Initiations of Ash

The man placed a line of gray ash from the sacred firepit upon my forehead, above the bright sindoor red bindi he had marked me with in Kali’s temple. I felt a shudder of energy release memories of past and future; a layer of old self replaced by a new layer of meaning. There was fire behind my eyes, gray of ash and red of blood. In that instant the gravity of the experience I had just received in the temple, the shrines I had visited marking patterns of a deeper mystery, began to transform me.

* * *

She came roaring in a cloud of ash, bright flashing blade and lolling tongue. Slice, chop, red palms to hungry skulls, CRACK. Here, my child, You Are.

* * *

The boat was rocking so softly as I took my place on the very edge, toes just touching the surface of the water; green-gray that seemed to taste extra salty. Or perhaps that was the tears trapped on my tongue. I plunged my hand into the depths of the black container, pulling out a grasp of the ashen remains of my sister’s body. My hand began to tingle as energy spread across it and up my arm. With a silent prayer I stretched out my arm and released, the ashes falling from my hand and spreading in a cloud in the water. I looked at my hand – it no longer felt like my own. It felt lighter, possessed of something holy and yet weighted by a mass defying it’s size.

Again. Plunge into the plastic, a handful of grains and chips of bone, release. The boat jumped slightly as wind and wave shifted, and the ash blew back into my face. Forehead, nose, lips – the graininess of salt and ash, borne on a gentle caress of wind. Again I felt the shudder, and the energy in my hand surged through my body and blasted through my new layers of meaning as freshly healed skin tender to the touch of it. I felt my crown open as my vision doubled, tripled, became clearer.

Now you see.

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I’ve been thinking a lot about initiation lately. The experiences I told you of here all happened within the span of about a month, this year. I’m also studying another initiatory tradition, and rolling that around has been an interesting exercise around my views on power and authority.

I’ve never really wanted initiation by a teacher (though I have craved the devotional relationship of student-teacher – but that is another post). The tradition I studied under the longest was non-initiatory, though I was given the blessing of self-initiation and acknowledgment as priestess.

But that isn’t to say I’ve never been initiated.

How could these experiences not be initiations? What if initiation is not only a single act, bestowed upon us by another supposedly (hopefully) with the support of the Gods? And what contextualization do we have for these experiences, let alone what support? I’ve struggled to feel comfortable discussing some of these experiences and to be taken seriously, and that struggle has really illuminated the places where initiation is tied to power and authority.

For me, being a priestess is who I am. It is how I walk in the world. It is in my actions and my way of being. It isn’t about holding power over others, dictating meaning or relationships with the Divine. It isn’t about being in service to any one or any thing either, though it is about being of service. It does mean an awful lot of work and sacrifice and looking at things that sometimes I would really just rather not.

It is going to the places unseen, doing the work that needs doing, and bringing it back out into the world. It is walking in cremation grounds, those places where people dare not go, and receiving the ashes.

“A healthy Priest makes all things sound.” Francesca DeGrandis

If I am a god, in relationship with other gods (embodied and not), then where do initiations come from? And if a God should deliver an initiation to me without an intermediary, how is that somehow ‘less valid’?

Ultimately for me, it comes down to the most important questions of all: how do you walk in the world? How are you of service? Do you live with integrity and accountability? Are you willing to show up and do the hard work? Will you thrust your hand into the ash and do what needs done?

If so, you have very likely undergone many of your own initiations, whether through the hands of another or the hands of the Gods.

Roots and Rainbow Tears

I am breaking. The coils of grief have finally worked their way through my body, piercing me like roots pierce the earth, reaching for life.
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The massacre of LGBT bodies on Saturday night, in my home state, hit me much harder than I thought it would.

I’m not straight. Personally (and this is very much a personal thing – I wholly and fully support individuals identifying however they choose), I have a real resistance to using terms to label myself (maybe that is a Queerness in itself?) but if I had to, I would identify as bi/pansexual and queer, though I currently am in a hetero marriage and to date the majority of my primary relationships have been hetero.

I frequented gay clubs in my youth in Florida. It is where I first learned that I could be comfortable in my then-gothy queerness, where I could just be me surrounded by people who also came there to be who they are. I’ve never been to Pulse, but I can imagine the atmosphere, the music, the queers in their beautiful black and brown and white bodies taking those moments by the hand and living them with full passion.

When I heard about the shooting on Sunday morning, I was getting ready to drive two hours to a meeting. All I thought was ‘I can’t do anything about this. I can only keep doing my Work.’ I got in the car, turned up the music, and pushed it aside.

Then someone else arrived at the meeting, visibly shaken by the events. And I thought ‘what the hell are we doing?’ We talked about it a little, and about the need for allies to protect Pride spaces this weekend. But there was a time when my first inclination – the very first thing that came to mind – would have been to hold some sacred space for us and those who died and those who mourn. Even if it was only woven into our meeting, at least a few moments to hold that space. But I didn’t, and I didn’t say anything.

And I realized I am usually the only person to suggest such a thing in the moment.

And so it was Monday when the visions started, the flashes of images and sound, voices and cries. Monday I started to feel the tear in the fabric of our world, as our collective grief tore away at our barriers, as those 49 souls left this earth long before they were supposed to. This Work is so hard, but bearing witness is necessary. I see you. I hear you. I hold this space for you. Take my hand and we will step across together.

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But now, I am exhausted. Exhausted from carrying the grief of my sister for three months; feeling like I am ultimately carrying it alone. Combined with multiple layers of family and home based issues, and I feel sick. Broken. Questioning whether I can go on, whether it is even worth trying. Knowing that I can’t always be the strong one and that I’ve broken and put myself back together many times.

So I don’t know what’s next. We’ll see what the coming weeks and months bring, even if I am afraid to look.

And I want to be very clear that this is not a cry for help, nor do I want any advice or “well intentioned helpful comments.”  I am sharing this because I believe in the power of sharing our process and vulnerability with each other. If this resonates with your experience, I would love to hear about it. If you would like to offer love and support, I will gladly accept, but “prayers” don’t get us very far in the long run. And if something about this angers or upsets you, please take that to your own process to consider and do not share it with me. Thank you for respecting this.

Vulnerability, Community, and Starting my Patreon Campaign

Hey there dear ones. I’m going to get vulnerable with you for a minute. I know I don’t share a lot of stuff here with you that is a glimpse into the heart of my process. It is filtered, it comes after some piece has been resolved, it is a story that needs to be told. It feels far less vulnerable that way.

But starting a Patreon account? That has been pretty fucking vulnerable.

Starting a Patreon account is truly no small endeavor. I’ve been planning and thinking about mine for months, until I was finally at the place where I felt comfortable pursuing it. Much of that time has been spent peeling back layers of conditioning:

• my work isn’t valuable,
• I should just get a “real job”,
• I should become more of an entrepreneur and charge for all of my services,
• no one cares about what I do, I’ve worked so long behind the scenes that no one even knows who I am, or they all take me for granted

It has been a very difficult few months. While moving through these complexes, parts of my spiritual community directly associated with two of the projects I am involved with kinda exploded into some very messy drama. I did my best to not personally identify with any of it, even once some of the mud was slung directly on me. That is always a hazard when doing community work, but the timing could not have been more challenging. Because while going through all of this my younger sister died, suddenly and unexpectedly.

Just typing that moves a sea of emotion into roiling waves, beautiful yet dangerous.

Vulnerability feels dangerous.

Ultimately it was my sister’s death that moved me to launch my Patreon campaign. The pouring of support I received was an eye opening experience. Then I started to think of all of the work that she will never be able to do, all of the things that she was passionate about, all of the dreams she had. All of that potential, lost. I know she sometimes felt like her dreams were unattainable because of the money and time and physical barriers that were in her way – but she never let that stop her.

I won’t let it stop me either.

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Photo S. Nagakyrie

Putting myself out there as a writer and community builder is hard enough; I do it because there is work to be done, not for personal glory. Getting to the place where I can ask for financial support for that work has been really hard.

So I have to believe that the naysayers, the ones who reinforce the conditioning, who think this is a simple thing to do on a whim, or that it is just another ridiculous crowdfunding scheme, must not understand everything that is involved. It is not asking for a handout. It is not laziness. It is not easy.

Much of the work that I do I simply can’t charge for in a traditional way. Who would I charge? And when I am supporting projects that are just barely able to sustain themselves, where would the money come from?

I do believe Patreon is a step in the direction toward a radical shift in how we value those who enrich our communities. It isn’t the ideal model – there is still an entity between us financially benefitting from my work and your donations – but it is opening the discussion in a way that has previously not been possible. It is allowing those within the community who have the means to offer a tithe, to pass the hat as it were. And it is shining a light on work that so often goes unnoticed.

While working on my campaign I began to notice more of the potential that Patreon has while financially supporting cultural creatives. There is huge potential to build community, and to engage in the values of hospitality and reciprocity that strengthen communities. By fully stepping in to our roles as cultural creatives and ending the silence on the need for financial support of our work, we open ourselves and the community to be more greatly influenced by that work. We can have more open and honest dialogue about the creative process and all of the work that goes on behind the scenes to build community, and empower others to do the same. We can allow the community to support us – without guilt, shame, or attachment. And the community can feel good about fulfilling their obligations of hospitality and reciprocity – which includes a responsibility to those who are otherwise unable to afford access.

That sounds like a great recipe for healthy community to me.

You can find my Patreon account at https://www.patreon.com/syren Where you can read more about my work, my goals, and get some great rewards.

The First Loss

It was a week past Easter Sunday, a week that we had lived in the hospital, taking shifts from bedside to waiting room. Now the entire extended family crammed into the tiny room set aside for families to hold their tragedy, every hand clutching tissues or tiny Styrofoam cups of something warm, tasting tears. It must have been two dozen people, but the room was full to bursting with more than just physical bodies.

We were barely 19, my high school sweetheart and I. But here we were, deciding whether to remove his father from life support.

He had woken up on Easter Sunday with paralysis in one side of his face and arm. The day of resurrection, for this devoutly Christian family, was the last day anyone would see him rise. He’d been having some numbness in his arm, and was due to see a doctor the next day. Instead, his wife rushed him to the emergency room of the closest hospital – which, being in a poor ghetto, was also one of the most understaffed and under-equipped hospitals in the area.

He sat in the ER waiting room for hours before they finally admitted him. Hours, following the stroke. Hours which sealed his fate.

The first visit, he had some awareness of who we were. He reached with his fingers for his son’s hand, looked me in the eyes with a sad knowing plea.

The first seizure stole all that, and sent him to the tubes and the machines.

Mostly I remember the feel of the room, and the smell. It wasn’t a worldly smell – it was the smell of loss, of Death stalking near. Something that, once you recognize it, you can never forget. No hospital antiseptics can cover it up. No flower bouquets banish it.

I remember feeling so isolated and alone, with this huge family that I barely knew and had no clue how to be around. Extended family was foreign to me; something I’d never known and hadn’t really allowed myself to wish for. It seemed my only value was in the role of supportive girlfriend.

When we went home, I watched him seethe. I watched him eat his rage and pain, stuffing it deeper and deeper. I held my grief for his loss, and my loss. His father had always been so kind and accepting of me, as opposed to his devout mother who was at best wary of my presence. I cried alone in the closet so he wouldn’t know of my grief, and then would beg him to talk to me. I wrote. He drank. I eventually found acceptance. He found the silence of the eye of the storm.

Ultimately we never recovered. Our relationship ended 8 years later – many years later than it should have.

We don’t talk about this, in our culture. How do you bury a parent when you are barely an adult yourself? How do you cope, looking down the long hallway of adulthood, mourning the milestones that aren’t even here yet, that they won’t be at either? How do you carry the burden of grief on shoulders that have barely held life? How do you say goodbye when you can’t even accept that they are gone? How do you fill shoes that were never meant to be yours?

How do we hold each other in our grief?

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Photo by S. Nagakyrie

Athena and the Floods

My first attempt had been thwarted by floods. It was Beltane 2010, and having just finished priestessing at our community Beltane gathering, I was traveling to Nashville to meet with my partner. He was on a long layover due to his semi-trailer truck being grounded for the weather. It had been a few weeks since I had last seen him, and always up for an adventure I decided to brave the storm.

It was apocalyptic. The rain was so heavy my windshield wipers could literally not withstand it, and continually broke free of themselves, rendering them useless every few miles until I could stop to readjust them. By the time I reached Nashville the storm was breaking. After a kind man fixed my wipers for me, I collapsed in the hotel room I had reserved, alone and exhausted. In the morning light, the devastation was shocking, and all the more emphasized by the entirely vacant mass of highways.

I braved the 1000-year Tennessee flood. It kept me from my partner. And from the Parthenon. But it did not keep me from myself. It was a reminder of how capable I was, the strength and resilience I possessed, and that even alone I could weather the storm.

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Nashville Parthenon Photo by S. Nagakyrie

Five months later I returned to Nashville, my life swept away in its own flood. I was on my way across the country to start a new life in San Francisco, recently single, with only my dog and what I could pack into my Subaru.

The pull to visit the Parthenon and to see the statue of Athena was irresistible. I knew I would need her on this journey. So I planned my route through Nashville. It was the first stop on what came to be the second, but most important, pilgrimage in my life that far.

I pulled into the parking area and took in the sight of this most unlikely Parthenon. Perched at the top of a small park, it looked more like someone had taken one of the plastic replicas from Greece, enlarged it to actual size, and plopped it down in the middle of a quintessential Southern city. The contrary nature of it began the shift in my awareness toward a liminal state.

I made my way to the Naos, past the galleries, and taking in the towering columns and the reproduction art and statues. I passed through a massive doorway, turned a corner, and fell to my knees. There She was, a 42 foot replica of the statue of Athena, as she would have been in the Parthenon of Ancient Greece. I wasn’t sure what to expect; I think at most I had hoped for an authentic museum like experience. Instead I found the certainty that the goddess was present here, that this was not a museum, not to me anyway, but a living breathing temple.

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Athena Parthenos Photo by S. Nagakyrie

Having just spent the last few years working to the bone to nurture community-as-temple and to create physical-space-as-temple, the feeling was overwhelming and a balm. Here in the most unlikely of places was a building in which the divine resided.

My knees protested against the marble floor, and the tears that would be with me for the rest of the journey began to wet my face. But this pain, and this flood, was sacrament and offering. As some of my tears fell to the floor at her feet, I remembered the flood waters that only months before had been on this same ground.

I prayed for strength and wisdom as I went westward, weary from long battles and yet feeling as though I was being deployed to new territory. Would I make it? Could I do this? Was this even the right thing? I tried to quiet my sobs as more people were entering the space, and I took in her physical presence her more closely.

Her serene face belied a deep wisdom as I considered her shield, and what a fine raft it might make in a disaster; my mind firmly unattached from its usual hinges. Nike’s wings brushed against my face as I heard Athena’s voice resounding in the echo chamber of my heart. Here in this sovereign Goddess of wisdom and battle, I began to feel the ray of divine love in my heart again, and the support of a sister who is larger than life.

I offered my tears and weariness to her, and felt an abiding strength fall across my shoulders as a cloak. I knew I had many days travel ahead of me, yet I did not want to tear myself away from her. I shifted my body and craned my face to look at her one more time, and asked for her support in the days and months to come. At that moment, I knew this was another trial and another part of my journey and that I would never be alone.

I will stay with you as you drive this chariot, Warrior Sister.”

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Offering and Taboo

CW: discussion of animal sacrifice

Kalighat

I had just received darshan from the podium above the image of Maa Kali. My senses were overwhelmed with the headiness of the spiritual experience, and the overload of being crowded and jostled by devotees, and harangued for money by the phaledar delegates. I exited the temple into the not-so-fresh Kolkata air, and walked around to the other side. Suddenly, my bare feet felt something slick. I looked down, afraid of what I would see, and noticed the blood red streaks from the enclosure next to me, going around the outside of the temple. I turned the corner and took in the sight of the Harikhat-Tola. Covered in blood, as well as red siddur and piled with flowers, this is where the animal sacrifice took place. There were two harikhat, a smaller one for goats and a larger one for buffalo. It was a festival day, and there had obviously been a sacrifice that morning – the blood on the stone around the temple was still fresh.

Kamakhya

I was sitting peacefully within a temple high on a hill, having just entered the womb of it and received darshan of the yoni of the goddess. Pigeons were being released with devotion, having been blessed with red marks by a priest. The bells were ringing, and people were praying with looks of complete bliss and devotion. Goats were wandering everywhere, and I had to remember to not set anything down, for a nibbling goat would quickly be there.

A very young goat was led by a rope into the enclosure next to me, bleating the whole way. The cries briefly became more desperate, and then suddenly stopped. A moment later, a priest walked out with a bowl full of blood and siddur, and devotees gathered around him fervently, ready for the blessings.

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Goat at Kamakhya Photo by S. Nagakyrie

On my second visit to Kalighat Mandir, a gentle and devoted man that a friend connected me with guided me through the temple complex. He took me back to the Harikath-Tola, and looked at me as he explained the purpose of the place. I could sense that he wasn’t sure how I would react as a Westerner, and was quick and sure to explain that only in some Kali worship was this done and that the animals never suffered and nothing was wasted. I lingered there a moment after he spoke, the full meaning of this place settling on me after experiencing his sharing of it, the devotion and reverence transforming any sense of disdain I had felt.

As a vegetarian of over a decade and a Westerner these experiences should, and did, shock me at first even though I knew to expect them. And as a white person in the US I would never conduct animal sacrifice in my worship of Kali. But within the fabric of Hindu Tantric practice this was an essential thread.

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Harikhat at the Kali temple Photo from http://www.kalibhakti.com/kalighat/

Taboo

There is a Tantric dictum that says Yaireva Patanam Dravyaih Siddhih Taireva – That by which one falls is also that by which one rises. This of course speaks to the core philosophy of tantra, that desire and attachment to the material world cannot be overcome simply by abstaining from it; one must confront that desire and those material attachments themselves. It is through desire and attachment that we can be free of it.

“The Tantra holds that the impure, the ugly and the unholy things of life are things which have been wrongly seen out of their context, and, from their own particular positions, or from the point of view of the things themselves, they are neither good nor bad, neither beautiful nor ugly, neither holy nor unholy.”
~Sri Swami Krishnananda

In Tantric rituals, items are used in acts of devotion that may seem out of place at best, and abhorrent at worst, to our Western perception. There are items that are often taboo in Hindu culture, for example tobacco and meat. And in Tantra, particularly in the worship of Kali, there is sometimes blood through animal sacrifice.

Offering

As a witch I agree that the things of life, from their own particular position, are not in and of themselves good or bad – that is far too binary for me. But I do think that the things of life become good/bad, beautiful/ugly, and even holy/unholy, through the meaning that we give them. Unfortunately, the context within which we find and ascribe meaning is powerfully influential. And the means through which that context and meaning is constructed is just as important.

The first time I attended a tantric puja, I wondered about the use of tobacco. I was a smoker at the time, so it wasn’t particularly taboo to me to use tobacco. Within the context of my life, tobacco was a normal thing. But as the small cigar was passed around, I thought about the lives that had created that object, whose own contexts were very different from mine. I thought about the history of tobacco in America – the sacred use of it by indigenous peoples, the harm and subsistence it has brought since colonization. For some people tobacco has a very significant meaning. For me, it had become so commonplace as to barely register in my awareness. I inhaled the taste of it, noticing the small part of me that was repulsed by smoking tobacco in ritual, while the multiple layers of meaning shuffled in my head.

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We know daily use of tobacco kills people. We know that the corporations that produce tobacco for mass consumption do so using 100s of chemicals that increase addiction and that lead to a multitude of health problems. And so this too is a part of the context, is a part of the origin of the thing which influences our construction of the meaning. We cannot ignore it – that awareness is a part of our consciousness.

But we can acknowledge it, and flip it in an act of offering, of sacred-making. We can open ourselves to all of the meaning that has been ascribed to a thing, and thus reclaim our power to create our own meaning. We can move through our binary attachments and recognize the complexity of our own and other contexts.

In India, I opened myself to another source of meaning, a different context for the things of life. That awareness has created an even greater opening in my devotional practice, and for the creation of my own meaning.

On the Backs of Turtles

I know, its been quiet here. I’ve promised you more writing on India, and on polytheism, and the currents I see in our communities.

But Death came for a visit.

As many of you reading this will know, my sister died in her sleep on March 10. It was sudden and unexpected. Though in hindsight I see the many, many portents and preparations for this I received.

A week prior, an intense and fully embodied experience with Kali.
Continued visions of threads and weaving, and that night a raspy comforting whisper from One of the Ones who Weaves, cutting and removing a thread.

So on March 10 my world came to a screech. It didn’t halt though.

And I’ve been watching the chaos within a portion of the polytheist community while all this was happening. The pain and anger and harm directed at projects I am actively engaged with, and at those I love. I haven’t said much, because go to hell assholes, because I’m grieving and have been a little busy, because I would still much rather put my time and energy into building and supporting community and less into dealing with authoritarian power trolls.

The drama of it seems to have faded again, for now, though the damage has been done.

Some of that damage has been very personal. Yes I am a founding board member of Gods&Radicals. Yes I am a co-coordinator for Many Gods West 2016. I do it because I am passionate about the work, because it is Work that has been asked of me, because I care for the people I work with. I don’t shout it from the rooftops, because that is not who I am as a priestess. But know that an attack on them is an attack on me.

So let me lay this out there: while one of your own was deep in grief, was in desperate need of support from her spiritual community, was in need of the work and service that she has so often provided, that we claim to hold as essential and necessary Work for our Gods and for community,  y’all were embroiled in bullshit petty online arguments about who was right or wrong, about who was the devil and who was the savior, about who was trying to tear down community and religion. Rather than ACTUALLY DOING THE WORK OF COMMUNITY you were arguing about who was destroying it.

I’d call it ironic if I weren’t still so angry.

Oh, not everyone of course. The support I’ve been receiving has come from some of the most unexpected places. Primarily from people who either don’t care or don’t have the luxury to engage with the online arguing. And bless them, for if it weren’t for them I really don’t know where I would be right now.

I noticed those closest to me who have been the most directly affected by the vitriol struggle to maintain their engaged support of my grief, as they were forced to field the mud slinging and direct attacks to their emotional and even physical safety. Eventually I heard less and less from many of them, as their own reserves were drained.

Can no one else see how all of this is related?? For a community of people who claim such access to the Otherworldly, to be outside of the boxes of status quo society, to be able to forsee and rise above… we are just as susceptible to the currents running through our culture and our world.

What is it that forces us to devour our own? To not live our speech? To not actively engage our work, or only engage it when it is convenient or pretty or polishes our egotism?

How about we start sacrificing that egoism instead of feeding it? I know Someone in particular who will gladly devour it, so that we can feed ourselves something so much better…

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And now that this post is out the way, I’m going to do my best to continue to weave all that I am learning and experiencing right now into a coherent story for you all. There will be entries into the Grief Papers. There will be more on India. More on my current journey and how it all relates. It will be uncensored. And I will hold no space for the kind of rabid shit show I’ve been witnessing. So join me, or not.