirius Rising this summer introduced themselves by saying, ‘I’m a Christian, but when I was at this Reiki workshop I found myself working with Odin.”

Sounds familiar, except in my case I was an atheist-turned-Wiccan at a meditation workshop when Odin unexpectedly arrived. This was in 2003, when he was supposedly (according to the Heathens I soon encountered online) busy drumming up support for the Iraq War in order to send thousands more warriors to Valhalla. So why was he wasting his time with a tree-hugging environmentalist like me? Surely I must have been mistaken.

Here I am today, over ten years later, teaching Environmental Biology at a community college in a poor section of a large city in the American Southwest. Many of my students have never even heard of fracking or know that our water supplies are in danger. It’s not exactly the position I expected to have when I chose to major in biology in college, nor is it the position you’d expect a follower of the Norse God of War to have. I just hope I’m on the right track and Odin is pleased with my progress so far.

When I was a kid watching Carl Sagan back in the 1980’s, I already knew I wanted to be a scientist when I grew up. I didn’t feel like I had a choice. It was my destiny, my wyrd. I never felt like I wanted to do anything else. I wonder if Odin was already working in my life back then without my knowledge (besides showing up as Santa Claus once a year), or if my interest in science is what made him take notice of me later.

Either way, this is how I do Odin’s work, not as a warrior or even as a priestess, but as a science teacher. I’m no Carl Sagan, not even close, but I hope I can at least inspire interest in science in a few of my students, perhaps starting them on a path where they can find greater teachers than me and one day become greater scientists that I’ll ever be. Only the gods know if that will ever happen, but at least it’s possible.

How Times Have Changed

Yes, I do enjoy Vikings, which just started its second season. The story is easy to get hooked on, it has interesting characters, and the large amounts of scenery porn make me really wish I had the money to take a vacation in Norway.

Except being a Heathen, I can’t watch it solely for entertainment value. It’s based on The Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok, and most of the main characters are Norse Pagans. It takes place back in the good ol’ days before Scandinavia was Christianized. History is not really my area of expertise, so I’m not sure how historically accurate the show is. I know I should take whatever is on this show with a grain of salt, but I hope it at least gets more things right than wrong.

Odin on Vikings

Odin even makes the occasional cameo.

One thing I really like is how they show the Vikings taking their religion seriously. Sometimes when they portray pre-Christian pagans in the media, they try to make it look like they didn’t really believe all that silly stuff about gods (for example, the movie Troy, with Brad Pitt playing a strangely atheist Achilles). Or they leave the religion out entirely, or they make the pagans’ religion look bad, especially if there are Christian characters to compare them to.

Vikings doesn’t do that. The Vikings are extremely violent, of course, but they the Christian English King Aelle is just as bad, if not worse because he’s a hypocrite worshipping a supposedly peaceful god. Thankfully there’s not really any “the Vikings were such savages and needed to Christians to civilize them” type stuff. The message seems to be more, “everyone back then was violent.”

I've seen movies before with battle scenes, but I don't remember them having nearly as much blood on everyone's faces.

I’ve seen movies before with battle scenes, but I don’t remember them having as much blood on everyone’s faces.

I also really liked the Uppsala episode, even though my husband was pretty disturbed by the ending. I was left feeling even sadder that we don’t have temples anymore, and wishing that some Pagans or Heathens would just go ahead and build some already so we don’t have to keep meeting in coffee shops and UU churches all the time.

This would look out of place in a UU church.

This would look out of place in a UU church.

Though, speaking of the Uppsala episode, I think it brings up an important issue that I wish modern Heathens would think about and discuss a bit more. The thing the strikes me the most about this show is how different people were back then. I know in some ways Athelstan is meant to be an audience stand-in. He’s the character who stands there in shock about the horrors of the human sacrifice and slavery found in Viking culture. On the other hand, I bet if the show was mostly about his life in the monastery instead, he’d seem just as strange to us viewers as the Vikings are to him. (And to the show’s credit, when the Vikings feasted with King Aelle, things were reversed, and the English Christians were made to look like the weird ones.)

I guess what I’m getting at here is that it reminds me of how much emphasis at lot of modern Heathens put on the Viking Age as a basis for their religion. In a way, some of it makes sense, since that’s the era we have the most information about. But sometimes I wonder if some of these guys forget how hugely different the Vikings were in their culture and worldview than we are now, and not only that, but how having a worldview like the Vikings is probably not a good idea in a lot of ways. Heathens talk a lot about our mighty ancestors and how we need to go back to being like them, but I don’t think the Vikings are the best role models to follow.

Raiding isn't one of the best career choices anymore.

Raiding isn’t one of the best career choices anymore.

Basically, if one were to behave today like Ragnar, you either be dead, or in jail, or the CEO of a massive corporation. The first two are the most likely; the latter only happens if you’re lucky and especially good at being a sociopath.

So I wish Heathens talked a bit more about how this religion is relevant for the modern day. And in order for it to be relevant, it has to be updated a bit. Ragnar is a devout follower of Odin, but are there other ways to impress Odin than plundering neighboring countries? Obviously back then sacrificing animals and sometimes humans was an important part of worship. Most people don’t do that now, so what would be something we could do instead?

People have changed a lot in the last thousand years. I like Lagertha, but I’m not much like her at all, sitting here in my modern house with internet and air conditioning and a refrigerator full of food in a totally different climate thousands of miles away from Scandinavia. I’ve never killed a person or even a farm animal in my life, and I haven’t touched a horse in years. My husband isn’t out raiding right now, or fishing, or even working on the farm. He’s sitting in an office at a desk, earning a paycheck to provide for the family.

Sometimes after watching Vikings, I think about modern pagans’ efforts to bring back worship of the old gods, and wonder how that could possibly work with how different we are now. Are we even recognizable to them as their people anymore?

Hopefully the gods have also changed, or at least are adaptable to modern life. But the way modern Heathens talk about them often makes the gods seem like they’re still stuck back in the Viking Age. We know Frey is a god of agriculture, but how does he relate to our modern food system where most people don’t even know where their food comes from? How does Odin the war god relate to our modern ways of waging war where the men making the decisions to go to war never see battle themselves? How does Frigg the key-keeper relate to our modern home lives where women don’t need to spend most of their days spinning and weaving, but still don’t seem to have time to get everything they need to do done?

It just seems like we get so stuck in talking about what was historically accurate that we never get to the point of asking, “so given what we know about how things were back then, how is that relevant to our lives today?” One possible answer is that it’s not, which is the answer I’ve had monotheist and atheist friends give. Obviously I don’t agree with that, but it does seem like modern Heathenry is lacking a bit in this area. I mean, I’m not even a member of SCA, and that seems to make me a bit weird in the Heathen/Pagan crowd. Watching Vikings is enjoyable, but I don’t feel much of a longing to travel back in time to that era (except for how back then being a Heathen was considered normal and they had awesome temples). So how does this “Viking religion” fit into modern life?

In my opinion, that’s a much more important question to ask than the questions about historical accuracy that are constantly asked on Asatru message boards and email lists.