Category Archives: Spirit

How we manage communion with Spirit as well as community with others. AKA religion.

Richard Thompson the Many-Skilled

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Last winter I had the great pleasure of seeing Richard Thompson again in concert. He is one of my favorite musicians and it had been a few years since I saw him last, so I was really happy to have heard about the show in time to get tickets.

What made it Richard Thompson photo by Joe Putrockeven more special is that I brought along two friends who had never heard him play before. These two men are fans of all the great guitarists of our era, but they’d never considered Richard Thompson to be among them. To them, he was a fringe name in a field of much more important players. But I raved about his playing and they (mostly) trust my judgment, so off we went.

All it took was the opening song for both of them to change their minds completely. Thompson was in fine form, electrifying from the first notes, and as the last chord faded one friend leaned over and said, “Too bad he’s having an off night.”

Later, my other friend said that it ws the best live show he’d ever seen. He was raised in a musical family and has been going to concerts since he was a boy, so at first I didn’t know whether he was being serious. But he went on, describing the many things that Richard Thompson does brilliantly: his virtuosic guitar work, with traditional ballads, obscure dance music forms, and hard-driving rock; his songwriting, which spans every emotional tone and genre with biting lyrics and beautiful melodies; his voice, which is completely distinctive and suits his songs perfectly; and most especially, his dynamic stage presence as a performer.

As he rattled off his list, I thought of the story of the Celtic God Lugh. Lugh led the Tuatha De Danaan to victory in the Second Battle of Magh Tuireadh, and is the father of Cúchulainn, the great Irish hero. But my favorite story is of how he gained entry to the court of Tara before the battle.

Lugh knocked at the door and was challenged by the doorkeeper, who asked him what service he had to offer the king. Lugh declares that he is a skilled wright, to which the doorkeeeper replies that the king already has one of those.

In a highly ritualized exchange, Lugh then goes down the list of things he excels at: he is a smith, a champion, a swordsman, a harpist, a hero, a poet and historian, a sorcer, a craftsman. Every time, the doorkeeper refuses him entry because the king already has someone who excels at each skill.

Finally, Lugh asks if the king has one person who does all of those things. The doorkeeper has to admit that there is no one in Tara who is a master of all skills, and he opens the door for Lugh.

As a society, we cope uneasily with the fact that gifts and talents are not evenly distributed among the population. It is relatively easy to admire those who excel at just one or two things, because we understand where they fit in the social fabric. Among musicians, Jeff Beck is a great guitarist; Yo-Yo Ma is a virtuoso cellist; Leonard Cohen is a great songwriter; Bruce Springsteen is a great performer.

We find it harder to accept those who have developed multiple talents into finely-honed skills, because the combination is so rare. Someone like Richard Thompson, who excels at so many things, may find it hard to achieve the recognition he deserves, because he is not just one thing.

Or at least, that is how I make sense of the fact that Richard Thompson is not more well-known. Being a Son of Lugh is not the easy road to recognition. Incidentally, to my friend’s list of things that Thompson excels at, I would add his gift for bringing myth to life. Fairport Convention was, after all, instrumental in popularizing Celtic folk songs like the Ballad of Tam Lin, reviving them with an electric sound.

You can hear that vein of bringing new life to old material in Thompson’s playing even now. That is, if you have heard him play live. And if you haven’t, what on earth are you waiting for?

Thoughts on Spirituality, Politics and Values

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This post is the happy intersection of something I already wanted to write, combined with this month’s annual Pagan Values blog-fest-o-rama. Joni Mitchell, one of my personal songwriting heroes, has refused more than once to be part of compilations and tours of “women artists” or “women singer-songwriters,” maintaining that she is an artist first, then a woman. I feel the same way about this event, though I understand the reasoning behind it.

I am a big believer in just being good at what you do, whether it is parenting or writing, art or politics. Thinking of the greater good, being able to sacrifice for others but also knowing when to put yourself first—all are valuable and necessary. I value education, clarity, decency, aspiration. To me these are fundamentally human attributes, identifiable (and also lacking) in people of every creed and religion.

But I am not here to quibble. Instead, I want to post the thoughts I shared last month at the Pagan Alliance Festival in Berkeley. The Alliance kindly asked me to speak on the topic of “paradigm shift,” so I decided to talk about an idea I used to value, but don’t anymore. What follows is an edited version of that speech:

This year’s theme is “paradigm shift,” so I thought I would talk about my own recent paradigm shift around spirituality and politics. Reclaiming’s ideal of unifying spirituality and politics is something I lived and breathed starting in the early ’80s. But that has shifted over the past several years, and I want to explain why.

The best place to begin is with James Watt, Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior from 1981 to 83. James Watt was awful, one of the worst cabinet members in U.S. history. He pursued terrible environmental policies, and he seethed with hatred toward environmentalists. Watt was also an evangelical Christian who believed in the “end times,” and only wanted to assure that the earth’s resources held out till Christ returned. To the end, he was engaged primarily in a religious war.

After his craziness got him kicked out of the Dept. of Interior, someone interviewed James Watt and asked what his biggest fear was about environmentalists. And he said, “that they’re all secretly pagan.” That comment was a huge in-joke for me and all my friends, because of course we WERE secretly (or not so secretly) pagan.

We were environmentalists for many sound economic and political reasons, but at the core we were horrified at the abuse of the earth’s resources, and wanted to restore the spirits of the wild to the land. We wanted to protect the earth, and to do that we had to overthrow the evangelical Christian worldview. James Watt provided an excellent target, and so we built our pagan identity around opposition to him and people like him.

But oppositional identities are tricky things to control once they get started, and recent events give us a timely opportunity to do some course correction of our own before things get out of hand. James Watt was a true believer, and in that sense he is the forerunner of everyone we see on the far right rising to political power in the states and nationally.

We’ve seen blatant efforts to roll back voting rights, women’s health care, fair wages, due process and the right to organize. The fight is on to destroy the separation of church and state in this country. This is horrifying. If we don’t vote and get involved politically, our country could very quickly revert to an oppressive theocracy, just like back in Salem in the 17th century.

But I am grateful that we can now see their goals so clearly, because it is this view down into the abyss that has caused me to change how I feel about mixing spirit and politics. In the religious right, we can see the shadow of what we might become if the shoe were on the other foot.

What do I mean by this? Zealotry begins with a deep sense of frustration at the slow pace of change. That urgency, combined with strong religious beliefs, means that we turn to a sympathetic deity or presiding force to intercede in human affairs. And of course, because our deity is sympathetic it seems to validate even our most extreme views. We have now created a closed loop of influence, within which we feel increasingly justified and self-righteous about our cause.

One thing I didn’t understand when I was young is that broad cultural change happens very, very slowly. Getting involved with charismatic traditions like Reclaiming and Feri felt like having the inside track to change, and a greater collective ability to affect things. But the closed loops I experienced encouraged emotionality and discouraged analysis and debate. The more radical and inspiring the leaders, and the more doe-eyed the sycophants or initiates, the more likely that the group’s tactics will be misguided at best, and at worst potentially destructive to the very people and causes they support.

It is easy to see the shadow of our own actions and beliefs magnified a hundred-fold in the religious right today. I am so very grateful that radical activist pagans have never (yet?) been bankrolled by eccentric billionaires and thus allowed to create more harm than good in a supposedly pluralistic society. It would be hard not to see all that money and influence as confirmation that God/dess was on our side, and that now was our time to strike out against the enemies of Gaia, or any other sympathetic deity of our choice.

Fighting a religious war is no way to maintain a democracy. It’s not even a great way to maintain a religion. The challenge for pagans, today and over the long haul, is to use our spiritual beliefs to galvanize us to action, but to stay focused on the goal: a country in which politics and spirituality are NOT unified. Where the separation of church and state is intact, and everyone’s basic civil rights are valued and protected.

In closing, here is what I now believe about spirit and politics:

Things that matter most require long fights. In those fights the air, fire, water, and earth will support us. Community will ground us. But we need to hold our own center. So check yourself. In your heart, do you carry the flame of the true believer? If so, is there also space there for others to believe differently?

May our hearts be large enough to hold multiple possibilities of connection to Spirit, and let there also be space to listen and speak clearly; to learn from others; to be decent neighbors, citizens, parents, and friends; and through the long struggle, to hold fast to our aspirations of a more just society for all.

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.

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.

On Turning Fifty

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This is my year of gratitude. Not that I don’t already feel and express gratitude regularly, but this weekend—my 50th birthday weekend—made me realize that I need to focus for a full year on just being grateful.

I made this commitment after waking up too early this morning, a fairly regular occurrence unfortunately. My habit for those pre-dawn hours is to stay lying down, and search for a meditative focus to calm and center myself. Falling back to sleep is not my goal, though it sometimes happens. Rather, I want to make use of the liminal state to soothe any worry or anxiety that has me in its grip.

This morning in meditation I thought about my rich and wonderful birthday celebrations. For days I have been surrounded by humor, warmth, friendship and love, being toasted and fêted in such grand style it has been hard to take it all in. This morning I was able to sort out some of what has been going on for me under the surface. Overwhelmingly, I had the sense of long cycles being completed, and a feeling of grace at their fulfillment.

One cycle began soon after I left home as a teenager. I felt strongly that I wanted to have three children by the time I turned 30, so that by 50 I would be done raising them. This plan had its flaws of course, but it was also a profound sacrifice of my youth and freedom that I was willing to make. I wanted plenty of time to enjoy having grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and felt somehow that I wouldn’t find my vocation till later in life anyway, so spending my early years raising kids seemed to make sense.

As I sat surrounded by old friends yesterday, many of whom have known me since those early days, it slowly dawned on me that I really have completed that huge act of manifesting. My children are grown and pretty much on their own. I have my vocation, and my freedom. At fifty, a whole new life has begun.

The other cycle started more recently, and was marked by a big dream in early October, 2005. This was an extremely difficult time in my life. Just three weeks before, I had left my marriage of 20+ years after months of turmoil, and moved out to the coast. I knew by then what I wanted my career to be, but it was nowhere near developed enough to support me and my teenage daughters. Meanwhile, every day was filled with more painful revelations of just how bad my relationship had become. Everything behind me lay in ruins, and I could not see the road ahead.

Then I had the Bridge Dream:

I am approaching a toll booth at night, and scrounging in my wallet for the two dollar toll. I hand the fee to the attendant, and she hands me back a million dollars change! I hand it back, saying, “But I gave you exact change.” She says, “No, this is your change.” “A million dollars change? This is my lucky day!!!” I think as I drive joyfully off into the darkness.

A dream like this needs little explanation. Its clarity and simplicity meant that I could tell it to anyone and find instant agreement that ending my marriage and moving on was absolutely the best course of action. I told the dream to a group of Jungian friends, asking if they could see a downside to the dream. They were mostly silent, but one pointed out that energetically the distance between $2 and $1,000,000 was so vast that I should guard against exhaustion. Truer words were never spoken.

I have leaned on that dream for reassurance, trusting its truth when I didn’t yet trust my own. Yesterday, as I drove over the bridge on the way home from San Francisco, I felt in my bones that the Bridge Dream’s transformative process in my life is also complete. Perhaps there will be a moment when someone literally hands me a million dollars, but short of that I do feel a million times more alive, and more myself, than I did seven years ago.

The dream has seen me through some very low spots and helped me climb back up, and it has given me the clarity and compassion to guide others through their own dark nights of transformation. For this, I will spend an entire year in gratitude. I have my health, my life, my family, my work, my home, and a wonderful, shimmering circle of friends and loved ones. I feel truly blessed.

An eBook Rises from the Bathwater

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When I started the Blog o’ Gnosis in 2005, I considered it a way to attract a publisher for my post-Circle Round books, the first part of building my “author platform.” Luckily for me this move coincided with the complete downfall of the publishing industry, and none of the three books I pitched over the next three years were picked up by any publisher, large or small.

If I had been able to sell a book proposal in 2005, 2006, or even 2007, chances are that I never would have written the long series of posts about Reclaiming that make up my latest ebook, The Baby and the Bathwater: What I learned about spirituality, magic, community, ecstasy and power from 25 years in Reclaiming. It was from commenters on this blog that I realized that there was a story in these posts that went beyond my efforts to make sense of personal experiences, and that writing about it might help more people than just myself. The ebook is made up of several posts I wrote here about Reclaiming over a period of four years, updated and with a new introduction that gives some backstory and puts them all into context.

If I had gotten a publishing contract for one of those early books, I also would not have followed so closely the rise of ebooks and self-publishing, and most importantly the shift in what is considered publishable material. Back in 2005, no publisher would consider printing anything that had been previously posted on a blog. Blogs were considered okay for marketing, but never for writing actual book content. This month, comedian Steve Martin is publishing a book of his previously tweeted tweets. Or rather, I should say that Steve Martin’s huge publisher Grand Central is releasing his book of tweets, which are no less funny for having been published first on Twitter. It’s a whole new world.

My professional life has become much more focused on publishing, with the new Authors Go Public meetups that my friend Suzanna and I are conjuring up in the Bay Area. On April 10, I will be speaking about my self-publishing journey, and how blogging has changed the power dynamics in Reclaiming and other organizations more than meetings or gatherings ever could.

Meanwhile, The Baby and the Bathwater is available here in pdf format. If you like the book, please help spread the word by telling your friends to buy it, and posting reviews on Amazon, the iBookstore, or the Nook store. (It will be available on Kobo soon.) If you are a blogger or podcaster yourself and would like to interview me about the book, I would be delighted.

Now that this book is launched, I will continue to use the Blog o’ Gnosis to develop material for future books. I definitely want to keep working with the California Cosmology idea, and will be writing more humorous memoir pieces as well. Meanwhile, you can read more of my thoughts on publishing, marketing and social media for authors here, and see all my stuff for sale at the newly revamped Serpentine Music & Media.

One thing that hasn’t changed since 2005 is the amount of effort it takes for authors to sell books. I have been doing this for a while, and I’m still learning how to navigate the landscape, how to engage with readers and sell the old stuff while writing the new stuff and making a living meanwhile. I am more excited than ever about what is possible, and know now from my own experience that it really can work. Here’s to all of us taking our empowered, writing selves, and going public with what we know, and the wisdom we have to share.

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.

From Samhain to Solstice

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It feels like it’s time to take down the Day of the Dead altar. I am not aware of any hard and fast rule about this, but just last night as I added more wood to the fire and glanced up at the mantle, I had the distinct impression that things had to change.

The novenas that Deborah made need to be put away, those with pictures of George Carlin and Abbie Hoffman packed side by side with the ones honoring my father and uncle. The ancestor shrine I constructed from bits and pieces of Raven Moonshadow’s belongings will be as well, along with pictures of my beloved nephew Alex, my old boyfriend Steve, my good friend Barbara, and so many others.

Maybe there is no clear dividing line in home decor, when the colors of Samhain pass away and those of Winter Solstice deck the halls. Maybe I am simply reacting against the emotional burden of having my nephew’s picture prominent in the living room, a daily reminder that I will no longer see him change and grow with the seasons. Maybe I need to bring my thoughts back to the living: my niece’s baby who has had a tumultuous year; my daughter the newly-minted college freshman; my ailing mother.

Whatever the reason, I find myself looking forward to decorating with colored lights, bringing in fragrant fir boughs and branches of bright red berries, laying out a runner of rich jewel tones across the dining room table. This will not be a year when I procrastinate and keep the house bare until minutes before the Solstice. I may even get out the colored lights to hang the moment I return from Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow in Oakland.

I have written before about the evocative beauty of the winter sky here on the coast. The night is an echo chamber for the sea, carrying the thundering sound of surf and a fine salty mist over the dunes and into the village. It is a stillness that quivers with moisture, a silence that cradles sound.

For the last six years, this vast hall of night has cradled me as well. I love it here more than anywhere else I have ever lived, particularly in the winter months. I love how we can see the storms swirl in from across the Pacific, and how we are also the first ones in the sun after the storms have passed. I see the light break through low on the horizon well before the rain stops, and hours before those living inland ever feel its rays.

My friends have been taking turns this fall, gingerly asking me how I’m coping with an empty nest. I hope they are surprised rather than alarmed when I break out into a wide grin and tell them I love it. Emptiness does not equal sadness to me but rather spaciousness, clarity, calm. I love my children fiercely, look forward to their visits, and thoroughly enjoy them while they’re here. And then they leave, the house reverts to stillness, and I can see again the headlands to the west, the crisp blue outline of Pt. Reyes to the south, and above and all around me, the endless sky.

Standing in Spirit – Centeredness Through Change

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I love my work as a consultant on digital publishing and social media. It’s fun, I’m good at it, and it allows me time to write and keep up my radio show. Still, I was wondering when I’d get back into teaching, my other love. Now, it seems, is the time.

In 1999 I went back to school for a Doctor of Ministry degree, as a way to step back from all the teaching I’d been doing and reflect on what I’d learned and what I still believed. My dissertation was about women, power and leadership, with insights gleaned from dreamwork, Goddess spirituality, and the principles I’d learned while earning a black belt in aikido. I had seen a lot of examples of how not to hold power, and was convinced that it was possible to do it better, or at least avoid the most egregious errors I’d seen. In my dissertation, I started developing ideas on how to get there.

After graduating in 2003 I wrote a book proposal based on that material, and tried for several years to get it published. (I hope to publish it as an ebook this year.) Meanwhile, a friend asked me if I could teach what I was writing about—namely, how to stay relatively centered while holding authority and working well with others. The outcome was Standing in Spirit, a year-long training and transformative process to deepen personal presence while increasing outward effectiveness.

Leading the Standing in Spirit training for the first time was an amazing experience, and made me feel enthusiastic about teaching again. Then my father died, the economy tanked, and I had to stay focused on other things for a while.

But now it’s a new day, and it feels like a good time to start teaching again. I will be doing dreamwork in Chicago in May, teaching in Portland in July, and in June I am offering a daylong version of Standing in Spirit here in Bodega Bay, for anyone who might be interested. The full day is $50, and will only be open to 10 people.

You can see my full calendar of events here, sign up at the Standing in Spirit Facebook page, and even join my monthly dream group. Getting back into teaching feels great. But having something I’m really excited to teach—that’s the best.

Does Your Religion Pass the Briefcase Test?

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I am proud to be a citizen of the United States, a country that is a beacon of liberty and religious tolerance for the rest of the world. I am all for freedom of religion too, yet there are some religions that I have a very big problem with. Specifically, religions that hold truck with locked briefcases.

I became aware of this fact while reading a recent article about Scientology. At one point the article describes some secret documents at the core of Scientology—maybe the ones about hydrogen bombs being dropped by aliens into Earth’s volcanoes 75,000,000 years ago, I’m not sure. When you reach an exalted level of Scientology, you bring your own locked briefcase to a desk, someone puts a few sheets of paper into it, you go to a secure room, unlock the briefcase, and then you can read these documents—once—before returning them the same way.

I read this and was repulsed. What deluded Sci Fi fan club would actually believe that reading a short story could cause physical harm to non-believers? And what group of people would be so daft as to accept anything transported by locked briefcase as God’s revealed truth—or even God’s working draft?

My repulsion lasted all of 30 seconds, however, before I realized that the incident was ringing a bell. Yes, I too was once involved with a briefcase-carrying sect, and lived to tell the tale. And not to be outdone by any two-bit space aliens, my story has handcuffs as well. Let me explain.

This particular group is still active, so let’s fictionalize it a little bit: it is hereby the Dairy tradition. In the Dairy tradition, you always leave little saucers of milk outside for the nature spirits and feral cats in your neighborhood. Dairy people are big on leaving offerings, which came naturally to me with so many teenagers in my house at the time. Communing with the spirits was just like doing a huge Costco shop one day, only to find that everything had mysteriously disappeared by the next morning. Practical spirituality like this suited my lifestyle, and I felt I had found my place among kindred souls.

One of the first things I noticed about Dairy lore it was its six-degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon-esque ability to be secretly connected to everyone else’s mythology. Celtic legends, it turns out, were suffused with ancient Dairy secrets, as were Hawaiian, South African, and Tibetan shamanic practices. Those early Dairy masters really got around!

Dairy people also felt very connected to the stars, and had elaborate means of contacting entities in the Milky Way and beyond, though as Sci Fi-inspired spirituality goes we were much more influenced by Lovecraft than Hubbard or even Heinlein. The smaller the sect, the more important these distinctions are.

Anyway, at one point my friends and I reached an exalted level of Dairydom, and were given copies of some short fiction, poetry, and arcane instruction written by early Dairy adherents. We dutifully studied the documents looking for something profound and earth-shattering, but came away scratching our heads wondering what if anything it all meant.

I privately dismissed most of it as the mumblings of drug-enhanced hippies who would never win a writing contest, but my friends were generally more tolerant. Then we got embroiled in an inter-Dairy feud about who should be allowed to read what, and soon we were visited by a Very Important Person who could either vouch for us, or banish us to the outer Dairy darkness.

He entered through the kitchen door and greeted us haltingly, with barely a smile. He couldn’t even shake our hands, because his right hand was still holding a briefcase that was not only locked but shackled to his wrist with handcuffs. All we could do was stare at the briefcase, stare at his graven face, and wonder what either held.

After sweeping his gaze around the room to be sure we were alone, he solemnly produced a key to the handcuffs, released his wrist, laid the case on the kitchen table, turned the combination locks, and opened it. Before us lay a stack of copies from Kinkos, the same papers we had been poring over for weeks. But they were revealed to us now in their proper context: as documents so dangerous and sacred they could harm the uninitiated viewer. Documents that at least one person would die to protect.

I knew right then that I could not be that person. I was prepared to be convinced by Mr. Serious of the value of these pages, but realized instead that this religion relied on a giant game of chicken to keep proving its own importance. Not impressed with the handcuffs? Maybe next time the briefcase would be attached to someone with a giant piercing, just like they did in ancient Sumer.

Our group soon split up, and I quietly backed away from any deeper involvement with Dairy. By all accounts their game of chicken is still going strong, but I have no desire to hear any details. I can be tolerant of other religions, just like our Constitution says we’re supposed to be, but sometimes that is best accomplished through blissful ignorance. Meanwhile, if anyone comes around here proselytizing with a locked briefcase in hand, I do have a home piercing kit right by the front door.

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.

The Glance