Summer Solstice, SDF, and Me

Some of you reading this are old friends. Some of you are new friends. Some of you are probably here wondering who the heck I am after yesterday’s announcement.

So I’m going to do what I do best, and tell you a little story.

In late November of 2010, I joined ADF. (How I got there is another story!) Back then I lived in northern New Mexico, in the mountains east of the Rio Grande Valley. Though it was a beautiful and magical place, it was cold, it was isolated, and it was very lonely. My husband and I were living in a 200-year-old fortified plaza, “modernized” by our land-lady, who ran a bed-and-breakfast out of the plaza and worked the attached farm and orchard. I’ve never lived so close to the land, but just then the land was frozen and settling in for the long hibernation of the mountains in winter. The Earth Mother in all her beauty was surrounded me, but she was hunkered down for a nap, and I was more or less left alone to find my path.

It seemed I wasn’t the only person to join around that time and feel the ache of solitude. A number of us—some of you who still read this blog!—shared our blogs and formed our own community. I pretty quickly struck up a friend with Teo Bishop, whose blog Bishop in the Grove quickly became much more than an ADF Dedicant journal.

On he went to blog for Patheos and Huffington Post and interviews and all sorts of amazing things. It was a pleasure to watch, and I continued to take a little bit of pride in our early correspondence about the nature of sacrifice, meditation, deities, and all the ‘ologies and ‘isms of Druidry.

Then, last August, he contacted me about an idea he had, a way to help solitaries. In an odd bit of synchronicity, I had just returned from the Summerland gathering, my first ADF festival, where I discovered just how difficult it can be to be the newcomer in a long-standing community. I wanted, after seeing how it felt to know no one, to help solitaries feel like a part of the community I found myself looking at from the outside. When I embarked on the pre-clergy training program, I knew I wanted to serve solitaries. I went into last fall with a new vision for my path.

Over the next months, Teo worked with ADF to establish the Solitary Druid Fellowship. I like to think I did my bit, advocating for the project with the few ADF leaders I know, but mostly it was Teo’s baby and Teo’s determination that carried it forward. SDF took off, and has been successfully offering liturgy and community to solitary druids since last winter’s solstice.

And now, here we are at the summer solstice.

In another odd bit of synchronicity, not a month ago I chose to leave my grove and return to solitary practice—and then Teo approached me to take over leadership of SDF.

I said yes, of course, and we’ve all arrived at this blog, wondering who the heck Kristin McFarland is and what she has to offer solitaries.

I don’t have a resume to offer. I don’t have a long list of credentials or a thick black-book of contacts. I’m just me, offering my hopes and dreams for ADF and for solitary druids on all paths.

Like I always do, I slept through this morning’s sunrise. Every Solstice I think, “Hey, I’ll get up and do a sunrise ritual! It’ll be amazing!” And then it never happens. (Last year, I was in Mexico on my honeymoon, and I planned to do a beach devotional at sunrise on the Solstice. That would have been amazing. At least I have the dream of it, if not the memory.)

I slept late, and when I got up I had to putter through drinking the two cups of tea that make me functional enough to act like a civilized human being. Then I exchanged some texts with my husband. I brushed my hair. I read my RSS feeds. Then my cat barfed everywhere and I had to clean it up.  And then the maintenance crew started running the weed-whacker outside my apartment, and then the garbage truck came and started honking at them, and then, and then, and then.

By the time I got to collecting my ritual implements, I was already feeling a little frazzled. I forgot a cup for the waters of life and had (not for the first time) to consecrate the water bottle I keep on my nightstand. My offerings of incense went out repeatedly. The barfy cat tried to jump on my lap. I dropped my binder. I forgot what I wanted to say.

But all the noise from outside dropped away. It was just me, sharing liturgy with every druid in the Fellowship. There was silence and sacred space, because I created it.

That is the magic of solitary practice. We don’t need a coven or a circle or Stonehenge to create meaningful ritual. We just need our intent.

I tell you all this not to demean myself or lower the bar of expectations. I’m telling you this because we are all together in the effort it takes to create the sacred in the midst of the mundane. We may be walking different paths, but they lead to the same place, out of time and out of space: in the end, we are all in that sacred space, sharing silence, sharing intent, and sharing our worship.

For me, Druid ritual will always be practicing my worship alone at my altar in the frozen pink foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, and knowing that Druids everywhere were sharing in my work. Even apart, we’re together when we step into the sacred.

If you’re reading this, thank you. Thank you for putting faith—or at least curiosity—in me. And thank you for sharing ritual with me, wherever and whenever you do it.

Mindfulness

In case you needed another reason to cultivate mindfulness in your practice, learn from my example:

Tonight, as I sat down to my nightly devotional, I realized the well on my altar needed topping off. Thinking of a big decision I still need to make, I absentmindedly picked up the bottle I keep on the floor next to the altar, and poured a hearty measure of water… into the pillar candle that serves as my fire.

*facepalm*

All was well, and I was able to light my fire with no more than a few warning sputters and crackles, but believe me—I kept my mind on the present as I performed the rest of my ritual.

The ‘Shoulds’ and Individual Agency

I’ve been seeing a lot of chatter on the ADF mailing lists about the ways we should live, the ways we should change, what we should do because the ‘Ancients’ did it; a lot of people are concerned about the right way of developing a hearth practice, the right way of meditating, even the right way of living.

I find it troubling because ADF is not a religion of dogma: yes, we care what you do in ritual, but we’re not going to tell you how to live. Granted, our principles should guide and shape your way of living, but we’re not going to tell you, “BECOME A VEGAN,” or “ALWAYS OPEN THE GATES AT YOUR HOME ALTAR”.

The clinging to an imagined ancient way of life troubles me, too, and for almost the same reason. Even if ‘the Ancients’ had a uniform lifestyle and religious practice (which they didn’t), they still lived in a completely different world than we do. They ate fruit and meat they could gather and hunt, yes, but they did that because they had to. And they offered blood sacrifice because, well, that’s what they did.

But we don’t have to do either of those things. We have the luxury of eating December clementines shipped from tropical climes. We have the luxury of frozen, pre-prepared meats. We have the luxury of offering expensive fermented beverages instead of blood. Our world is not the world our paleopagan ancestors lived in.

My umpteenth-great-grandmother couldn’t vote. She couldn’t choose to become a fighter pilot. She couldn’t make choices about her world beyond the scope of her own home. She might have died in childbirth, or of appendicitis, or she might have shared my congenital heart condition and died at 27 because she didn’t have the option of life-saving surgery. And her umpteenth-great-grandmother couldn’t even conceive of things like voting, rights, or even luxury.

We have to live in our own world.

Yes, it’s right and pious to want to offer traditional items, but the fact is, we know more now than our ancestors ever did. They would, I think, want us to make safe, responsible choices for ourselves and for our earth.

It all boils down to those words: safe, responsible, and choice.

We need to be safe. We need to keep our planet safe. If that means not offering our own blood without a finger stick or the means some women have, then don’t do it. Don’t go slicing your palm open with a kitchen knife and risking infection and injury. If safe actions mean offering polished rocks or carved wood to the well instead of pollutive silver, then change your behavior. Don’t mindlessly stick to tradition, even when tradition can hurt you.

We need to be responsible. Only we can develop our home practice. Only we can do the work and create relationships with our patrons. Only we make the necessary life-changes and start trying to preserve our Mother Earth. Saying, “Well, how do you do it?” or “How did the Ancients do it?” is declining to take responsibility for your actions. You are giving up your agency in favor of the choices of someone who may not know better.

Finally, you have to choose to pursue right action. You must commit to doing the work, to spending the extra time, to trusting your own educated instincts. Refusing to make your own choices is, again, irresponsible. You must value your own knowledge, experience, and intuition, and you must decide to make your own choices.

The beauty of druidry is that it values our individual agency. By venerating the ancestors, we are honoring the spark which makes us all human, that gives us the knowledge that we must choose responsibly and safely. We live in a different age, now, and our agency comes with a lot more duties: and most of those duties involve making the right, sustainable, safe choices.

Please don’t throw away your agency. It’s the most valuable thing you have. Only you can use it, and it’s the driving force that will put you on a path toward better self-knowledge and a better understanding of your religion.

Autumn Update

I’ve been neglecting you all, haven’t I?

It’s not deliberate: I’ve been incredibly busy so far this fall, so busy I even took a brief break from my grove activities! I’ve been doing twice-daily devotionals, working on some study program excitement, engaging in some interesting druidic correspondence, and even trying my hand at a few small works of magic. I took a quick trip to Three Cranes Grove for the autumn equinox, which was very fun: it’s always a delight to see friends and meet new folks. I’ve also been planning for an upcoming all-night Druid Moon.

And that’s not even mentioning my personal and professional life, where things are really cooking, so much so that I’ve finally succumbed to a nasty autumn cold. Yikes. I thought I’d take advantage of the illness-induced slowdown, though, to put down a few musings here.

I spent some time last week reading Mrs. B’s Guide to Household Witchery, which was a truly charming (haha, oh, puns) book. Most of you who read this blog know I’m not really into hardcore magical-practice, that I feel doubtful about spells, ceremonial magic, grimoires, calling on spirits to do my bidding, and other things of the kind. I’m starting to get over my hebejeebs, though, partly for personal spiritual reasons and partly because I’d like to be able to perform workings for those around me.

Household witchery (or domestic magic: pick your own name) has been my gateway magic, if you will. I enjoy crystals, largely because of their beauty and the symbolic magical correspondences assigned to them, though I’d dispute their New Age healing powers I like herbs for the same reasons, though I do credit them with palliative properties. And household magic capitalizes on common, readily available ingredients like kitchen herbs, seeds, candles, and easy-to-acquire stones.

[Sidebar: That's one aspect of Mrs. B's book that I loved: she recommends common ingredients and offers substitutes for the rarer herbs. For example, she recommends using an Earl Grey tea bag for bergamot. Easy, brilliant, and less costly than trying to track down herbs no one keeps in their pantry.]

Herbal magic, candle magic, and the creation of oils or incense: these, to me, all fall into the domestic category. I’d like to create a few basics to use for purifying and consecrating tools, soliciting inspiration, asking for protection, or banishing negativity.

I’m a complete newbie at this side of Druidry, though, so I’m learning as I go. One thing that’s already tripping me up a bit is balancing the spiritual and practical aspects of magic. Am I praying for aid, when asking for inspiration, or putting my own intent for inspiration onto, say, a candle, and willing it into life?

It’s a distinction I need to make for myself, I think. Hmm.

Sustainable Offerings

The debate recently went round the ADF e-mail lists about the practice of offering silver to the well. Is it good, because it was traditional, and honoring tradition is respectful? Is it bad, because even the tiniest chemical alteration from the introduction of silver to a body of water may alter the biochemistry of the environment?

Well, I completely missed the boat on that argument (again), given that it happened almost three weeks ago. I am, dear readers, that busy. Forgive me. While one of these days I’d like to talk about the biochemistry of silver in water and the sustainability of using silver generally, today I’m after something a little more nebulous.

What, I ask, is in an offering?

I’ve started doing twice-daily devotionals, and the offerings are—literally—piling up. I don’t feel right performing ritual without making offerings (OCD, much, Kristin?), so I find myself making dry offerings of barley, oats, herbs, and cornmeal quite regularly. But, as they say, all beings enjoy variety, so I like to throw beer, whiskey, wine, and milk in there as well.

The trouble is, though, that those things can’t just sit in my offering bowl the same way grains and herbs do—they ruin the surface of the bowl, and they attract pests. While I try to be friendly to the minuscule invaders of my home, encouraging the drain flies is simply unacceptable.

I can’t run the offerings out to the woods near my apartment after every devotional, either. I’m usually in my pajamas and either falling into bed or scampering off to work immediately after my mini-rituals. My houseplants can only take so many alcoholic offerings, and I don’t think the downstairs neighbors appreciate it when I chuck offerings off the balcony.

And I just don’t feel right about putting offerings in the trash. It seems disrespectful, somehow, to put in the garbage something I offered to the Kindred… and anything I put in the garbage is contributing to the land use and waste-disposal issues troubling our communities. But is putting out wine-soaked barley good for the environment, either? It can’t be doing my local bird-life any good.

In the end, offerings are loaded with the following factors:

  1. A desire to please the beings receiving the offerings (through variety, immediacy, etc.).
  2. A need to make my offerings sustainable, in all meanings of the term.
  3. A question of what is actually “happening” to the physical offerings I make to non-physical entities.

So what’s a practical pagan to do?

[Perhaps I should create a series of blog posts entitled "Practical Paganism." I rather like this idea, actually.]

Someone once told me that the magic of sacrifice comes from the moment of sacrifice, not from the sacrificed object itself. The value is in the act of giving, not in the gift itself. But what does that mean, exactly?

Well, I know the gods aren’t enjoying a bowl of oatmeal at my bedroom altar while I sleep—despite our insistence on literal gift-giving, the act is symbolic all the same. I would never switch to making “symbolic” gestures and calling my intentions good enough, though, because that’s far too easy. Think of it in literal terms: If, every time you went to a friend’s house and she said she “wished” she could offer you a beer, you wouldn’t really appreciate it, would you? Especially if, on that promise of a future beer, you kept giving her beers of your own?

Hypothetical beers aside, we must actual commit to giving to the Beings we love—that’s where the magic of the *ghosti relationship really happens. We must actually give if we expect to receive: it’s only polite, after all.

I see a few solutions:

  1. MAKE SUSTAINABLE OFFERINGS. It may seem a little too efficient to offer gifts pleasing to both ancestors AND living birds, but that option is far better than waste. Choose to give birdseed to the nature spirits,  beautiful stones you find on the ground or plain clear water to the deities—while variety is the spice of life, it’s possible to rotate between a variety of sustainable offerings.
  2. OFFER NON-PHYSICAL GIFTS. Write a poem. Do a dance. Sing a song. Don’t always do it spontaneously and call it a gift (lest you run the risk of appearing to the gods as the goofy three-year-old who thinks his aunt wants to see him perform a “choreographed” dance: funny, perhaps, but not exactly mutually beneficial). Instead, write, compose, and perform true praise offerings.
  3. DISPOSE OF OFFERINGS IN CREATIVE WAYS. Incense isn’t necessarily the best for your lungs or the environment, but it does burn away, and if you choose locally-made, eco-friendly incense, it’s burns away semi-cleanly. Compost the remains: ash works in compost (often), as do a variety of foods and drinks. Don’t just throw out food and call it an offering. Instead, bury it, compost it, or make it useful to the environment. If the act of giving is the sacred moment, this won’t count as “taking the gift away”: it’s not quite the same as donating offered silver or money, because the only entity that benefits is the Earth herself.
  4. MAKE PERMANENT OFFERINGS. (This one’s a little fuzzier, and some may disagree with me.) Offer time and energy into making representations of your patron deities or the Kindred: carve a stone, make a doll, write a song! Be mindful of your crafting time, of course, and make sure that you truly offer time and service to the Being in question. Even if you “benefit” from having these permanent offerings, that’s still time you can’t take back, and (hopefully) you’ve made something pleasing to the Kindred

What other ways can you think of for making offerings sustainable?