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deathwork, Witchy

A Prayer Upon Learning of a Death

In September, I helped a friend build a toolkit to prepare for the death of a family member that they wouldn’t be able to be physically present for. That toolkit included a prayer to offer upon first learning of the death. In this time when so many of us will experience that same physically isolated loss, I thought it might be helpful to others, and my friend graciously agreed to let me share it.

In a time when we are barred from many of the conventional rituals of death, spontaneity and organic growth of ritual can be the best way to go – individualized rituals of the heart that truly reflect who your beloved was and who you are. But I find that in that moment when you first hear that someone close to you has died, a shocked numbness often descends. You know you want to do something, but your brain can’t quite get together the what. Having a set prayer or action you can call on every time helps your voice and body keep moving while your brain catches up. If your religion or culture doesn’t have something like this, I humbly invite you to use these words.

A Prayer Upon Learning of a Death

[NAME], I honor the body that you were
The words you spoke
The passions that moved you
The love you shared
The life you lived.

These were not always easy to live
Or to live with
But they were always you,
And I honor you in that wholeness.

I grieve that you are no longer a living presence in my life
I regret that I could not be with you at the end
I allow myself to hurt and to heal
Whatever form that takes
However long it takes

Whole and holy Earth, take back the body of [NAME] that was formed from you
Make new forms and lives from it
May a piece of [NAME]’s life infuse the new lives that grow from it. 
May the passing forms of this life and the tears of our grief sustain the web of your creation.

Blessed be

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Faint Flashes of Hope

Yesterday, the news media called the 2020 United States presidential race for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. This morning as I meditated, I began by saying “I unlock joy. I commit to action.” After a few minutes, I admitted it wasn’t working.

With the stress of this bitterly divided election layered on top of the stress of the summer uprisings and the deep-seated inequities that fueled them layered on top of the stress of COVID, all woven through with personal stress from my job, my joy feels very limited and hard to access these days. Especially since, as adrienne maree brown noted in a fantastic and sobering video yesterday, this transition period may be the most dangerous phase yet of Trump’s presidency, especially for BIPOC folks. It’s hard to find joy when the worst may still be yet to come.

So I tried this instead: “I unlock hope. I commit to action.” That still felt hard, but it felt better. There’s a lot to feel hopeless about, that’s for damned sure. The current occupant of the Oval Office is a petulant fascist man-child who cares about no one but himself. His most ardent supporters are heavily armed and have few qualms about resorting to violence against their fellow humans if we don’t get in line. Despite the party’s talk of diversity and justice, Joe Biden is still a cishet white Christian man, just like 44 of the 45 presidents we’ve already had. There may still be recounts and legal challenges in our futures, to say nothing of the needless malarkey that is the electoral college vote on December 14.

And yet, not everything is awful. Despite COVID and nationwide effort at voter suppression, voting was at all-time highs in some areas. Stacey Abrams, Nse Ufot, Helen Butler, Rebecca DeHart, Deborah Scott, and Tamieka Aitkins (to whom we owe a massive debt of gratitude and a lot of political power) and their coalitions of mostly Black women organizers and volunteers delivered Georgia, of all places, to the Democrats. We’re going to have an honest-to-Sagan woman vice president – and a woman of color, at that. And unless Trump really, truly, stages a coup,* he’s outta here come January.

Over the coming days, weeks, and months, as we move through this fraught transition period, you may see a lot of people telling you that it’s okay to celebrate and feel joy even if you still have worries about what’s going on. That’s true, as far as it goes. But in case you need it, I’m here to remind you that it’s also okay not to celebrate and feel joy if you just can’t find it in you. But maybe, just maybe, you can find a little hope here and there. And a little hope here and there ain’t nothing.

*I know this is not outside the realm of possibility.

photo by me
deathwork, Witchy

Samhain 2020: Wholeness

As a Pagan in Minnesota, one of the first lessons I learned—and continue to relearn—is how to adapt rituals on the fly, especially those planned for outside. Spending an hour toasting the Ancestors in the cemetery where Leora’s grandmother is buried seemed like a great idea as I planned these rituals in August when it was humid and in the upper 80s (F). It seemed like a crummy idea when the actual day arrived with a predicted high of 31 (0 C) and a windchill of 24 (-4 C).

We adapted. We set up a small altar in our living room and settled on the couch. We drank apple cider mulled with cinnamon, cardamom, and orange peel and traded memories of our beloved dead, beginning with the most recent (Kiara Madison-Cook. What is remembered, lives) and then meandering generally backward to our hazy earliest losses. We shared the memories however they came and let ourselves remember the difficult times as well as the good. Although we missed being at Nanny’s grave, this felt intimate and moving in a way that standing more formally in the cemetery might not have.

Once we’d said everything we needed to, we sang the marvelous “Bone by Bone” to honor and remember all the lives and deaths that have shaped us, spoken and unspoken, known and unknown. We wrote a few words or drew symbols representing characteristics of our beloved dead that we want to embody more in the months ahead. One of the most profound ways the dead live on is through us; if we admire something about the way they lived their lives, why not endeavor to bring that quality into our own lives? Those papers will sit on our main altar until at least Imbolc, to remind us of the work we’re carrying forward.

We bundled up and made our way to the back yard. We each cut a lock of hair and and buried it, speaking the words of the Earth-Dweller’s Creed:

To Earth all life returns;
From Earth all life rises up.

We don’t believe in a personal afterlife, but we believe—we know—that when we die, the Earth will take our bodies back and make new forms from them. It is a promise we all receive, and one we make in return (and the main reason I’m so adamant about green burial). It is the most sacred rebirth I can imagine. We give a bit back now, to remind ourselves of the greater return to come.

And that was the end of the ritual proper.

We’re revisiting our Equinox list to make sure we’re making progress on preparing for Winter. And I’ll be revising one of my end-of-life planning documents, in the spirit of the season (Leora gets a pass this year, because grad school). I like my rituals to have after-work.

So why “wholeness”? Why is that the value I chose to associate with a holiday so often focused on death, grief, and loss? Precisely because of that focus. I’m a deathworker. I’ve seen far too many times the impacts of rampant overcultural death denial and truncated and disenfranchised grief on our lives and communities, especially those of us of marginalized identities. To be whole, I believe we must accept all aspects of life, even its end. We don’t have to like it, but we do have to acknowledge and accept it. The more we show up for death, the more we can show up in life.

Witchy

Fall Equinox 2020: Balance

My lovely spouse Leora and I generated the list pictured here as part of our Fall Equinox ritual. The list begins:

  • Furnace check-up appointment
  • Window plastic 
  • Boots

It might not seem particularly witchy, but making it made me feel so profoundly connected to my spirituality.

Like it has for many folks, the current COVID-19 pandemic has me reexamining my relationship to my spiritual values and practices. I find myself stripping away, scaling down. Time outside, meditation, hand-crafting, acts of social justice and mutual aid have connected me to my values and to Mystery, while formal spells, rituals, and divination have felt like a veil dropped between me and them.

Just after Lammas, I started envisioning a year-long cycle of Sabbat and Esbat rituals that truly reflect my deepest held beliefs and values. Recentering the things that drew me to Paganism in the first place, rather than other people’s ritual and spiritual concepts that I’ve accumulated over almost two decades (!) of study and practice.

Leora and I spoke our intention and performed a pared-down grounding, centering, and acknowledging of sacred space. We ate a meal we cooked from local seasonal produce. We named areas of our lives that could use more balance and committed to one action we could take to shift that balance. We praised the areas where we’re proud of keeping balance. We made a list of actions we need to take to prepare for winter. Then we were done.

It was simple, and it was concrete. Apart from the conversation about balance, in which we used the balance of light and darkness to mirror balance in our lives, we were very literal. The harvest of the Earth, the pause to prepare for Winter. Very little metaphor to separate me from the All That Is. Maybe my fellow witches, even other naturalistic ones, would’ve found it boring. But it was exactly what I needed.

Leora has kindly agreed to show up for a whole year’s cycle of these simplified rituals. I have rough outlines for all eight of them (although they’re all open to adjustment; after this one I already know we need singing). I’ll try to revisit them all here. Who knows—maybe this kind of low-frills acknowledgement of the sacred is what you’re looking for, too.

Witchy

The Winter Confluence

For the past several years, I’ve been adamant about not celebrating Christmas or Chanukah. “Not my religions; not my holidays” was my standard response when someone asked about my plans.

I did this for because, one, it’s fun to watch people’s faces when I tell them that I don’t celebrate the world’s biggest consumerist holiday, even glancingly. Two (and more important personally), despite having been a practicing Pagan since 2001, the only consistent Winter Solstice practice I’d developed was staying up all night, which becomes increasingly inaccessible as I get older. I needed to step back and develop celebrations that neither appropriated an oppressed religion nor kowtowed to an oppressive one.

I needed that time away. It’s done me a world of good as a Pagan.

The December event of the Minnesota Threshold Network was called “Facing Holidays After the Death of a Loved One.” As I sat in that circle, talking about holiday traditions and honoring loved ones who have died, I thought about how, although I don’t celebrate Christmas or Chanukah, I once did, and my Ancestors have, for many generations. By choosing not to engage with these holidays, I’ve cut myself off from them, from using shared practices to thank, honor, connect with, and grieve for those who have gone before me.

So this year, I chose one action to acknowledge each holiday. Not a full celebration, since they’re still not my religions or my holidays. One act to connect me to Ancestors recent and distant who celebrated these holidays. To remind them, and myself, that though we walk different spiritual paths, they are welcome here.

  • Chanukah was easy: I created a… well, I hesitate to call it a chanukiah. It’s a strip of fabric set up under the Yule tree with LED candles. Every night I’ve been saying the blessings and lighting the candles. (The Yule tree, btw, is three birch logs lashed together in a tripod, wrapped with blue string lights and topped with seasonally appropriate cookie cutters. Because we are those Minnesotans.)
  • Christmas was more challenging. Other than attending the Christmas Eve service at church, which, just, no, my family of origin was much more connected to the holiday’s consumerist aspects than its religious or cultural ones. Being as anti-capitalist as a 21st-century American urbanite can be, those aren’t traditions I want to replicate.
  • I thought about food, instead. Specifically, waffles. My parents had a waffle maker. It was a wedding gift. They hated using it, considering it too unwieldy and difficult. It came out once a year: on Christmas morning. After we opened presents, Mom and I would watch The Nutcracker (Baryshnikov version) on PBS while Dad swore at the waffles.

This is tricky, of course, because I shared the tradition with ancestors (living), not Ancestors (dead). But it connects me to family, and although my more distant Ancestors may not have eaten waffles on Christmas Day, I’m sure that most of them had special holiday food traditions of some sort, and this feels like sharing mine with them.

I am one moment in Time. The lines of memory flows from the Ancestors, through me, and on to the Descendants. And in this time of deep, healing, dreaming darkness, I stand with ancestors, Ancestors, and Descendants at the confluence of three winter holidays and greet the returning light.

Five days after Solstice; fourth night of Chanukah; Christmas Day