In the Grove

It is my intention to bring you more stories of my interactions with nature. This is one of those, of a very strange day a couple of days ago.

I pulled a shirt from the closet – black, with an embroidered owl – and set it out with my clothes for the day. When I returned after my shower, the only shirt there was a different one – grey and covered in tiny skulls. Freaking out a bit, but deciding to go with it, I put it on. Then I got ready, put my dog in the car, and went off for our hike at the McLane Creek Nature Trail.

This was a trail I had not been to yet, chosen because the guidebooks said it was a good place to see Salmon. I felt torn about going; knowing it would be beautiful, but also that the land was state owned and was active timber country, and that it was likely there would not be many salmon in the waters, and so that sense of loss would permeate my hike.

I had just crossed the threshold from parking lot to trail when I began to hear sweet, soulful notes through the forest. It took me only a moment to make sense of the sound: someone was playing a wooden flute on the other side of the lake.

I chose my path around the loop trail – left, this time – and the undergrowth and small deciduous trees of recently timbered forest slowly shifted into decaying stumps larger than I could stretch my arms around and towering Red Cedar, deep and rich in color with roots like thick stilts rising from the nurse stumps.

The sun was just barely piercing the cloud cover and the tree canopy as I came to a fork in the trail: one way continuing on the loop, another leading out to a deck overlooking the creek that bordered the other side. A perfect triangle, and in the center of it a grove of Red cedar in the richest red, other trees as skeletons covered in bright green moss and soft grey lichen.

Just then, as I walked slowly into the grove, still listening to the flute, captivated by beauty but also something more, the sun illuminated this burnt piece of Red Cedar. As it did, mist began to rise from it’s surface like smoke. It seemed to sway in the air before slowly drifting away. I looked up and all around me as the sun began to bathe this shadowy grove in light and it seemed as if every growing thing began to stretch and then smokey mist began to rise all around me.

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It felt like a miracle, like divine play all around me. I sat for a time in meditation doing japa, and then went to the creek. Indeed, I could hear only a couple of salmon, slapping in the only section deep enough in the creek; the rest of it exposed gravel bed.

I continued on my hike, marveling at the trees and fungi and the life and death all around me. Eventually I came across the person playing the flute, an elderly man sitting along the beaver pond; at this point he had been playing for well more than an hour. I thanked him for the sweet notes through the forest. And then I thanked the forest, too.

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Avoid the Pedestal, Empower Others: Cultural Change

I am sharing this article with you in honor of the Capricorn Full Moon, which my astrological friends are telling me is, in combination with other aspects, really bringing up issues of power dynamics. This piece was originally published in the Pagan Leadership Anthology in 2016, written in 2014. 

The bigger they are, the harder they fall: or, how to avoid the pedestal

We are starved for good leadership. We seek individuals that are willing and able to lead, who are wise and knowledgeable, ethical, and passionate. Humans are social pack animals, and while we may not want to admit it, we look to our pack leaders to help guide us. Unfortunately, the model of leadership in our patriarchal, one-upmanship society has left us with many poor role models and a skewed vision of what good leadership really means.

So, when we encounter an individual who really seems to “get it,” who leads by example and cares about their community, people start to flock to them. I call it the moth to the porch light effect; there is a bright light shining and we can’t help but to be drawn to it. The people that are drawn to this bright light are “moths,” beautiful individuals that perhaps haven’t been appreciated or realized their beauty yet. This person, “the porch light” may or may not be willing or ready to take on the mantle of community leadership, but suddenly find themselves surrounded by individuals with a deep and crying need. This person, being who they are, has a difficult situation but an easy choice to make. When the Goddesses call, and the community cries out, you must answer.

This is when the pedestal begins to be built. Inevitably that pedestal must tumble, but in this phenomenon it is not due to any intentionally negligent actions of the leader. It is a pitfall I have seen many times, particularly in women’s groups. Women particularly have been socialized to accept power over them. We have come to expect it. We will hand our power to someone else and not even realize that we have done it. Yet we also have a deeper, instinctual knowledge that tells us that no one can or should have power over us.

When women start to awaken to the power that they inherently hold within themselves, they are suddenly thrust into a cognitive dissonance, recognizing the mixed messages they have been receiving from the outside world and their inner knowing their entire lives. This process is often catalyzed by a solid leader and guide. This leader, the person that they have trusted and often given some authority to, is now perceived as one of the people who have held power over her. They must be taken down.

This is usually not a conscious process. The “moths” have no real understanding of what they are going through, and need a place to release the rage and backlash from a lifetime of power and control. The leader (provided they are healthy) has not asked for nor taken any power from anyone they are leading. But they suddenly find themselves at the center of a coup.

Unfortunately, sometimes this process cannot be stopped. It is a part of the awakening of the people involved. It is healthy as long as they are guided through it and have enough self-awareness to recognize what is happening. So, it is extremely important for a leader to understand this phenomenon and do what they can to reduce the backlash and more gently and safely awaken people to the power they hold within.

Many of the ways to prevent the pedestal are, in essence, just good leadership skills. Honesty, humility, and accountability are all necessary traits for a spiritual leader. Here we will apply them to deeper discussions around power and control to create a model of leadership that, while perhaps not fully shared leadership, will resist the building of a top-down structure.

Forms of Power

There is nothing inherently wrong with power. We all possess it, but it is the wielding of it that can be harmful or beneficial. Reminding each other of the power that we possess, or what is referred to as empowering others, is essential to reclaiming our power and revisioning the world. Leaders are in a position to do this but it is important to remember that every form of power has its positive and negative side, its potential for benefit and its potential for harm. There are three types of power in groups, which have been written about thoroughly by Starhawk and the Reclaiming collective.

Power-over: This is the power structure we are most familiar with and in which we have all been indoctrinated. Power-over is essentially the power to make decisions and mete out punishment. When power-over is utilized in a corrupt system, as our society is structured, it becomes a way to subordinate and oppress the majority while the minority benefit from decision-making power that enables them to maintain control. In small groups, power-over looks like one individual with all of the decision-making power and none of the accountability, while the other group members are forced to abide by the decisions without the opportunity for input or feedback. When balanced by responsibility and mediated with input from people that decisions affect and accountability for those decisions, power-over may have a valid role. But we are all so deeply indoctrinated into the corrupt use of power-over that achieving this can be challenging in groups.

Power-with: This is a shared power structure. Power-with is the ability to influence, from a place of equality and shared respect among all group members. Power-with is the moment when one person claims power and suggests a decision or an action to a group of people who are all considered equals and each have the potential to claim that power in any moment. The group has the option to follow the suggestion or not. It often happens organically and in inspired moments. Power-with takes a turn to the harmful wielding of power when it turns into one person who frequently has the “best ideas” being followed without input or question, or one “elder” or other person of respect who is allowed to take action without accountability; both lead to one person holding authority over all others. Power-with can also be flipped, so that people who do not know how to access their inherent power will try to exert influence and authority over the group instead.

Power-from-within: This is the power that is inherent to us as beings. Power-from-within is the ability to see the value and resulting power of all things, and see the connections between one individual and the whole web of nature. Power-from-within is not competitive or influential, it does not oppress or exalt, it simply is and it sees the world for what it is – a system of interlocking connections. Power-from-within is the power you access when doing magic or ritual, when accessing the mystery, or when writing poetry or creating symbols. As such it can also be seen as the creative force. Recognizing the power within all beings is essential to being able to wield power to effect change, which is the purpose of power-with and power-over. When people don’t recognize their own power, they will try to take the power of others which puts leaders at risk.

Have discussions about power and control

An important part of leading groups, especially women’s groups, is to have an understanding about oppression, abuse, power, and control. We live in a patriarchal society and each of us has been brought up in a culture that values power and authority and demeans women and the egalitarian. We learn that the only way to be successful is to come out on top, and the only way to come out on top is to step on the backs of others on the way. This creates competition which perpetuates oppression.

Indeed, our societal structure depends upon classes of people remaining oppressed. We are all indoctrinated into this system, and unconsciously internalize the oppression. For some, this manifests as a greater desire for power so that they can feel a sense of control over their own lives. We use the tools that have been given to us through internalized oppression to perpetuate the system because it is the only thing we know.

In our groups, we have the opportunity to break this cycle. In every group I start I include a discussion about patriarchy, oppression and privilege, and power and control. We work together to unpack our experiences living in a patriarchal society. In a women’s group this can begin with the women taking stock of the ways they feel discriminated against and objectified. Discrimination in the workplace, media images, and feelings of safety can be explored. In all groups, relationships with friends, family, and co-workers can be explored to discuss if the individual feels they hold the power in one relationship and feel subordinate in another, and how those dynamics play out.

To look at the bigger picture you can also explore how the need for control and superiority affects our interactions with the environment. If group members have a difficult time exploring personal relationships, their connection with the Earth may help them reveal how they try to maintain control in their lives and their resulting abuse of the environment. Questions about how they try to tame their lawns and gardens, the health of the water around them, and how they see wildlife, can all unveil internalized oppression and the drive for control.

You can then go into leadership styles and discuss alternatives. Consensus-building and shared leadership can be explored. At this stage it is appropriate to decide how the group will be organized, who will be the primary decision-maker, and how tasks will be shared, but it is important for everyone to remember that this can and likely will shift as the group changes.

Be honest about your personal life, challenges, and weaknesses. Set boundaries.

We’ve all heard it – no one is perfect. To try to maintain a façade that you are is to lie to yourself and everyone around you. Honesty is a paramount trait in a leader. You must be able to be honest with yourself before you try to lead others. This doesn’t mean you have to make everything in your life align with some ultimate spiritual ideal. On the contrary, showing your humanity to others is the greatest model you can be.

I have sat in groups and felt like I couldn’t share anything personal because I was the leader and couldn’t be seen as weak or troubled. How would anyone trust me to lead them if they knew I was having trouble at home, or was struggling in my own spiritual practice, or felt completely inadequate in leading? So I would listen and support the other women in the group, nodding or offering advice when asked, but I would never truly open up to them.

I now know this is a huge disservice to them and me. It made me appear to have transcended personal challenges; to be someone enlightened with wisdom and without struggles. This only served to build the pedestal higher and secretly bred resentment that fed the dissonance in the mind of the group members and hastened the fall. None of this was intentional. I wasn’t trying to look like I had ‘risen above’ the struggles of life; I was trapped in thinking I couldn’t share these things and still be respected – it was the internalized sense of what holding power means and the fear of showing weakness in the competitiveness model. The women in the group weren’t asking me to be an ‘enlightened savior’; they were just eager to have someone actively listen to their problems and support them in their struggles.

Whether you are leading a small ritual group or are a public figure in your community, remaining open and honest about your humanity will be inspiring to others. Of course, you are your own authority in your life and you should use your own discretion and intuition when deciding what to share, when, and with whom. Balancing over and under sharing can be difficult. And of course, only share as much as you can safely share.

Setting boundaries from the beginning will help to avoid any confusion and group members later feeling like you weren’t really there for them. Let the group know how much time you have to devote to group activities, when you are not available, and what kinds of things you are willing to do. Also be clear about what you expect in return, whether it is financial compensation or a certain level of engagement. This goes hand in hand with being honest about your life and your own struggles, so that no one has false expectations.

Empower others

Leadership is as much about teaching leadership skills to others as it is leading. Shared leadership means not only sharing the power and responsibility of leadership, but empowering those who would like to lead. In a spiritual group, your ultimate goal should be to lead others to their own skills and wisdom within. “Empowerment” has become a bit of a buzzword, and as such much of its true meaning has been hard to define. The classic definition is to “give” someone power or “make” them exercise their power and authority.

Neither of these definitions includes the concept that individuals inherently have power; we cannot give power to them and making them exercise it places power over them.

So what does empowering others actually look like? To continue with the metaphor of the porch light, it is to guide others to their home, their sense of place and power within. It is to help them recognize the power they inherently hold. Recognizing systemic and internalized oppression is the first step to remembering the power that each person holds. Enabling others to express their emotions, their anger and fear through allowing the space for the process is essential. This process can be difficult and fraught with challenges that a leader-guide must be prepared for. The scope of those challenges goes beyond this article, but there are many resources available for clergy and lay counselors that have useful tools and techniques.

Once the dam is removed and the stymie of emotions has been released, a leader must be diligent in working with the individual to help them remember their power and allow the space for them to exercise it. If they have often turned to you to help them make decisions, now is the time to give that decision-making responsibility back to them. When counseling them, encourage them to ask themselves what they feel they should do, holding the space for them to tap into their own intuition. Reflect their feelings back to them and ask open-ended questions.

If you have been primarily responsible for coordinating events and conducting ritual, you should consider giving some of that responsibility to the group. In the case of teaching circles, every few weeks following teaching and practicing a certain skill, I set aside a meeting to encourage the group members to share their own insights into the practice and help teach each other. Another easy way to work this concept in is to designate the Sabbats, if you celebrate them, as group rituals in which everyone takes a piece and works together to develop the ritual. As the group continues to work together, begin sharing more ritual work with the rest of the group, until eventually rituals are being rotated or collaborated with everyone.

Recognize red flags

There are several red flag behaviors I have noticed that indicate that the individual is starting to struggle with feeling subordinated to power, and they will begin to tear down the person perceived to be at the top. At this point, it is perhaps too late to utilize some of the preemptive techniques discussed here. But you will still have the opportunity to discuss power and control, ask for feedback, and help them process what they are feeling. If appropriate, you can then share more responsibility and help them have more control in their own life.

Unfortunately, some people are just not self-aware enough to be able to recognize what they are experiencing and don’t have the vocabulary and experience to truly grasp the effects of power and control in their lives. These individuals sometimes have their own dreams of power and want to be at the top themselves, and see tearing down a leader as the swiftest route. This is an issue we must address in the community as a whole and learn how to more effectively support good leadership.

Some potential red flags I have noticed:

A person joins your group claiming to be completely new and is seeking guidance. They then begins to tell everyone in the group all about the things they have done and does not remain open to instruction or guidance. This can be a subtle way to breed distrust in your leadership and encourage others to uproot you and follow their lead. While they may cloak their actions with the claim that they are trying to help, encourage sharing, and provide their own point of view, the fact that they are not open to feedback is a clear indicator that their motives may not be pure.

There is a line between sharing leadership and letting someone else run the show. Don’t let someone turn these techniques on you under the banner of shared leadership. If this happens, share your concerns, but be prepared if they say you are misinterpreting their actions or are just trying to maintain control of the group. If they do, I encourage you to have a conversation that perhaps this is not the right group for them and they should find a group that is working more with their apparent skillset.

You find the rest of the group members are meeting without you. Concurrently, behavior and the overall vibe of the group is changing. This can be a slippery situation. You should never ban anyone from doing anything. However, if the group is meeting behind your back and one person is secretly undermining you, this can be very unhealthy. My suggestion is to keep a close eye on the group dynamic. Do not begin to tighten your grip on the group to try to maintain control—this will only serve the purposes of the person undermining you. Encourage a group discussion about what the group wants and what direction they would like to go. Ask each group member to share a particular skill with the group and begin to incorporate those techniques into meetings to decentralize power and take some of the energy out of the sails of the person undermining you.

There is one individual who consistently blocks you in consensus-making or always has an idea that is “just a better solution” than yours. This is extremely uncomfortable and can be another way that someone uses shared leadership against you to gain attention and control. In this case, it is important to discuss the issue individually with the group members. If this person is blocking movement and decision-making, it is likely frustrating to the rest of the group as well. As a group, you should decide how to handle the situation. You could adjust decision-making for a while or decide to remove the person entirely if they are being obstructive.

These few examples can take any number of permutations but have the same end game, to (whether consciously or unconsciously) undermine and tear down the group leader.

In my own experiences, by not addressing these issues preemptively, our group relationship shifted to me being perceived as the untouchable leader who had all the answers and the group members feeling undervalued and like they needed “fixing.” This is not healthy and enables and perpetuates power-over, whether you actively utilize that power or not.

As a leader it is essential to have an objective third party as a sounding board. A mentor or peer that you trust can be the most valuable tool you have. Share your ideas about leadership with this person, explain the dynamics of your group, and ask for their feedback. They can help you decipher behaviors and look at the group dynamic from the outside to determine if there is a power struggle happening.

Changing the way we interact with others at the grassroots, in our groups and micro-communities, will have the greatest impact upon our culture as a whole. As the power shifts and equality gains momentum we can reach critical mass. Soon these discussions will be common and people will be more willing to unpack their own patriarchal tendencies and shift group dynamics. Abuse of power is rampant, but we also hold the power to shift culture. This is the work we are here to do. And it starts with you in your own community.

Resources
Starhawk. (1987). Truth or dare: Encounters with power, authority, and mystery. San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row.
Starhawk. (1997). Dreaming the dark: Magic, sex, and politics. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Harrow, Judy. (2002). Spiritual mentoring: A pagan guide. Toronto, ON: ECW Press.
Mountainwater, Shekhinah. (1991). Ariadne’s Thread: A workbook of goddess magic. Freedom, CA: The Crossing Press.

The Pagan Leadership Anthology is a fantastic resource. Purchase yours here.

Want to support this work and see more like it? Check out my Patreon. My patrons received this article 3 months before publishing it on the blog.

The Last Time

It has been a year since I wrote this piece to read at Grief Rites in Portland, Oregon. It has previously been shared only within the grief support group I administer and with my patrons. If you would like to hear me read it along with two poems, join my Patreon.

The sky outside my bedroom window is dark, the first rays of light trapped behind heavy clouds. Only omens come at this hour. As consciousness seizes me, I notice the look on my husband’s face, and the words “honey, its your mom, someone died” flee his lips. What? No. One of the dogs? Maybe a grandparent. Or my dad? Oh god. He thrusts the phone into my hand like some infected thing, and I take it.

Mom? Through the sobs I make out “your sister is dead. Jen is dead” and I sense time and space – of my world as I know it – being suddenly ripped apart. My thoughts scurry away from me as my body freezes. I feel completely dislocated from this moment, the veiled heaviness of the sky obscuring my presence.

I ask “what happened?”, as if my mother, barely able to say two words, would be able to tell me. In the few moments it bought me I quickly shuffled through the cards in my brain, looking for the instructions labeled “what to do if your sister just died and your mother is begging you to fix it”. Nothing. Shit. Alright. Another phrase flashes through my brain: In case of emergency break glass. Air rushes into my lungs, and I quickly ground and center myself. Yes, remember your training, Syren. The mantle of priestess goes on, blanketing my own emotions. I console my mother as best I can, while listening to my father speak to the police in the background. My mother keeps repeating: “she’s dead. I don’t know. I should have done something. I need you here.”

I hang up the phone and look for my husband who is rushing to get ready for work. I grab his arm and turn to look at him – as he puts his arms around me I allow myself one moment of sobs. “We have to go” I say.

Phone calls, internet searches, how can plane tickets be so expensive? clothes tossed into bags, ‘oh gods what are we going to do about the dogs?’ – note left for neighbor. Two hours later and we’re sitting in PDX waiting for our flight across the country. 8 hours. I have 8 blessed hours to breathe, and relax, and find some space within myself before I have to start swimming through miasma of pain and sorrow.

It had been two years since we last saw each other.
I know this, because I left the day before her 30th birthday. And she died two months after her 32nd.

She had talked about how wonderful it would be to have me there to celebrate the big Three-Oh. But I knew that was probably not going to happen. Ten days has generally been the longest I could visit home before things went south, and to stay that long would have been two weeks, the breadth of time from Winter Solstice to her birthday.

It was New Years Eve; my husband, my father, my sister, and a little too much alcohol was bound to be a volatile combination. Some argument about laws and politics, but it could have been about anything. It doesn’t take much to tread old scars, to scratch at barely concealed wounds.

We left the next day, while she sat in her room, barely a word of goodbye.

It would be the last time I went home while she was alive.

A year or so ago, she came into a discussion about racism on my Facebook wall. She quickly derailed, while I did my best to remain calm and compassionate. She spouted off hateful things at me. It was pretty obvious she was in another episode of mental instability. She unfriended me and said she didn’t want to speak to me anymore.

And I was fine with that.

I called it boundary-making. I called it self care. There is only so much familial instability one can handle, so many arguments, so many words flung in a panic of mania and anger. I loved her. But I couldn’t do it.

We didn’t speak again until this February. She called me a day or two before I left for India. She told me she was sorry, that she couldn’t let me leave without saying that she loved me and always would. Sisters are forever.

At least, that is what we always thought.

On March 2nd, a week before she died, she sent me another message. “I love my Sister. She is amazing and I couldn’t imagine my life without her” the meme said. I could feel her uncertainty, her shaking hand holding the olive branch, the simple statement and question: do you still love me? I didn’t know what to do or what to say, I still had so many mixed emotions and I was so busy. So all I said was “cute”.

We will never speak again.

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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