Yearly Archives: 2007

Lament for Darcy Gen

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“Weaver, Weaver, weave her thread
whole and strong into your web,
Healer, Healer, heal her pain
in love may she return again.”

—Tune Scottish trad., words by Starhawk

“Friends were calling up all day yesterday
All emotions and abstractions,
It seems we all live so close to that line
And so far from satisfaction.”

—Joni Mitchell, “Song for Sharon”

I first met Darcy Gen when we were barely in our 20s. She had just moved out to the West Coast to be with her sister Margann, my best friend and housemate. Darcy was escaping a life of dead-end jobs, alcohol, and abusive boyfriends back East, and we folded her into our new family with all the enthusiasm and optimism of youth.

It took a few years for Darcy to find her footing, but she had the courage to look life in the eye and rise to any challenge. She struggled with the low self esteem that caused her to seek out men who were no good for her. She knew she had a problem with drinking and hauled herself out of those patterns too, finding new strength in recovery.

In time she met a decent guy, and they got married and moved to the Sierra foothills. She connected with the social services community in her new home, and found fulfilling work helping the victims of domestic violence. Over time, as her first and then second marriages crumbled, Darcy Gen remained committed to stopping the cycles of poverty and abuse.

At some point in the story she started going by her middle name, Genevieve. Like a good friend, I asked her whether she wanted me to stop calling her Darcy. She said no, she liked knowing there were people who had known her long enough to remember when she was still Darcy Gen.

She had a son by her first husband, and somewhere 1986 Cabrillo nursing school graduationI have a picture of Jeremiah and Lyra at 2-3 months, lying side by side in his crib when Margann and I drove up to visit Darcy after his birth. This picture was taken back in 1986, when all of us celebrated Margann’s graduation from nursing school in our boisterous way. Darcy is by her side.

Adolescence proved a wildly turbulent time for both Jeremiah and his mother. Last year on my birthday I got the news that Jeremiah had committed suicide. It is a parent’s worst nightmare, and my heart went out to Darcy Gen that year, as every young man with a hooded sweatshirt walking down the road looked like her son.

Yesterday, the news was even worse. Still blaming herself for his death after a year and a half, and succumbing to the family demon of alcoholism again, Darcy took her own life this week.

In a year filled with losses, I am reeling from this latest blow. I hardly know what to say, and I don’t want this to become the Blog o’ Bummers, but I couldn’t turn the wheel of this season without remembering my old friend and wishing her peace at last.

I will start out 2008 by going to her memorial next weekend, sharing in her sister’s grief and being present, like families do. And I dearly wish for this to be the last lament of 2007. Surely a day’s reprieve is not too much to ask.

Putting Names to Phases

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Well, all our vigiling worked! The sun is now rising earlier and setting later, with no end in sight until next Summer Solstice. My only regret about life continuing for another year is having to live through the insanity of a national election, not to mention the insanity of more 2012 predictions. Haven’t we had enough of the End of the World by now? I’ve still got pinto beans stockpiled from Y2K! In 2008 I think we should declare a moratorium on all wacky doomsday/super-evolution scenarios, especially those fueled by anything Daniel Pinchbeck says.

Anyway, that is not at all what I wanted to write about tonight. Instead, I would like to highlight a great new blog post by my friend Gus DiZerega. Bravely attending public Solstice rituals so you don’t have to, Gus managed to turn what could have been an occasion for heavy drinking into a really thoughtful essay on Pagan ritual and theology.

At the heart of the article are two issues that I would love to see discussed more broadly at a Remaining salon in the months to come: what is the role (if any) of science in Pagan invocation, liturgy, and meditation; and why exactly do we do ritual? Is it, as Gus says,

to bring a person into greater harmony with the Gods at many levels, to offer honor to them, to encourage their actual presence among us, to seek their teaching, and in some cases to do magickal workings.

Or is it for something else? Some political purpose maybe, or as Barbara Ehrenreich says, to fulfill our need for collective joy? There is a lot here to think about, and I do hope that the new year sees an increase in people thinking and talking about important issues, including these.

Meanwhile, may the dawning of the New Year bring you close to the numinous, and to all your loved ones. Stay warm, travel safely, and give thanks for all that is splendid in this vital, living world.

A Poem for the End of the Year

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Another year of losses, of big questions that elbow their way into the room and refuse to leave. A young man who grew up down the street and went to school with my kids was stabbed to death at a party this weekend. Two young men charged with his murder had a brother killed in Iraq at the beginning of the war.

What happens to kids? What makes one succumb while another one thrives? I don’t understand it, and all my pat answers, fears and suspicions merely mask the fact that I simply don’t know. I can’t keep my kids safe now that they’re grown, and the more beautifully they blossom the more I am aware of how fragile our hold is on this life we cherish.

This year the shadow of death fell very close to my family. I lost a brother-in-law, a beloved uncle, and just a few days ago an aunt—and these are merely the deaths I can remember off the top. As my friend Oak writes so eloquently, it has also been a year of stripping away old belief systems, pulling the plug on all the ways that our stories impede our vision. So when I saw this poem in the New Yorker this morning I decided it was the right one to mark the longest night. I’ll see you all again when the sun rises through it.

Alba Red

Hung vial I.V. morphine drip

hummingbird feeder
where the cats can’t get it

long brake light occluded in billowing exhaust
in the chill predawn fog of a final
wish in the world,

and the sun rising through it.

—Richard Kenney

Inscrutable Lyrics and Other Mysteries

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Back in the early 90s I came across a really amusing article in an obscure little magazine. The article was by this guy who had always wondered what the lyrics were in Manfred Mann’s version of the Bruce Springsteen song Blinded By The Light. You know, the part where they sing “Blinded by the light/wrapped up like a…” or “revved up like a…” What the heck were they singing, anyway?

It was the author’s method of finding out what the lyrics were, in those pre-Google days, that made the article so amusing. He went to the Rainbow Cattle Co. bar in Guerneville one evening and, yelling to be heard over the blare of dance music, asked several patrons what they thought the lyrics were. The resulting mini-interviews were hilarious, and the best part is that he never did answer his own question.

I thought of that article today as I turned on the car radio and started singing along to Elton John’s Rocket Man. I was doing okay through the verses and the chorus, but then something bad happened: “And I think it’s going to be a long long time/Till touchdown brings me round again to find/I’m not the man they think I am at home/Oh no, no, no./I’m a rocket man,/Rocket man, burning down the….” Oh no. What is that guy singing?

The worst part about my moment of mumbling is that a few months ago I had run into the same situation, and solved it by going home and immediately googling the lyrics. You would think I’d remember them now after printing them out and saving them, but no. That’s not how memory works in middle age. So for all those of you who are still with me here, the missing line is “Burning down his fuse out here alone.” Got that? Write it down somewhere so you won’t forget, not that that will help you when you need it.

My afternoon in the car was replete with mysteries, fortunately none of them the expensive kind involving mechanics, but mysteries nonetheless. The main one that I’ll pose here concerns people who are merging onto a roadway.

There are people who, if there is a car approaching in the lane they want to enter, will wait for that car to pass before venturing out into traffic. There are other people who, upon seeing an oncoming car, will wait till the very last minute then dash out into the lane just ahead of the car, forcing the driver (let’s say it’s me) to brake suddenly to accommodate them.

All that is to be expected, even here on the outskirts of the Bay Area. People used to city driving bring their harried pace with them even out on country roads, and with the busy lives we all lead it is a reasonable assumption that a driver who makes such a hurried move is in fact in a hurry. What baffles me is what follows.

According to my painstaking research, two things are likely to ensue. The most likely scenario is that within a mile, that car will have to make a left turn. It will slow way down, then force everyone behind it to come to a complete stop while it blocks the single lane road waiting to turn. This occurs so often that even my skeptical teenage daughter has given up arguing with me about it.

The second most likely scenario is that this driver now wants to move slower than everyone behind him (let’s say it’s a him). Slower on the curves, slower on the straightaway. In fact, my research reveals that the only place this driver will speed up is when the double yellow turns to a dotted yellow to allow for passing. Suddenly, this driver will experience a surge in life force the likes of which he has not felt in decades. His foot will find the floor, his jalopy will lurch forward, and we won’t catch up with him again until the center line is a double yellow again.

As a student of life’s mysteries I know that drivers and singers, like other mortals, view their actions in ways which make them seem perfectly reasonable. And as a dedicated relativist for much of my adulthood, normally I would summon the empathy to at least understand their (imagined) point of view, no matter how much I disagreed with it.

A funny thing has been happening to me lately, though. I find that I have less patience for versions of reality that are clearly at odds with physics, not to mention common sense. And in a surprising twist to the doctrine of self-empowerment I have stood by for so many years, I find the apex of its expression in my newfound ability to tell people that they are wrong. Just plain jackassedly wrong, if not completely off their rockers.

It feels like a spiritual awakening, the sense of rightness and satisfaction I get in speaking my mind. Of course I am still capable of tact and diplomacy, probably more so than most. But after all these years I have come to value telling the truth over being nice, and as a result I would say that I am healthier and happier than I have ever been. This too is a mystery, a blessed one that I am grateful for every single day.

Chasing Herons

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We had a couple great blustery rainstorms this week, breaking the long sunny spell of late November. I love watching storms come in here on the coast. Each one is different, but there comes a time in the hours preceding the first downfall when I instinctively head outside to make sure everything is covered that needs protection.

The wind comes in so strongly here sometimes that any gate left swinging is in danger of being ripped off its hinges. Tarps covering stacked firewood have to be secured with something heavier than a log, even if the stack is in a secluded corner. Wheelbarrows can stay outside, but not much else.

Yesterday’s storm damage included a beautiful young hawk who showed up stiff as a board on my front porch. Without examining its body too much, I assumed that it broke its neck flying into my house. Once again I was faced with the choice of what to do with the body. Without more shamanic training of that sort I am reluctant to take feathers from the bird, even if I had a use for them (which I don’t). Chucking it in the bushes seems like a coward’s way out, but could be justified in a circle-of-life kind of way. If I knew anyone who wanted a beautiful specimen to stuff and use for educational purposes—or any purpose really—I’d happily give it away. But meanwhile it sits sentinel on my porch, above the level of my dog Vince’s inquiring nose, waiting for me to make up my mind.

Vince loves the aftermath of storms the best. He knows that he’ll finally get a good long walk in, and if he’s lucky part of that will be off-leash. The morning after a storm the road where we walk is covered with earthworms which have crawled out of the meadow to escape the saturated soil. Anyone whose beliefs instruct them to save life at all cost would be in despair looking out over this roadway. There is no way that one person could save all those worms from their fate.

Fate comes first in the form of magnificent great blue herons that amble along the road after a storm. I don’t know how they choose which worms to eat and which to pass over, but they certainly seem to be in no hurry to find the choicest ones. They stand motionless in the roadway for a good long part of the time, and as Vince and I start our walk I first do a careful scan to see how many of them there are.

While they remain still, Vince doesn’t seem to notice them at all. But as soon as one of them dips down to pick up another worm, or takes a step away from us as we approach, the chase is on. Vince takes any sign of movement as a starting gun and takes off after the heron. He is quite breathtaking in motion, bounding low over brush and hollows, his body gliding smoothly over the ground, eyes intent on his goal, legs pumping in a long, vigorous stride.

The heron reacts in just the opposite way. It casually unfolds its wings, extending them tip to tip as it gives a little push with its spindly legs. Its wings catch the air and for a few strokes it sails low over the ground. Then just as Vince gets near it rises to four feet, five, maybe twelve feet high in its slow survey of the ground below.

Though it seems to be using only a fraction of the energy Vince is, the heron quickly outpaces my dog. But that doesn’t stop Vince, who at this point is almost possessed with the desire to catch the heron. He will continue running until it disappears from sight, and my only hope is that the heron disappears before Vince jumps the fence into the cow pasture, where he can run through the muck for hours while I call him in vain.

The window for optimal heron dining is fairly small, fortunately for me and my muddy dog. The second and ultimate face of Fate for the stranded earthworms is the sun, which doesn’t need to be all that bright or strong to dry out those worms and leave them darkly crisped and curled on the road by late afternoon.

At that point they are not delectable eating for any animal that I am aware of. They are merely sad commentary on the infinite brutality of Nature, and how inseparable her twins beauty and destruction.

What I’ll Be Doing Over Winter Break

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I’ve always liked the phrase “Winter break” even though I long ago realized that it is simply a kindly old euphemism for “not really a break at all, plus it’s cold outside.” Winter break always includes some great time with my kids and family, my daughter’s birthday, Solstice, Christmas, delicious food, and maybe a day or two of rest if I’m clever about it. But it also means squeezing in as much work time as possible around the edges of all those holy days and holidays.

This year I have a very big task on the work table, one that looks daunting from the outside but will no doubt become manageable once I dive in. I’ll be getting ready to teach my first class as a faculty member at Cherry Hill Seminary.

I’ve known about Cherry Hill for a long time and have recommended it to many Pagans looking for advanced training in public ministry and pastoral counseling. I’ve even hoped to take a few courses myself when I had the time. The faculty is great and the school fills a gaping hole in U.S. Pagan culture. So I was very honored to be asked to take over teaching their course “Children in Contemporary Paganism” this Spring semester.

The course was developed by Brighde Indigo, who brought together some incredible resources and created such a good outline for the course that I couldn’t think of anything to add or change about it at all. But while the syllabus is intact, that still leaves me the work of reviewing all the readings and developing lecture materials for each class.

My winter work is also shaping up to be a deja vu experience. The main class text is one I co-authored about ten years ago, when I had a small house filled with five bright, charming, demanding children on the cusp of young adulthood. Now, with most of those kids safely through their teen years and only one still left at home, I have an entirely different perspective on raising children, Pagan or no, and on what it means to have a community which supports their journeys to adulthood. (I’m also way more relaxed in general.)

So in the weeks ahead I will be a student of my own book, remembering not only the material itself but who I was when I participated in creating it. As I write the class lectures I will once again be mining my own life experience for what may be of use to others in helping raise Pagan children. This process of self-reflection and summation, of zooming back and forth from the big picture to situational specifics, finding the seeds of wisdom in a complex narrative, is thrilling to me. I expect to learn just as much from this teaching gig as anyone who enrolls in the course.

I love teaching, and I find teaching adults particularly rewarding. This position at Cherry Hill is a wonderful way to combine my decades of devotion to childraising in the Pagan community with my love of telling other people what to do. I mean, supporting people in making informed, intelligent decisions in their communities. Yes, I’m sure that’s what I mean. And if you know of anyone who would like to join me in this grand project, registration is now open!

Dreams in the News

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In late October of this year, The New York Times published a series of articles on sleep and dreaming which are worth checking out. Below are links to each of the four articles, along with highlights, anecdotes, and some commentary. If anyone spots other articles on dreams in the news, I’d love to hear about them.

“In the Dreamscape of Nightmares, Clues to Why We Dream At All” gets the prize for most disturbing graphic images, but if you can get past them the article gives some very interesting statistics on nightmares. Apparently we have more bad dreams than we realize, and the peak seems to come in young adulthood after which it tapers off as we age.

For an overview article it seems reasonably balanced between comments by prominent sleep researchers and dreamworkers. Kelly Bulkeley weighs in by noting that for Augustine in the 4th century, any dream with sexual content was considered a nightmare, as it threatened his faith.

Notions of what constitutes a nightmare vary culturally, then, and I wonder what to make of the fact that dream researchers report 75% of the emotions recorded in dreams are negative. Does that make those dreams nightmares? The article says very little about what to do with our nightmares. In my experience they always have some profound message for us, often of a variety that comes as very good news when the dream symbols are worked with. But it takes facing our fears and confronting the “other,” whatever form it may take in the dream and in our waking life.

“An Active, Purposeful Machine That Comes Out at Night to Play” talks about memory and how sleeping increases our cognition. It is the longest article of the series, and also gets the prize for containing the loveliest phrase, in a quote by Matthew Walker of UC Berkeley: “We think what’s happening during sleep is that you open the aperture of memory and are able to see this bigger picture.”

“The aperture of memory.” That’s a keeper. The article has a good history of dream research from the 1950s to the present, and reports accurately on the recent findings of several neuroscientists and sleep researchers.

So kids, instead of cramming all night for that test you didn’t study enough for, get a really solid night’s sleep. Guaranteed you’ll do better than if you go to class bleary-eyed and firing on just a couple cylinders. (And what will become of all our handy internal combustion metaphors once gas-powered vehicles are a thing of the past?!)

“The Elderly Always Sleep Worse, and Other Myths of Aging” is a fascinating look at sleep, aging, and pain. It turns out that poor sleep does not necessarily accompany aging, and that in general sleep does not change much from age 60 on. Most of the changes in our sleep patterns occur between the ages of 20 and 60. Problems with sleep among older people have more to do with illness and medication than with the aging process itself.

This article also highlights research on sleep and pain. Everyone knows that if you’re in pain it’s hard to get a good night’s sleep. But studies also show that lack of good sleep actually increases pain while decreasing our tolerance for it. I’m no scientist, but that doesn’t strike me as a helpful situation to get into.

“Eyes Wide Shut: Thoughts on Sleep” is a compilation of quotes, poems, and paragraphs about sleep and dreams. Interspersed with passages from Cervantes, Oscar Wilde and Emily Dickenson are a couple quotes from scientists that I particularly liked:

“A friend of mine once dreamed he was an elementary particle. Nothing came of it.” —Gino C. Segre, High-Energy Physicist

“I’ve…asked sleep scientists what happens to your brain in a three-minute nap that restores your ability to drive, teach, think and yell at grad students. They’ve never answered.” —Leon M. Lederman, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics

I did my own unintentional dream research a week ago when I was laid up with the flu. It turns out that Sudafed gives me very pleasant dreams. At least it did the first two nights I took it; the third night I didn’t have such pleasant dreams so I figured it was time to stop the Sudafed.

That got me wondering whether anyone has tested different nighttime cold medicines and their effects on dreams. Now that sleep and dream research is once more awash in funding, can such a study be far away?

Women Publishing

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When I was in college back in Santa Cruz in the 1980s, there was a women’s poetry collective known as Moonjuice that held poetry readings and self-published their own poetry anthologies. That is how I became acquainted with the wonderful Maude Meehan, whose book of poems Chipping Bone I loved. When I was looking for Ellen Bass’s poem Then Call It Swimming to post here last year, I found it in one of the Moonjuice anthologies still on my shelves.

A couple years later, the Kensington Ladies’ Erotica Society came out with their first book of erotic short stories. Around that same time, the Women’s Songbook Project in Berkeley published the anthology Out Loud: A Collection of New Songs By Women. If I tried to recall all the grassroots women’s publishing projects I have come across from that era to this, I could go on for pages. In fact, just a couple weeks ago a friend sent me an announcement for a new anthology of women writers she’d been published in.

During the 70s and 80s, the idea of ordinary women writers getting together and publishing their work when no one else would was no longer a groundbreaking thought. Now it is even less so, with desktop publishing, scores of vanity presses, millions of women blogging, and compilation sites such as BlogHer popping up all over the net.

Publishing WomenStill, ’twas not ever thus. So when I had the opportunity to review Diana Robin’s fascinating history Publishing Women: Salons, The Presses, and the Counter-Reformation in Sixteenth-Century Italy, I jumped at the chance. And I am here to tell you, women back then had way fewer options for publishing than we do today. Why, it turns out that in the 1500s there were no women’s erotica anthologies at all!

Publishing Women is one of those rare works that investigates a previously overlooked subject with exhaustive, original research, and manages to synthesize the information in a way that is scholarly and coherent, with a narrative that is engaging for a general audience. Diana Robin highlights the vibrant groups of women writers that emerged in the Renaissance period across several Italian cities, and the network of publishers, printers and agents who had a hand in producing and selling their books.

Because of these women and their male colleagues, for the first time in Europe’s history women’s writing made it into the public sphere. Women established literary salons, published their own anthologies, and promoted religious reform in Naples, Rome, Florence, Vienna, and Siena. For anyone who is interested in book history, the appendices Robin includes are invaluable: an index of all the authors, editors, publishers and dedicatees of the anthologies; a physical description of the anthologies, many of which have not been published since the Renaissance; and a chronology of the key events in the history she describes.

Predictably, this movement provoked the ire of the Church. I won’t give away the story, but let’s just say the Council of Trent and piles of burning books were involved. But that was not the only problem that beset these literary women.

By the 1570s, war, plague, typhus, as well as Church-led persecutions left the Venetian publishing world a shadow of its former self. It would take a new generation of writers and publishers, working under very different social strictures in the 1580s and 90s, to revive the literary culture and in some instances reprint the writing of these early women writers.

This book illuminated for me a period of European history I knew nothing about, and ultimately left me feeling hopeful. Against all odds, creativity erupts. Groups coalesce, people figure out how to work together, movements form, cultures shift and change. Sure it all eventually dies, but even for movements such as these, left in tatters with only one or two copies remaining of many volumes, all it takes is one intrepid researcher with patience and a keen eye to make it live again.

It’s Not Over Yet

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This Samhain season has had more than its share of sturm und drang, and I attribute much of it to the general sense of fatigue shared by everyone I meet. We are tired of war, tired of hearing of young people killed or injured in these endless struggles. We are sick and weary from corruption, pollution, environmental disaster.

We are working too hard, paying too much, bearing up as best we can under difficult times. With a stalled economy and soaring fuel prices, there are very few people who are not feeling in some way stretched to the limit. We are managing, but winter is coming and who knows what that will bring?

Samhain gives us a chance to mourn our losses, remember our dead, and by sinking deep into the bones of our ancestry, remember who we are. Down there in the marrow, spirit mixes with matter and makes fire, the blood that keeps us warm and alive. If we are lucky, our descent brings us finally to that place where the spark of life is re-kindled within us for another year.

Everyone I know has been diving deep this year, facing Death in its many aspects, pulling the life support from memories, dreams and habits that no longer serve us. This is bloody, painful work, not for the faint of heart. And it’s not over yet.

The moon is still waning, the Samhain energy is still winding down, and will continue to do so until Friday afternoon. At that time, the new moon in Scorpio will be the perfect time to lay these inner dead to rest.

So all of you who have feted the ancestors, cooked their food and sung their songs, take some time now to listen for the things within you that are ready to go, too. Find a box, fill it with symbols of what needs to cross over, and give it a proper burial on the 9th. Dig a hole in that fertile loam or rocky soil, and really let it go. Give it up, send it down, let it find its own way to the Underworld.

And then, we shall see what arises in the Spring.

How to Diss an Elder, the Dead, and Everyone Else

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As it happens, this trifecta of disrespect is not all that difficult to accomplish. This is after all the feast of Samhain, when opportunities to ritualize bad manners abound. At Samhain the veil of etiquette is thin, as we all know, and the living and the dead co-mingle like ants around a sugar skull.

Let’s say, for instance, that you are part of an organization that each year puts on a big public ritual to celebrate Samhain. At first glance it seems like an improbable time to be disrespectful, since the whole intention is for respectful celebrants to celebrate the dead together, respectfully. Yet the lead-up to such an event is in fact the perfect time to set the trifecta in motion.

Of course you will want to ask for volunteers to take on various roles in the ritual. If a certain elder in the community then heeds your summons and requests her favorite role, performed faithfully and well for many years, you should first tell her that her requested role has already been spoken for, then offer her a smaller role instead.

This in itself is a perfectly respectful thing to do—or it would be, if what you told her was the truth. But it isn’t, because no one else has stepped up to ask for that role. In fact, as the weeks fly by and the ritual draws near, you hastily contact at least three other people, all friends of the elder, and ask each of them if they would like her requested role.

These people will have already heard from their friend that she was denied her habitual role because it had been spoken for. They will realize she has been lied to, and realize too that the invitation they received was a tainted one. For one reason or another they will all decline your offer.

So far we have disrespect of an elder, and a few other people, but what about the dead? Here’s where you can get really creative. In this ritual to honor the dead, it might seem that the most weighty part would be the calling in and naming of the dead. The Ancestors, the Mighty Dead of your lineage, and the Beloved Dead of the community might all get a spot of attention, a few minutes apiece, to be remembered fully.

Instead, why not lump all three groups together, and budget two minutes maximum for calling in the lot of them? This is, after all, a ritual which is famous for being long. Shortening it is good, especially if it can be done at the expense of the very spirits it claims to honor.

You are nearly there! All that remains is to disrespect everyone else, and as it happens the perfect opportunity for this will be reached shortly after the ritual, when people compare notes and start to speak up about what happened.

The tone you want to take here is moral indignation. How dare these people accuse you of dishonesty and deceit, when you are a small, hard-working group of dedicated celebrants volunteering countless hours on this ritual, all for the good of the community! For anyone to accuse you of intentional deceit is not only morally wrong, it is downright disrespectful.

And there you have it. Play the victim card and the trifecta is complete. Accuse others of what you yourself have done, don’t admit to any transgressions, and the next year you will be an even smaller, harder-working band of celebrants. Well done!