Category Archives: Ritual

Thoughts on ritual, magic, and all that stuff.

9th Annual Brigid Poetry Festival

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Brigiddoll

It is time once again to pull out your journals, those scraps of paper and backs of envelopes where you have jotted down verse throughout the year—you know you have—and offer it up to the Goddess Brigid, patron saint of Ireland. Brigid loves poetry, excels at smithcraft, is an accomplished healer, and midwife, and in my experience also appreciates a fine whiskey on her Feast Day.

Which is tomorrow. Or as I prefer to think of it, the entire weekend.

This Silent Poetry Festival has been going on since 2006, and has become a wonderful, international event, with people posting poems in honor of Brigid on their blogs, Facebook, Twitters, Tumblrs, and other such devices.

If you would like to join in, here’s what to do:

  1. Post a poem either on your blog or on our Facebook page. (Yes, I know it says 2011 but just ignore that, Facebook won’t let me change it.)
  2. Share your link either here in the comments section or on that aforementioned page.
  3. Take some time in the coming week to dim the lights, pour your favorite libation, and read some of the poetry offered up to Brigid.
  4. Sleep deeply, wake refreshed.

That’s it! Extra credit for posting children’s poems, photos of gatherings to read poetry aloud, and other mirth to celebrate the return of the light. Please help spread the word, so others may partake as well. (And if anyone can help me credit the photo above I would appreciate it.)

Here is a poem I have been inspired by lately. It is a prayer of Ludwig van Beethoven, after he realized that his deafness was incurable.

Beethoven’s Prayer

Oh God give me strength to be victorious
over myself, for nothing may chain me to
this life. O guide my spirit, O raise me
from these dark depths, that my soul,
transported through Your wisdom, may
fearlessly struggle upward in fiery flight.
For You alone understand and can inspire me.
—Ludwig van Beethoven

May the light return for all of us this year.

The Obligatory Grateful Dead Post

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After eight years of blogging I am finally correcting a major oversight. I can’t very well be a late-Boomer Bay Area native and not write at least once about the Grateful Dead; it just isn’t done. So here goes.

The Grateful Dead were once as ubiquitous as tie-dye on Telegraph Ave. They played constantly, both locally and on tour, and their New Years Eve shows at the Oakland Auditorium were legendary. As a teenager I was too much of a musical snob to pay them much attention. Their music seemed rambling, disjointed, and not very interesting. But once in college I thought maybe I was missing out on something big—if not musically then at least culturally.

Dropping acid and seeing the Dead is what passed for a rite of passage in some circles. I had lost track of the number of friends who returned wide-eyed from what they termed a transformative experience at a Dead show. So in spite of the fact that I didn’t particularly like the Dead or want to try acid, I figured I should go to a show while I was still young and impressionable enough to “get it.”

The summer I turned 18 provided a fantastic opportunity. I was living in Berkeley, and saw on a telephone pole (a.k.a. the “internet”) a notice for a Green Tortoise bus trip to Alaska. The Tortoise was infamous, a company that converted old buses into funky touring vehicles. Outfitted with two drivers, a few seats in the front and a giant platform bed in the back, the Green Tortoise drove big, wild groups of people up and down the coast, across the country, and on other special trips.

This particular summer of 1980 they’d decided to go to Alaska for one reason only: the Dead were playing Anchorage on the Summer Solstice! How great would it be to drive a random bunch of freaks through Canada and the Yukon and descend on Anchorage for the show, while the sun never sets? Add to that visits to the Kenai Peninsula, Fairbanks and the majestic Denali, and it was hardly an adventure I could let pass me by. I spent the rest of my scholarship money on a bus ticket and a backpack, and I was in.

Anne on the Green Tortoise, June 1980I didn’t know anyone else going on the trip, but that did not deter me in the least. I have never had a problem striking off on my own into unfamiliar places, making friends along the way. Unfortunately, it proved harder to do on this trip than I had imagined.

Three girls my age from Texas were my first disappointment. They wore makeup every day, didn’t read, and clearly were only interested in male companionship. A 33-year-old French Canadian playboy dealer who listened to Bruce Cockburn hooked up with one of the girls, causing a couple nights of great embarrassment for a grandmother traveling with her cute 9-year-old grandson. There were also a few older single men and women on the bus, an ex-felon or two, and a couple certifiable nuts.

I did make some friends, but there was no real easy bonding on this trip. When a guy wearing a poncho and cowboy hat and nothing else comes to breakfast with his bullwhip and starts yelling at people for no apparent reason, it sets up a tension within the group that is hard to overcome.

We stayed one night near Mt. St. Helens, where every surface in the campground was covered with a layer of ash from its recent eruption. Crossing the border into Canada took a while because of someone’s arrest record. But eventually they let us all through and we were off to the Yukon, where the road was still dirt in some places. I never imagined getting tired of seeing beautiful forests dotted with occasional deep blue lakes, but on this trip I learned that it was possible. The beauty and the distances were astonishing.

When we got to Anchorage, our first order of business was to find tickets to the show. Outside the auditorium was the usual phalanx of Deadheads from all over, sitting in line or playing frisbee on the lawns. As we went into the show our resident dealer doled out the acid, and I was on my way. It was now or never. I would either “get” this band or be doomed to the sidelines forever.

What I remember most about the concert was the bad sound. It was like a high school PA system cranked up past the boiling point. Relax, I told myself, just let the music wash over you. I knew how to do this, it wasn’t like I’d never been to a rock concert before. But the tinny treble, mushy bass and incoherent lyrics just went on and on, and didn’t do the band’s sloppy playing any favors. If there was a transformation going on here, it wasn’t into anything good.

My second strongest memory was the people. Beautiful people my age with wide-open faces who stared at total strangers like me as if we were newly discovered best friends. They danced up to me smiling, then whirled away when I didn’t meet their gaze with the same intensity of surrender. My big revelation that night was that this was not my tribe, though at the time it just felt like sadness and possibly failure.

I kept my revelation to myself and let loneliness wash over me. If I were back home I would have somewhere to go. Here in Anchorage I waited out the rest of the show on the sidelines, and walked back to the bus with the rest of the Tortoise travelers in the night’s continuous dawn.

The trip was life-changing for other reasons. I met a woman who studied herbalism with Rosemary Gladstar in Sebastopol. This was the first time I’d heard about Sebastopol, then a ranching town with a small enclave of hippies and herbalists. Eight years later I told my mother-in-law about the town, and shortly afterward moved there with my young family.

One Tortoise friend I stayed in touch with for a few years was Louie X. Heinrich. We were driving in his car across the Bay Bridge when John Lennon was shot, and shared our grief as his music played on the radio. Louie gave me a place to stay when I left Big Sur and settled in Santa Cruz, and our friendship included a funny ongoing game about being aliens and the general strangeness of humanity.

Louie died way too young, at 39, a fact I just learned while writing this piece. He never quite found his tribe, while I was lucky enough to fall into a great one in Santa Cruz by the time I turned 21.

As I write this in a Mendocino café, “Ship of Fools” just came on the radio. How fitting. The Dead as a phenomenon deeply affected an entire generation. But the shadow of all that openness and saucer-eyed belonging was an alienation and self-destructive urge that caused so many to lose their way.

I did not have the language and discernment at 18 to verbalize what I felt, but at least some innate stubbornness held me back from the lure of that experience. And I discovered Bruce Cockburn at the same time, which overall was a very good outcome. I wish I could say that Louie had the same good outcome, after suffering so much hardship early in life. I don’t know how he died, but wherever he is I’ll bet it’s a much better place.

Louie X Heinrich

Magic is a Way of Living

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In September of last year, I posed a question on Facebook about magic:

How do you define magic? What is it? How does it work?
I’ve never liked Dion Fortune’s definition, that magic is “the art of changing consciousness at will.” I’m thinking of writing an article about why it’s so bad, but first I’d like to hear what others think. No pressure, mind you…

Little did I expect such an overwhelming response: 55 generous, thought-provoking comments by a range of brilliant people. Re-reading them now feels like being in the best graduate seminar ever. Needless to say, it has taken me a while to digest it all.

My impetus for asking the question was to continue the work I started in The Baby and the Bathwater, and examine the foundations of my spiritual training. I want to explore what I was taught versus what I now believe about aligning with the elements, working magic, creating community and using ritual for transformation.

This will eventually lead to a bigger work, probably a rewritten and expanded version of my dissertation on the priestess. These days I write books one blog post at a time, so for now I just need to dive in. Defining magic seems like a good place to start.

“Magic is the Art of Changing Consciousness at Will”

I first heard Dion Fortune’s definition of magic in the early 80s, and it has taken me this long to figure out why I don’t like it. It turns out that 30 years is not an unreasonable amount of time in which to fully change our consciousness around a single issue—especially if you apply a great deal of willpower to it.

And that’s the key to why I rejected Dion Fortune’s definition.

The big fallacy in the “focused will” model of magic is that consciousness is hierarchical. The mind sets its goal, you use breath and a bunch of other stuff to clear the channel between your head and all those lower chakras, create a circuit of energy flowing into your solar plexus, then beam out that laser-focused will to activate your desires.

Even if this method works for some people, for me it just highlighted the model’s deeper flaws. Because what happens to the minority report? Sure, our minds can overpower just about any conflicting signals coming in, but is that really what we want?

I reasoned that the proof of this philosophy of magic would lie in studying the lives of those who live by it. Were there any teachers or practitioners out there whose lives as a whole I admired? What were they successful at manifesting, and what were the obvious caveats to their success? Most importantly, did they have healthy relationships? Were their children happy and thriving, or disturbed and struggling?

In the end, out of a few hundred I found maybe a handful of people who I felt were grounded and sane as well as successful at this type of magical practice. So I abandoned that approach entirely and turned to dreams, particularly dream incubation, to see how well that worked.

As I wrote here, dreams are an excellent means for both listening to and integrating that minority report. If there is something I want to manifest, I ask for dreams about it. Without exception, this has helped me be wiser in what I ask for and better able to integrate the changes that come.

What About the Body?

If consciousness is not hierarchical, what other methods can we use to change it? In my experience, transformation starts in the body, as far away from the head as possible, then slowly makes its way into our minds. And because deep wisdom arises in the extremities, the more focused and overpowering our will is, the more difficult it is for this emerging wisdom to register in our awareness.

Dreamwork helps. Trusting dreams means trusting the wild reaches of consciousness, following them and learning their logic. It really helps to do this with a solid group of friends who can help you identify those emerging patterns and keep your bearings at the same time.

But dreamwork can also be very heady. We need a physical practice too, like aikido or chi gung.

Aikido helped me learn how it feels when my will and mind are aligned and in right proportion with the rest of my body. It taught me at a far deeper level than any other practice how to expand my awareness, how to be aligned with the flow of power, how to move strongly with a centered focus that comes from the body as well as the mind. I use it every day.

The Consciousness of Everything

At last, I had found a combination of practices that enabled me to trust both what I asked for, and what I received. It was a much more complicated and demanding process than the one I’d been taught, but in the end felt so much simpler.

There were a number of responses to my original post that took a Taoist view of magic: being in the flow makes things happen. This is true, but it’s kind of like saying that jazz improvisation is easy, when making it look easy is actually the end of a very long process of mastery.

More than anything, magic is a study in paradox. So it was probably no coincidence that the other day I came across a great quote about magic by Carl Jung, a master at understanding paradox:

Everything that works magically is incomprehensible, and the incomprehensible often works magically. The magical opens spaces that have no doors and leads one out into the open where there is no exit. We need magic to be able to receive or invoke the messenger and the communication of the incomprehensible. Magic is a way of living. If one has done one’s best to steer the chariot, and one then notices that a greater other is actually steering it, then magical operation takes place. (The Red Book, 314)

For now, “Magic is a way of living” is a good enough definition for me. Because magic is what you see and experience when a whole bunch of other things are finely-tuned and working well. Maybe it sometimes looks like a mere act of will and mindful focus, but the reality is so much more interesting, and rewarding.

Dream Incubation: Finding the Way In

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The following is a (long, lightly edited) talk I gave at the International Association for the Study of Dreams Conference in June, 2006. 

Dream Incubation as an Extreme State

A few days ago I realized we would be presenting this panel on the Summer Solstice. Today is Midsummer, the middle point of Summer, the longest day and shortest night of the year. It is one of the two days each year that the earth leans way over on her axis, engaged in a tango with some unseen celestial partner. It is a day of extremes.

I consider this to be good timing for our subject matter, because dream incubation is a very extreme state. It is set apart from the normal routine of waking and sleeping, dreaming and living. It stems from extreme circumstances: we are desperate to know, desperate for change, all our rational options having failed us somehow. We have reached a fork in the road, or have come across an obstacle so great that we are helpless to go on the way we have been.

So we decide to enter the unknown, give over the car keys to a ghost, and ask the dreamworld for help. This is a radical act. It is an impulse which runs counter to what this culture teaches us from our first waking day. Admit we aren’t in control? There are rehab programs for that. We can consult any number of experts whose good advice we may or may not take. But asking a dream for help? That’s going a bit too far.

When I first proposed this paper, my idea was to talk about how dream incubation is a way in to our creative process, and helps us engage with a wisdom greater than our own. But when it came down to actually writing it, I found myself more interested in the ways that incubating dreams bedevils us, throws up roadblocks to understanding, and stymies even the most diligent among us who seek to use it. So if you are looking for something to inspire you to try dream incubation, this might not be it. On the other hand, I hope it will still be entertaining.

Dream incubation, the act of asking for a dream, raises a lot of big questions. Foremost of these, and my own personal favorite, is: When we ask for a dream, to whom or what are we speaking?

First Big Question: How Big is God?

To talk about dreams at this level, we have to talk about cosmology. Dreams have changed a lot since we thought of the universe as an egg sitting on a cosmic nest. In those days, the moon, sun and stars wheeled around the shell of that dome-shaped heaven. Dreams came to us from underground, from the lair of Apollo, the Sun, once he had ridden his blazing chariot across the sky and descended in the evening to the Underworld. The realm of the Gods was almost close enough to touch, and dreams were quite literal and tangible as well. When we asked for a dream, we asked a specific deity and that figure often actually appeared and gave us very specific information on what was to come.

Dream interpretation has changed a lot since those days, too. Nobody that I have read from antiquity ever talked about the different levels of meaning in dreams. Yet today that is practically the gold standard for dream interpretation. Just as there are myriad ways of working with dreams, most Western dreamworkers will tell you that every dream symbol can have multiple interpretations depending on which level of the dream you are looking at. This is a concept borne of a relatively new worldview. It is part of our cosmology, in that it goes hand in hand with the idea that ours is just one solar system among many in this enormous galaxy, one of millions of galaxies in an expanding universe. How could our dreams not hold different levels of meaning, when our minds are in the process of learning to adapt to the enormous consequences of our own knowledge?

Opening ourselves to advice from that kind of life force is a bit daunting. It helps to invoke a power in dreams that is easier to visualize: God. The moon. The Great Spirit. Isis. A dead grandmother. Asking one being for something specific is very reassuring, because while we’re giving up control, we’re giving it up to something whose essence or intentions we generally trust. Yet there is a part of our minds that says, “well, I am asking God, but isn’t God just a form of my Higher Self? Shouldn’t I ask my own psyche, or my intuition, it’s pretty much the same thing. And if I pray to Spirit, am I praying to the creator of heaven and earth, or the creator who made the Milky Way too? How big is God?”

I have a friend, a radical priest, who begins every prayer with the exhortation, “Listen, Multiverse!”

Multiverse! That’s just scary to me. I can’t even comprehend the distances in our own solar system, let alone our galaxy. I can agree to the existence of other galaxies in theory, but there’s no way I can wrap my head around how many galaxies there are in the universe. Then to talk about other universes…well, that’s what chocolate and whiskey are for, when you start thinking in those terms. So for my friend to call in the Multiverse—multiple universes!—as the ultimate intelligent guiding force just puts me into shock. I get numb and uninspired thinking of anything that huge and theoretical. For me, God or Spirit has to get a little more graspable in order for me to ask anything of it in waking or in sleeping.

That is why I think the old Gods will never die, at least for our purposes. All those residents of Olympus and beyond are alive and well because they are so very useful as vessels through which we can comprehend greater universal forces. Most of the time, in dreamwork as in regular life, we walk around trying to put the cap back on that cosmic egg. We want a simple answer in our dreams, something that is readily understood and doesn’t make us work too hard. But it’s too late. Our dreams generally move us toward complexity rather than away from it, which doesn’t mean they don’t also answer our questions. Yet I think they’re very interested in us coming to grips with the enormous universe we’ve found ourselves in, and their often obtuse, non-literal nature reflects that.

Second Big Question: How Do We Know What to Ask?

Of course, many people don’t have the problem of wondering who or what they’re asking, and more power to them. But they may get hung up on the next big question that dream incubation raises: How do we ask for what we want, and how do we know it’s the right thing to ask for? Remember, this is an expanding universe we’re talking to. There is no right way to do things, but there are definitely ways that are more right than others.

For instance, I may want some guidance on my career. Specifically, I may be desperate for a better paying job doing something I love to do. So do I ask the dreamworld for a job? Do I ask it to show me where to find this job? Do I ask if my profession is still right for me? How much do I want to know? How much guidance am I really prepared to accept?

Sometimes we do get very literal, simple, clear instructions in our dreams. In response to my question about finding a great job, I may have a dream that I’m walking down a street I don’t normally walk down, and I meet a friend who shows me into this incredible building which is filled with light. Maybe I take the hint and, following the scent of the dream, I walk down that street today. I might actually meet that friend, and we might go have a cup of coffee. In the course of our conversation it may come up that he knows of a great job opening that I’d be perfect for and he’ll put in a good word for me. So by virtue of acting on that dream suggestion, I find my way into the building filled with light.

This is a nearly literal dream response to a pretty specific question. I would venture to say that it represents the minority of dream responses from incubation, however. More common is the experience of asking for a job and getting a dream about my family, or a troubled relationship. This happened to a friend of mine who incubated a dream on what her next step professionally should be. The dream that came to her referred very strongly to her mother’s recent death, and it was clear from working on the dream that my friend needed to stop worrying about her job and take some time to grieve her mother’s passing. This was a message she was open to hearing, and it was helpful to her that the dream put her professional concerns in the context of everything else that was happening in her life. So if the dream we receive isn’t very clearly referring to our question, one possibility is that there are other things that need our attention before the dream question can be resolved.

Then there are instances where we ask for a dream and the response we get feels a bit like the vending machine just rejected our quarter. We may remember only garbled bits that confound our attempts to describe them. Or the dreams we get may take us on what seem like wild goose chases through strange landscapes, none of which appear related to our initial question. In these instances, it is always useful to work on the dream material even though it is not a simple answer to our question. If we have the patience and commitment, we can gain a lot by reflecting on why we asked the question we did, and which unconscious assumptions or habits the dream might be pointing to as the root of our problem.

Two things are most likely going on here. One is that the dream is placing our concerns in a broader context. The other is that the dream is commenting on the question itself.

As far as I can tell, it is these long, convoluted journeys which have the potential, if we stick with them, for the greatest increase in self-knowledge and personal transformation. Being a very stubborn person, I have of necessity become a fan of these long inner journeys, because sometimes they are the only way to whittle down my resistance to new and/or challenging ideas about who I am and where I’m going. If I keep at it, examining the dreams I get and rethinking my question, posing new questions and recording the results over a period of days or weeks, eventually I will have undergone the internal transformation necessary to solve my problem.

Time in this case is our ally, and our sense of urgency is our greatest stumbling block. Taking more time when time is running out flies in the face of the culture of stress and overwork that we are trying to survive in. But unless the dreams are coming to us as nightmares, which implies some urgency on their part to communicate with us, dreams are basically not in any hurry. They come from a time source that is not concerned with the fact that we have to pay our rent or mortgage by the first of next month. It is more important to the dreams that we figure out what questions are worth asking. They are always looking at the big picture, because they are the big picture.

So if we assume that incubated dreams are responding both to our question and to the nature of our question, we will get a whole lot more out of incubating dreams. Yet it remains a complex process and difficult to accomplish alone, because we’re trying to uncover our own assumptions while being unaware consciously that they exist. It is much easier to work on incubated material with another person or in a group, which brings us to a third problem with incubating dreams: the role of the dreamworker in assisting with dream incubation.

Third Big Question: How Do We Interpret What We Get?

It should be pretty obvious by this point that I am not coming to this subject from a quantitative perspective. Thank heavens I can be anecdotal rather than follow a rigorous methodology. It is not where my strengths or interests lie, but I have immense respect for those who can use the scientific method to learn more about dreams. And frankly, scientific inquiry itself is under fierce attack in this country by forces of fundamentalism, corruption and greed. Talk about wanting to cap that cosmic egg! Therefore, even the most militantly intuitive among us should support our colleagues in the academic and dream research communities.

That being said, being a dreamworker changes how we look at dreams. Our training expands our capacity to view dreams from many angles, so that we can reflect back to the dreamer as many facets of the dream as we can access. Along with training programs, and constantly working on our own and others’ dreams, we also enter a lifelong study led by the dreamworld itself, which sends us the dreams (and dreamers) that we most need to learn from. This continuous cycle of knowledge and reflection is what being a dreamworker is all about.

As dreamworkers, we face a question of alliance that is not always acknowledged, but shows up particularly when dealing with the obtuse, difficult-to-decipher dreams I mentioned earlier. The quandary is: are we on the side of the dream, or the dreamer? Is our goal to get the dreamer to realize certain difficult things presented by the dream, or do we want to focus on levels of meaning that the dreamer can understand?

The problem of alliance arises because of a feature of the human condition: we ask for things without knowing what it is that we are really asking for. There is a difference between what we think we want to know and what we are prepared to learn. In dream incubation, what we ask for is what we think we want to know. But when push comes to shove there are usually some key parts we don’t really want to know or aren’t ready to hear, and our dreams point these out as well.

Of course, central to the excellent IASD Code of Ethics is that each dreamer gets to decide what his or her dream means. Yet there are times when I feel my role is that of a mediator, trying to balance what the dreamer can hear with what I see in the dream. Because dreams come from a greater source than our waking consciousness, eventually they will have their way. But in human terms the changes that dreams demand can be wrenching. In the end, I always err on the side of the dreamer.

To this point, there is one piece of advice I always give to people asking me about dream incubation—and to everyone who uses fervent prayer at all. I suggest they include some sort of caveat in their prayer or question, along the lines of this prayer attributed to Socrates:

All-Knowing Zeus, give me what is best for me. Avert evil from me, though it be the thing I prayed for; and give me the good which from ignorance I do not ask.

What is the Way In? Where Does It Lead?

When I started writing this paper, I assumed that the idea of entering an inner realm through dreams was a generally understood concept. Then I had the good fortune to lead a workshop with a new group of people. We created a collage on the cover of a new dream journal as an aid for remembering dreams, and I led a simple visualization drawing a parallel between this external place where our dreams would be written and the internal space where our dreams come from. One of the women piped up, “what do you mean, ‘internal space’”?

My immediate answer (and thank goodness I had one) was “your heart.” The image of hope and other qualities dwelling in the human heart was immediately understood, and we went on. But for me this was a very important point, and it made me wonder just what I meant by the title for this presentation. What is the way in? Where is “In”, and why would we want to go there?

One of the attractions and paradoxes of dream incubation is that we are taking action in order to be still, and listen. It requires both intention and patience, like the best of all spiritual practices, and its rewards come when we are able to stay in that quiet place, listening, until something—let’s call it a dream—arises from somewhere else. That somewhere else is the “In” I am talking about. At the risk of alienating people who don’t like to view these things in religious terms, that still point is where we experience communion with the Divine. We can also call it the mythic realm, Dreamtime, the collective unconscious.

For me, dream incubation is a process that helps me know myself, and helps me understand and accept what is going on in my waking life. It is a process of putting dreams at the center of our spiritual life, through a ritual with the act of dreaming at its core. So for those of us who have eclectic tastes in ritual and spirituality, it provides a wonderful anchor for our observances.

And yet we don’t have to incubate a single dream to feel the connection and sanctity that a spiritual or creative practice affords. Every night, without any extra effort on our part, our minds dream as a way to funnel material from that inner still point out to our conscious awareness. Whether we pay attention or not, that built-in process of reflecting on and integrating our experience goes on as long as we are alive. We can lead perfectly satisfying, successful lives without worrying for one moment about where our dreams come from or whether that might be a nice place to visit.

So why would anyone bother adding complexity to their life by incubating dreams? The simplest answer is that sometimes our dreams tell us to. There is a very subversive element to dreams, they are always searching for ways to complicate our understanding of who we are and where we’re going. Maybe someday they will even convince me that speaking to the Multiverse might be a useful practice, but I certainly hope not.

In spite of all the difficulties inherent in incubating dreams, I have found it to be an immensely insightful, rewarding practice. I will probably continue incubating dreams and finding new ways of interpreting them for a long time to come. I highly recommend trying it, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Small Brown Seed

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What a Spring it has been! I welcomed in May Day along with many old friends at a lovely handfasting in Tilden Park this past weekend. I’ve known Amie Miller since she was about 13, when I used to go to her parents’ home in San Francisco to work on the Reclaiming Newsletter. Amie was my kids’ first babysitter, and Bowen’s loud proclamations during her coming of age ritual are the stuff of community legend. Seeing Amie and Juliana looking so poised and lovely in their 30s was a real treat, as was singing with Evelie again and enjoying the gorgeous Berkeley hills.

I’ve been playing more music lately—not a lot, but my guitar is now out of its case and I’m starting to get callouses back on my fingers. Along with playing I’ve been thinking about finishing lots of half-written songs, and maybe putting out another album of my own music.

Music just seems to be in the air lately, because this morning George sent me an email asking whether I still had the recording of “Small Brown Seed” I’d made several years ago, for one of the Reclaiming CDs. I did not write “Small Brown Seed,” but contacted its author Maggie Shollenberger several years ago and got her permission to record it.

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I first heard this chant at Pantheacon, when I learned it in order to teach it and lead the singing during a ritual. The song was easy for everyone to learn, and built up a beautiful, harmonious energy during the spiral dance. Thanks again to Maggie for her song. It seems the perfect season to share it more widely.

An Eye in the Storm: Victor Anderson’s Memorial

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I wrote this piece shortly after Victor Anderson’s death, in October 2001. I am reprinting it here because Victor’s name came up in conversation with a friend this morning, and I realized that I want the story of my experience at his memorial to be available to readers here as well.

Things just hadn’t been smooth ever since September 11th. Schedules were thrown into a whirlwind, individual intentions and goals suddenly disappeared into an abyss as larger issues came into sharp focus. So I wasn’t really surprised when, just as I thought I had a free Monday to start picking up the scattered threads of my work, I got Max’s email announcing plans for Victor’s memorial on my first unencumbered work day.

Though I had only met Victor twice, I knew it was important to pay my respects on his passing. When my circle had gone down to spend afternoons with Victor and Cora I had been captivated by his enigmatic presence, and understood the stature he had achieved as a teacher and a shaman. At the same time, he rubbed me the wrong way, and eventually I found myself getting up to help Cora in the kitchen as Victor went on weaving his sorcerer’s threads of world history, comparative religion, past lives, and magic in the living room. Still, he was too important a figure in the Feri tradition of the Bay Area, and also in the Reclaiming community, which had been my community for nearly 20 years, for me not to go if I was able.

I drove down from Sebastopol, worrying about traffic and whether I’d make it to Hayward on time. Then I reminded myself that the whole day was given over to ritual time, and the only thing to do was relax and let things happen. Macha and Anna Korn helped by coming along for the ride, so I could catch up with friends during the drive. We pulled into the Chapel of the Chimes in good time, as a light rain spattered the windshield.

There is something very magical, and primal, about memorial services. More than anything else the memorial helps us make the transition between thinking of a person as living and thinking of them as dead. But to me the distinction is not as clear cut: there is death in being alive, and a life after death that is longed for like a release from an arduous task. At the same time, the presence of a once living body that is now disintegrating is an unassailable fact that demands from each of us a transformation of our relationship to the person who is no longer there.

Memorials also help the departing soul orient to the spirit world, and make the final break from its body. My experience that day was that Victor was completely conscious and aware of everything that went on at his memorial. I felt a deep sense of rightness when his son bowed before the casket, acknowledging the living presence of his father. Perhaps Victor was so strongly present in the room because even as a man he dwelled in the spirit world more often than not. My heart went out to Cora, who looked so frail and grief-stricken, and for whom the occasion was clearly far more than a time to philosophize.

Victor’s spirit was so powerful, and palpable, that I wondered whether the memorial would actually help him depart in any way. Then Sean Folsom began playing Amazing Grace on the bagpipes, and anyone in the room who was not yet in tears soon got there. The energy in the room shifted, as the sound of the pipes seemed to infuse every molecule with a more intense vibration. Riding the waves of power being generated as the piper walked to the altar and back, Victor’s spirit washed over us as he began to separate from all the material objects in the room—his body, the flowers, the candles, the people—and fly out the open door, into the world beyond.

There is no easy transition between being witness to such an event and finding oneself in a parking lot in Hayward, amongst probably the largest crowd of Feri folk ever peaceably assembled. There were people there I knew and loved, many I didn’t know, and some people I’d only known through email. Conscious of the long ride home through the gathering rush hour, and partly because of the awkwardness of the occasion, I didn’t want to stay long.

It was on the drive north that the storm really got started. An occasional sprinkling gave way to darker clouds and distant rumblings. Heading across the bridge to San Rafael, it was raining steadily, and bolts of lightning crackled from the clouds to the dry earth. In California, the first rain of the season is always an important event, but this was no ordinary storm. We don’t get thunderstorms that often, particularly ones that cover as vast an area as this one did. The clouds were high and dark, and the sky for miles around looked like a giant blackboard. The sun was sinking behind the hills, but here and there it shone through and bathed us in light as the rain came down and lightning struck all around. The bolts were clearly visible streaks like hieroglyphs against the sky, sometimes in rapid succession in the exact same shape, sometimes dancing all across the horizon.

I remembered someone that day mentioning that Victor had been born in a storm. As I drove through Petaluma, thinking about his teachings and my conflicted feelings over them, the setting sun came through under the edge of the clouds, right on the horizon. Sandwiched between dark hills and dark sky, it looked for all the world like an eye in the storm. I thought it was Victor, sight returned on a greater scale, checking to see who was paying attention. Since I apparently was, I started talking to him, acknowledging his prowess in leaving in so strong a storm.

I wished him well on his journey, and also prayed that the days of vengeance and vendetta in the name of religion were passing away just like his life, just like the storm. That is the place where I have to part company with Victor’s teachings, and I told him so. Many at his memorial said that he chose this time to cross over in order to work his influence on the other side. Given the opportunity to speak to him in that final moment, it was important for me to put in a plug for non-violence, which I believe to be the highest spiritual calling. I have no idea how his power will be felt now that he has passed on, but that day I prayed it would be for the greatest good.

Finally, as I climbed out of the Petaluma valley and the horizon receded from my sight, I found myself reciting the Buddhist prayer over and over: may all beings be happy, may all beings be happy. I feel privileged to have known him and Cora, however briefly, and am very glad to have made it to his memorial. I won’t soon forget how that bagpipe gathered Victor’s spirit and all our prayers and hurled them out beyond the veil, nor will I forget meeting him eye to eye, and heart to heart, as he left on the rays of the setting sun.

Brigid Poetry Festival, Year Seven

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How did that happen? How has it been seven years since we started doing a Silent Poetry Reading for the Goddess Brigid (patron of poets, healers and midwives) on our blogs?

The answer to this question is generally uninteresting to anyone save the questioner, so I will spare you my thoughts about the passage of time, etc. Suffice to say that it is time to celebrate the return of the light, and the Feast of St. Brigid, with offerings of poetry. For anyone just tuning in, the festival has a Facebook page where anyone can post their poem. It is a lovely way to spend the afternoon, scrolling through all the postings and immersing yourself in the beauty of language.

If you are not on Facebook, feel free to post a poem below in the comments, as I will link to this post on Facebook so people can find your poem. And to start the ball rolling, here is a poem of mine I just found this morning and can’t believe I haven’t posted before now. It is an invocation of the ancestors that I did one year at Samhain, broom in hand. Very effective! Use with caution.

Ancestor Invocation

Broom on the moor,
Broom on the floor
The ancestors wait
We open the door

Inside and out
Behind and about
Dust of the ancients,
We call you out!

Out of the past,
out of the ash
Out from the ceiling,
Floor and sash

We trace the sacred steps of old
We stand upon the year’s threshold

Now join us in this dance tonight
As darkness gives to us our sight

Of teeming life in hidden deeps
Come! Be our candle while all else sleeps.

Anne Hill
Samhain, 1999

Poems for the Return of the Light

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I have two poems to offer this year: an invocation by Leonard Cohen, and an elegy by Rumi. Both of these I read at my nephew’s funeral last Fall. Both I think deserve wider reading. So here they are, in honor of Brigid, the poet’s muse. May the light return to us all.

Holy is your name, holy is your work, holy are the days that return to you. Holy are the years that you uncover. Holy are the hands that are raised to you, and the weeping that is wept to you. Holy is the fire between your will and ours, in which we are refined. Holy is that which is unredeemed, covered with your patience. Holy are the souls lost in your unnaming. Holy, and shining with a great light, is every living thing, established in this world and covered with time, until your name is praised forever.

Leonard Cohen
Book of Mercy

Autumn Rose Elegy

You’ve gone to the secret world.
Which way is it? You broke the cage

and flew. You heard the drum that
calls you home. You left this hu-

miliating shelf, this disorienting
desert where we’re given wrong

directions. What use now a crown?
You’ve become the sun. No need for

a belt: you’ve slipped out of your
waist! I have heard that near the

end you were eyes looking at soul.
No looking now. You live inside

the soul. You’re the strange autumn
rose that led the winter wind in

by withering. You’re rain soaking
everywhere from cloud to ground. No

bother of talking. Flowing silence
and sweet sleep beside the Friend.

Rumi
The Glance

6th Annual Brigid Poetry Festival

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It is that time of year again, when bloggers around the world post a favorite poem in honor of Brigid, the Irish goddess and patron saint of smithcraft, poetry, and healing. Brigid’s feast day is February 1st, so between now and then is the perfect time to publish a poem to celebrate.

Last year many great poems were published all over the web. This year, I have set up a Community Facebook Page to help people easily view each other’s poems and to share them around as much as possible. If you post a poem on your blog, please share the link on the community page so we can all go there and read it. If you don’t have a blog or website of your own, go ahead and post your poem in its entirety to the community page.

I haven’t quite decided which poem to post, so I have a week ahead of me to wander through books of poetry. May you enjoy the same pursuit, and by February 1st may the web be overflowing with poetic offerings!

If We Dismantle It, They Will Come

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There we stood in a park in San Francisco, about fifteen of us circled around a large ceramic bowl on the ground in which we had written the things we wanted to see increase: more money for this, more power to that, healing for her, a better job for him. Interspersed among the slips of paper was a collection of seeds, representing the power of growth. Once we had raised energy for our intentions, we took some seeds home with us, to keep focused on the vision we were growing.

Rituals like this one can be inspiring and affirming, and most importantly, show no signs of going away. But at one point it dawned on me: every altar, bookshelf and windowsill in my house was now littered with sacred seeds and pebbles, fragrant bits of greenery, beads, pieces of yarn (cut from webs we’d constructed), half-burned candles signifying something, and other ceremonial souvenirs I had brought home. The thought formed unbidden in my mind: was all that growing and visioning still taking place, if I could no longer remember the point of each stone and leaf as I dusted it?

I kept quiet about my troubling thought, but like all seeds planted in the darkness it just kept growing, eventually making it hard to see what we thought we were doing. Then some unfortunate person posted a comment to an email list, suggesting that in response to the latest egregious corporate land-grab we should all imagine planting a forest of trees so thick it would trap the evildoers and prevent them from carrying out their scheme. It would be like in Macbeth, only with high-speed internet and better candles.

At that point I felt like the Lorax, speaking for all of the trees, seeds, junk and jewels I had collected in my house, none of which I knew what to do with after charging them with hallowed intentions and bringing them home. I spoke up: “I can’t believe you are suggesting planting another damn tree in the collective unconscious. How will we find a clear place to plant, with all the rubbish we’ve left there over the years? Isn’t it about time we found another metaphor for making things happen the way we want—like, for instance, pruning and weeding?”

Unfortunately my reasoning was lost on its intended audience, due to my strong, practically violent language. But thus began my own transformation from a ritual accrualist to someone with a tidier home and a different sensibility about magic altogether. I started thinking that perhaps the best way to get help from the spirits was not to construct a grand, visionary edifice for them á la Field of Dreams, but instead to clean the place up, invite them over, and see what they choose to build.

I didn’t throw out everything all at once. These were ceremonial artifacts after all, and shouldn’t just be swept into the dustbin without any thought at all. And while several items did find their way into the compost and trash, most were eventually set out under bushes and trees in my yard, residing there until they were carted off by activist squirrels in the neighborhood.

With the clutter gone, what remained in my home were things that did have special significance, and that I actually used. It took a while to get used to this new ritual aesthetic, but over time I feel it has streamlined my access to all sorts of worlds, and made my place a destination spot for helpful spirits year-round.

Now there is a comfortable clutter of personalities on my mantle for Samhain. That seems right—this is the ancestral mixer holiday, after all. Day of the Dead figures cavort with pictures of my beloved dead, the recently deceased get the chance to meet my grandparents, and there is plenty of food, music and candles for all.

There is a place for jumble and clutter, especially while everyone is getting along. But sometime in November there will come a day when it feels like the party is over, and it is time for everyone to go away until next time. I will relish emptying the mantle then, and will live comfortably in the silence until the Solstice spirits start knocking on my door and I let them in, one by one, slowly painting my house with colors and lights for a new year.