Hoping for a Better Yule this Year

I really hope this Yule turns out to be better than the last one. I usually have some friends over for the solstice, but last year that didn’t work out, so my husband and I celebrated the solstice with just the two of us. However, I was invited to a Christmas Eve party. There were lots of people there, and a buffet of food laid out, and we watched Donald Duck cartoons, which the host explained to us is traditional to do on Christmas Eve in Sweden.

As usual, I spent Christmas Day with my husband’s family opening presents and having Christmas dinner. I brought some of the German Christmas treats that I made. Those recipes from that cookbook make A LOT of cookies. Then we went home to watch the Doctor Who Christmas special before going to bed.

However, while I was on the couch cuddled up with my husband watching the show, I suddenly had a horrible feeling come over me. I got some respiratory symptoms at first, which I tried to dismiss as allergies, but then the chills and aches started soon after that, letting me know that this was not allergies. As soon as the television show was over, I went to bed.

By the next day, I didn’t feel like getting out of bed at all. And then I couldn’t get out of bed for more than a few minutes at a time for the next three days. Remember that horrible flu outbreak that went around last year? The one that ended up killing thousands of people? I’m pretty sure that’s what I got, because I was dumb and didn’t get a flu shot. And I’m pretty sure I got it at that Christmas Eve party, because none of my family had the flu (except for my husband when he caught it from me later). I haven’t been that sick in a really long time. I had both respiratory and gastrointestinal symptoms, but the worst thing was losing all control of my body temperature. I’d get up to use the bathroom or something, and then get horrible chills, shivering, teeth chattering. I’d rush back to bed and cocoon myself up in as many blankets as possible and shiver a while until I finally fell asleep. Then an hour or two later I’d wake up completely soaked in sweat and feeling like I’m cooking in there. I’d unwrap myself from the blankets, take off my soaking wet clothes, turn the fan on and stand in front of it to cool off, change into some dry clothes, and by the time I was about done changing the wet sheets and blankets on the bed to some dry ones, my teeth would be chattering again and I’d start the cycle all over again.

And that’s how I spent my winter vacation. My husband has a normal job where he gets Christmas Day off but that’s it, so I spent most of my time alone with my cats cuddled up with me either sleeping or watching the Ken Burns Vietnam War documentary series that I had recorded when it came on in November (and that gave me some very weird dreams!). When I told my husband about the cycling between being freezing cold and burning hot, he decided we should start taking my temperature, and it was 103. He thought maybe I should go to the doctor, but I asked Dr. Google “how high does a fever have to be before you should go to the doctor” and was told 104 . On the news they said that clinics were overwhelmed with flu patients, so please don’t come in unless it’s a true emergency, so I never did. Then again maybe it did reach 104 at some point and I just didn’t catch it.

I didn’t start feeling well enough to be up and around much until New Year’s Eve, right around when my husband came down with the flu by catching it from me and I had to take care of him as he used up all his sick leave. I was still weak by the time the Spring semester started and I had to go back to work. One of the symptoms that took months to finally go away was that my sense of taste/smell was off. Everything tasted and smelled weird. All coffee, even the high-quality stuff I usually drink, smelled like the ickiest cheap gas station coffee. I ended up throwing the rest of the Yule treats I made in the compost bin. The can of herring I got for Berchtaslaaf is still sitting in my pantry. For a long time I could only stomach bland food like oatmeal and chicken soup and green tea.

While all this was going on, I thought to myself, “I hope this isn’t some kind of omen of the year to come.” Well, looking back at 2018, I guess it was! There’s a good reason why I hardly blogged at all. Blogging was one of the last things on my mind during 2018. I was just trying to survive it. Not everyone did. Some had close calls. Most of the crap that went on is stuff I don’t want to post about on a public blog, though.

Preparing for the next Yule, I’ve realized that maybe one of the “reasons for the season” is to look around and go, “Wow, I survived another year,” and to see who else is left when you all get together for the gift-giving and feasting. I don’t really believe that people used to be afraid that the sun wouldn’t come up again after the longest night. It always does. It always will. We know that. But we never know for sure if we will. Sure, in modern times we’re less likely to starve or freeze to death during the winter, but you still never know when you or one of your loved ones will be struck down by cancer, or a car accident, or a heart attack, or even an especially virulent flu virus.

Doctor Who Christmas specials are just plain silly sometimes, but other times they can be incredibly well done and hit upon some really deep stuff (well, I guess that all Doctor Who is like that, actually). Anyway, there was a Christmas special from a few years ago called “Last Christmas” that I thought was one of the best ones. It had these creepy face-hugger type aliens that would suck out your brain, and while they were doing it they’d put you into this euphoric dream to keep you calm during the process. In a previous episode, Clara’s boyfriend Danny had gotten killed, so her dream was that Danny was still alive and they were spending Christmas together. Meanwhile, the Doctor is trying to get through to Clara and let her know that she needs to wake up before her brain gets eaten, and slowly Clara starts to realize that she is in a dream and actually Danny is dead.

Have you ever had someone die and then you have a dream where they’re still alive, and then you remember that they’re dead as you wake up? I sure have, and I’m assuming that must be a fairly common thing since they made a Doctor Who episode about it. Of course Clara doesn’t want to wake up, but you know how dreams work. The more you realize it’s a dream, the harder it is to stay in it.

Eventually even dream-Danny is trying to get Clara to wake up so her brain doesn’t get eaten, but Clara says she doesn’t want to because this is their last Christmas together. Danny replies, “Every Christmas is the last Christmas.”

It’s probably a good idea to keep this in the back of your mind during the holidays. Treat every Christmas like the Last Christmas you’re going to have with someone. Eventually one of them will be.


Well, I have lots of preparing still left to do for Yule, but so far it’s looking like this one will be better. I got my flu shot this year as soon as they were available way back in September. I spend most of Monday and Tuesday doing a thorough house cleaning complete with moving furniture around to get in all the nooks and crannies. I haven’t felt like cleaning the house in a very long time, so I knew I had to make hay while the sun shines and clean while I was actually in the mood for it. Hopefully that got rid of both the physical grime and also the spiritual bad mojo. Maybe I should burn some sage or juniper as well just to make sure. A few days ago one of my friends texted me asking if I was going to have a get-together for the solstice this year. I had assumed no one would be interested, so I wasn’t going to even try, but after she texted me I decided to go for it, so I guess I’m having people over for the solstice after all. I’m also invited to a Yule gathering at another friend’s house the weekend after that. I’m glad I already got my flu shot.

For treats, I’ve decided to make Dresden Stollen and Zimtsterne. I already made shortbread, but I brought it to the department Christmas party last week, and my coworkers devoured it all and there’s none left. I’m going to burn a Yule log as usual, and try wassailing my apple trees for the first time (I’ll probably do all my fruit trees, not just the apple trees, because they probably want some wassail too). The Yule tree is up and ready for gifts to be put under it. I’ve got all my shopping done and now need to start wrapping.

Everything seems to be going OK so far. I really hope I didn’t just jinx it by saying so. Cross my fingers. We’ll see how this goes.

[By the way, that Doctor Who episode also had Father Christmas, played by Nick Frost of Shawn of the Dead fame, entering people’s dreams trying to save them from the brain-eating space crabs. People start to realize they are in a dream because Father Christmas isn’t real, but he keeps insisting he is real, even though this is indeed a dream. Finally one of the characters, I forgot which one, scoffs and says, “so is that what you are? The dream that saves you?” And Father Christmas says yes, that’s exactly what he is. Which is probably one of the best descriptions of the Yule Father I’ve heard in a long time.]


How I could end up in Valhalla

On October 1, 2015 we had a lockdown drill at the college I where I teach. The professors had been told about it a few weeks in advance and told exactly how it would work. We would get an alert on our cell phones, and then were supposed to lock the classroom doors (which we have to go out in the hallway to do, since they don’t lock from the inside), turn off the lights, and get everyone to get on the floor where they can’t be seen through any windows. Then people would come by to check and see if we did anything right.

I thought it was dumb because the science labs all have emergency exits that go to the outside. They were probably put there in case of fire, but it would seem to me that the best thing to do in an active shooter situation would be to crawl out that back door and then run like hell, not sit there like fish in a barrel waiting to be shot. Especially since last semester they had us watch a training video that told us that the best thing to do is to try to escape the building and only hide in place if escape is not possible. But that video was for workplace shootings in general and not schools specifically. Maybe they were just trying to figure out some kind of one size fits all plan since most of the classrooms in most of the buildings only have one door.

Well, I went through the motions, but decided that if this really happened, I wouldn’t follow their directions and would direct my students to crawl out the back door. I was grateful that I mostly teach in classrooms that do have more than one escape route so it’s much less likely for us to get trapped.

As usual, on my commute home, I turned on NPR, and that’s when I found out that there had just been a shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon. It was a complete coincidence that it happened on the same day my community college did our lockdown drill. I got a terrible feeling in the pit of my stomach. What are the odds that on that same day that we did a lockdown drill there would be a shooting at another community college? Not that low, I guess, with how commonplace mass shootings have become. Looks like this is something I really do need to take seriously.

When I got home and took off my Valknut that I wear to work every day, I had a realization. I associate Odin with my job as a professor, but I always saw that as being separate from his warrior side. I’m not one of Odin’s warriors. I deal with a completely different aspect of him.

Or do I? Now college professors are going to have to be warriors too. Now part of my job is not just teaching my students how to dissect fetal pigs or look up peer reviewed scientific articles, but also to protect them from mass murderers should the situation arise.

The Texas Legislature had already been working on a campus carry bill, but after the Umpqua shooting support for the bill soared. I hear over and over again, “I bet those students and professors in Oregon really wish they had guns.” The bill easily passed, and in August 2016 public universities will allow concealed guns on campus. Community colleges have until August 2017. Private colleges are exempt from the law, and most of them have already opted out.

The thing they don’t mention much is that Oregon already had campus carry. It didn’t stop the shooting. I saw an interview with a student on TV who was on that campus at the time. He was a veteran and had his gun with him, but he was in another building. He said he considered going to stop the gunman, but decided not to and let the SWAT team handle it. He said he didn’t want to be mistaken for a bad guy himself. This sounded very reasonable, but it also made me angry. Everyone’s been telling me I’m supposed to feel safer if I know my students have guns. They can save me from an active shooter. But what if they decide not to intervene? It’s the job of the police to run towards gunfire and not away from it. Civilians with personal guns have no such responsibility. Mind you, I don’t think they should either, but the scenarios people keep coming up with involves brave students and professors running in there and taking the bad guy out themselves before the police arrive. I can’t count on that happening even if they are allowed to have guns on campus. Most people are still going to try to escape first.

OK, so I can’t count on any of my students to save me. I guess it’s time for me to “take personal responsibility” and bring my own gun. After all, I’m the one watching the training videos. I’m the one that is supposed lock the door and tell my students to turn off their phones and be quiet and spread out and not huddle together in one spot. It’s obvious that, as a professor, and therefore in a leadership role, it’s my job to keep my students safe. Should part of that responsibility involve me carrying a weapon to class?

The problem is, despite growing up in Texas my whole life, I’m not a “gun person”. I’ve only shot a gun once. When I was a teenager, my mom’s boyfriend had a small rifle and was shooting Coke cans off a stump. I tried to shoot the can, and kept hitting the stump until the can fell off from the vibrations. Not too impressive, huh? I’ve never felt the desire to get a gun or to learn how to shoot. My husband did get us a couple of bows and some practice arrows and a target. Now that’s fun!

My husband is into guns. He owns three handguns. I think he’s a responsible gun owner. He has a concealed carry license. He’s been in the military. He used to shoot at shooting ranges regularly and knows all about how to safely handle a gun. He doesn’t own any rifles, because rifles are for hunting, and he’s not a hunter. His guns are for self-defense and target shooting. He doesn’t see the point of having anything bigger than a handgun for self-defense. He doesn’t think he’d need an AR-15 to shoot a burglar.

When we have a kid, I want his guns locked away in a safe with the ammo locked away in a different place. No more keeping his guns in the nightstand drawer, because the likelihood of him shooting a burglar is much less than a toddler living in the house getting a hold of it. He agreed with me.

But that still leaves the issue of campus carry. My husband said if I really wanted to get a concealed carry license and learn how to shoot, he would be supportive, and I could have one of his guns. But even if I did go to the trouble of doing that, I don’t think it would be much help in an active shooter situation. People who think professors should be armed don’t seem to have thought this through. Where am I going to keep my gun anyway? Would I be allowed to have it holstered? That would look really weird with the business casual clothes I wear to work, but at least I’d have it close at hand. I think it would have to be concealed, so I guess I’d have to put it in my briefcase. Would a small handgun stuck in my briefcase help at all if a man with an AR-15 took us by surprise? How much time would I have to go find my briefcase and dig my gun out and shoot back at him? I’d probably be much better off just sticking to the original plan of trying to get everyone to escape out the fire exit instead of trying to have a shootout with a deranged gunman.

But what if the deranged gunman ends up killing some of my students anyway, despite our best efforts at escape? Would it then be my fault because I could have had a gun, but chose not to? All this “they should have had guns” talk they have after all mass shootings seems like victim-blaming to me. You wouldn’t have gotten shot at that movie theater/elementary school/church/nightclub if you had a gun with you, they always say. It just makes it sound like they think those victims got what they deserved for being wimps by not carrying guns.

It’s still unlikely that I’d ever be in an active shooter situation. They’re still relatively rare. With campus carry, I might be more likely to be accidentally shot by one of my students. I’ve heard several stories of accidental shootings happening in restaurants or stores or parking lots where people were carrying guns and dropped them or otherwise mishandled them and they went off by mistake. I could imagine incidents like that becoming more common on college campuses after campus carry goes into effect.

But I live in Texas where the common wisdom is that more guns make people safer. I guess we will find out with this little experiment (though since the CDC doesn’t research gun deaths, we won’t actually have any data for this experiment). My point is that I’m skeptical of the common wisdom that what we need is more guns. Even my gun-toting husband made a point to remind me that if I do start carrying a gun, I also take on some risk that I didn’t have before. Not just from accidental shootings or children getting a hold of the gun, but the gun could also get stolen out of my briefcase and perhaps used against me. He even said if it becomes commonplace or even expected that professors should all be armed, active shooters would just know to take them out first.

(I first started writing this post back in October when the UCC shooting happened, but then I got busy and didn’t have time to finish it. Since then several more shootings have happened, including the one at the Pulse nightclub, which was protected by armed guards. I had this scheduled to post last week, but then the Dallas police shooting happened, and I decided to postpone it another week because I had it scheduled for the day of their memorial service, and I didn’t want it to post then. Obviously the police officers killed in that mass shooting were all armed, and since Texas is now open carry in public areas, some of the protesters were armed too. Yet none of them managed to shoot the gunman.)

It wouldn’t seem likely for a college professor to end up dying in battle and going to Valhalla, but maybe it’s not quite as unlikely as it seems. Every time there’s a school shooting, stories come out about brave teachers putting their bodies between students and shooter, heroically sacrificing themselves for their students. I guess that’s part of my job now. If that happens to me, I hope there will be songs sung of my bravery. I guess that’s the Heathen way to look at it.

There have been college professors resigning over this law. That’s their choice, but I think that’s going too far. I’m not resigning, at least not just yet. I think my chances of being shot at work will still be low after campus carry goes into effect. I just have my doubts that my chances will be lower after campus carry goes into effect, and they might actually end up being slightly higher.

I still wear my Valknut to work, but I don’t want Odin to take me any time soon.

Blogging for 2016

Yule is over, and it’s a new year, making this a natural time to rethink certain things in my life and make sure I’m on the right track, and if not, make course adjustments.

That includes this blog. I’m still not sure if starting it at all was a good idea or just a big waste of time. Sometimes it seems like the “pagan blogosphere” mostly distracts me from what’s really important and upsets me unnecessarily.

I’m not the first one to bring up how the Pagan Internet has a problem with drama, some have even called it toxic, but I would like to remind people that it’s not really a pagan thing, it’s an internet thing. I’ve been socializing on the internet for 20 years. I started with Usenet newsgroups when I was 15. Trust me, it’s always been like this, and it doesn’t matter what the subject matter is. It can be paganism, organic gardening, or Doctor Who fandom, all of them have flame wars and drama and people blowing things out of proportion. Humans just aren’t good at communicating this way. It doesn’t come naturally to us to communicate completely through text with no tone of voice or facial expressions to clarify what we mean and remind each other that we’re all human beings here.

It does worry me a little bit that so much of pagan discourse is on the internet instead of face to face, when it’s clear that internet communication has these problems. The internet can allow us to communicate with pagans from different states or even different countries, but also allows us to get into flame wars with them. Is that worth it? I’m still not sure. Maybe we’d get along better if we were talking with each other in person instead of typing on the internet. We’re trying to build traditions that will last for generations here (or at least that’s my goal), and I’m just not sure if the internet is the best place to do that.

Anyway, people complain from time to time that when they write a blog post about something they think is really interesting, it gets no views or comments, and the only way they can get any attention is by writing about the controversy of the week. I’ve noticed that too. The solution proposed is usually to quit taking the bait, and just write about what they think is interesting and not care if anyone reads it or comments. I also realize that is much easier said than done. But maybe it is beneficial to periodically rethink why you’re writing a blog in the first place and try to refocus on that.

I half-write a lot of blog posts that I eventually end up deleting. I think it’s a good general practice to write a blog post on Word first, then save it and don’t post right away until I’ve thought about it some more. That way is much more time consuming though, so I get a lot less posted. I just hope it raises the quality of what I do post. I’m not doing that with this post, so maybe that’s a mistake. I think some bloggers post in a more knee-jerk fashion all the time, and that might perpetuate the flame wars a bit more.

I do post comments on other people’s blogs right away, and sometimes I regret that. Yesterday I posted a bunch of comments on John Beckett’s article about “Adulting” that I probably shouldn’t have. That’s a touchy subject for me. Wasted a lot of time and mental energy on that one yesterday. I usually just lurk on Patheos, and that was probably a good policy. I comment on WordPress more, but I still wonder if I’m bothering people when I do that.

But what should I be writing about? WordPress sent me that Year in Blogging thing they do. I was surprised that my most viewed post of 2015 was the one about the show River Monsters. Do people want me to write more about TV shows? Writing about stuff like that probably attracts a broader variety of people.

People are still reading my post about Texas Mountain Laurel, which is one of the first posts I ever did. I intended to write a lot more posts like that when I started this blog. I wanted to talk about local plants and animals and sacred sites and seasonal changes, since pagans are always so focused on far away places and ancient times instead of the here and now. But I got distracted by what everyone else was talking about. Plants and animals is what I know about though, not hard polytheism vs. soft polytheism, or lore vs. UPG, or folkism vs. universalism or any of that crap. That’s just not my area of expertise.

And it’s the same stuff people were arguing about on the pagan internet ten years ago. Yeah, now they say it’s monist vs. polytheist instead of Wiccan vs. Reconstructionist, but it looks like the same old thing to me. I don’t think things would seem this black and white if it wasn’t on the internet. I think the internet tends to polarize things. Again, I’ve seen this in every internet forum or community I’ve been in. Are you a John Lennon or a Paul McCartney fan? Which is better, classic Doctor Who or the new series? You must choose one side or the other and the other side is completely wrong!

(Oh, and don’t even get me started on bringing up any type of political issue online! I need to stay away from those kinds of “discussions” too, though those mostly show up on my Facebook, not on blogs.)

Religion, like politics, is a touchy subject for people. It gets down to our core beliefs about the Meaning of Life, the Universe, and Everything. I really doubt the internet is the best place for these types of discussions, but for some of us, that’s all we have. Maybe if we change our approach it can be a more positive experience, but I have no idea how to do that.

Over Yule I had a big crisis of faith/dark night of the soul type experience. And Yule is supposed to be fun, right? Humph! I thought about writing about it on here, but now I think I’m going to hold off on that. Just remember that pretty soon we’re all going to be dead, and there’s no evidence I’ve ever seen that anything comes after that. Oh sure, I might live another 30 or 40 years, but that’s like nothing in the grand scheme of things. How are you using the time you have? Is what you’re doing right now really the best thing you could be doing right now? If it’s internet drama, probably not.

The Power of Water

Saturday, May 23 was when I got back to San Antonio from Alpine after spending a week there for a workshop for science educators hosted by Sul Ross State University. It was raining pretty hard when we unloaded our luggage out of the bus we took to Alpine and into our cars to get home. Driving north on the interstate, I noticed the warning signs that usually warn of car accidents said something very strange: flooding had caused the interstate to be closed up ahead. Fortunately it was north of where I had to exit to get home, so I didn’t get caught in the growing traffic jam.

It turned out that the normally placid Blanco River had been hit by some very heavy rain up in the Hill Country by Wimberley and had flooded a record 40 feet, spilling over the interstate, washing away homes, trees, and cars, and killing several people. It made not only national but international news. By Sunday I had received several calls from people asking if my husband and I were OK. Fortunately our house is on high ground.

This is how droughts end in Texas: with floods. When my dad died, he left me his canoe, and the first time by husband and I took it out was on the Blanco River in Wimberley near a weekend cabin my sister-in-law has on its banks. We had to drag the canoe for quite a ways before we found water deep enough to float it. Last weekend the flood waters made it all the way up to the back deck of my sister-in-law’s cabin, and she was one of fortunate ones. Some of the other ones in the area were washed away or at least badly damaged. She also wasn’t out there at the time, which was good because the bridges that lead out there were washed away, and some stranded people had to be rescued by helicopter.

This is what the Element of Water can do when you have enough of it. Try thinking about that the next time you are at a Wiccan style ritual and turn to the West. There’s a good reason why cities and civilizations are built on rivers, but rivers giveth and rivers taketh away.

Sunday my husband and I went out to the shores of the Blanco River to look at the damage. I was amazed at the size of the trees the flood was able to uproot and wash away. Huge cypress trees ripped out of the banks of the river, stripped of bark and leaves, and thrust onto bridges 30 feet in the air, or smashed into any man-made structures in the way. Others walked around gawking, searching for treasures the flood might have washed up, and taking pictures. I wish I had brought my camera, and I don’t have a smartphone. I didn’t know what to expect when we decided to go out there to look at what had happened. I thought maybe the media was exaggerating, but I had never seen anything like that in my life.

I saw places where harvester ant nests had been washed out, the underground tunnels now exposed, with worker ants busy trying to repair the damage. They didn’t seem much different from the humans scurrying around the scene, except the ants were more focused on rebuilding rather than gaping in awe at the destruction. Ants don’t think about how small they are, and when their infrastructure is destroyed, they just start rebuilding right away. Humans forget how small we are, so when Nature reminds us we are just like the ants, and can be washed away so easily, we are stunned and surprised.

I’ll try go out there later this weekend and take some pictures to show you what I’m talking about, but the news has already been full of similar images you might have seen already. It’s just different actually standing there, next to a tree maybe four or five feet in diameter that the flood waters had picked up, dragged across a soccer field (leaving a deep gouge in the muddy ground for several yards) and smashed into a bench, pulverizing the concrete and limestone blocks it was made of. You can’t take a picture of the smell of wet wood and mashed vegetation and water and mud in the air. I’m sure the city hasn’t started cleaning up yet, since we’ve had flood warnings almost every day since then. No use in trying to repair the damage when we could get another flood any day now. But now it’s starting to look like things are calming down. The chance of rain is only 20% for the next several days, and at my house at least, the sun is out again.

I can tell we’re going to be talking about “The Memorial Day Flood” around these parts for a long time to come. Last I hear they’ve found six bodies, ranging in age from 6 to 74. Six more are still missing, ranging in age from 4 to 81, and at this point it’s unlikely they’ll be found alive, though I guess there’s always some hope until the actual bodies are found. May those who were swept away by the River be received well by their ancestors.

Big Bend National Park: A Holy Place

When American pagans think of sacred places, they usually think of somewhere like Stonehenge or ruins of Greek temples, but you really shouldn’t ignore the places closer to home. Some worry that it would be cultural appropriation about Native American culture, because they were here first and first regarded these places as sacred sites. However, I think the Native Americans were just the first human beings to recognize them (unless of course it’s a site they built themselves), and we should respect them for that, but that doesn’t necessarily mean these places belong to them. They were here for millions of years before our species even existed. I think they’re sacred in their own right, independent of any human observer, and should be recognized as such by anyone who believes that the natural world has sacred power.

I’m going to tell the story of my relationship with a place near and dear to my heart: Big Bend National Park.

Petroglyphs along the Rio Grande left there by kindred spirits from long ago.

Petroglyphs along the Rio Grande. Left there by kindred spirits from long ago?

Getting to Big Bend from here requires a day of driving west. I’ve heard people say the long, “boring” drive is a reason why they don’t go, and to those people I say, “Good!” If you think it’s not worth the drive, then you don’t belong there. It’s one of the least visited national parks in the country, and that’s one of its great advantages. I’ve never been there on Thanksgiving, but I’ve heard that’s their only “busy time”. If you go there during summer, like I usually do, there’s hardly anybody there. You certainly won’t get caught in a crowd like you might at the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone.

I live in the Texas Hill Country, which is on the eastern edge of the Edward Plateau ecoregion. Driving to Big Bend, I first have to pass through the rest of the Edwards Plateau, with its familiar oak-juniper woodlands, herds of goats, and peach orchards. Going west, the climate gets drier and drier. The woodlands open up into grasslands, and finally, after several hours of driving, you reach the Chihuahuan Desert. The vegetation changes to agaves, cactus, and the majestic ocotillos standing tall among rocky hillsides.

It’s really not a bad drive at all.

Driving through the harsh but beautiful desert landscape.

Driving through the harsh but beautiful desert landscape.

The last bit of “civilization” is Alpine, the largest city in the Trans-Pecos, with about 6,000 people. That’s big enough to have a supermarket, shopping center, and fast food restaurants. Stock up here, because after this, there are only gas station convenience stores in little towns. The Museum of the Big Bend on the Sul Ross State University campus is also worth a visit to stock up on some knowledge about the history of the place if you have never been here before.

From Alpine, Big Bend is straight south, into that “bend” in the Rio Grande that gave the region its name. Things are so “big” out here, that after you reach the borders of the park, you still have a long drive before you get to the headquarters at Panther Junction.

The first time I went to Big Bend I had just moved to Austin for college. I also just joined the Pagan Student Alliance, and that Beltane I went to my first pagan festival. My new friends, knowing I was majoring in biology, introduced me to a lady who worked for Bat Conservation International, and she started talking to me about an opportunity to have something to add to my resume. It was so strange “talking business” at a pagan festival with a lady who was wearing nothing but a sarong around her waist, but at the end of the conversation I had agreed to go with them on a trip in June to Big Bend National Park to study endangered Mexican long-nosed bats. My job was to be the camp cook, errand-runner, and laundry-doer for the scientists, who would be on a nocturnal schedule just like the bats.

I gave one of the other scientists a ride out there. Neither of us had been there before. When we arrived at Panther Junction and got out of the car, I was hit with the most wonderful fragrance. I asked my companion what it was, and she didn’t know. I laughed and said maybe it was fresh air. It wasn’t until later I found out that I was smelling creosote bush, which is known as “the smell of desert rain”. June is the rainy season out there, and when it rains, creosote bush gives out a scent that I think is invigorating.

A field of creosote bush.

A field of creosote bush.

The Chisos Mountains are the centerpiece of the park. Out in the middle of this harsh desert, these mountains rise up, creating an island of lush forest. There are several legends about the mountains being “enchanted” or “haunted,” which means people long before me recognized their spiritual power. Imagine being among the first human beings to make it out here, after crossing miles and miles of desert to find mountains with lush forests of Douglas fir, aspen, and madrone growing on top. There’s a winding road that takes visitors into “the Basin” where you’re surrounded by the mountains. On my first trip there, it had rained, and there were waterfalls cascading over the rock faces. The Basin is also a good place to camp in the summer, since it’s much cooler up in the mountains than the desert below.

The Chisos Mountains

The Chisos Mountains

To study the bats, we had to hike up the Emory Peak trail, higher into the mountains, to where the bats roosted, stay there all night catching bats in a net and attaching radio transmitters to them, and then hike back down in the morning. That night I went with the scientists so they could show me how it was done, but I had to go back earlier than everyone else so I could get up the next morning to cook. I was freezing up there because it had rained, and I had gotten sweaty on the hike up, so I ended up leaving at about 3 am. The problem was that now I was hiking down a mountain trail I was unfamiliar with, alone, in pitch darkness (with only a small, fading flashlight), with thoughts of mountain lions stalking me running through my mind.

When you’re in that situation, your mind starts playing tricks with you. I kept thinking I heard something coming up behind me, but when I stopped walking, the sound stopped. It took a long time before I figured out it was my canteen knocking against my backpack when I walked. I walked as fast as I could, and ended up startling some large animal just off the trail in the blackness outside the narrow beam of light coming from my flashlight. All I heard was a snort and crashing through the brush as it ran away from me, and I ran away from it. To this day I have no idea if it was a deer, a javalina, or a bear that I disturbed.

Later on, I lost the trail somehow. I must have gone down a deer trail, and slowly it faded out until I found myself standing in the middle of a patch of lechuguilla with no sign of any trail at all. I looked all around, and everything looked the same. I started to panic, and then I remembered what they told me to do if I had trouble, which was “curl up like a bear on the trail and wait until we come down and find you in the morning.” Yeah right! I wasn’t on the main trail, and I had no idea how far off I had wandered. I ended up finding a rock to sit on, turned off my flashlight, and just sat there a while. This turned out to be a good idea, because the adrenaline started to fade, my eyes adjusted to the starlight, and I calmed down as I looked at the black silhouettes of the mountains against the spectacularly starry sky. That was the first time I was anywhere that was dark enough at night to see the Milky Way.

After a while my eyes had adjusted to the point where I could actually see a small metal sign several yards away. I walked towards it and found the trail. I thanked the mountain spirits for not killing me this time, and managed to make it all the way back to the parking lot, to my car, and then safely back to the research station out in the desert where I was staying.

Sunset over the mountains.

Sunset over the mountains.

Modern pagans (and modern people in general), seem to either idealize Nature or hate it. They’ll say nature is good, and go camping at pagan festivals, until they get stuck with a thorn and then they want to go home back to air conditioning and soft beds. I think if you really want “nature-based spirituality”, then you have to embrace the fact that Nature is amazingly beautiful and healing to the spirit, and can also kill you. I probably wasn’t really in any danger as I hiked down the mountain that night, but it sure felt like it to me when that primitive part of my brain kicked in, and I was reminded that out there I’m not at the top of the food chain. And really, you’re not supposed to hike on those trails alone at night like that. If a mountain lion wanted to eat me that would have been her opportunity to do so. A few days after that, as I was running an errand in Study Butte, I bought a walking stick made of a sotol stalk. It’s become sort of a magic staff for me (I later burned my name in runes on it), but I also carry it on hikes to make any predators think twice about pouncing. (Though it’s more of a psychological thing. If a lion really set her mind to it, the staff probably wouldn’t help that much.)


Terlingua, an old mining “ghost town” turned quirky tourist spot next to Study Butte.

Since I was there during the rainy season in June, every morning there was a thunderstorm. Huge claps of thunder would blast through the desert, and out there nothing obstructed my view of the towering clouds and flashes of lightning. The desert plants soaked up the water and burst into bloom. After that, the sun would come out, and rainbows arched across the blue sky. Then the desert heated up, and by mid-afternoon it was baking hot until the sun went down, and nocturnal creatures like rabbits, coyotes, and kangaroo rats came out of their burrows as the temperature rapidly cooled. The next day the cycle would start over again. Fortunately the fridge at the research station was well stocked with beer, and I managed to sneak out into the desert to pour offerings for Thor and Heimdall and the desert spirits at sunset a couple of times.

That was my first trip to Big Bend.

A Vermilion flycatcher at the Cottonwood Campground.

A Vermilion flycatcher at the Cottonwood Campground.

A couple of years passed. I neared completion of my Bachelor’s degree at UT. When I graduated, it felt like my entire life fell apart. My boyfriend broke up with me the day before I walked across the stage, several of my friends moved to other states, and I had no idea what to do with my life. I had no job, and I was just starting to find out a Bachelor’s degree in biology is worthless, but I wasn’t sure if I could handle graduate school. None of my family or friends was in the sciences, so they couldn’t give me any advice. My relationship with that boyfriend was very unhealthy. I spent months putting a huge amount of emotional energy into trying to make the relationship work out, and then he dumped me right before my graduation. I felt worthless in just about every way.

I moved in with some friends after I had spent most of college living alone in an efficiency apartment. Living with supportive friends helped, but I still slipped into a deep depression. It felt like I had spent the last few years working so hard but everything I worked for had been worth nothing.

So I started planning another trip to Big Bend. This time I would go all by myself, and I wouldn’t tell anybody I was going. I told myself it was so that they couldn’t stop me, but part of me also wondered if anyone would notice I was gone. I needed to get out there and away from my pathetic little life.  I was also aware it was a bit dangerous taking a trip like this by myself, but I was at that point where you’re not quite suicidal, but you don’t really care if you just so happen to die somehow, you know? The thought of dying in Big Bend had a certain appeal.


You are so small out here.

That morning I got up early and was loading the camping gear into my car, and of course one of my roommates caught me. I instantly realized the whole sneaking away idea was one of those stupid things that the fog of Depression comes up with, and my roommates would have noticed and would have called the police to report me missing. She made me promise I wasn’t going to kill myself and would be careful, and then she told me she’d let my other friends know not to worry, and she wouldn’t worry about me until I was gone for more than a week. Then she thought it was an awesome idea for me to take this pilgrimage.

I spent a week in Big Bend by myself. Since it was summer, I camped in the Basin where it was cool. I had only been there a little while before the depression was swept away. Since this was the first time I wasn’t there “on business” I got to leisurely hike lots of trails I hadn’t before, like the Lost Mine Trail. The rangers advised not hiking on any of the desert trails in the summer because of the potentially deadly heat, so I didn’t. I did take some of the scenic drives through the park, and at one point became overwhelmed by the mountains. It was when I was looking at an interpretive panel explaining how some rock formations in front of me were built, and I saw the tiny road I had been on an hour or so before off there in the distance, with a tiny little car driving along it, and realized how tiny I am, and how huge these mountains were that took millions of years to form. Some of the rocks in the park are billions of years old. It actually wasn’t a very pleasant feeling. I get a similar feeling when looking up at stars. “Feeling small” isn’t a strong enough description for those moments, but I still think that’s a good thing to experience. If more people really knew how small they are, they might change their priorities a bit.

Looking out over the mountains from the top of another mountain at the end of the Lost Mine Trail.

Looking out over the mountains from the top of another mountain at the end of the Lost Mine Trail.

When I got back, I enrolled in graduate school. That turned out to be another really, really difficult time in my life. I didn’t know what I was getting into. My thesis didn’t work out. I thought I would have to quit and had wasted all that time and money for nothing, and I still wouldn’t be able to find a job. Thankfully, the department chair, when I thought he was about to kick me out, suggested I change my degree plan. It freed me up to take classes I was much more interested in, like Ornithology, Mammology, and Field Botany. For those classes, we had field trips where we traveled all over Texas learning about the different ecosystems, and I ended up going back to Big Bend two more times. It reminded me of why I got into this career field to begin with.

After I abandoned my thesis and started taking those classes, I finally learned what I wanted to learn this whole time. I learned bird calls, and animal tracks, and how to identify plants, all knowledge my previous thesis advisor thought was useless trivia, while real scientists program ecological models on computers or run electrophoresis gels in a lab all day.

A Great Horned Owl looks down from a cottonwood tree.

A Great Horned Owl looks down from a cottonwood tree.

I took my husband to Big Bend in the summer of 2013. He had never been before. I told him about all my past history with the place, and now that I was happy, done with graduate school and with a job I liked and a nice husband, I wanted to share it with him. We went to Davis Mountains State Park for a couple of days first. Neither of us had been there before. We stayed at the beautiful Indian Lodge. That was so nice, he said maybe we should stay here the whole time, but I told him Big Bend was even better, so we went there next, and he said I was right. All the pictures in this post are from that trip.

The Indian Lodge at Davis Mountains State Park.

The Indian Lodge at Davis Mountains State Park.

While we were there, I bought a book at the gift shop called Death in Big Bend by Laurence Parent and read it on the drive home. It was interesting reading about these now-familiar places in the park and how they turned on some people. There are several tales of people who died of heat and thirst. I always give offerings of water to the land spirits for that reason. When people have actually died out there from not having enough water, giving some away to the spirits is a huge sacrifice. There are also stories of people freezing to death, getting hit by lightning, and even suicides and murders, but no one eaten by a mountain lion.

I really related to some of the people’s stories, like the old man in the first story who hiked the Outer Mountain Loop without enough water (and possibly suffering from the early stages of dementia) and died of thirst. He left a journal of the whole thing. He had been going to Big Bend for years, sometimes taking his kids with him. I got the sense that he felt a similar love for Big Bend that I do, and when he figured out he was going to die there, it didn’t seem like such a bad way to go.

My husband and I didn’t bring enough water hiking the Window Trail. One bad thing about that hike is you go downhill first when you’re fresh, and then have to go uphill to get back when you’re tired. We ran out of water about halfway back up, and were feeling pretty bad by the time we got to our vehicle. It’s a popular trail, so I’m sure if we really got into trouble we would have been found soon enough, but you never know. One story in the book was of a man who died hiking Grapevine Hills, which is a short, 2 mile trail in the desert right next to the road. He didn’t bring any water, got disoriented, wandered off the trail, and his body was found in an arroyo.

Looking out The Window.

Looking out The Window.

The Window was worth it though, because at the end you can look out over the desert for miles. As my husband was looking out, and I was getting a drink of water in the shade, we heard this strange bird call I’d never heard before. My husband yelled at me to come look, and a golden eagle swooped past. Of course I didn’t get a picture of it, and when I talked to a ranger later, they said they didn’t know of any golden eagle nests down there. But we’re absolutely sure it was a golden eagle after looking up its call on the internet when we got home. That was the first and only wild eagle I’ve seen.

I know a lot of people are afraid of the wild because of the dangers, though I’m much more likely to die in a car accident on my way to work than anything else. There’s just something humbling about being somewhere like that where human beings aren’t in control. For most of us it’s rare to be in a place that hasn’t been altered and tamed for your comfort, a place where there’s no air conditioning and all the plants have thorns and there are animals there that look at you as a food source. And I think that makes it even more important to visit these places sometimes and get reminded of what that’s like.

One of the things I look forward to about having a kid one day is bringing her (or him) to Big Bend as soon as she’s old enough. I thought about that a lot when I was there with my husband. I want to pass on my love and reverence for that place to another generation.

Santa Elena Canyon

Santa Elena Canyon

This May I’m going to Sul Ross University in Alpine for a week-long workshop for STEM educators. I just got the itinerary, and most of the week will be spent taking classes on things like scanning electron microscopy and GIS, but it looks like at least on Friday we’ll be going to Big Bend for a Field Geology workshop, and then to the Davis Mountains that evening for a Star Party at the McDonald’s Observatory. I hope I get time to sneak a quick hello to the mountain spirits, the rivers spirits, and the desert spirits. It’s not quite the same going there “on business” as going there when I can do what I like, but at least it’s a free trip to Big Bend. All my expenses are being paid by the university, including room and board, and I’m getting a stipend.

I haven’t been to many other national parks, and I haven’t been to any other national parks more than once. I haven’t gotten to travel much in my life in general. But I think even if there are more impressive parks out there that I may see some day, Big Bend will still seem special to me.

Some locals enjoying the shade at the Cottonwood Campground.

Some locals enjoying the shade at the Cottonwood Campground.

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.

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.

New Year’s Resolutions

It’s early January, and that means a bunch of people are making New Year’s Resolutions, while more people are making sure we all know that they don’t make New Year’s Resolutions because the whole tradition is stupid and nobody ever keeps their resolutions anyway.

I happen to be a person who thinks it’s a good tradition, and I always do some resolutions. Some I keep, some I don’t, but my first rule on How to Do New Year’s Resolutions is to only make resolutions you intend to keep. Should be obvious, right? But apparently not. Sure, we’re human and sometimes we fail, but making goals is always a good thing. Sure, you can make goals at any time in the year, but you can also give gifts to your loved ones at any time of year. Doesn’t mean it’s wrong to have a holiday especially for that (Christmas/Yule). So January is the season to make goals for the coming year. Why not?

It’s not an arbitrary calendar date either. It’s right after Yule, the winter solstice, so it makes perfect sense that as the days grow longer, this is the beginning of the new year, and a fresh start. This is why the tradition goes way back. It’s too cold to work out in the fields, so everyone’s huddled up inside and has plenty of time to plan out what they’re going to do once the weather warms up. Maybe I should plant barley instead of wheat this year, maybe I should start a new breeding project on the cattle herd, things like that. Even now when most people work indoors in climate-controlled buildings, most of us at least get some time off work this time of year to take a deep breath, sit down, and make a to-do list for the coming year.

Even the most common resolution, losing weight, has ancient roots. I think late winter and early spring is a perfect time for cutting back on things. Back in the old days, you had to. Last year’s harvest was getting used up after the Yuletide feasts, and now you had to ration your food carefully to make it last until the first spring and summer crops finally came in. For a long time there was a balance between feasting and fasting, but now life is one big feast for those of us privileged to have a middle class lifestyle in developed countries. We’re no longer forced to fast at certain times of year, and our waistlines show it. So now after the holiday feasting, I think it’s a great idea for people to cut back on some of the sweet treats and eat more kale. To me, that’s just part of living with the seasonal rhythms like a good pagan should. The time between Yule and Easter is a time for cleansing, both physically and spiritually. Cutting out the junk food is part of “spring cleaning” for the body.

As for the criticism that people don’t stick to their resolutions, well, there’s always next year. Yes, you shouldn’t make resolutions you don’t intend to keep, but if you fail, there is always next year. Maybe next year you’ll get it. Don’t be too hard on yourself.

Along those lines, don’t overdo it . Another reason why I think a lot of people fail their resolutions is they’ll say something like, “This year I’m going to quit smoking and lose 50 pounds and become a vegetarian and go to the gym every day!” Of course you’re going to fail if you do that to yourself! People who are doing it that way have probably already failed now that 2014 is almost a week old. Especially since they also tend to have an all-or-nothing attitude about it: “Oops, I ate a cheeseburger. So much for my resolutions! It’s all over now.”

If you’re going to make major lifestyle changes, you should do one at a time or at most two (especially if they’re related). Prioritize. Quit smoking first, and then when you’re completely done with that, lose that weight. Take it one step at a time instead of trying to make a giant leap and then falling on your face. A few years ago the Old Farmer’s Almanac had an article proposing that people should make May Day resolutions instead of New Year’s resolutions. The idea was that spring is the best time to start new things, not the dead of winter. I can see the merit in that argument, but I think now is the time to plan for what you are going to do in spring. Everything doesn’t have to all happen right now, but right now you can say “in March I will do this, and then by May I should be ready to do this.” Just be sure to remember it once that day comes. Mark it on your new 2014 calendar.

With all that said, here are my 2014 New Year’s Resolutions, and since I’m not going to do all of them right away, it’s good to put them here where I can find them later as a reminder.

First off, like most Americans, I am overweight. However, I’m lucky that I’m not that bad. I just weighed myself, and according to the BMI scale, to get down into the very uppermost of the “normal weight” range I only need to lose 18 pounds. I’ve been in worse shape before, and that mostly seems to happen when I start eating too much fast food. In my mid-20’s I discovered I couldn’t eat fast food every day like I used to when I was a teenager and still stay in a healthy weight range. When I fell into that habit again, I got to about 30 pounds overweight, and that was when I started having problems like back pain. When I started bringing my lunch to work again, my weight went back down, and the back pain went away. Eating out in general is a big weakness of mine, even if it’s at a sit-down restaurant. When I cook at home, I cook pretty healthy food. When I eat out, that’s when I splurge on appetizers, big portions, dessert (I don’t keep a lot of sweets in the house when it’s not a holiday), and calorie-laden drinks (at home I drink water). I think eating out is fun, so when I’m there, I don’t want to feel deprived.

The problem is when I’m eating at a restaurant not because it’s a special occasion, but because I’ve been too busy or lazy or tired to cook for myself. If I didn’t bring my lunch to work, I go to the restaurant across the street. If I’m too tired to cook dinner tonight, I order a pizza. So when it comes down to it, it’s a problem of poor planning that hurts both my waistline and my budget.

So rather than concentrating on losing those stubborn 20 pounds, I think I’ll concentrate on meal planning better. I can try to keep the house stocked up with healthy, quick to prepare foods for breakfast and dinner, and I can go back to bringing healthy lunches to work. And that will probably result in me losing some weight, but even if it doesn’t, it will have other benefits like better nutrition and it will save money.

OK, eating better is an easy one, actually. I like to cook, and I know how to cook healthy food, so it’s just a matter of better planning. My next resolution is going to be a bit more difficult. I really need to exercise more. Again, losing weight would be a nice side-benefit, but I have other reasons as well. Strengthening my body would make working in my garden easier, would let me go on longer hikes in the woods before tiring, and would make hauling my heavy bag up the stairs at work easier. It would get some endorphins pumping, and I suffer from clinical depression, so that would help with my mental as well as physical health.

The problem is I’ve always been terrible at keeping up with exercise. I’m just not a very physical person. Even though I feel good after I exercise, a lot of times I’ll make excuses like I don’t have time, and I have other things I need to get done, most of which involve sitting at my butt in front of a screen. I need to make it more of a priority. Exercise first, butt-sitting later!

This is also a resolution that I’ve made several times and then quit. I’ll keep it up for four to six months. I’ll go to the gym three times a week, doing stretches and cardio and a circuit of weight training. Then one week I’ll have some excuse on why I can’t go this day. And then I don’t go a whole week. And then I just quit going all together.

So maybe this will be another one of those times, but when I mentioned this to my therapist, he said, “then at least you’ll be exercising for six months.”

My last resolution is probably a lot more relevant to you pagans who might be reading this, and that is I need to get a better spiritual routine. Now, it may appear that I’m breaking my own rule here about only doing one thing at a time, because here I am resolving to eat better, exercise, AND do more regular spiritual activity, but they all have the same underlying theme of better scheduling and planning in my life. Just like I need to schedule in regular exercise times, I also need to schedule in regular time for meditation and rituals.

I’ve actually laid out a plan for this, at least given my Spring 2014 teaching schedule. This semester they put all my classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays, which will save me a lot of gas, but will also mean on those two days I’m going to be gone from home for 12-14 hours. Those two days I should go easy on myself and just concentrate on teaching my classes, but that leaves five other days a week to figure out what I’ll do with myself.

Of course, in-class time is only half (or less) of the time an educator spends on her job, and so part of those days will have to be spent working at home: grading papers, answering emails, making lesson plans, and the like. Then I should also go to the gym at least three times a week, and have regular healthy meals, and work in some time for meditation and spiritual activity.

My therapist thinks I should meditate daily, for at least 10 minutes and preferably 20 minutes, to help with my depression. I’ve found that it does help to quiet my negative thoughts, but just like a lot of these other things, I often tell myself I don’t have time to do it. I’ve lumped this in with spiritual activity, because poor mental health makes everything in my life harder, including serving the gods.

By the way, going into therapy was one of last year’s New Year’s Resolutions! I kept it, see?

But the mediation he wants me to do is mainly an exercise to clear my mind, and not the kind to help get in touch with the gods, though usually when you do the latter type of mediation, you have to do the former first to even get into the kind of headspace where you are open to the gods. Years ago while I was in graduate school, I used to spend a little time at my altar every morning while I drank my coffee. I think it really helped keep me on track, and I think I should go back to doing something like that, but this time I’ll do my therapist’s mindfulness mediation first, then do something at the altar. Of course, this takes planning to make sure I’m not in too much of a rush in the morning to do all this, but I think it will really help me get each day off to a good start.

So here’s a weekly schedule I’m going to try. First, I’m going to try to meditate at least ten minutes every morning, maybe increasing it up to twenty eventually. I’ll probably do this after coffee so I won’t just fall back asleep. Then after that, when I’m in a good frame of mind, I’ll do some altar work, then get on with my day, either going to teach class, or working on stuff at home. I’ll also schedule a time to go to the gym every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday (not sure if that’s best to do in the morning or afternoon yet), and go for a walk around the block with my husband every evening when he gets home from work (another good thing we used to do that we need to get back into the habit of doing). I like the idea that some Heathens have of relating what they do on each day to the deity each day is named after, so here is how each specific day will go.

Monday is the Moon’s Day, and after my morning meditation, I’m going to honor my fylgja (guardian spirit), the Bear. This is mainly because I want to work with my fylgia more often, and I didn’t know what other day I could fit this in. What exactly I’ll do still needs to get figured out. Then after that it’s going to the gym, working on grading papers, and so on for the rest of the day. I have a feeling that Bear will especially like going to the gym. He likes physical activity much more than I do.

Tuesday is Tyr’s Day, and is one of the days where I’ll be gone all day. I don’t really have much of a relationship with Tyr, though. I’ll have to leave my house around 8 am and won’t be home again until around 10 pm at night, so this day I might just have a quick meditation in the morning and then off to work.

Wednesday is Odin’s Day, and Odin is my main god, so it’s important for me to honor him on this day. After my morning meditation, I’ll put on my new Valknut, spend some time with him (maybe give an offering, maybe pull some runes, I’m not sure yet), and then off to do the rest of my daily tasks like the gym and grading papers. This is probably an especially good day to work on my lesson plans, because I associate Odin a lot with my job being a college professor.

Thursday is Thor’s Day, and my other long day at work. I like Thor, so I want to be sure to honor him somehow before rushing off to class, and I’ll be sure to always wear my hammer on Thursdays at least.

Friday is Frigg’s Day, or maybe it’s Freya’s day. It depends on who you ask. In the past I’ve gone either way, but right now I’m going to honor Frigg on this day, because I’m actively trying to get in that goddess’s good graces (which deserves a post of its own). In addition to my usual tasks, this would also be a good day to get some housework done. Hopefully I’ll get enough grading done on Monday and Wednesday to give me time to do that.

Saturday is Saturn’s Day, the day they didn’t change to the name of a Germanic god, and kept the Roman god instead. I don’t know why. I’ve heard from more than one Heathen that they use Saturday to honor Freyr or the Vanir in general, because Saturn is also an agricultural deity. Freyr is my second-favorite god after Odin, so I will give him this day. I won’t go to the gym on the weekend, and instead Saturday will be my day to work in my garden, which I already usually do on that day anyway. I think Freyr will appreciate that. Freyr’s day would also be a good day to focus on spending time with my husband (if you know what I mean).

Sunday is the Sun’s Day, and my husband and I already have the routine of going on a hike Sunday mornings with a local group. It seems appropriate to keep spending Sunday outside under the Sun.

I think that looks good. Hopefully I can at least keep it up for this semester. I’ll have to change things when my schedule changes next semester. I do have bigger problems I need to tackle, but I think that doing these things first will help me accomplish the bigger things later, once I get these routines down. Doing these things should make me a healthier, more effective person, and will make the big problems seem less overwhelming. At least that’s the plan.

So I’m posting all this here for the whole internet to see! Hold me accountable!

On Not Being an Ex-Christian

Most modern pagans and heathens are former Christians.

I am not.

I think that gives me an unusual perspective. Growing up, my mom would often talk about how religion is for ignorant people who don’t understand how evolution works, or people who fear death and therefore want to make up a fantasy about a happy afterlife. But she knew better. She knew there couldn’t possibly be a God with all the suffering in the world, especially her own. It was much easier for her to believe there was no God, than to believe there was a God who allowed such things to happen.

I think that’s completely understandable.

I grew up in the suburbs of Dallas, Texas in the 1980’s. People would ask “What church do you go to?” as an ice-breaker in conversation, the same as you’d ask someone what they do for a living. It was always awkward to say, “I don’t go to church,” and wince in anticipation of how they would react to that.

When I was a little kid I was obsessed with dinosaurs and had lots of books and toys and posters of them. One of my posters was of the Geologic Time Scale showing the billions of years of the history of life on Earth. In one of my books it talked about how birds evolved from dinosaurs, with a picture of Archaeopteryx. It was kind of shocking when I found out many of my peers either didn’t believe in dinosaurs, or believed dinosaurs coexisted with humans and were created by God in the Garden of Eden with everything else. Some of my friends and classmates were Young Earth Creationists, and some were Old Earth Creationists, and sometimes they argued about that, but everyone knew it was impossible that one species could turn into another. The idea of a dinosaur turning into a blue jay was ridiculous.

People used “Christian” as a synonym for “nice person”. I remember when the made- for-TV adaptation of The Stand came out. I was in middle school at the time, and I didn’t watch it, but one of my best friends did. She enjoyed it and told me about it at school, describing how “the Christians” went to the black Southern lady, while “the bad people” went to Las Vegas.

“So where would that leave me?” I thought but didn’t ask.

To her credit, she considered me to be a Christian even though I told her I wasn’t. She didn’t believe me because I’m too nice. She seemed to come to the conclusion that I must be a Christian and somehow just didn’t know it. That might actually be better than assuming I must be a bad person because I’m not a Christian. More people did that.

One year for my birthday she bought me a cross necklace, and I started wearing it, even though I felt like I was faking it. I felt strangely guilty for that, as if Jesus was watching me and knew I was faking it. I knew that wearing that necklace didn’t make me a Christian.

In middle school I was badly bullied by the clique of popular girls. They bullied me for all kinds of things: because I didn’t wear the latest fashions, because I made straight A’s in school, because I was in a program for gifted students, because I didn’t like the New Kids on the Block.

And also because I didn’t go to church. They taunted me that I was going to Hell.

The peer pressure was strong enough that for a little while when I was 12 or 13 I started to worry that they might be right, and that God really was real, and therefore I really was going to Hell. I guess that shows you how strong peer pressure is at that age, because that went against everything I always believed, but I did go through a brief phase of wondering if that might be true.

The most horrifying thing about it was the realization that if you’re not a Christian, you go to Hell, no matter how nice you are. I did have that one friend who seemed to think being good automatically made you a Christian, whether you realized it or not, but that was obviously a minority opinion. Since I was the only non-Christian she knew, she obviously wasn’t sure how to classify me. I was sure she was mistaken, and if Christianity was true, then I really was going to Hell.

When I was thirteen my family moved further out into the suburbs, and I never ended up making any new friends at my new school. The bullying at my previous school was so bad, that I decided I was better off not talking to anyone at all. I didn’t want to give anyone at my new school reason to bully me too. And it did work; I had no enemies, but no friends either. I was completely socially isolated.  Shortly after the move, the Beatles Anthology documentary came on TV, and I became obsessed with them. I started to think about how my new hero, John Lennon, is in Hell now. A combination of that and the fact that my peers had no influence over me at all anymore, made me finally snap out of it and realize for absolute sure that there couldn’t be any such thing as Hell. The universe wouldn’t be that unjust. This is the comfort that atheists feel. No Hell below us, above us only sky.

So besides maybe a couple of years in middle school of wearing that cross while under intense peer pressure, but knowing in my heart I was faking it, I’ve always been outside of Christianity. It wasn’t until I was 16 or so that I even learned the meaning of Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross. I always thought he was killed by the Romans for being a troublemaker, and it wasn’t until then that someone finally explained to me that God was planning all along for him to be a sacrifice for our sins. That’s pretty much the core of Christianity right there, right? Yes, I didn’t know about that until I was in high school.

I guess in a way that means I do have some “Christian baggage”, but it’s the trauma of growing up an outsider to the dominant paradigm, which I’m sure is much different from the trauma of ex-Christians who left the dominant paradigm after growing up inside it. Ironically, that means I’m also an outsider among pagans, because almost all pagans I know are ex-Christians, and I don’t really understand what that’s like.

In some ways, I think I can understand the feeling that you’re betraying your roots. After all, I grew up being taught that religion was for the ignorant, stupid masses, and I should be smarter than that. Believing in many gods is probably even more stupid than believing in only one God. At least some monotheists can rationalize God as being a watchmaker-type entity that set the laws of nature in motion. But in my religion the universe is populated with an infinite array of gods and spirits that directly interact with you. That’s religion for savages, and we should be so much more enlightened than that here in the 21st century.

So maybe ex-Christian pagans sometimes have thoughts like, “what would my old church’s minister think if he saw me now?” but instead I think, “What would Richard Dawkins think of me now?” I know I shouldn’t really care what Richard Dawkins would think of me, but for some reason sometimes I do. Maybe sometimes ex-Christian pagans have moments where they wonder if Christianity is actually right, and they’re making a huge mistake that will damn them to Hell. Sometimes I wonder if Richard Dawkins is right, and religion is a delusion, a sign of an irrational mind, maybe even bordering on mental illness, and if I get too deep into it, I’ll be just as bad as the kids who bullied me all those years ago.

I do think I have a different perspective than most other pagans. When you grow up in the dominant paradigm, even if you leave it later on, you still carry with you certain assumptions about the world that people who didn’t grow up with that never had. I notice that many ex-Christian pagans have two ways to view various things: they either completely reject something because they associate it with Christianity (even if it’s something that has nothing to do with Christianity), or they keep holding the Christian view without even realizing it (even though pre-Christian pagans probably saw things differently).

An example of the former would be the prevalence of polyamory in the pagan community. Now, it’s none of my business how you conduct your personal romantic and sexual relationships, but I happen to be completely monogamous and completely heterosexual. Most pagans I know accept that, but I do notice that it makes me a bit weird.

I notice that some people seem to equate being sexually liberal with being pagan. It seems like a lot of people leave Christianity for paganism, not because they worship the Old Gods, but because they are gay or bisexual or polyamorous, and those sexualities are not accepted by Christianity.

I am a little bitter about this because before I met my wonderful husband, I was in a relationship with a guy who tried to emotionally blackmail me into an open relationship when I didn’t want to do it. The whole, “if you really loved me you’d let me sleep with other people” routine. Fortunately I didn’t give in, so we had a nasty breakup instead, but I remember one time he said the only reason I wanted a monogamous relationship was because I’ve been “brainwashed by the dominant Christian worldview.”

This was told to me, a former atheist, by someone who was brought up a Baptist. But no, I was the one who was brainwashed by the Christian worldview, because I wanted a monogamous relationship.

I do have another friend who once told me I’m “the most devout pagan” she knows. So at least some people know you can be a devout pagan and not be polyamorous, but it is still annoying that the two are equated so often.

This is especially noticeable at festivals. It seems like a lot of people go to festivals, not because they want to be with fellow worshipers of the Old Gods, but because they want to get laid. There’s a lot more talk about sex than about the Old Gods. And now I’ve had my pagan Meetup going on for a while, and it seems that a lot of people who join are also members of the local polyamory groups. I just don’t want to give the impression that since my husband and I run the local pagan Meetup group, it means we’re swingers looking for someone to have sex with us.

I actually think it would be great if Christianity was accepting of any type of consensual sexual relationships between adults, and that sort of stuff had nothing to do with religion. Then paganism can be about worshiping the Old Gods and celebrating the sacred in Nature, and pagans wouldn’t feel like monogamy was “a Christian thing”.

There are other examples of things that I think pagans label as “Christian things” that aren’t. The controversy that keeps coming up from time to time about whether we should raise our children to be pagan, for example (which I think merits its own post). Or whether or not praying is OK. Or our complete inability to get together any sort of “organization” that doesn’t implode in a year or two! It’s frustrating sometimes. Not everything Christians do is bad.

On the other hand, the funny thing is sometimes I see pagans making assumptions that really are Christian assumptions, and they don’t even realize it. I can tell, because I was never a Christian to begin with, but other pagans act in Christian ways without even knowing it. This seems to be more prevalent in the Heathen community than with Wiccan-type pagans, but I’ve seen it with all types. The assumption the morality comes from religion, for example, which is very insulting to atheists. Then there are the Heathens that treat the Norse sagas as Holy Scripture, when they were written down by a Christian anyway. Then there’s the idea that science and spirituality are incompatible, which in pagans usually leads to some weird ideas about science.

I think the pagan community will be much better when we get to leave Christianity behind and be a religion on our own right, not a reaction against Christianity.

EDIT: I was just looking at the Wild Hunt, and just found another excellent example of pagans labeling things as “Christian” when they aren’t. Here’s a post about how apparently charity and caring about the poor is a just Christian thing. Of course this is absolute hogwash, but I can see where the author got this idea from. I have seen online heathens explaining Hospitality does not equal Charity, because Charity is a Christian thing, and let’s throw in some assumptions about how the poor are lazy and deserve what they get for good measure. This is a philosophy that comes more from Social Darwinism and Objectivism than either Christianity or any form of paganism.

There are plenty of stories of pagan gods who do care very much about the poor and oppressed and don’t like the rich abusing their power. (Including my own gods such as Thor and Odin.) The fact that modern pagans assume that charity is a Christian thing is just another example of pagans just accepting these Christian assumptions without question. Here’s a good Heathen response to this post with plenty of examples from the lore about how charity and caring for the poor can absolutely be a Heathen thing as well.