Flag rescue

Rescuing American flags from display and releasing them by retirement is an activity I take up in service to the spirits of this country. It’s my belief that these flags are infused with an amalgam of a great many spirits of this land, not just the ones connected to colonists and their descendants. I know that there are others who see things differently.

This flag was flown continuously over a machine shop for as long as a year, before I offered to replace it. To respect a flag is to inspect a flag, after bringing it in before dark, and repairing any damage.  Flags require care, as do any spirits.

This flag haunted me for many days before I was finally able to free it from its bondage. During my mother’s final days of life, I traveled to visit nearly every day; the trip takes about two hours. I would catch a flash of flag colors in my headlights on my way home each time, but I was always too tired to try to figure out if there was any way to access this pedestrian bridge. The day after my mother’s funeral, I took the trip one more time. I brought with me a variety of cutting tools, because I was not sure how this flag was secured to the fencing. My first problem was finding the flag on purpose. I was always very tired, and it was dark, and I never made note even of which road I was on when I spotted it. I knew I was headed northbound, but the two major north-south roads on my route were on different sides of the Whitestone bridge. I was nearly ready to write it off as hallucination before I found the location. After that, I had to do another smaller loop off and on the highway to get to a safe place to pull off, because by the time I saw the flag, the best exit was behind me. It was an access to a well-used waterside walking path, about half a mile from the pictured pedestrian bridge. When I headed out on foot I discovered that the section of path leading to my destination was closed for repaving. The temporary fence blocking my way extended to the berm along the shore, leading to a rather exciting rock scramble. The smell of the Long Island Sound filled my nose, and at times I wondered if I’d slip and fall in, perhaps braining my fool self in the process. I did not. My final obstacle was removing this poor wretch of a flag. It was secured with those evil plastic zip-ties, securely tightly enough against the chain links that I could not easily get any of my clippers in between. What I needed was a utility knife, but I had to make due. Tattered as it was, the flag was tangled and snarled worse than my hair when I locked it, and it took about 20 minutes to pull it down. All the while, I was fearful that I’d accidentally drop it to the ground below. There was also the possibility that a police officer would come to find out what I was all about, but that was a conversation I gladly would have had.

These flags were respectfully released from service; I attend a pagan conference every October where a flag retirement ceremony is held. Among the many misconceptions around flag lore is the belief that military members and veterans are uniquely qualified to retire flags; this is untrue. Anyone who reveres the ideals infused in the American flag may perform this final act, even those of us who are well aware how far short we are of achieving those ideals.

How we treat American flags is a reflection of our society. We actually have laid out the rules for proper conduct in law, but often the people who display flags are ignorant of how to do so with respect. Hanging one on an overpass is akin to leaving a prisoner’s body out for the crows. We can do better.

Even though anyone may retire a flag, I find that I enjoy collecting and retiring flags in a ceremony at a fire made sacred to the many gods and spirits of this land. Readers who possess flags beyond repair may always contact me for tips on conducting a respectful ceremony, or to arrange to send me a flag to retire.

This post comes from my accidental archives, also known as the drafts I forgot I had started and figured it’s high time I finish.

books to read to learn about Hellenismos

I was quite blessed when I was first called by my gods, because I found a teacher. I do a tremendous amount of reading and practicing on my own, but having a framework — even one that I bend out of shape from time to time — has made all the difference.

Not everyone is as fortunate as I have been. Some people coming to this path must rely entirely upon written materials, which is a more challenging way to absorb the culture that’s infused therein. Moreover, because reconstructing or reviving an ancient religion requires research, there is a fairly heavy bias toward the academic. That’s appropriate, but if my first forays into Hellenismos had been met with some of the suggestions I see offered to newcomers, I would probably have thrown up my hands in frustration and moved on to learning how to play the ukulele.

Okay, that was hyperbolic. I would never try to learn the ukulele.

Nevertheless, not everyone who hears the call of the theoi is ready to dig into primary sources right from the start. To that end, here’s a list of books often recommended for beginning reading, and my thoughts on where they belong in the process for people who are not scholars and also don’t have a lot of in-person support.

  1. Kharis: Hellenic Polytheism Explored
  2. Hellenic Polytheism: Household Worship
  3. Greek Religion

I’ve listed these in the order I would recommend them to students.

Kharis is an excellent place to start one’s journey into education. Sara Kate Istra Winter provides the reader with an overview of what Hellenic religion might have in store. Winter touches on reasons one might be interested in or called to this path, and sketches a general pattern of ritual which at least makes these forms comfortable and recognizable. I found the take on prayer and how gods speak to us to be particularly meaningful, because in them I found a commonality of experience.

The book includes results of a survey which some have found less meaningful than intended. I’m not much of a statistician, and I found the results to be of passing interest. It’s certainly not the most profound controversy to sweep through Hellenic polytheists, and I haven’t seen the third edition of this book (2019), with survey data that are likely reflective of the maturing of this community.

Household Worship is a fascinating glimpse into the local practices of the Labrys community, members of which are practicing this religion in Greece itself. Some of the rituals contained therein are in heavy rotation at Temenos Oikidios, my spiritual home. When dealing with a broken tradition and trying to apply it in modern context, it’s valuable to have insights from people who live in its land of origin. The folk practices of Greece and presence of ancient temples most assuredly gives the traditions of Labrys well-earned gravitas.

I would never, ever suggest this as the first book someone reads about Hellenic religion, however, unless they happened to be part of the Labrys community already. The reason is simple: it was written for members of that tradition rather than the wider audience it has since received, and as such the authors did not contemplate concepts such as “your mileage may vary.” It’s perfectly acceptable for leaders of a tradition to tell their students, “This is how we do it, end of story,” but someone picking this book out on Amazon could easily interpret that orthopraxy as universal, which is not true and never has been true. A seeker should be aware, by the time they read Household Worship, that Hellenismos is always a local religion and has had regional variation since the very beginning. They should know that divination is an important tool to help discern which practices the gods are asking them specifically to employ. For some, that might mean joining Labrys and adopting that tradition whole cloth. Others might be advised that the gods find two-dimensional images of them in shrines to be acceptable, while that’s never okay for a member of Labrys if I understand the book correctly.

This is a good book, but it needs to be introduced by a teacher to a student lest discernment not be applied during the reading.

Greek Religion is an incredibly valuable resource. It is also a large and intimidating tome; I read the whole thing because I heard a rumor that most of us don’t. Now I wish I had taken more careful notes, because this is the go-to academic text on ancient practices and when I’m sucked into an online debate, I find myself flipping through it frantically to recall what author Walter Burkert said about a particular practice.

If this was the first book assigned to someone seeking to worship the theoi, that someone may well vanish and never be heard from again. Certainly there are people who revel in a dense, academic tome, but I wouldn’t recommend this one to a beginner unless I intended on scaring that person off (which is a technique some of my college professors used to winnow down the number of students in a popular class). I do believe every hellenic polytheist should read and even own this book eventually, but it’s a crappy introduction for anyone who wants to participate in the religion, rather than just study it. I do not wish for our religion only to be available to scholars.

While I think most people offering suggestions to newcomers have good intentions, what they often lack is an understanding of the beginner’s mind. The books we suggest to a seeker must be placed into some kind of context, else we could be scaring people away from a very really calling by our gods. I’ve looked only at these three books because their titles crop up on beginning reading lists. I would recommend each of them—but not necessarily as a first book to read. If readers have different ideas about the books we should be suggesting and when, I’d be curious to learn.

the cloud of depression

I exhale a black cloud that lingers around me, and inhaling, I taste the bitterness all around me. I exude malignancy, and all who can avoid the toxic stink that heralds my presence.

depression has many of the qualities of air, for good and for ill

With herculean effort, I push off the covers and sit up in my bed. It’s past noon, and I’ve been mostly awake for four or five hours. Climbing over a pile of laundry that has given up hope of ever being washed, I pull on my robe and stumble to the bathroom to relieve myself. I glance about the cramped space as I do, noting that my toothbrush holder has fallen to the floor, and that the towel rod remains empty. Neither concerns me. I recall that there’s maybe a half-squeeze of toothpaste in the tube, but I haven’t replaced it because toothpaste lasts a very long time when it’s never used. The absent towel is similar; it’s in the laundry pile with all the others, but there’s no sense of urgency to clean them because it’s not like showering is a priority. I haven’t left the apartment in days, and the only person who enters without wrinkling the nose is my roommate, who must be used to it, or perhaps is in the same state; my view of other people is obscured by the emotional cloud that hangs over me.

This cloud of pain makes it impossible for me to see others clearly enough to feel empathy, and at the same time it feels like it pushes others to avoid me entirely even though they cannot see it. What’s more, it’s often invisible to me, too. It’s a cloud that bequeaths and withdraws invisibility for powerful effect. There are times when I feel utterly exposed and wish for nothing more than to disappear, yet at the same time it feels clear that no one can see my suffering. At others, what I crave is human contact, but can’t get even a smile to acknowledge that I exist at all. I can’t recall how long I’ve felt this way, or why I should even care, because thinking is the first thing to be abandoned when one is just trying to survive from minute to minute.

Social invisibility, poor hygiene, and brain fog are all aspects of depression that align with air. Depression is stale, stagnant, and still. Technically we can see air—blue skies, for example—but it usually doesn’t register consciously. That’s also true of depression: we want to look away, as if it’s got a somebody else’s problem field around it. Air is the element of intellect, which is seated in the conscious mind; depression reorders intellect such that to the conscious mind it’s unnoticeable. Our brains take in vastly more information than is ever noticed consciously, as anyone who has taken a psychedelic likely understands. We tune out what is distracting and irrelevant, such as the afterimages of moving objects, but we also train ourselves to ignore other information—such as the presence of homeless people, for example. Depression taps into that tendency and hijacks it to avoid detection.

Reduced hygiene is a brilliant choice. It’s one of the reasons why so many among us don’t see the desperate people without homes who live in nearly every community. We have come to equate unwashed with unclean, and unclean is something to be avoided. Someone experiencing depression might reduce their grooming routine in subtle or profound ways, contributing to the erosion of social ties that the spirit of depression desires. Curiously, modern attitudes about hygiene are less than 200 years old, although covering oneself with pleasant-smelling unguents is an ancient practice. We do not care for unpleasant smells, and that’s reason enough for many of us to avoid some of our brethren. Smells speak to a deep part of ourselves, and depression hacks into that system as part of a strategy of separation.

Purification is a way of clearing out the spiritual gunk and mental clutter that can make healthy thinking and living difficult. The first step in any spiritual cleansing is a physical cleaning, which can include scrubbing toilets and sorting socks as much as washing behind the ears and remembering to floss. It won’t rid someone of the spirit of depression, but it’s a good way to set it back on its heels and give some time to take stock and decide what kind of help is needed. Let’s be clear on that point: help is needed. All of that stigma about mental health, the values around self-reliance, being told to keep a stiff upper lip and never let them see you sweat is setting up for the environment in which depression best thrives. Pandemics that can only be controlled through isolation are a dream come true for this spirit. That’s because the best balm on the wound of depression is other people.

Just being around others isn’t going to wipe away the harm brought by depression, but it’s the opposite of what this spirit desires. Being around the same group of people—community—several times a month makes it much more difficult for symptoms to go undetected. We don’t have much in the way of natural communities any longer; these are people whose lives are interwoven because they depend upon one another for their livelihoods. With increased mobility, we must choose to be in community in order to gain those benefits, which gives depression more of an in. The condition is increasingly identified: those of us born after 1955 are three times more likely to experience depression than our forebears. The average age of the first onset was 30 back in 1980, but now it’s in the teen years. Worldwide, 350 million people are living with depression.

It seems that circumstances have made it much easier for humans to become susceptible to depression. Stress factors are more varied, and the human relationships which rattle this spirit’s cage take more effort to form and maintain. Let us not forget that the invisible bonds we share with all of our kind is essential to addressing the invisible shackles visited on us by the spirit of depression.

New book release: Hymn to the Many Gods

I am thrilled to announce the publication of Hymns to the Many Gods, my newest devotional book.

I give this work in offering
to the many gods.
You, who are rightly worshiped
by my people and others,
and may delight in this offering.

This is a book that is centered not on specific gods, but on the many gods that one may encounter, be touched by, worship, pray to, beseech, entreat, fear, or love. I do not know the names of the many gods, and I did not seek to know all of their names as I wrote the core text. With one stanza per page, the reader is invited instead to explore the many gods through the ways that they relate to humans.

Hymns to the Many Gods also includes another hymn, written instead as a reflection of personal practice. Where the main hymn is an invitation into a different way to honor the gods known and unknown, this introductory hymn is instead an example of how one might compose a personal litany.

It is my honor and pleasure to bring this work into the world.

Depression, food, and the gut

I eat my pain. I eat my stress. I eat my sadness. I eat, gain weight, and eat my self-esteem.

Food is far more than a source of physical sustenance, and the human digestive system reflects that truth. Feeling things in our gut is not simply a metaphor; the bacteria in the digestive system interact with the brain. Hippocrates is purported to have observed that “all disease begins in the gut,” and it appears that the scientific method is beginning to catch up with that idea. The way I frame it is that the mind is not wholly housed in the brain. Instead, it’s comprised of all of the thinking and feeling and experiencing that all parts of the body undergo. The fact that the brain and the eyes—which captivate our sense of understanding and self, when they are working—are both in the head makes it easier to imagine that the mind is, too.

Some very powerful parts of the mind are not in the head much at all. Specifically, I’m talking about emotions. The reason that we can control our emotions by using breathing and the tightening of muscles is because the emotions themselves are housed largely the muscles that power our physical aspect. Emotions are the body’s physical response to stimulus such as injury, danger, hunger, arousal, affection, loss, and abundance. They arose to help us navigate a dangerous world, and to be effective they cause reactions in the body, often before the brain receives word of what’s going on. I might have thought that “gut feelings” were largely a muscular reaction, but for this research into bacteria. Given that there are 1.3 bacterial cells for every human cell in the body, this shouldn’t be surprising. Our companions understand the world in different ways than our brains, and might even make up part of our mind if we are essentially a colony. The chemicals they produce can indeed influence mood, for one thing; the wrong mix of bacteria can release a mix that impacts what chemicals get churned out in our own brains. That’s why eating yogurt or sauerkraut can actually have anti-depressive effects. I don’t care for either of these foods, and I think it might be interesting to study food preferences in people experiencing depression to see if the messages from the gut biome are providing good advice on how to care for ourselves.

Certainly our relationship with food is more complex than simply obtaining energy. We don’t call them “comfort foods” for nothing! Our emotional state is closely linked to hunger and nutrition. It’s not a good idea to shop for food while hungry, or you might come home with a lot of calories instead of ways to provide nutrition. Stomach rumblings are connected to bad mood. What we eat can absolutely influence how we act, too: loading up on carbohydrates and other forms of sugar is extremely satisfying in the short term, but that’s a craving that feeds depression even as it fills the stomach. There are researchers who focus on nothing but nutritional psychiatry, trying to unlock the relationship between diet and mental health. This is only a surprise, I believe, because we have chosen in our language to separate the whole self into “mind” and “body,” suggesting that something which begins in one of those arbitrary areas can only be treated in that same area. One person I interviewed for my upcoming book Empty Cauldrons: Navigating Depression Through Magic & Ritual, Kari Tauring, blames Descartes for this, and calls “I think, therefore I am,” the most dangerous of thoughts in the western world. The self is an integrated whole, and the conditions we think of as mental in nature can emerge and also be addressed in other parts of the body. Yes, diet is important.

We can decrease the risk of depression by cutting back on things I find delicious, like red meat, mystery meat, candy bars, chips and biscuits (including both the American and British definition of both words), buttery potatoes, ice cream, and a lot of the sort of rich foods that are all over the place during the holidays at the end of the year. The cravings we feel when we are low on energy are the same whether it’s physical or emotional energy that is depleted. What’s tricky is that what seems like listening to the body, in this case, is actually feeding the spirit of depression instead. Over time the body’s cries for help can become more pronounced, but these quick cravings do not often serve us well to heed. This must be replaced with more plants, including whole grains. For some reason the meat of fish tends to be on the healthier side, but since fish tend to eat or absorb much of the garbage generated in our disposable culture (such as mercury and plastic), I can’t say I recommend it personally at this time.

The messages our bodies send us can give us a lot of insight into our spiritual and mental condition, and what we put into our bodies is both a symptom of that condition, and a cause of it. While it’s common and easy to describe the body as separate from the mind, or the soul from the body, or the conscious from the unconscious mind, all these different aspects are part of the same whole, and anything that affects any part will always affect all parts. The digestive tract, having a direct connection to the brain, bears important messages about the condition of the entire self. Heed its wisdom, for it is your own wisdom, the wisdom of your gut.