Weaving Our Way

I’m back from California Witchcamp and Redwood Magic. Unlike last time, when the spiritual work I started at camp confounded my desire to write publicly for most of a year, this time I find myself wanting to post everything that I can find time to dig into…

After all the magic around web-weaving at camp–unweaving the web of lies and reweaving the web of life with fierce love–I arrived back in Santa Barbara to find that webs had preceded me there. Ted found this one sitting in our garbage can when he took out trash during the final weekend of camp: web2
And Shayna gifted Rebecca with a smaller one that’s hanging in our bedroom.

But the last web was the strangest. Rebecca’s thick, wavy hair had gotten impossibly matted–lots of tangles thicker than my thumb and one bigger than four of my fingers clenched toward a fist. Normally 2-3 weeks without regular showers wouldn’t do this to her hair! And I can say that because this isn’t the first vacation I’ve let it go. I approach detangling with a mix of guilt, befuddlement, and anger that apparently I’m in the position of needing to figure out hair. I’ve never figured out hair. I mostly haven’t wanted to. So it’s no surprise that normally I can only manage to comb for 10-15 minutes before I get impatient and rough, or that normally I’d cut out anything this matted. My kid loves her mane, though. She doesn’t want dreads, and there were too many snaggles this time to just cut.

Detangling took hours. My fingers were prunes from all the detangler I’d sprayed, but they’d become gentler than I thought was possible. I started to trance, until I wasn’t brushing my daughter’s hair anymore. I was touching my mother’s wavy thick hair again, which she got from her ancestors in Germany, and which as a teenager her mother had insisted she keep long and braid around her head, even though she hated that. I was touching my father’s ancestors’ hair… Our family from the South has stories about being part Cherokee, generations back. But when I read my DNA report earlier this year, I didn’t see an ancestor who was Cherokee by blood: They were black. Now I imagine the invisible snaggles around that elision in our family history–knots in throats and stomachs and hearts.

This week I combed love into my ancestors’ hair, because I know their hair hadn’t always been treated gently, and it felt like maybe they could use it. Like maybe I was untangling knots beyond my kiddo.

I didn’t need to cut anything.

Pagan Families Posts

For the last year, I’ve had the pleasure of posting irregularly to the Pagan Families blog on Patheos.  Pleasure? Okay, at first I felt awkward to be writing publicly about religion and magic–you can read an awkwardly long post about my personal battle with religious awkwardness here–but, you know, I’ve been feeling less and less silly about it.  And so I’ve reposted my Pagan Families posts here, closer to my heart and easier for my friends to find.

The Invisible Art of Play

Originally posted at Pagan Families, 5/27/15.  Has creating spells and making magic helped you hone your parenting skills? I haven’t seen any experts list spellcrafting or analogical thinking as an important parenting ability, but maybe they should. Let me tell you a story.

Melissa and Doug Caterpillar Grasping Toy, aka Rainbow Snake

One time this rainbow snake toy saved me from the minor embarrassment of being that parent, the one whose kid is screaming on your plane’s final descent, and it saved my then two year old from the full distress of being buckled down against her will. She’d been in loud and unfamiliar places all day, not getting to make many decisions for herself, and when I insisted on buckling her in, the whole flock of frustrations alighted on her seatbelt. But as my daughter started to scream, inspiration struck: I grabbed the rainbow snake and snapped it around my own neck, crying “Get it off me! Get it off me!” My daughter’s focus shifted from freeing herself to freeing me. Once I was de-snaked, the toy wound its way around my daughter’s leg, where she settled into snapping it off and on, and seemed to forget about the seatbelt.

Friends who’ve seen similar situations have told me how easily redirected my child was, but that didn’t seem quite right. I was pretty sure that it wouldn’t have worked to redirect her toward any toy but Rainbow Snake. Why the snake, though? It wasn’t a new toy; it wasn’t a favorite toy… However, it was a facsimile of a seatbelt. My younger self, the part of me that sees the world in poetry and layers of images, had spoken to my daughter in her own language and empathized with her. My toddler could be in charge of the snake and help rescue me from it, even if she was powerless over the seatbelt. She could experiment with the feeling of wrapping the snake around herself, but still take it off. And in the process, she could feel and remove some of her frustrations with the day.

I’m continually impressed by how conjuring up the right analogy can transform a situation for young children. Toys like the snake make an image concrete and easier for children to work with, but many times just giving the child a new mental picture is enough to redescribe a situation. For example, earlier this year my older daughter was pretending to be the sun dancing in a field, so the younger one decided she would run after her and do the same thing. When the older sister started to complain, I told her about the moon, and how all the moon’s light is a reflection of the sun. It doesn’t create any new light on its own; it imitates the sun, and it needs the sun to shine. Now this image wasn’t completely fair to my toddler, who does plenty of shining on her own, but it let my five year old enjoy her sister’s imitation in a way she hadn’t before. As a big sister, hearing “your little sister wants to be just like you” can feel threatening; whereas describing her little sister as the moon gave the younger one a role without implying that she might squeeze out her sister.

When an image doesn’t work, sometimes it helps to amplify the image by making it a recurring motif in stories.  One of the best guides I’ve found on storytelling as a tool for inspiring change in kids is Susan Perrow’s Healing Stories for Challenging Behaviour. Perrow’s first step in crafting a story for challenging behavior is describing the behavior in its situational context and then clearly envisioning the situation you want instead. Next you choose a metaphor for the situation, and that metaphor becomes the core of a story–for example, a crab for a child who’s pinching friends. As the story proceeds, its protagonist journeys out of an uncomfortable situation and toward wholeness or a more balanced situation. This resolution is encapsulated in a healing image, a happy ending that shows the child a way to reimagine her own situation. As a child hears the story over repeated tellings, the experience in the story becomes her own, until she can bring that sense of balance into her own world. Giving the child a physical talisman (or toy) that represents the healing image can make it even more powerful. The process is remarkably similar to designing a spell, with narrative tension as a path to raising energy.

Broadleaf_PlantainThe playful art of image making has proven indispensible to me as I try to minimize my parental usage of punishment, rewards, and other sorts of coercion. When I use images and stories, I can sidestep the rodeo of power-over and guide my children from a power-with perspective. Sometimes it bothers me, though, that so much of what makes my parenting style work is invisible. That’s not to say that there isn’t relevant reading in the parenting section; for example, Lawrence Cohen’s Playful Parenting is a fantastic resource on using play to relate to kids and help them work through problems. Nevertheless, this sort of imagining with kids doesn’t get the attention paid 1-2-3 magic and time outs, or even the attention put into to identifying needs and empathizing as discipline strategies. One reason for its low visibility may be that analogies and play scenarios aren’t formulaic and often aren’t directly transportable from one child and situation to another. Finding the right image depends on being in the situation, knowing what your child’s been talking about recently and what characters she’s likely to identify with, and sometimes knowing her relationship to different toys. I’m not so sure my rainbow snake trick would’ve worked if we’d labeled that toy a caterpillar, even though its antennae clearly indicate that it’s not really supposed to be a snake.

I bet you have stories about times that play saved you from a sticky situation, too. Even if we don’t talk much about the silly things we make up with our kids, most families seem to have them. They grow like green through the cracks in concrete, in the spaces people don’t think much about. They grow in between all those consistent boundaries. They grow in the silly voices we use when only our own family is around. They grow in desperate moments on a plane and when you’re trying to get your toddler to sit on the potty. Other times they grow when we’re playing peacefully and intuitively, and we don’t even realize what happened unless we think about it later. You don’t need to know what you’re saying when you speak the language of dreams, but being aware can help you cultivate it. There’s an invisible art at work in parenting with images, and it’s close kin to magic–or depending on your definition, maybe it is magic.

What Nights Are For

Originally posted on Pagan Families, 2/23/15.  I lie awake in the dark with my children beside me, one on each side. The little one snuggles with her whole body, the big one with just an outstretched hand. I remember when she followed me in her sleep like a sunflower follows the sun; now when she does that, it usually means she needs another blanket.

As I write this, I’m starting the slow process of night-weaning my second child, and it’s gotten me thinking on how we sleep. I’ve done little sleep training, since it’s easier to change my own sleep habits than my children’s. If they need help getting back to sleep, I help, and slowly the kids have absorbed the idea that nights are for sleep. But in the meantime, they’ve taken me into ancient rhythms of waking and sleeping.

It’s been over five years since I’ve “slept the night,” and I’m looking back on the long nights now with a strange sense of gratitude: What I see is a spiritual practice that unfolded without being put on a to-do list, without me even knowing to look for it. It grew of its own accord, same as the children. Somewhere between the moments of pregnant insomnia, between lullabies and guided meditations, sore hips and flashes of anger,  my understanding of night time changed. Instead of sleeping in a calculated, efficient way and asking my time in bed to disappear in the darkness, now I travel through valleys of dreams and crests of wakefulness, finding a whole topography of vistas.

Even though it took me by surprise, this intermittent approach to sleep is very old, and so using it for spiritual ends.  When artificial light was scarce, people went to bed earlier than they do now, but that doesn’t mean they slept all night.  Historian A. Roger Ekirch’s survey of texts from pre-modern Europe shows that for centuries, nighttime sleep was divided into two main segments, separated by a watching hour in the early AM. During that hour of the night, people would talk with their bedmates, pray, get sexy, contemplate dreams, smoke, steal fruit from their neighbors’ trees, and–I presume–nurse their babies. Anthropologists have observed similar sleep patterns among some contemporary traditional cultures.  And Thomas Wehr, who pioneered studies of circadian rhythms, found that contemporary Americans sleep bimodally, too, if they don’t have access to artificial light.

Sleeping the night is a modern Western invention, not the inevitable result of maturity. In addition to the watching hour, people in traditional cultures also woke up more often due to minor disruptions and discomforts. Historically we’ve slept together in groups, had more babies, and slept with those babies in those groups–you can do the math there yourself, and then throw in more fleas.  People with more traditional sleep patterns weren’t chronically exhausted as a result (though they also typically took naps), and unlike modern Americans, they generally spoke positively of waking up in the middle of the night. Other studies suggest a biological basis for why people considered the watching hour so cozy and pleasant: early morning brings a daily high tide of prolactin, the same hormone that leads to milk production and post-orgasmic satisfaction, among other things. It facilitates a calm which is good for getting perspective on our lives and letting go of old anxieties.

After I was done soothing the kids, I used to fall into thinking about what I wanted to get done, or else writing posts and emails in my head. I stayed awake for hours sometimes, repeating the same magic phrases, and excused myself by supposing that it would help me write more quickly once I got to a computer. Except it didn’t, and over time I noticed that much of what I was writing in my head at night sounded defensive and stuck. I also noticed that thinking in words takes me out of the dark and toward daytime consciousness, which is useless at night when you’re snuggled between people.  So I started moving away from the modern sense that the hours of the day are ideally interchangeable, toward seeing night as having its own character and own ways of thinking.

Now I hold the watching hour as a sabbath from making mental to-do lists. I started meditating instead. I watch which concerns come toward me begging to be narrated, notice what’s binding the tension, and release it. I watch what my fantasies are for presenting myself and connecting to other people, and name them. I revisit dreams and watch for images forming in my head, until the whole world seems to be spinning around me in the dark. Dreamwork has been especially useful for bridging the abyss between my past and my sense of self as a parent, and more generally when different parts of myself have fallen out of sync and need to talk to each other again. Especially in the early winter, when days are busier than usual and full of to-do lists, I need space in the dark. And when I need that space, I inevitably find myself waking up to fill it.

Interspersed with it all is nursing and caring for children. It’s work, I know. But as I’ve cared for others, I sense that I too am cared for in the arms of Mother Night. Have the long nights called you and your children to a waking hour, too? If so, what needs to happen for you to enjoy being up in the middle of the night?

Review: Parenting With A Story

SmithCoverPaul Smith, Parenting with a Story: Real Life Lessons in Character for Parents and Children to Share (AMACOM, 2014). 272 pages.

Once upon a time my mother stepped out of a friend’s car and down an open sewer grate. Fortunately she grabbed onto the sides of the hole as she fell, and her friends helped her climb back out. My mom told me the story a decade and a half later, when I was a little girl, and the idea that I might fall into a sewer followed me for a decade after that. Stories are an excellent tool for communicating potential risks, and that’s what many of my mother’s stories did. I wish instead that she’d given me more tales like the ones Paul Smith tells in Parenting with a Story, which is more concerned with spiritual or psychological pitfalls than literal ones.

Parenting with a Story is Smith’s collection of stories for inspiring sound decision making and strong character. As Smith notes, stories are more helpful to children navigating tough situations than straight-out advice is. It can be hard to figure out how to apply general principles to the circumstances you’re in, and hard to figure out why the advice is good. Hearing a story shows kids what kind of results can follow from a course of action and helps them reimagine what a happy ending to their situation might look like. Telling a story instead of giving advice also leaves room for kids to think for themselves and helps defuse the power dynamics that can make it harder for independence-craving kids to take advice. I’d add that hearing someone else talk about a problem can give the child a sense of being seen and acknowledged without being scrutinized, while engaging with a story lets children think about their problems from a safe distance.

But where do you come up with the stories? Maybe some of them are in this book. After interviewing over a hundred people, Smith chose 101 of the most compelling personal stories and arranged them according to the virtues they teach, covering everything from open-mindedness and goal-setting to kindness and appreciation of beauty. The idea is that you can consult the book, find relevant stories, and retell them to your young person in an age-appropriate way. Most of the stories are over my five year old’s head, but I imagine they’ll be more relevant by late elementary school. Smith provides a handy index of story themes in the back, and an online discussion guide as well.

Parenting with a Story furnished me with some memorable tales, and I’m likely to consult it from time to time in the future. The book is at its strongest when Smith lets stories speak mostly for themselves and chooses tales that nuance each other, as he does in the chapter on setting goals. It’s easy enough to read past the book’s preachier parts if you just want the stories; however, I’d advise against reading large helpings of the book at once, unless you’re particularly fond of motivational speaking (which is Paul Smith’s business). The book reminded me of a commencement address at times, partly because of Smith’s tendency to locate his subjects by mentioning their colleges, career paths, and degrees, and partly because of the familiar cultural archetypes featured in many of the stories. For example, Smith talked to a real life version of the proverbial kid who grew up to be creative because she and her siblings didn’t have electronic toys as children. Are these kinds of stories potentially useful for kids, if they’re handled sympathetically? Sure, and presumably that’s how many of them got their archetypal quality.

I’m having a hard time figuring out how to tell the stories, though, even the age-appropriate ones. I tell a lot of stories to my family already, and I’ve casually tried out a couple of the ones from this book. But it’s hard to introduce a personal story about a person you have no connection to, and the stories lose resonance in the process. For example, Smith relates a story about a boy who poked around the house until he found where his Christmas presents were hidden. At first he was excited, but then he realized he’d still have to wait all the way until Christmas to play with them. He’d need to pretend to be surprised when he unwrapped them, so that his parents wouldn’t be disappointed or guess what he’d done. It wasn’t much fun. And so from then on, he resisted the impulse to spoil surprises. Now, if this were a story about my own experience, the kids would love it and the story would have experiential authority. Telling the story about someone we don’t know is okay as an adjunct to asking, “How would you feel if you found your Christmas presents?”–but much of its power has drained away. The more surprising the story’s outcome or the more implicitly confrontational the story is, the more it benefits from being a story about someone you’re connected to.

I started the review by noting that I would’ve liked to have heard more wisdom stories from my mom. But crucially, the reason I would’ve liked to have heard my parents’ stories is only partly to learn from their wisdom. The other reason is that they’re my parents. I’m interested in learning about them, and since I already know their lives and character, I can situate their answers. You can’t swap a stranger’s story in for your family’s stories, any more than you can swap a stranger in for yourself, even if part of you wonders if that stranger might be a better mom or dad. Ultimately, Parenting with a Story‘s biggest impact on me was its encouragement to interview my family and find our own stories. And just in case you’re starting to think about doing the same thing over the holidays, let me close with a sampling of Smith’s interview questions:

-What’s the biggest mistake you’ve ever made? Why?
-What are three of the smartest decisions you’ve ever made?
-Describe a time when you faced someone or something you were truly afraid of. How did it turn out?
-Can you remember a time as a child when you did something you had been told not to do and you did it anyway? How did it turn out? Do you wish you had obeyed and hadn’t done it? Or are you glad you did it anyway?
-Tell me about a time in your life when you learned a hard lesson about the value of _____. Then fill in the blank with a topic of interest.
-What stories do you remember hearing as a child that taught you so valuable a lesson you still remember them to this day?

So, who’s ready to hear more stories?

Enchanted Composting

A picture of compost

Originally posted at Pagan Families, 11/24/14.  “I’m going out to the compost. Does anyone want to come with me?” I asked, and a moment of near panic followed when the kids thought I might get there without them. “Coming, coming!” piped the one year old, and the five year old chimed in, “Wait just a second–I need to pause the TV!”

We’ve had our compost tumbler since August, and the kids are still excited about dumping in food scraps and leaves, smashing eggshells, and pushing the composter hard to get it turning: all good sensorimotor activities for children. They also like peering inside to see what’s changed and how warm it is, and seeing how the compost looks before and after tumbling.

Composting holds the same joy for my children as cooking and free-form potion-making do. If their excitement about compost seems quirky, that’s partially because we’re culturally in the habit of downplaying and removing trash, of teaching that it’s icky and trying not to think too hard about it, under penalty of feeling guilty. Composting our scraps doesn’t just change the scraps, though; it also changes what we think of them. Suddenly we’re witnessing something that has always been happening in secret, and we’ve become part of it. We’ve not only inserted ourselves as agents in the process, but parts of us literally are in the compost: bits of our hair and bits of our food, plus the occasional pee-soaked paper towel. It’s done more to create a sense of intimacy with the land than our short-lived full moon offerings or telling secrets to the trees, and so far the kids have enjoyed it more than gardening.

Being mindful of where our kitchen scraps and moldy fruit go has proven surprisingly grounding for me. There’s something reassuring in seeing waste start to become something else, and something alarming in letting scraps disappear. Intellectually I know our trash doesn’t really disappear, so much as it’s dumped into a nearby canyon and slowly makes the canyon disappear, but we’re not allowed to visit the canyon and that makes the process nebulous. Really knowing that things don’t just vanish when you let go of them, and being able to approach the Crone’s work with fascination and reverence: that’s a gift, if I can give it to my children.

And that’s why we’ve made a series of small ritualizations around our compost tumbler. I found myself saying the Feri prayer to the Star Goddess when we added the first ingredients: “Holy Mother in whom we live, move, and have our being, from you all things proceed and to you all things return.” My older daughter sometimes uses a preschool chant about witches’ brew when she adds things to the compost: “Bubble bubble, toil and trouble, what shall we add to our pot tonight?”, followed by a list of ingredients. Another time she decided to have a tea party by the composter–her own sort of ritualization–and as we dissected the tea bags, I remembered her chant about witches’ brew. It inspired me to pull out Circle Round during our tea party and share this cauldron image with her, adapted from the book:

At the edge of the world stands the Isle of Apples, where we may journey when we’re dead, and there stands an old, old woman stirring a cauldron. She’s so old that her skin is covered in wrinkles, but if you look in her eyes, you’ll see they’re bright and welcoming. If you look longer and don’t turn away, you’ll realize she’s a goddess, and her cauldron is full of sparks, like little stars in the night. Each spark is the spirit of someone dead or someone who hasn’t been born yet, and she stirs them, tumbling and tumbling and tumbling them, until they’re ready to be born and grow. And if you take a taste from her cauldron, it tastes sweet and fiery and earthy, all at once.

Our composter stands in for the cauldron here, of course, with its contents tumbling and tumbling until they’re ready to help our plants grow. If we were using a bin instead of a tumbler, I might’ve emphasized how long the cooking took, or maybe we would’ve hit on a different metaphor for composting. It reminds me of digestion, for example, in the belly of the Goddess or a very slow-moving dragon.

Another time I told my older daughter about part of a Greek festival called the Thesmophoria. According to Jennifer Reif’s reconstruction in The Mysteries of Demeter, offerings made to Persephone on her way to the underworld were kept underground, in a container that I see as comparable to our composter. They left Persephone’s offerings in the ground the whole time she was in the underworld. But then in the fall, around the start of the rainy season (which is when Persephone returns to Demeter in a Mediterranean climate), people dug up the offerings and saw how they’d been transformed–into blackened, decaying lumps, I imagine. They weren’t just offerings anymore, though. They’d been with Hades and Persephone in the underworld, and they’d transformed the offerings into gifts from the land of the dead. And there was something special about them: the gifts of the dead were just what’s needed to nurture new life. So the people mixed their black, gooey gifts with seed grain, to bless what they planted and grow plenty of it.

I’m not presenting a thealogy here so much as I’m trying to change the lens that we use to see decay and trash. We’re letting them become a Mystery–at least incipiently– instead of just an inconvenience. Playful composting and storytelling help us shift our way of thinking about waste products, so that the compost bucket is more than a differently colored trash bin. And that hopefully will give us fertile ground for rethinking other practices.

Of course, I know a lot of you have been composting for years, and here I am, going on like a teenager who’s just invented the kiss. So tell me, is there a special compost pile in your life?

Haunted Time

A version of this was originally posted at Pagan Families, 10/16/14: My oldest child turns five this month, and I’ve been looking back at my journals from the first two weeks after she was born.  I haven’t seen a lot of postpartum writing I resonate with, so I wanted to share a couple journal excerpts related to Samhain.  I’ve edited them to connect pieces and make the images less fragmentary.  The next part of this story, when my baby was 6-8 weeks old, is here.

It’s late October and strangely appropriate that our place is so full of spiders, as if we ghosts were living in a haunted house.  Trick-or-treating decades ago seems more real than now does. I read somewhere that it’s not just our ancestors who come back at this time of year, but our pasts and our old wounds, too.  That’s what having a child at Samhaintide has done:  split me open and brought my own childhood and my mom’s stories about becoming a mother closer to me than the things I did in grad school a year or two ago.  Call it emotional vertigo, with a chasm of past in front of me and urging me down.

Where did those days go, anyway?  How did we come to this?  I know full well in my head how my parents died, but it doesn’t have much emotional truth right now.  It feels like one of those moments that sometimes happens in a dream, when you notice an inconsistency and start to wake, until your mind comes up with a pat in-dream explanation (“oh, they’re dead!”).  You don’t realize it makes no sense until later, when you really do wake up.  How could my parents be dead?  We should still be living together.  That’s the order of the world.  I learned that when I was young.  Of course they’re still here somewhere!  I simply misplaced them, like a kid sobbing in the mall.

And I’m worried too about not being there for my daughter.  Worried, terrified, I don’t know–devastated?  It’s like I’m already not there for her, even though I have her in my lap and my foot is going to sleep.  I remember yesterday being distracted on my laptop while she was nursing, and then turning back and seeing she had her eyes open, big and liquid, and I wondered how I could possibly have let myself be distracted.  She was so beautiful, and I just wanted to let her know that she was worth my whole attention, not someone who had to play second fiddle to a computer screen.  I’ve been dogged lately by the fear of abandoning people and sense that I’ve been abandoned–but I feel like I’m incarnating someone else’s pain here, too: my mom’s?  Because surely she wished for something else from her mom and siblings, and certainly from Dad, when he was looking at his computer screens.

So, now I’m Mom.  My body and mind seem to be taking to it naturally, too, like they already know what to do most of the time.  And I don’t know how I know how to give birth or make milk, but there it is.  I’m doing it.  And changing diapers, too.

The new world is gaping open in front of me, stretching and crowning, pushing through.  It came to me the other day that I don’t need to know what I’m doing–not with my head, anyway.  From here on out, our road maps are written in our bodies, and inscribed in our hearts instead of our minds.

This is the time of year when the rains come back like our ancestors.  The new green grass is poking up through the silvery bones of its forebears, as the season turns toward the lush, dark part of the year.  Where was I when the new grass greened?  I was incubating at home with my freshly born baby, who sprang out five or six days after the rains came back, just like the grass did.

This season’s got a truth:  That the past is part of the emerging moment, not part of some drawn out timeline that keeps it long ago.  That I offer milk to my ancestors every time I pick up my daughter and nurse. That the past is most present every time we’re reborn.

Happy Samhain, kiddo.

Of Children, Paint, and Unplanned Sabbats

Originally posted to Pagan Families, 9/22/14. When Beltane came, we’d planned to dance a May Pole at my older daughter’s preschool.  Not exactly pagan, but I don’t know many pagan families locally, and the school May Pole was as close to traditional as we were going to get.  Well, my daughter lost all interest in it at the last minute.  Maybe it was because she’d gotten frustrated making her May crown.  Or maybe it was just too hot.

Beltane where I live starts summer.   The green spring grass gives way to gold, roses bloom and wildflowers spread their seeds.  It’s messy and hot, like the whole world’s gone sexy.  My Beltane rituals typically play with the themes of creative interchange and community, and the way I imagine them is full of the feeling of sweat.

We decided to skip the May Pole and headed to our friends’ house instead.  I taught them how to make sidewalk paints–1/2 cup cornstarch, 2 T flour, 2/3 cup water (or less, if you prefer it gloppy), and food coloring–and then the six of us looked for somewhere shady to paint.  Somewhere turned out to be across the street, on the sidewalk heading down to the beach.  The kids started mixing colors more and more intensely, painting the sidewalk and their bodies as I dabbled with paint and joked around with passersby.

My friend started to paint her face and suggested I paint mine, too.  That’s when I realized I’d slipped into magical time.  I was wearing the same shirt I’d worn to my first group Beltane ritual, eight years ago, when I painted my face a little too enthusiastically and it looked like a berry-stained mess next to everyone else’s polite swirls.  Now I started to say that I didn’t want to paint my face again, but interrupted myself midway–”Why not?”  I wasn’t going to let that experience make decisions for me.  Even so, my tentative paint marks worried for a mirror, until I offered to let my firstborn paint me with her hands.  Right away my face was wet with the color of blood.  She knew just what she was doing and rubbed paints everywhere, until I was smiling out of the face from eight years ago.  When the kids were done, we poured a libation with the last of the sidewalk paint.  Colorful, creative, sensual, messy, communal–it was all the elements of Beltane.

BeltaneBabyThis time I didn’t wash the paint off my face before I left.  I picked up our farm share on the way home and told everyone that we’d just been to an impromptu Beltane.  My baby painted her face with ripe strawberries until the lower half of it matched mine.  And we all proudly left our faces messy until bedtime.

Every Sabbat, I read other people’s plans and suggestions for celebrating with children, think about the season, and come up with beautiful ideas for what we’ll do.  Then we end up doing something entirely different.  It’s happened often enough for me to see a pattern here, and so even though Beltane is passed, I’d like to offer our experience as a different model for approaching ritual with babies and small children.  Rather than planning a particular activity that I need to wrangle the kids into–even fun, age-appropriate activities seem to take so much managing–I’ve started looking for the places in our lives where the Sabbat’s themes are already present, and finding ways to ritualize them on the spot.

As inspired by Catherine Bell’s work, “ritualizing” means putting a spin on an everyday activity that makes it seem special.  Ritualizing an activity lifts it out of the everyday and so helps us really see (or re-imagine) what we’re doing.  For example, sidewalk paint is a staple of our lives, but painting in public and pouring paint libations was new.  Not washing it off was new, too.  Those changes ritualized our sidewalk art at Beltane.  Here’s another example: I nurse my children all the time, but around Lammas, we nursed sitting in a mountain lake, with little fish nibbling our toes.  We left in renewed appreciation of our bounty.

Ritualizing illuminates where the sacred is immanent in our everyday lives, rather than presenting it as something we need to go out and find by doing something else.  I want show my kids–and myself– that the sacred is right here, right now.  Our spirits already flow with the Turning Wheel.  Our connections to it are waiting to be unfolded and drawn out, and they don’t need me trying to take charge of them.

As a pithy three step process, ritualizing Sabbats with my kids looks like this: Pick a day-to-day activity that resonates with the holiday’s spiritual themes.  Then change the activity’s time, place, participants, or materials to turn it into a special, better version of itself–also to accentuate the relevant themes. (What counts as “better” reflects your values, of course, and the contrast between familiar and ritualized versions of an activity will illuminate those values for your kids.)  Tell stories, say prayers, or make offerings to celebrate the holy as you find it there.

The place where this pithy description fails is that it makes it sound like ritualizing might be one more thing to plan, whereas I use the concept mainly as a framework for seizing the moment.  Being spontaneous about ritualization helps us stay porous to the tides and spirits of the world around us.  I hadn’t planned to paint ourselves out near the beach on Beltane, but the heat nudged us in that direction, and the heat made paint feel especially good.  The kids–being kids–responded readily to those pulls, and vetoed things they weren’t in the mood for.

Since having kids, I’ve found more spiritual relevance in the activities that unfold by their own logic than in the activities I’ve tried to orchestrate.  Even so, sometimes I feel like I should be creating a series of holiday traditions, something solid and rhythmic.  Then life shows up: the planner in me doesn’t connect readily to the sacred, and my four year old is exceptionally particular about what she wants to do.  She isn’t inclined to try an activity just because someone else would like her to, and she’s not fooled by being offered a list of choices, pick one. Maybe it’s a family trait.  Wanting to create my own rituals without anyone else in charge is how I ended up as a witch.  Why not pass on that creative tradition to my daughters?

Holding space for my children’s creativity opens a space for the unexpected, for bigger-than-me and magic, and that’s what happened at Beltane.  The gods and spirits of the place sometimes also manifest themselves in our sudden inspirations.  Beyond that, taking my four year old seriously as a real, creative ritual participant is a way of putting my money where my feminist mouth is: she’s a child, but she’s not an adjunct or an audience, and not someone the ritual is done “for,” ala mainstream consumer holidays or big events.  She’s someone who’s doing it.  (The baby, by contrast, is still totally an adjunct.)

Back before I had children, this isn’t what I wanted my ritual life to look like.  Then I remind myself, working within the real conditions of my life here and now might just be the most effective way to find the sacred.

Off To School Altars

Originally posted on Pagan Families, 8/19/14.

Off To School AltarLast year my almost four year old spent the first event of the school year in hiding.  She’d enjoyed preschool in the Spring, but now that school was about to start again, she was worried and didn’t want to talk about it.  I felt helpless.  Her initial transition into preschool had taken months of patient work, but now I had a baby, and what if we had to do the same thing again?  I couldn’t shepherd my kiddo through the experience this time–fundamentally it was her experience, not mine–even though we were so intertwined that her distress felt like my own.

I started building an off-to-school altar for my daughter then.  She helped me arrange it, and with a little prompting, found more material to add.  We reminisced about things as we added them, until we were sitting by the finished altar making up silly stories about school.  We’d come unclenched.

Building altars together is part of how we deal with life transitions and other situations where our hearts are full and mixed up.  Altars give us a way to mark the changes in our lives, and they reveal our lives back to us as something sacred to honor and celebrate.  They provide a gentle space for children (and their parents) to imagine their role as students and what relation that has to their family.  The process of choosing or creating emotionally charged objects, arranging them, and gazing on them opens up our abilities to see the broader picture and reach a synthesis–or at least start a conversation.   Disparate feelings can stand side by side on an altar without having to edge each other out.

Crafting an altar with young children usually works best if it’s intuitive and playful.  You won’t want to plan too much of the process ahead of time, though if you have more than one child, you might want to designate some parts of the altar for each to arrange separately and some parts to share.  For inspiration, here are some ideas for creating and using a school altar with small children:

School Supplies.  How will the rhythms of day-to-day life change with the school year?  One of the most concrete ways to imagine the shift in routines is by handling the objects related to them.  New school supplies feel numinous with potential to me and readily find their way onto our altar, ready to be marked with names.  When my daughter first started school, we printed her name so many times that she asked me to write it on her, too, so that like her things, she wouldn’t get lost and everyone would know who she belonged to.  Her own printed name had become a blessing.  The next year she found it reassuring to get her shoes off the altar before she left for school and put them back there when she came home, making the altar a safe container for her time at school.

You might also enjoy the playful consecration of school supplies here.

Aspirations.  What do you and your children hope to do or learn at school?  Putting relevant objects and pictures on the altar can help clarify desires.  You might also include a vase of wispy dandelion heads for blowing wishes.

Does the new school year also bring your child a new identity?  Consider objects that allude to salient features of the school or your child’s identity at school, for example, if your child will be “in the orange door” or in the “rainbow fish” class.

Child as Hero. What has your child done to get this far?  What new challenges do you see?

For a child who’s apprehensive about school, think about times in the past when your child has demonstrated virtues related to whatever he’s worried about:  courage, curiosity, or the ability to learn, for example.  Put a reminder of that quality on the altar and tell the story that invokes it.

Clearly anything your children have made or used at school in the past might find its way to the altar, especially things they struggled with or were excited about–but you don’t need to limit your school altar to what they’ve done at school.  Including material from growth experiences outside school helps create a continuity of experience between home and school and helps envision children as creative, capable individuals.  Besides, art work makes a good background for the altar.

Think about your child’s favorite stories or myths.  Do any of these provide a lens for viewing the child’s experience at school?  For example, is it an adventure where you’ll dig for buried treasure?  Meet dragons?  Play around with putting favorite hero figures on the altar and see what they do there.

You might also include items that point toward more specific worries or suggest specific solutions.  For example, our favorite book for overcoming separation anxiety at school was The Kissing Hand, by Audrey Penn.  In the book, a young raccoon’s mother kisses him on the hand every day before he goes to school, so that he can take her love with him.  We used that same ritual for a while when we said goodbye at school.

Seasons of Growth. What objects help you imagine your child’s growth and your own?  Feathers for taking flight, opening flowers, a long-saved umbilical cord?  Young children may not think much in symbolic terms yet, but this altar can be a space for everyone in the family to reflect and see points of connection between our lives.  For each “with” we outgrow, we create a new kind of “with.”  You might include your own first-day-of-school pictures or things that you or other family members made when they were in school.  (Make sure to tell the related stories of when you were a student.)  Or you might include reminders of how school life affects everyone in the family.  What will your own involvement in school be like?  If you’re going to be doing something particular during school hours, you might bring a small reminder of that to the altar, too.

Lastly, we add sacred statues and invite our gods to look on the altar we made, to share their wisdom and guide us through the school year.  We might even prepare a lunchbox meal to offer them this year, and see if it helps me make peace with packing lunches.

Have you made a school season altar?  I’d love to hear about it.

To The Gates Of Dreaming: Using Guided Meditation to Help Children Sleep

Originally posted on Pagan Families, 7/16/14.  I’ve spent countless hours helping my daughters fall asleep, nursing and bouncing, massaging and singing and praying, lying absolutely quiet or else reciting Mother Goose.  By the time my eldest was preschool age, I turned to magic.  I began using guided meditations with my daughter around the time she was two and a half.  She already enjoyed storytelling immensely, so I figured she could visualize well enough to benefit from a simple trance induction aimed at sleep.

Tell Me the Rainbow

This one was adapted from Starhawk’s Rainbow Trance Induction in The Spiral Dance. After a couple tries, my daughter started requesting it when she was having trouble sleeping.

Are you in a comfy position? I’m going to tell you the colors of the rainbow.  If you listen and try not to move, you’ll feel your body getting heavier and heavier, and sleepier and sleepier, until you sink down all the way down into sleep.

 You feel yourself floating on a red cloud, a beautiful red cloud. Red surrounding you, red all around.  Touching red, feeling red, tasting red.  A beautiful red cloud.  Drift down through the red, deeper and deeper, sleepier and sleepier, until you reach an orange cloud.  A beautiful orange cloud…

 Continue with a similar script through yellow, green, blue, and purple clouds, and at the end of the purple cloud, drift down, down into sleep.  As with trance inductions in general, keep a low, slow tone to your voice.  Visualize the clouds along with your child, so that you and your voice also get sleepier and slower as you go.

As my daughter got older, she got better at falling back asleep at night, but stretched bedtime longer and longer.  Bedtime stories seemed to generate more excitement and questions than sleepiness, so as an alternative, I started offering her this meditative journey to dreamland.


To The Gates of Dreaming 

1. Pick a Guide. Before you begin, choose a figure who will guide your child on the journey to the Gates of Dreaming.  Originally we picked a horse, since at that point everything in my daughter’s life was about horses.  Lately she’s requested a flower fairy companion.  You might also choose yourself, a favorite toy, or ask a familiar hero or god for help.  Once you know the companion, choose whatever setting seems obvious, or else start out from a place your child likes to play.  As your child gets to know the process, she (or he) can start to choose her own companion and setting.

2. Set Expectations.  Before you start the meditation, it’s useful to introduce the concept of a mental journey and tell your child how to prepare for it.  I originally said something like this:  “Every night as we go to sleep, our minds go on a trip and travel into all sorts of dreams.  I’m going to lead you there now, down the path to sleep and right to the Gates of Dreaming.  It’ll only work if you’re lying still and comfy…  Are you ready?”

3. Setting Out. Start by describing the place where your child begins her journey, using a low, sleepy voice.  Aim for a few evocative details targeting several senses, and let your child’s mind fill in the rest.  Now have the companion approach and beckon the child to come with him (or her).

4. Something Marvelous. As the child starts to follow, something extraordinary happens, something that breaks with waking expectations.  Maybe your child undergoes a marvelous transformation; for example, she might suddenly grow wings and take off into the sky, ride a horse into the sea, grow into a giant.  Or she might find a cave entrance in your backyard.

5. The Journey. As you continue the journey, let images unfold in your mind’s eye and narrate what you see as it comes to you.  When your child is close to sleep, stop at a place that seems interesting to explore, or if your guide told you where you were going, nudge the meditation so that you arrive there.

6. The Gates of Dreaming. Describe the new place.  As you look around it, you’ll find a doorway of some sort.  “These are the Gates of Dreaming,” the guide says.  “Stay here as long as you like, and when you are ready, you may pass through the door into sleep.”

Sometimes your child may wake up again instead of drifting off to sleep.  Welcome her back and find out if there’s anything making it harder for her to sleep.  Is there something she keeps thinking about?  This last meditation is for people who are too excited or worried to fall asleep.


Summon a Sleep Spider

Imagine you have a spider friend, and call to her inside your head to help you with your problem.  See her sitting on the edge of her web, waiting. Whatever it is you keep thinking about flies into her web and gets stuck there.  Now the spider scurries forward.  She bites the thought, paralyzes it, and she’s going to wrap it up in a cocoon.  It’ll be safe there until you’re ready to come back for it in the morning.  She’s wrapping it up, wrapping and wrapping and wrapping, until every bit of the idea is covered and you can’t see it any more.  All you see is a lump covered in bright spider silk.  Now you can thank your sleep spider and go to sleep.  (If your child finds spiders scary, try putting the thought in a box instead, and wrapping it up to mail.  Or plant the thought like a seed in your garden, cover it with dirt, water it, and let it rest in the ground until morning.)

In the end, kids always go to sleep, with or without help.  It’s possible that leaning on meditations too much might slow down the process of learning to put themselves to sleep, but practicing guided meditations together teaches its own lessons.  For me, the gentleness and camaraderie of drifting toward sleep together beats out whatever I might’ve gained by sending my daughter to sleep differently.  Enjoy!