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.
Near the northern tip of the 32,000 acres that make up Minnesota’s Itasca State Park lies the spot most everyone1 considers the headwaters of Mníšošethąka—the river also known as the Mississippi. My beloved spouse and I have recently returned from our pilgrimage there.
This trip didn’t start as a pilgrimage. After Lior finished their Masters degree in May of 2021, I said, “I’ve done a pretty good job of supporting you and keeping the household running while you were in grad school. We should do something to celebrate me.”
It took a while, because life kept giving us lemons (and I kept doing a pretty good job of supporting Lior and keeping the household running, if I do say so myself), but eventually we started planning a journey to the Mississippi headwaters, which neither of us had taken before.
Some small, quiet part of me called it a pilgrimage from the beginning. But only in the last month or so of planning did that part step forward so I could start calling it a pilgrimage for real,2 rather than “a trip” or “I guess it’s sort of like a pilgrimage, maybe?”
I grew up with the understanding that the concept of pilgrimage was reserved for members of well-established religions making well-established journeys. Muslims performing the hajj, Jews traveling to Jerusalem for the pilgrimage festivals, Catholics walking the Camino de Santiago.
In reality, a pilgrimage is any journey to a sacred site undertaken for religious reasons, and people of all religions can make them. I’m working to deepen my spiritual relationship with the Mississippi River, so the headwaters felt like a perfect pilgrimage destination. Once I felt comfortable saying “This will be a pilgrimage,” the journey shifted into something deeper for me, even when it was still in the planning stages.
One traditional aspect of pilgrimage that I really dig is the idea that you make it not just for yourself but for/with/on behalf of all your coreligionists who aren’t there with you. That concept helped me feel connected both to the non-human nature that surrounded me at every step of the journey and to wonderful, messy, human communities of Pagans. The week before we left, I posted in select corners of social media that Lior and I were making this pilgrimage, and that anyone who had a message for the headwaters could share it with me and I’d pass it along when we arrived.3 Ultimately, no one took me up on the offer, but just knowing that I’d put the word out, and that other people knew what I was doing, helped me feel the love and support of my fellow-Pagans as I stood on that shore.
CARRYING IT OUT
I really wanted to make sure the entire trip feel incorporated into the pilgrimage, not just our actual time at the headwaters. We cast a circle right before we got in the car to leave our house and set up our travel altar and gathered a few spoonfuls of soil at every stop.4 Those few simple acts of intention added a spiritual depth that was exactly what this journey needed, even if in most other ways, it felt like every other road trip we’ve been on together—gas station snack foods of questionable nutrition, pictures of clouds taken from speeding passenger windows, car-dancing to Poliça and Sudan Archives.
Left to our own devices, Lior and I aren’t much for flashy rituals. When we arrived at the headwaters, we greeted the river with a simple hello and the same song we sing to it every time we travel across or alongside it in our neck of the woods. We gathered some water into small bottles and some rocks into pockets. I left a small hair clipping in a clump of weeds along the bank. I took off my shoes and socks and stood ankle-deep in the ice-cold water.5 And then we sat by the river, simply being in its presence and taking in the beauty of the day.
All told, we were probably at the headwaters just under an hour. Our hearts could’ve stayed all day, but our stomachs and bladders drew us back to food and bathrooms.
That night, I shared one last token with Lior: pilgrimage badges6 I’d made for both the headwaters themselves and for Baxter/Brainerd, our major stop coming and going. Just a fun reminder of our pilgrimage. Besides dirt. And rocks. And water. And Itasca stickers. And soooo many pictures.
Then we came home.
And that, dear readers, is the story of our Mníšošethąka headwaters pilgrimage. It wasn’t profoundly life-changing the way Pagans often get taught that experiences like this “should be.” There is no “should” for religious experiences. This journey connected me more deeply to a Mystery that is dear to my heart. It was the best gift I could’ve asked for myself.
I recently came across a series of articles from 2016 about a geologist who believes that the Mississippi headwaters are actually in South Dakota. But for any number of reasons, we were not going to go to South Dakota. Wasn’t happening.
Until posting this blog entry, I only called it this to other Pagans. The older I get, the less inclined or obligated I feel to argue with non-Pagans or other kinds of Pagans who want to dispute my right to claim certain words and concepts for my own practice. So, if you want to dispute my right to use “pilgrimage” in this context… have fun disputing yourself, ’cause I’m not gonna engage.
Here’s one of the first things I learned when I started learning and practicing the Reclaiming tradition:
I am my own authority, rooted in community.
I’ll get to “rooted in Community” in later posts; today I’m looking at being my own spiritual authority. This doesn’t mean I’m free to run around doing whatever I want. It means that only I say how I understand the divine and how I connect to it. No one else tells me how to believe or what to do about my beliefs, not my teachers or fellow practitioners, not the tradition itself. Reclaiming, like all ecstatic Pagan traditions, values personal relationship with the sacred, which must start with a personal understanding of what the sacred is.
Lemme me tell ya: that can be terrifying. I’m a lifelong people-pleaser who struggles to decide what to have for dinner if there’s the least chance that my choice will negatively impact someone else. Believing that only I can determine my spiritual foundation is sometimes a very big ask.
On the other hand, I’ve gone the dogma route, both Christian and Pagan. I’ve been part of groups and traditions where the people in charge tried to tell the rest of us what to believe and how to practice. It doesn’t work for me. Because it’s true: only I can know how I perceive the sacred and how I best connect with it. This is why I hold spiritual autonomy as one of my central spiritual values. The ability to craft my own personal relationship with the secret, however I understand it, is a precious gift. I never want to take it for granted.
Photo by Amy Treasure via Unsplash. Image description: a person in a hooded coat walking along a dirt path through trees. Their back is to the camera, and their gaze points downward.
I sometimes struggle to wrap my mind around the concept of wholeness. Yeah, I know, I chose it, but I can’t always articulate what I mean by it.
Earth is a materially closed system. Everything that was, is, and will be on this planet is made of the same stuff, endlessly broken down and reassembled in new forms. That’s one of the most incredible facts I know. We are literally our Ancestors remade–all the Ancestors, from the birth of this sacred planet forward. I love that. I honor it.
Wholeness to me also means repair. Repairing myself, repairing communities, repairing the world. True repair means first acknowledging what’s broken. No singing “We Are the World” together and then moving on like everything’s great and we’re all one now. I have to face the harms done, both by me and mine and to us. I have to learn when and how to make reparations for what I’ve done, when and how to demand accountability for what I’ve experienced, and, unfortunately, when and how to excise the parts that can’t or won’t be healed, so that what remains can be whole.
I don’t know that I’ll ever attain fullwholeness in my own life, let alone in the whole world. But I have the whole world as a role model, and that inspires me to keep trying every day.
For this turn of the Wheel, instead of writing about my Sabbat rituals, I’ll be writing about the eight values I chose for each Sabbat this year – the whys and wherefores; what each value means to me within the context of the holiday. I hope you enjoy!
The Chariot is my favorite Tarot card. Any deck I’m interested in, I look at that card first. If I don’t resonate with it, that deck and I won’t spend much time together. Decks that feature a bicycle are (unsurprisingly) a big hit for me, although at the moment I’m in love with the Chariot from Isabella Rotman’s This Might Hurt tarot, where the rider effortlessly balances on two motorcycles at once! Swoon! In my incredible spouse Leora’s deck-in-progress, the Resilient Tarot, I am the Chariot, riding my bike across the card with a look of sheer glee on my face. That’s how much I love the Chariot.
What does the Chariot mean to me? Balance. Getting the shit in my life into enough balance that I can bring some order to the chaos and keep moving forward. Balance between motion and rest. Between filling myself up and pouring myself out for community. Between meticulously planning my life and letting the tides of happenstance carry me.
Balance is dynamic. Staying upright on a bicycle at rest is very difficult. Even in a track stand, that seemingly motionless bike is often full of small motions that keep in in place. Balance isn’t a one-and-done state of being. It’s a constant process of awareness and adjustment.
I value that greatly in my spiritual life and practice. I strive to live in balance with Earth Itself and with All That Is. That looks different on different days, in different seasons of the year, in different seasons of my life. Nothing is static, so balance can never be static. I find a still point at the center, and then the center moves, and I must move with it.
This may, then, be a strange value to celebrate at Fall Equinox, despite the obvious association of equal night and day. After all, I can’t do anything about the balance of the equinoxes: Earth orbits; Earth tilts; we have one moment of perfect balance, and then we move on to greater darkness or greater light. But the Equinoxes do feel like moments when Earth’s journey and mine align for a day, and I want to celebrate that.
The brevity of the equinoxes also reminds me to give myself grace. If Earth Itself can’t constantly maintain balance, it’s more than okay that I can’t, either. I stop moving. The bike tips over. I fall down. Then I get up and pedal again, and I move back into balance, whatever that looks like today.
With Lammas 2021 behind us, I’ve completed my yearlong experiment in minimalist rituals. How did it go? How do I want to proceed?
tl;dr version: I loved it. I want to keep doing it. I need to make several decisions about how I’m going forward, but I feel I’ve prepared the ground well for those decisions and whatever grows from them. That’s the short version. Read on for the loooong version.