Up until now, I've spoken in more general terms about religion and spirituality while saying little about my actual practice. Well, I've always believed in the philosophy of "don't dish it out if you can't take it". As a result, it is only fair for me to expose what I actually do to scrutiny.
I call myself a witch, which may seem simple, but in the neo-pagan world that is hardly a specific description. There are literally dozens of religious and secular traditions of witchcraft, both Wiccan and non-Wiccan. They all have their own and often very divergent views on divinity (or lack thereof), morality, practices, lifestyle and with no central authority, it's extremely difficult to tell which witch is which. But one thing that almost people who call themselves witches in a neo-pagan context seem to believe in is The Wheel of the Year.
For those who are not Pagan, the Wheel of the Year represents the changing seasons in eight steps corresponding to the solstices and equinoxes and midway points between them. I like the concept, because celebrating seasons reminds me of the natural world and human dependence on it. The cyclical format reminds me that the decisions we make today as regards the environment affect us in the future. While I don't believe that my existing consciousness will survive the death of my body, the realization that molecules and atoms that are part of my body now will become parts of other things and perhaps other living organisms gives me comfort. It makes me feel connected to a greater truth. And as I alluded to in a previous post, there's never a bad reason for good food and wine....
The main milestone on the Wheel of the Year is Samhain or Halloween or Hallowmas or All Hallow's Eve or All Saint's Day or the Day of the Dead...well, you get the idea. There are different mythologies for this holiday in different cultures, but I wanted to focus on three things that I thought were important and which seem to be to some extent a feature in most cultures' celebrations of that date:
1.) the changing seasons (middle of autumn, the approaching winter), and concurrently
2.) death and the dearly departed
3.) ancestors in a more general sense
3.) ancestors in a more general sense
I had two loved ones--one person and one quadruped--who departed last year. My grandmother, who I hadn't seen in over a year and my dog who had lived in my parents' home since adolescence. So I decided to focus my thoughts and remembrance on them.
This is what I did:
1. Social Events with the Local Pagans
No outright ritual, but we did have an afternoon drink and then Sunday morning brunch the next day. I always like hanging out with the local pagans. Conversations span a wide range of issues from the meaning of death, living in a more natural way, to what local stores give you the best deals on crystals and what are the best witch applications for your iPhone. Fun times.
2. Carving Jack-o'-Lanterns
Not only does this remind me of childhood, but it represents both death and the season. Historically, in Celtic culture, it was thought that on Samhain the veil between the world of the living and the dead was at its thinnest. Spirits roamed free on Samhain, according to that way of thinking and as a result the Jack-o-lantern (although often made of turnips or beets) was used to frighten away evil spirits. (See here). It kind of makes sense if you see winter as a metaphor for death. That time of year in the northern hemisphere coincides with a time of year that is often already cold and clearly not summer, but also not visibly winter. I think it's logical to see that date as metaphorically the point where "life"(summer) and "death"(winter) are the closest together.
3. Dinner with a place for the dearly departed
My first course was pumpkin soup, again a harvest fruit of the season. (I really love pumpkins, but so rarely eat them. So I took full advantage of Halloween as an excuse). The second course was made up of Chicken Tacos. I thought that was appropriate because both as a U.S. American and a son of the American continent, Mexican culture is part of who I am despite the fact that I don't consider myself a Mexican-American. Desert was made up of pomegranates, fruit of the Underworld according to Greek Mythology, and a gingerbread man to represent the approaching winter.
4. Watching Sister Act (1992). I remember when I was a school boy and I would go over to my grandmother's house, either on special occasions or family visits. My grandmother had an extensive VHS library, which I suspected was as much for the enjoyment of her many grandchildren as it was for us. I was sometimes a little, how to put it, single-minded as a child. When I liked a film, I often wanted to see it over and over again. Many times, I would go to my grandmother's house wanting to see Sister Act and my grandmother would smile and watch it with us. It is a comedy staring Whoopi Goldberg (who I absolutely loved) hiding out from the mob and teaching Catholic nuns to sing Motown. It had been years since I had seen that movie, and watching it again reminded me of her. It reminded me of being in her house and feeling the love that she so generously gave to all of her grandchildren, including me.
5. Walking through the local park. I am fortunate enough to live close to a gigantic, lush local park and on Halloween I decided to take full advantage of that. I touched the trees with my bare hands, and photographed their fallen leaves. I felt the cooling air on my face. I indulged my senses in the most obvious signs of the season. I stood in quiet meditation. In my local park, I also took a look at the Occupy camp. I thought that could not be more appropriate for the season, since the Occupy movement also marks a death in my view. I believe it marks the death of a certain paradigm in human affairs, namely rampant, go-for-broke profiteering in every area of life which has resulted in a type of neo-feudalism on a planetary scale.
6. Listening to the Group BlackNotes. BlackNotes is a musical ensemble that I discovered by accident while researching Afro-Cuban religion (Santería). BlackNotes had a song dedicated to Oshun, the goddess of love, rivers, diplomacy and witchcraft which I found so moving that I bought all of their albums on iTunes. In their music, BlackNotes speaks about African and African-American heritage in a rich way that contrasts with the cartoonish, 2-D way African-Americans tend to be portrayed in popular American culture. Listening to their two albums was a refreshing way to celebrate my African heritage.
7. Small Standard RitualI lit two extra candles on my altar (yes, I have an altar---more on that later). One for my dog and one for my grandmother. The candles were cemetery candles with crosses on them, which I thought was strangely appropriate. Like it or not, Christianity is both part of my heritage and was part of my grandmother's life. After lighting the candles, I took some time to remember both my grandmother and my dog vividly and silently. Then I spontaneously said things I had wished I had told both of them, from the heart. Then I let them burn out over the next days to symbolize how their memories will remain with me until the end of my own life.
In American culture, we seem to have an aversion to recognizing death and when we do it is often in exclusively negative terms. Ironically, I think this leads to subtracting value from life. We each have our own linear experience which has a beginning and an end. But we're also part of a vaster, more complex meta-cycle. Neither one is more true than the other. Both are part of our experience and both are worth validating and recognizing, to my way of thinking.
Upcoming posts: Naturalistic magic, Types of Unrighteous Indignation from Pagans that get on my nerves, and much more.