The “Broom Closet” is a term which refers to neopagans and witches who are not “out” about their religion and practices. As a sexologist and sexuality counselor, I have worked with many people who at one time or another had to emerge from a sexual or gender closet in order to lead a more authentic life. What I’ve just done is slightly similar, though more fraught with professional peril than with personal difficulties.
Of course it doesn’t escape me that outing myself as a witchy Lokean neopagan polytheist means my potential dating pool has now shrunk to the size of a small puddle, but hey, what’s not to like? (I mean that with the sincerest irony…)
So here’s the skinny. The last three years–after my divorce and the sale of our family home–have been personally and professionally difficult. I’ve been financially and geographically exiled from my beloved San Francisco Bay Area where my family resides. I’ve had difficulty re-establishing my professional practice in both Hawai’i and here in Lake County. Therefore I’ve struggled with a lack of interest AND motivation with regard to my work. The only truly consuming interest, besides general survival in a new region, has been a deepening of my spiritual life and the pursuit of magical knowledge.
I am a creature motivated by special interests. If I get bored with something, I drop it in favor of a compelling new shiny. Due to lack of business and time-wasting sexual harrassment by pretend clients, the field of sexology began to lose its appeal for me. I felt burnt-out. In Hawai’i, while working on my first novel, The Dire Deeds of the Guild of Ornamental Hermits, I began to study magic and witchcraft as research for the book. I was soon hooked by everything about it. Whee! Something that’s even more fun than just plain sexology or just plain hypnosis but which can absorb elements of both (e.g. sex magic, tantra, and trance work)! And I’ve always been a mystic anyway, since about age twelve… (FYI, I’m now working on the second in the Ornamental Hermits series.)
I’m also not good at compartmentalization. I can do it, but it always feels wrong and exhausting. Over the last several months, I’ve been longing to combine my spiritual life with my work life with my (non-existent) romantic life. I just want put it all together in one oddly shaped package as so many others have done before me, and then spend that released energy on more interesting pursuits.
That rune reading, done on Imbolc with the help of my patron deity, Loki, encouraged me to take the leap. That’s what Loki’s all about–pushing his devotees out of stuck places and into new terrain. At first I thought he wanted me to leave my sexology practice altogether. Now I realize he wanted me to MUTATE and deepen it. Therefore, I spent parts of yesterday and today re-writing my professional website to announce my new direction. Doing this does feel like emerging from a rather stale crysalis and my wings are still a bit crumpled and soggy. However, my new page, “FAQ: Out of the Broom Closet”, was actually a lot of fun to write.
Plus, the idea that I’ll be deliberately working in tandem with my deities and guides means I’m not going it alone any longer. I hope this means my clients will benefit from my improved access to insights and energy, gifts of the gods, belike.
Also the sexual harrassment from fake clients has been a source of worry, but I’ll be invoking protection and warding the heck out of my practice from now on. My Norse deities can be pretty hardcore…
So thanks to them, and Loki in particular, I am expanding and mutating once again. And with Freyr and Freya as deities of both sexuality and magic, I’ll also be appreciative of their ongoing guidance. I hope that in becoming whole, I’ll be doing work now that is “holy” in the best and most expansive sense of the word. I feel excited.
My life has been spent experiencing and responding to epiphanies. There have been many. Sometimes they have created massive upheaval. Other times they simply add understanding and nuance to what I’m already learning. Back in my punk rock phase, at the time when I was shifting into my feminist space activist mode (1980’s), I was suddenly struck by the epiphany of feeling myself as an “ancestor” in the making, as a link in a chain of being (though I didn’t have children yet). This prompted the making of two issues of a ‘zine, Young Ancestors, which I wrote and illustrated.
By the end of that decade I was married and expecting my first child. During my pregnancy I spent countless hours doing genealogical research in the Sutro Library in San Francisco. I had a deep spiritual hunger to know my people before bringing another life into the world. My mother’s lines were easy to research as there were dozens of early New England ancestors and tons of books and records. (New Englanders are apparently obsessed with genealogy.) My father’s people were harder to find as many of them were newer arrivals from Ireland and Wales. But I was able to track my missing father and some of his family through city directories in the midwest and San Diego. By the time my first child was born, I had a pretty good grasp of my genealogy, with some lines traced as far back as the 1300’s and more.
I found marvelous books which gave me scads of dead relatives, such as The Descendents of Thomas Durfee of Portsmouth, Rhode Island. My mother even had a two volume copy of Michigan Pioneers, which gave me the abolitionist Swifts who helped to settle Palmyra, NY and then Flint, MI. I found Richard and Elizabeth Warren of the Mayflower. I had Rowells from Candia and Orford, NH. I found so many ancestors from England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Germany–many of them settler-colonists who were most assuredly conveying a heritage of atrocities such as Indian genocide and African chattel slavery. Though my understanding of this heritage has deepened over the years, even at that time I was aware that my genealogical chart held horrible secrets and privileges gained at the expense of others. Still, I was eager for the knowledge of “my people” even as I rued their deeds.
Later I would also do a bit of research into my (now ex-) husband’s family tree, to learn more about the heritage that my children shared. My mother also was bitten by the genealogy bug, but some of what she’s logged within Ancestry.com is confused and confusing, and possibly contaminated by sketchy, not well-documented work of others.
But it wasn’t until 2017 that I started actively working my ancestors, thanks to the teachings of Daniel Foor, Ph.D., and his book Ancestral Medicine–Rituals for Personal and Family Healing. I also took his first online course in Ancestral Medicine. These content-rich classes have enabled me to connect with my ancestors in a dynamic way–requesting healing for each great-grandparent lineage from very distant “well and truly seated” ancestors who are capable of assisting the more recent dead to release inflicted and experienced traumas. This is truly healing work and also meshes well with my Norse-infused spiritual practices, as ancestors are quite important in these (reconstructed) traditions. Foor encourages working with the least messy line first, then moving gradually to the ones which are more traumatized.
Daniel Foor’s methods enable me to leapfrog over dozens of traumatized generations in order to make contact with much earlier “well and robust” ancestors, in order to bring healing to the generations who have experienced and/or inflicted more recent horrors of conquest, religious conversion, warfare, genocide, torture, disapora, starvation, plague, and slavery, as well as personal family traumas (abuse, suicide, alcoholism, divorce, neglect, etc.). “The dead can change” is a fundamental concept here. I experience Foor’s work as a form of ho’oponopono (see below), resulting in forgiveness and healing (though not forgetfulness).
This is also an opportunity to create an active, ongoing relationship with my ancestors. As I do so, I learn more about the blessings and gifts of each lineage. I have a daily routine of offering poems and acknowledgement to my ancestors and a weekly practice of making other sorts of offerings. I speak with them also, thanking them and asking them for blessings for me and my children.
At present, I have completed the initial stages with three lineages, and have just begun working on a fourth (my father’s mother’s line). There will be a total of eight in all. During the ritual meditations and imaging, lead by Daniel Foor via video in the online course, I have made contact with either individual ancestors or clusters of ancestors. Each line has a very distinct “flavor.”
The contact in my father’s father’s line is someone I call “Bright Father.” He seems to radiate a robust golden joy, a “feasting in the hall” sort of presence. He “told” me (via meditative journeying and pendulum divination) that his line “comes from the stars,” perhaps from Sirius. This is the most Nordic-feeling line so far, but there is also some link to Wales and a long wide beach backed by hills or mountains. I have a strong feeling of poetry, song, and stories from this line. Incidently, several months ago Loki agreed to function as an ancestor for me and he has since indicated that he is connected to this line.
My mother’s mother’s line yielded a group of mysterious “River Women” and a feeling of a mountain landscape with few trees, perhaps the Scottish highlands (or perhaps not). They are more remote and quiet and I probably have to do more work to cultivate my relationship with them, to learn more from and about them. The River Women feel quite witchy to me.
My mother’s father’s line manifested as several “Watchers and Archers” in a forest. One of them shot an arrow at me when I first approached. The arrow was meant to land next to me (not in me) and when I picked it up in my mind’s eye, I held it aloft to make my request for healing. I felt these particular ancestors may have been Pictish. The main feeling I experience with them is a sort of wariness, though they are also willing to work with me on the lineage healing.
I have written poems for each of these three lines and I recite them daily. Now I am in the process of writing a fourth. My father’s mother’s line has a lot of Irish and it seems the most mysterious for some reason. I also have a strong sense that Brigid is important (both as a pagan goddess and later as the saint). During one of the meditation journeys, the phrase and image of “Brigid of the long blue dress” appeared in my mind. There is much more work I need to do with this lineage and it is possible that I’ll be adding Brigid to my devotions.
I am devoted to this process of ancestral medicine as a way to help my children heal from residual trauma in my own lineages. (They’ll have to cope with their father’s stuff themselves.) It is also a way to prepare for my own death and transition. It feels like a developmentally appropriate work.
Years ago, I studied the Hawaiian process of Ho’oponopono with Kumu (teacher) Ramsay Taum, of O’ahu. I helped to organize two weekend workshops for him in Berkeley, and also took the workshop once more on Maui. (If you google “ho’oponopono,” please do NOT take the Joe Vitale method as being in any way authentic–it is an appropriated and commodified travesty of the traditional practices.)
When I began working with Daniel Foor’s methods, I quickly saw that this was a form of forgiveness and healing as profound as what I’d learned with ho’oponopono–and also quite complementary in intention and method. Through both methods, one can reach back through time and forward into the future, effecting subtle but powerful changes in spiritual and ancestral realms.
In this video of Ramsay Taum, talking about the Hawaiian martial art of Lua, which he teaches as well as ho’oponopono, there is also a discussion of our relationships with our ancestors. Ramsay Taum says:
“We have to make sure that everyone is in alignment…and when you’re out of alignment, when you step away from your kuleana, your responsibility and obligations, your ancestors have no identity because the line stops with you, see? So when you’re lost and you’re out of balance and you step away from your responsibilities and from your place in community then interesting enough your ancestors, your line stops, there’s no more future… Everything that they’ve [ancestors] done–good, bad, or indifferent–we own that and they’ve created that space and we’re now standing at the end of the line and we just follow their footsteps. And the challenge for us living in today’s society is that you know we say that, ‘I’m following in the footsteps of our ancestors. I take comfort in that. I take pride in that.’ But when we get to the end where they stopped it’s beholden upon us to take the next step for the next generation. It takes individuals who are standing at the edge of the line to walk, to take the next step because now our ancestors, their legacy lives on through our steps, but more importantly we are now setting direction for the next generation. So when I step back in line, now I am giving my descendents identity… Our daily practice should include that meditation, that thought, what will my great grandchildren, seven generations from now, say about us, about me, what did I do? So that really speaks to kuleana.”
Working within the methods of ancestral medicine and ho’oponopono, I do truly own what my ancestors have done but take steps to cleanse the residual trauma–allowing the dead to change and reach their full potential as ancestors. That seems to me to be part of my own kuleana. And when I do this, I can walk without hesitation, transforming the path ahead now that the previous “footsteps” have been healed and cleansed.
As I once realized that I was an ancestor in the making, doing this makes perfect sense. With this practice, perhaps I can ease the path ahead for my own descendents, releasing them from the burdens of ancestral traumas.
Do estrogen fluctuations cause extreme challenges to women’s mental health? It seems that they do. But can they also trigger mystical experiences? If so, why? And how do we tell the difference?
Disclaimer: This blog focuses on cisgender women, as the Lisa Miller article (below) focuses on cisgender women. I am not sure what research has been done regarding the mental health impacts of menopausal-type estrogen fluctuations on transgender and non-binary people. I’ll be on the lookout for that.
Menopause: A Walk on The Wild Side
On December 21st, 2018, The Cut published an article by Lisa Miller titled “Listening to Estrogen–Hormones have always been a third rail in female mental health. They may also be a skeleton key.” Yesterday a sexologist colleague shared this article via Facebook.
I read this article and found it personally significant, and not just for the Solstice publication date. My own experiences with hormone fluctuations during pregnancy and menopause were deeply unsettling. Pregnancy was like a mind fuzz with a metallic taste–literally–and menopause was a quiet riot of thoughts and feelings, impulsive decisions, and a desperate need to reinvent myself (again). It didn’t help that at the same time, my youngest was entering adolescence and my oldest kid was having a second puberty, via transition and testosterone. The youngest was throwing knives at the floor and using his airsoft gun indoors on the antique bed that his father had lovingly refinished for him (no, he wasn’t allowed to do this!). And the oldest? Well… let’s just say a lot was going on for all of us.
I would say between the ages of 45 to 55 were the most intense. Aside from all kinds of emotions and angsty uncertainties and forbidden secret crushes on really ridiculous people, I was also having mystical experiences, including the “spontaneous combustion” I wrote about in the first month of this blog. There was also at least one waking vision and several vivid lucid dreams of great power and significance. Giving birth to a tiny translucent mo’o (Hawaiian lizard god)? Yep. That was one dream. Actually, I had two of those dreams, with a total of three lizard kidlets in all. (And who the heck was the father?!) Another immensely powerful dream, with the theme of “as above, so below,” inspired the tattoo on my right ankle.
And the wild thing was, sometimes other people would share an observation about me that seemed to confirm that “something real” and transformational was actually going on. There were times when I knew I was in rough waters, and I hung on to the mainstays of my life (children, house, a sense of family) but all the while these mainstays were also unraveling. I was also told later of a couple of incidents that Ireally do not remember, including one where I scared my kids by threatening suicide. Holy shit, Batman!
Mostly though, I don’t think I was potentially harmful to myself or others. I wasn’t drinking or doing drugs. I still got the children fed and off to school. I kept the books for the family business. Menopause was also when I went back to school to study sexology and hypnosis and started my career. I joke now that all those initials after my name is how I spell “mid-life crisis.” It’s true.
Given the above, I do consider that I was mostly sane (functional) during this period (though not always making the right decisions). And yet I was constantly “trying to hang on to myself” — whoever that was. And I wanted very much to know if my mystical experiences were valid and valuable. The only thing I could do was to consider them as valuable and see where that took me.
Menopause and Mental Illness
But let’s get back to the impact of menopause itself, and the fluctuations of estrogen. Lisa Miller’s article recounts several stories of women who went completely bonkers just before and during menopause: hearing voices, becoming dangerously delusional, and even “psychotic, catatonic, and suicidal.”
Here are four key paragraphs from Miller’s article. Hearken to the fourth one, in particular.
[Begin Quote] Youth has been a diagnostic criterion for schizophrenia for a hundred years, including within the pages of the DSM, where schizophrenia has sometimes included an age limit: As recently as the 1980s, a person could not be tagged schizophrenic if he or she was older than 40. Some clinics targeting early intervention have cutoff ages as young as 24.
But schizophrenia does not neatly comply with that simplistic understanding. In the early 1990s, three British psychiatrists, curious about why men with schizophrenia had their first psychotic episode so much earlier than women, took a look at the voluminous diagnostic records in doctors’ offices and hospitals in one populous London neighborhood covering a period of 20 years. They found something astonishing: a demonstrable “second peak” of first-onset schizophrenia after 45. These patients were predominantly female.
These older patients compose just a fraction of the total number. About one percent of people worldwide receive a schizophrenia diagnosis, and almost 20 percent of them are diagnosed for the first time after the age of 45. But the data suggested a deeply embedded bias in the way doctors had thought about schizophrenia for a century, overlooking the middle-aged women who came to them with psychotic symptoms, refusing to believe they could have schizophrenia because the official classifications, and medical tradition, excluded them. In their view, “madness” associated with “the change of life” was not madness at all — not a serious affliction to be taken seriously — but a women’s malady to be treated with bleeding and leeches, herbs and ointments, drugs, alcohol, and the desiccated and powdered ovaries of farm animals. Committed to American asylums in the late-19th century, women with mysterious symptoms were labeled “insane from suppressed menses.” And a whole ecosystem of diagnosis and treatment failed to grow.
There is, to be sure, genuine tragedy in lost human potential at a young age. But it is also tragic for a woman to become mentally ill in the middle of her life, at a time when she has, if she’s been lucky, built a universe — a family, a job, friendships, a network of responsibilities and dependencies erected on the assumption of stability. She might have adolescent children and aging parents, professional duties and bills to pay. She might have a classroom of students; she might be the mortgage broker helping a family keep ownership of their home or the doctor advising on a chemotherapy plan. [End Quote]
The article continues to discuss and make a case for “the estrogen hypothesis,” the role that estrogen may play in modulating psychosis, based on the work of Mary and Philip Seeman, and others. Mary Seeman first published this hypothesis in 1981. (And the general public is only now hearing about it? Argh!) A few researchers have paid attention though. Miller writes:
“In 2009, an Australian psychiatrist named Jayashri Kulkarni began publishing the results of extraordinary experiments that took the estrogen hypothesis to the next step. If fluctuations in estrogen exacerbated psychosis, then shouldn’t infusions of estrogen — supplemental hormones — regulate and ameliorate it.”
Kuklarni’s results were positive and encouraging. But U.S. physicians and psychiatrists are slow to catch on. Health care providers are still talking women out of hormone replacement therapy.
There is so much more to this article, which was also published in the December 24, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. I urge you to read it in its entirety, especially if you’re a woman approaching your own menopause.
Vulnerability or Capacity? What Can the Grandmothers Tell Us?
Now I want to swing this topic back around to an almost anthropological context and ask why human females would be the butt of what seems to be a cruel hormonal joke? Why would this destabilizing influence evolve, seemingly designed to wham women upside the head at the end of their reproductive lives? I tend to believe that most of what evolves in creatures is or was once useful and even humans are no exception. So why this?
I believe that a lot of the “cruelty” of this predicament is cultural and social. Miller ends her article with a quote from “Janet,” one of the women she interviewed:
“And I think there is knowledge out there, but I think it’s old, ancient knowledge that has been lost to the generations through the rapid, rapid changes — I’m talking about the past 50 years — and explosions in population. We don’t live the way we used to. We used to live tribally. The tribes could always share. There was a huge close-knit community that could share. I know what we need. I don’t know how to get it, but I know what we need: We need people who understand what is happening to us to sit down with us and explain it.”
I think Janet is right. And I’ll add this: in the not too distant past a lot of women did not live past their childbearing years. In fact, a lot of women died in the middle of them. In many cultures, the women who reached the age of grandmothers were respected as carriers of unique wisdom. Could it be that menopausal fluctuations of estrogen sometimes act (are “supposed” to act?) as another form of natural entheogen or as a catalyst to transcendence, at least in the right circumstances?
I am sixty-four now, nine years away now from riding the menopausal roller-coaster, yet still living in the wreckage of it (divorce and other estrangements). What if I’d been living in a society where the onset of menopause meant immediate intervention and nurturing from a group of elders who’d “been there, done that?” What if husbands and children understood and respected this special time? They understood how the wife and mother would be challenged by her potential transformation into a healer or a seer? What if they knew the red flags that meant special intervention was necessary? What if most menopausal mental breakdowns were averted by the understanding and care of an entire community? Perhaps not every woman would make it to the actual role and work of a seer or healer, but those who didn’t would not be scorned. They would still have a place in their family and their community. They would not be unloved for having gone through the ordeals. Grandmothers would still watch over them. And those who did come through their ordeal to take up the work would in turn look after the younger women coming up.
I really do need to re-read Barbara Tedlock’s The Woman in the Shaman’s Body (2005, Bantam). I need and want more multicultural information about the relationships of menopause and aging to such things as shamanic practices, healing, the working of magic, and so on. I sense a quest. From now on, I’ll be investigating this as I am so many other things, including trying to find information that is not strictly focused on cisgender women.
And so I sit here, in my Baba Yaga phase, a solitary practitioner of this, that, and the other thing, making offerings to gods and talking to plants and ancestors. I’ve come out the other side, not undamaged, but not wholly wrecked either.
Given the above, will I call my doctor now to ask about hormone replacement therapy? Yes, I certainly will, assuming there are some benefits at this age. I don’t feel HRT will negate what I’ve already experienced and learned. I think it will help me be more comfortable in my body as I move through the rest of my life in this cold, cruel society.
Me to (currently imaginary) New Intimate Partner (NIP), “Dear, we have to have a little talk first.” NIP pulls away a little and looks me in the eye.
NIP: “No problem. I’ve been tested for everything in the last six months. I’m healthy. Plus I’ve brought _______[condoms, lube, whatever].”
Me: “Me too, except I’ve been exposed to herpes and that never goes away. So we’ll need to use protection. I appreciate your candor. [Kiss.] But I actually had a different talk in mind.”
NIP: “Oh? Now you’re scaring me! What’s up? Are you kinky or something?”
Me: “Not that topic either, though we can talk about that too.”
NIP: “You’ve got me intrigued. Say on!”
Me: “You’ve told me you’re a practicising polytheist neopagan…but you’ve never done sex magic.”
Me: “And you know I’m a non-denominational witch, and a polytheist neopagan, and that I’m oathed to Loki.”
NIP: “I don’t have much experience with magic. I’m mostly an academic_________ [Druid, Heathen, astrologer, etc.]. And you never really explained the ‘oathed to Loki’ thing. What does this have to do with us having hot sex?”
Me, bluntly: “All my orgasms are dedicated to Loki, for the rest of my life…so, much as I’ll enjoy whatever we do together, you just have to be able to handle that.”
NIP: “Uh, does this mean you might, uh, say his name when you, uh, you know?”
Me: “Possibly. Would that bother you?”
NIP: “I am not sure. Maybe.” [Frowns.] “Is this like we’d be having a threesome with a god?”
Me: “No. Not really. It’s just that at one point I wanted to find the most loving and powerful experience I could imagine and dedicate it to my patron deity. That energy and joy I feel at the moment of orgasm seemed like the perfect gift to a being who has given me so much.”
NIP: “That’s kind of kinky!”
Me [shrugging]: “I don’t really see or experience it that way. For me, it’s a form of sacred sexuality. You said you were interested in that, right?”
NIP: “Well, yes.”
Me: “Do you need time to process this? I’m okay with that.”
NIP: “Let’s just kiss some more and see what happens.”
Me: “Sounds good to me. And you know we can stop at any time if you need to do that.”
The Reason for The Talk
I’m a sexologist by training and profession. I’ve talked with adult clients about all kinds of personal and intimate issues and supported them without judgment in expressions of their authentic erotic lives (as long as those expressions were adult and consensual).
Even so, I have been wondering how on earth I will explain the above to a real life future partner, assuming there is anyone left on this green earth who can love me.
But writing and therefore rehearsing the above dialogue with an imaginary partner has actually diminished the shame (yes, surprising to find it there–shame!) and the embarrassment I’ve been feeling when contemplating an eventual plunge back into the very sparsely populated human dating pool (sparse due to my age bracket and interests). So, aside from that personal note, I highly recommend imagining and rehearsing a similar dialogue IF you feel you’d want to communicate this to a human partner.
However, if you are NOT comfortable divulging such information, or fear that it will have negative impact on your partner(s) or your relationship(s), please DON’T feel you need to share. It is completely okay to keep such information personal. You may also have agreements in place with your deities and spirits about such offerings, and what to express and what not to express.
Some people may only do this in ritual space, as part of a sex magic ritual or other kind of ceremony. Others, like me, offer up sexual pleasure–in addition to food, drink, trinkets, natural objects, poems, chants, prayers, incense, etc.–as part of a devotional practice designed to cultivate and nourish a relationship with that spiritual being or beings. Loki likes donuts and whiskey (things which I don’t consume myself) and I am happy to provide them, along with conversation, poems, pleasure, and inviting him along to events I think he’d enjoy. My relationship with my patron deity is part of my daily life, as well as my ritual life. It’s not that devotional orgasm offerings mean I am “having sex WITH a god” but that I am offering the peak moment of the sex I do have (solo or partnered) TO that god.
However, there is nothing at all wrong with the former. See my blog on spectrosexuality and god spousery. I say that both as a sexologist and as a magical practitioner.
And I am hardly alone in doing this, though the topic is seldom mentioned outside of esoteric circles.
Sadly, there are otherwise reasonable people who sneer at those with magically dedicated sex toys. This seems a ridiculous position to take. If we magically dedicate a candle or a wand, a broom or a knife, why not a sex toy? Sheesh! And dedicating a toy to a god/dess could/would/should probably include a ward against any other unwanted energies or entities that might wanna come along for the ride…
Seems like common sense.
Again, I am hardly alone. From the witches sabbat to tantric embrace, from “brides of Christ” to chaos magick, human beings have connected the experience of sexual energy and orgasm to an experience of god/dess and/or transcendence and have sought to harness or direct its power. You can find material about this in numerous cultures. I am not even going to supply links, there is so much information out there!
Anyway, writing this blog post has taken a load off my mind. I guess public confessions really are good for the soul! And as for the “‘ickle talk” which I may someday have with a future partner, heck, I could take the coward’s way out and just direct that person to this blog post!
But no, I’d rather have a real conversation.
Perhaps one day.
In the meantime, I still giggle at the moment in this 2013 Comicon footage when Marvel Loki commands, “Say my name!”
It’s a private joke…but one I’m now sharing with you. Anyone who gets close to me will have to have a damned good sense of humor…
So many estoteric traditions and magical practices make use of the power of breath. But what to do when even your normal ability to breathe is hampered by indoor and outdoor pollutants?
The ability to breathe is fundamental to most life on this planet. For almost thirty years, almost half my life, I have struggled to breathe freely, to breathe clean air. Now I know that billions of human beings (plus our animals and plants) are also struggling with this simple, necessary action in this astoundingly polluted world. However, as someone who experiences many kinds of health problems when exposed to even small amounts of common consumer toxins, my condition still seems exotic or even foolishly “special” or deluded to most people. However, soon people like me will the mainstream, not just outliers, and there is nothing in place to handle that public health disaster (Anne Steinemann’s 2018 study estimates one in four Americans already suffer some form of environmental illness). Medical practices and public policies in the United States have not kept pace with the impact of toxic chemicals on human and environmental health. Unlike many other countries, we have no precautionary principle to guide our decision-making.
Pollution, like climate change and war, is one of the apocalyptic challenges of our time. We will not survive if we don’t address them. These three challenges are interelated and are also deeply emeshed in capitalism and consumerism.
The Impact of Indoor Air Pollution is Seldom Addressed
In 1998, Wayne R. Ott and John W. Roberts published the results of their studies in “Everyday Exposure to Toxic Pollutants” in Scientific American. You can download the PDF here. Quote:
“…most citizens were very likely to have the greatest contact with potentially toxic pollutants not outside but inside the places they usually consider to be essentially unpolluted, such as homes, offices and automobiles. The exposure arising from the sources normally targeted by environmental laws–Superfund sites, factories, local industry–was negligible in comparison. Even in the New Jersey cities of Bayonne and Elizabeth, both of which have an abundance of chemical processing plants, the levels of 11 volatile organic compounds proved much higher indoors than out. (Concentrations of the other volatile compounds tested were found to be insignificant in both settings.) The chief sources appeared to be ordinary consumer products, such as air fresheners and cleaning compounds, and various building materials.”
Nothing has changed. In fact, things have gotten worse. MUCH worse.
Those Who Are Aleady Ill and Know the Cause
Do you have friends, relatives, co-workers, or patients who are afflicted by exposure to toxic chemicals? Are you seeking a way to understand this complex and derided condition? For an excellent discussion of the impact of environmental illness and chemical injuries on everyday people, please see these links to Linda Sepp’s Seriously Sensitive to Pollution blog. Note: “MCS” stands for “multiple chemical sensitivity” and “ES” stands for “environmental sensitivity.”
“Fragranced consumer products have been associated with adverse effects on human health. Babies are exposed to a variety of fragranced consumer products, which can emit numerous volatile organic compounds (VOCs), some considered potentially hazardous. However, fragranced baby products are exempt from disclosure of all ingredients. Consequently, parents and the public have little information on product emissions. This study investigates VOCs emitted from a range of fragranced baby products, including baby hair shampoos, body washes, lotions, creams, ointments, oils, hair sprays, and fragrance.”
As for animals, it is a shame what we’re doing to them. Even people who adore their pets have no problem subjecting them to toxic personal care products, essential oils, “air fresheners,” scented candles, and scented animal washes and even toe nail polish on dogs. Here’s a quote from an article by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker, which outlines some of the reasons pets are at great risk:
“Most pets are even smaller than kids. They tend to spend a lot of time near the floor where all indoor air pollutants eventually wind up. They groom themselves and each other, which means they’re ingesting the pollutant particles that have accumulated on their fur and in the environment. Many pets spend up to 100 percent of their time indoors, and are living with very high levels of airborne toxins. These factors combine to put pets at the highest risk of anyone in the household for health conditions related to indoor air pollution. Even if neither you nor your pets are having symptoms, it’s still possible the air fresheners in your home are harming your health. Most of the effects of these products aren’t immediately obvious and may not even manifest as respiratory issues. Some people say, “If I was having a problem, my pets or I would have watery eyes. We’d be coughing or wheezing.” But that’s not always the case.”
In other words, the use of products which create airborne toxins is chemical abuse of children and animals (not to mention adult humans).
Some Products Used in Magic Rituals Can Impact Indoor Air Quality
From that same article by Dr. Becker, there’s also a caution for those of us who love our animals and children, but who also engage in magic and devotional rituals indoors:
“A 2001 EPA study concluded that candles containing fragrance produce more soot. It’s possible organic compounds in poor-quality candle wax may increase cancer risk.(2) A 2009 study warns that the chemicals emitted into the air by burning candles can have a harmful effect on human health.(3) Paraffin candles produce potentially toxic chemicals, including alkanes, alkenes and toluene.
Like air fresheners, scented candles can also contain dangerous chemicals such as formaldehyde and VOCs. Cheaply made candles can contain toxic levels of heavy metals in the wicks. When one of these candles burns, the lead particles are released into the air. Frequent use of these candles could contribute to the development of health conditions such as asthma, allergies and cancer.
Research shows that burning incense can be dangerous to human health, and a 2015 study even suggested it’s much worse that inhaling cigarette smoke.(4) Incense smoke is mutagenic, meaning it can cause mutations in DNA that can lead to cancer. In the 2015 study, incense was found to be more toxic to cells and DNA than cigarette smoke. Of the 65 compounds identified in incense smoke, two were determined to be highly toxic.”
The Magic of Interdependence?
Switching now from science to metaphysics, I’ve touched before on the spiritual and esoteric quandries posed by artificial substances and toxins, those substances that result from what I call “unwise alchemies.” And I am personally desperate for anything–ANYTHING–that can ease my remaining years on this planet and provide a semblance of better health. I am frankly weary of fleeing fragrant products in particular, which are everywhere I go. And I am tired of living as a hermit (though I fancy myself “ornamental”).
And I’ve used various breath techniques for years–tantric breathing, HA breath for ho’oponopono rituals, the “six healing sounds” (Taoist) practice, and so on–though I often forget to resort to these techniques in times of crisis (like when the stove repair man comes into my home offgassing a scented deodorant).
But I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the uses of language, sounds, breath, and how to put these together to help myself. Obsessing, really. I don’t use the word “desperate” lightly.
The link was to the Perfumed Skull (I know, not a completely auspicious name from my perspective), a blog written by Ben Joffe, “a cultural anthropology Ph.D. candidate” as of 2016. (He’s probably received his doctorate by now.) His June 19, 2016 post is titled “The Magic of Interdependence: A General Description of the View of How Mantras Produce Results.” It concerns a book on mantra healing called The Science of Interdependent Connection Mantra Healing (rten ‘brel sngags bcos thabs kyi rig pa) by Dr Nida Chenagtsang and Yeshe Drolma, Beijing People’s Press, December 2015. The post includes a translation (his translation?) of “Chapter Four: A Rough Explanation of How Mantras Work.” Though there are all kinds of compelling implications for Western magic practitioners in this chapter, here is the part that grabbed my attention, because it may be of practical value to me:
“As an example of how the way in which breath flows generates results, if, taking the mantra-syllables OM AH HUNG, one intones OM when one inhales, AH as one abides (or holds the breath), and HUNG as one exhales, the three-fold arising, entering and abiding of the rlung flows in the proper way, and as a result this is greatly beneficial for the body. Through the good qualities of the proper movement of the constitutive elements, five winds, as well as life-bearing and upward-flowing (winds), bodily illness is cured (and) the constitutive elements are balanced. It (also) endows one with the good quality of mental happiness. These are the reasons that what are called the three Vajra seed-syllables are extolled by all mantra-holders or ngakpa as the highest of mantras. Moreover, intoning ‘HA’ and expelling HA! with a strong sigh for diseases of the vital and heart-winds, for mental discomfort, memory loss, mental agitation or anxiety directly expels stale rlung in the life-force channel(s) from out the body and thereby cures disease.”
[The above also credited by Ben Joffe as from ‘The Science of Dependent-Origination Mantra Healing’ (rten ‘brel sngags bcos rig pa), written by Nyida Heruka and Yeshe Drolma, 2015, mi rigs dpe skrun khang, pp. 36-52.]
I am particularly struck by the instructions to inhale, hold, and exhale each syllable. In all the neotantric workshops and pujas I’ve ever attended, not once we were we ever instructed to OM on an inhale. (So, is a little–neotantric–knowledge a dangerous or an ineffective thing?)
The authors say “reciting the three Vajra seed-syllables (OM AH HUNG) balances the breath and resolves sickness.” I have tried this now a few times, in the recommended manner, and it will definitely take practice. To generate the mantra syllable “Ah” while holding my breath is no easy feat! And I have to take gulps of air between each series of syllables. I am going to practice this a lot and see what happens.
I am also staring hard at the chapter’s reference to “mantras for poisoning,” because poisoning is exactly what we are all experiencing at this time, on this planet. Do I sense a practice that might be useful for transforming the toxic effect of the unwise alchemies? What would happen if many practitioners gathered together to ease the poisoning of a place, with such a mantra? I want very badly to understand this.
Finally I am happy to find this sentence as well: “One’s own mind and the minds of others are made sick through harsh words, and conversely, expressing pleasant words can gladden others’ hearts.” I was attempting to address this very topic earlier this week in my blog post, “Try a Little Tenderness.”
I notice that toxic and uncivil words and harsh sounds are as ubiquitous as toxic chemicals in modern American culture. There are so many ways to make and keep us sick. But perhaps somewhere in a skillful use of our breath, and mantras of seed syllables, and the weilding of pleasant words, there may lie a little more healing for me and for all of you too.
As always, comments are very welcome. Thank you, readers!
Sometimes snark is where I park, but I’m less and less enamored with those who consistently bludgeon others with harsh verbal assessments, in the name of whatever. I prefer civil discourse, manners, tact, and even wit. Part of this is personal preference, part is professional training. And in a time when so much communication takes place on the internet, without the complexities and subtext of nonverbal and visual cues, I believe it behooves us to weigh our words and how we wield them.
I have a book of Hawaiian proverbs, called ‘Ōlelo No‘eau, collected by the great scholar Mary Kawena Pukui. Here is one that has always stayed with me:
I ka ‘ōlelo no ke ola, i ka ‘ōlelo nō ka make.
Pukui’s translation: Life is in speech, death is in speech.
Ahapunanaleo.org translation: In the language is life. In the language is death.
The meaning of both translations is clear: “Words can heal; words can destroy.”
My copy of ‘Ōlelo No‘eau was given to me by my ho’oponopono kumu (teacher), Ramsay Taum of O’ahu. Ho’oponopono is a traditional conflict resolving and forgiveness ritual (please avoid the appropriated and commodified version sold by white people). Kumu Taum gave the book to me as a gift for helping to pull together a workshop for him in Berkeley, CA, many long years ago. He inscribed it with words that are also good to review:
E ho’oulu i ke no’ono’o ke kino a me ka uhane.
Protect, preserve and care for life.
Right now, as I write, I am seated in front of my living room window. Mt. Konocti has been obscured by mist but blue sky patches are beginning to appear and parts of the mountain are being revealed. The mist also loves to move close to the surface of the lake, so I can see it gliding (north west?) above it just a block away, beyond the nearby trees I see clearly. I know that the pelican flocks, egrets and other water birds are feeling that same mist glide over their feathers as they sit in the water.
And at the moment, I am one mixed up human being, trying to make sense of people and where I am. I am hoping for a little mist removal of my own. I feel it glide over my eyes as I strain for vision.
In Hawai’i, which has a people and a culture colonized and brutalized by folks like me, I did not find the life I was hoping for, a happy ending with a great love, a life which was filled with people who lived with such proverbs and thoughts in their heart. Yes, a few people do live that way, but overall I was mostly conscious of my own intrusion, my own lack of suitability there. I was mostly lonely, always homesick, and often in truly deep despair. I could not feel cared for, though I tried to care for others. And spiritually, the message (which I had to accept with good grace and a sense of the inevitable) was “go back to your ancestors.”
(And the “great love?” It was pau. Unknown to me, it had run most of its course before I even arrived on Hawai’i island.)
Sitting in my jungle home, I got the message at last. I prepared my departure. I set aside the Pele chant I’d been learning and offering in my final months in Hawai’i. I took rocks that had been given to me by that Hawaiian love and gave them back to the land, with discreet ceremonies of thanks. I placed some of those rocks in the Ahalanui Warm Ponds, now covered by last year’s lava flow. Pele took them back in truth, just as she took back the delicate little lava tube fragment that had been taken by Michael Rossman, and which I also returned to that area after his death.
So in the last quarter of 2017 I left Hawai’i in a financially devastating and physically brutal manner. I settled here in Lake County, CA. My body still suffers damage from the physical exertion of packing up an entire house, alone. Parts of my heart are still in tatters. But I took the inevitable beating knowing that a fresh adventure awaited. I just didn’t know how lonely–and yet rewarding–this next phase would be.
Since my return, I’ve been working with a few deities in the Norse pantheon, as well as exploring the “ancestral medicine” (lineage healing work) offered by Daniel Foor, which I have mentioned so often in this blog. I am learning as much as I can. The Norse heritage and traditions, described as “hyper-masculine” by Jackson Crawford? They’re brutal, man!
I turn again to proverbs to try to show you what I mean. Instead of e aloha kekahi i kekahi (love one another), the “Havamal” (known as “The Counsel of Odin” in The Poetic Edda) says: “Do not sleep in the arms of a sorceress or else she will lock your limbs” (113) (Jackson Crawford’s 2015 translation, which I have at last).
(And here I am, steeped in witchery, oathed now to Loki the “mother of witches!”)
Now obviously I’ve just cherry-picked two proverbs to illustrate differences between two wildly different cultures. However the ancient Hawaiian culture was not all sweetness and light and aloha. There’s plenty of snark in ‘Ōlelo No‘eau: “Kamali’i hupe kole” means “runny-nosed brats” (1471). A lazy person is said to be “huli ke alo i luna, helu i ka ‘a’aho”–“lying face up and counting the rafters” (1141). And the bone-breaking Hawaiian martial art known as Lua (also taught by Kumu Ramsay Taum) sometimes uses shark tooth weapons. It’s brutal, man!
And the Northern traditions are not without moderation and kindness. There are parts of the Havamal which counsel mindful speech: “you will often get repayment in kind for the words you speak to others” (65). There’s even an echo of the Hawaiian view on the death-dealing power of language: “I saw a bad woman’s words bite a man in the neck–a lying tongue was his death and not even with good cause” (118).
So I ponder, wondering why I am drawn to both these traditions, among others. How do I reconcile my deep craving for community aloha with steely notions of personal honor and individualism? In some ways, it comes down to a sense of psychic temperture. Hawaiian traditions seem “warm,” even the less pleasant parts. Norse traditions seem “cold”–even when hospitable and pleasant.
Hawaiians have a multi-layered tradition of language, known as kaona. As you can see by the examples above, language that is multi-layered and allusive is just as apt as blunt, unadorned statements. And yet the Norse also have a tradition of kennings, poetic and fanciful names for most of their deities which contrast with the stark advice offered in the Havamal.
But as a counselor who uses hypnosis in my work, I am also quite aware of the power of language, how it can impact people consciously, unconsciously, and somatically. Some people respond well to authoritarian commands and direct suggestions. Some will only respond well to indirect suggestions and permissive language. I am the latter person. An authoritarian command brings out my aggression, not compliance.
Words can trigger states of sympathetic nervous system response (fight or flight) or lull us back into a calmer parasympathetic nervous system state (sometimes known as “rest and digest” or “feed and breed”). But mostly, people seem to listen better when they are calmer and don’t feel under attack.
In other words, an allusive (and slightly humorous) comment about “counting the rafters” might be more effective in getting a languid teen to take out the garbage than a sharp remark about “lazy bones,” which might cause resistance and defensiveness.
Because I’ve seen the effects of language in a professional capacity, I don’t recommend blunt force verbal trauma applied to a person or a situation in the name of honesty or “tough love.” I think that “tough love” can only work when the people involved have an established intimacy–family, close friends, lovers–so that the reality of truly committed caring is what enables the troubled person to hear the stark truth. That caring will come through nonverbal and visual cues, to soften the pain of the words.
I do believe in the necessity of stark truths, yes, but how these truths are conveyed can vary. Stark truths can be delivered with surgical precision and timing, with compassion and empathy based on how much that person is capable of hearing and listening in that moment. Otherwise, what remains may be emotions of shame, embarrassment or anger and not the important truth that needed to be heard or acted upon.
In some cases, language which is too blunt may be received as aggressive and uncaring. This is a good article about the effects of aggressive and/or abusive language. The article references studies which show “the circuitry for physical and emotional pain appears to be the same” and also that “the effect of verbal aggression is greater than the expression of love.”
All things considered, I feel that erring on the side of caring or indirect language is generally a more responsible and effective way to communicate.
A Perfect Case for Ho’oponopono
I know that most people have said stupid and hurtful things when they’ve been hurt themselves. My “love affair” with Hawai’i and with a particular person there ended with a last example of words meant to “kill.”
There were a few days at the end of last year when I actually thought we would reconcile, under somewhat different circumstances. During that time I confided about my new spiritual path and how rewarding I was finding it. But when it became obvious that reconciliation was not going to happen after all, it was painful. My former love, a life-long opponent of the “blood quantum” policies that adversely affected him and many Kanaka Maoli (Hawaiians), declared that his kids, who are part Scandinavian, have more blood-right to my current spiritual practices than I do, because they have more Scandinavian DNA. It was probably the strangest and most unexpected parting shot I could have imagined.
It makes me wonder how he could have put up with me for all those years, when my interest in supporting Hawaiian causes and learning about the culture was so keen? I had no “koko” (Hawaiian blood) but he used to acknowledge and even praise my spiritual connection to Hawai’i. He encouraged it and it also formed a basis for our own relationship. But that connection certainly had no foundation in my DNA!
That parting shot was made of words designed to kill–to kill my self-confidence and my self-esteem. To make me ashamed. To make me feel a fraud. And to make me pay for leaving him. However, since I am strong with my practices and strong with my patron deity, Loki, nothing died as I read those words except my belief in this man as a someone who truly lived by his stated convictions, his word. Otherwise, he would have respected the honor of my path just as I had always respected his.
And so, after this long ramble, I wish one thing. I wish that we would save our harshest words for those who are truly our enemies and that for the rest of the people who touch our lives (even ex-lovers and people on social media and those who make us feel impatient or annoyed), that we use speech that is thoughtful, kind, tender, and face-saving, even as we must sometimes deliver a stark truth. Because we can make life with our words, or death.
Let’s all try a little tenderness. And I’ll go make some ho’oponopono…
Physcially and spiritually I am grappling with the concept of “home.” Who or what is home to me? I am quite lucky right now. I have a physical home of my own. This safe harbor is not something I take for granted even on ordinary days. However the Mendocino Complex fires of last summer alerted me to the precariousness of my current security. All that shelters and sustains me could be gone in a flash. I am so grateful that firefighters managed to save our neighborhood and to minimize damage to most of the homes and communities that circle this lake. Even on this rainy day, I don’t forget that I live in a potential tinderbox.
(And here I am, oathed to a trickster god of fire…)
Is “Home” an Overwhelming Love of Place?
We moved very often when I was a kid and I’ve moved more often than I liked as an adult. So for me a sense of “home” based on locale is unreliable. Yet I become very attached to houses and geographic locations. Very. I’ve lived almost my entire life as a homesick exile, yearning first for the waters of Waikiki and the view of the Ko’olau Range that I remember from a brief (but significant) period of “small kid days” on O’ahu. Later I desperately yearned to return to La Jolla after we were evicted from a La Jolla Cove beach house slated for demolition. I was a teenager then and had woven strong connections with the waters, sands, and cliffs, as well friends and the town itself. I still have a vivid sense of what it was like to feel the air in that place and to be surrounded by friends within walking distance.
In my twenties I moved north. In San Francsico there is a building that my uncle owned. I lived for several years in the studio apartment below his flat. It’s the place where I designed and made punk rock vinyl clothing. It’s the place where I’d go upstairs for long wonderful conversations with my uncle before he died. It’s the place where I later spent ten weeks on strict bedrest for pre-term labor, staring at the knotty pine paneling all day while my husband was at work. It’s the first home my first child ever knew, sleeping in a crib in the kitchen. Occupation of that apartment was guaranteed to me in my uncle’s will and now that I’m single again and getting on in years, I could certainly use it–it’s close to health care and other helpful resources that would ease my social isolation–yet certain family members refuse to let me return, due to their greed for high rents.
Across the street from that building there is a house where I lived in the early days of my children’s lives. It’s the first home I ever (co)owned. I gave birth to my second child right there in that house. In the front yard there is a Cecil Brunner rose bush. The placenta from my second pregnancy is buried in that soil beneath the roses. I can never forget that, the birthplace of my second child.
That San Francisco street where I lived, in those two separate places, is in my bones and I ache with the memories of it. I remember gathering blackberries in the summer with my children, on Kite Hill two blocks away…
I also miss that house and neighborhood in Albany where my kids later grew up and where my family ultimately unraveled… I ache for that place too. It was a place where I could walk my youngest to school. I once painted a tile portrait of my only little dog, Iggy, and it is part of a mural in the park across the street.
I miss my house on Mano Street in Pahoa, Hawai’i, the place where I went after we sold the Albany house, while my divorce was in its final stages. I don’t regret the din of coqui frogs at night but I do miss the feral cats on my porch every morning. This was such a brief home, one that held all my dying hopes for a final love. Even so, I spent every moment of my life in that place homesick for my kids in California and yearning for the sight of an acorn on the ground. Yet I loved that house and its bit of land with all my heart. Sometimes I feel the air of that place on my skin and smell again the rotting strawberry guavas in the jungle. I taste the coconuts that would fall on the lawn.
So here again in California I am still exiled, living 150 miles away from the San Francisco Bay Area where my kids live, as well as several friends and a couple remnants of family. Even in exile I’m attempting once again to make “a home” and a life for myself. I love my house here and the view of Mt. Konocti and the lake. I write constantly. I watch long strings of birds fly by. Turkeys stride through my yard. Deer feast on geraniums. Out back I have my temple to Loki. I have great neighbors. I’m meeting good people. Yes, I’m in love with this house, built the year I was born. But the people I love seldom come here. I don’t quite feel I belong. Can this truly be my home?
Or Do People Make the Home?
So even though I have an intense relationship with places and fall in love with them easily and deeply, I am more likely to equate family with “home.” Growing up I was sure of my place with my mother and siblings. As an adult with my own children, I was sure of the family I’d co-created. I spent much time “making a home” while the children’s father worked to support us. But neither of these situations was sustainable. In both cases, a great deal of that surety of “home” has unraveled because key relationships have crumbled. And also, my grown children are busy in their lives.
Some people say that friends who are chosen family can be more family than blood kin. I wish I could have that experience of really dedicated chosen family and/or intentional community. But though I have several excellent friends (some old, some new), only one of them has viewed me as “family” to my knowledge. Certainly they are devoted to me and I am devoted to them, but in some cases they have families of their own, and in other cases, are clearly friends, not family. And none of them are potential co-creators of a groovy intentional community of elders. I guess I’ve given up on that dream.
So are the actions of “making a home” what matters? If so, I am mostly occupied with making a home for my cats, and though they are definitely dear “family,” they’re cats. It’s been very hard to understand these last three years that I am no longer making a home for my children, not even a vacation home for their weekend amusement, as I’d hoped. All I can do at this point is leave the property to them when I die and hope they don’t bicker about it too much.
So if home is not a place, and it’s not even people, and it’s kind of about cats, what else is there? Home is me in my body. Home is my unseen community. “Making a home” means living inside my DNA construct, which is “home” to countless microbes. It becomes the act of welcoming ancestors and deities, who represent other kinds of enduring relationships. Feeling at home on a piece of land means making offerings to wights and expressing gratitude and good will, no matter where I am.
Humans will come and go as they will, Houses will remain or they’ll crumble or burn. So I must carry the idea of home in my body and see to the needs of my four-footed “children” who are sadly not immortal. Worship is portable, as is creativity. That’s pretty much all I can see.