A child’s debt

My parents reared five children and helped them each with college. In the end, there wasn’t enough money left to keep my mother out of a Medicaid-funded nursing home. Many of the people who work there are unaccustomed to patients who are still aware of their surroundings, making the situation less than ideal for her.

When I think about debt owed to my parents, that’s the kind of debt I mean: the opportunity cost they paid by having just one more kid, me. I think I made out well, what with being alive and all, but it’s important to recognize the tremendous amount of sacrifice made on my behalf. Not only might the gray hairs have accumulated more slowly in my absence, it’s possible the money might have lasted a bit longer as well.

I owe something of a debt to Gaia on account of my life, as well, or perhaps that debt falls to my parents. There is no greater environmental impact a human being can have upon the earth than creating another human being to live upon the earth. I always enjoy spending time around children, yet I have never pursued procreation precisely for that reason. What could I possibly do to mitigate the impact of another life upon the planet, when I barely make a dent in my own debt? Even as I write this, I’m aware that some of the electricity powering my computer is derived by burning coal, and that the processors within contain rare-earth elements the extraction and disposal of which is highly problematic. My every breath impacts the world around me, and as a human my activities can change the world more, thanks to technology, than can an individual of pretty much any other species. I don’t think about that impact constantly, and even if I did it’s still incredibly difficult to have zero impact at all.

That is the sort of thinking which can lead to guilt and self-loathing. I mostly avoid doing that to myself. Suicide, which is the alternative most likely to be suggested if I whine about this on the internet, has impacts itself. Some of the people who love me may just call me on the carpet at their ancestor shrines if I were to pull that without telling them, and I am not interested in that having that conversation whether I am dead or alive, thank you very much. I’ve also had people propose the “solution” of having children and then teaching them my values. Which ones, exactly? It might be awkward to tell my offspring that I do not believe in having offspring, and I don’t think that they should, either.

It’s the debt to my parents which I sit with most, though, since I am not remotely contemplating a final solution for myself. Including public college, that’s now in excess of $350,000 in my part of the country according to this calculator. That could have paid for a heck of a lot of care. Unless there’s a lucky lottery ticket in my future, that’s not something I can pay back, not that either of my parents would ever have suggested such a thing. The very notion would likely offend, but I think it’s okay to contemplate the choices my parents made to give me life, and then to provide me with the upbringing that they could best afford without contemplating what it might cost them in turn. It’s really the minimum we expect of parents, and that’s a lot to ask considering how little thought is actually needed to create a child.

The debt to my parents is, in fact, incalculable. It’s my duty to honor that choice, even as I choose for myself to make a different sacrifice. Unlike them, I may well die alone, as I have no blood issue, and do not wish to add the burden of another human life to this beleaguered planet. I wish more people would make that same sacrifice, but I recognize that when done correctly, either choice carries a high price.

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The leaky cauldron

Most people earn a whole lot more money in the course of their lives than they ever realize. Money flows into and out of our possession, and it can be as difficult to catch while passing through our fingers as water through a fish net.

No matter how much money passes through our hands — be it a trickle or a torrent — it’s the ability to capture some of that passing flow that allows a measure of control over our financial situation. There are people who live lavish lives on inherited money but are one bad decision away from ruin, and there are those who scrupulously save modest amounts from the pittance they earn and turn the tide the other way. The real difference is that great wealth can cushion the damage done by bad decisions for a whole lot longer; poor people can’t afford to be financially illiterate.

With apologies to Harry Potter fans, the metaphor I find most helpful when talking to Pagans about money is the leaky cauldron. Many Pagans and polytheists recognize the cauldron as a tool of transformation. This particular cauldron is a big ol’ thing, one of those cast iron behemoths that is too large and heavy for one person to move easily and without injury, but just a little too small and unwieldy to be comfortably managed by two or more sets of hands.

The cauldron is what we pour our energy into in the form of money; it is also what we draw from when we wish to turn that energy into something else. The liquid can also include non-monetary forces such as social capital, but for now let us focus solely on money. One can be considered secure if the cauldron never empties; a rising level denotes prosperity. This means that the goal is not to pour out more than we pour in, but that’s not always easy. Opportunities — including some under compulsion — to pour from the cauldron abound. Moreover, many of our cauldrons are old, cracked, and as I have already indicated, leaky.

Sources of money problems are manifold, but the most controllable areas are those of awareness and intention. Many people go through life with a little too much month left at the end of the paycheck. With a low income and high costs for rent, food, and other regular expenses that can seem inevitable predictable, but upon closer inspection it’s not always that simple. Regular expenses are, by definition, anticipated. At the edges, in that liminal zone, exists the dangerous area of money spent without any clear purpose or benefit. That’s the stuff which seeps out through the cracks, dripping and slipping away without so much as a by-your-leave. The more money that disappears without a trace, the leakier one’s cauldron has become.

This is about fiscal mindfulness. Money is a source of anxiety for many people, and one common way to address that anxiety is to push its source away from the conscious mind. It’s much the same as not going to see a doctor, not because health care is too expensive, but because the prospect of a diagnosis is terrifying. Not knowing about cancer doesn’t stop cancer, just as not knowing about imminent insolvency does nothing for that problem. Knowing can be scary, but knowledge is also power.

What, then, should be done with this cauldron? It can be helpful for understanding one’s financial situation. Start by simply observing the flow, beginning with what enters it, be it an intermittent trickle or a raging torrent. Approach this with a dispassionate eye; too little flow can induce stress and a great deal of income can elicit a sense of security, either of which is a distraction. That’s precisely why visualizing money as water is helpful: it divorces the observer somewhat from the emotions connected to money itself. Focus on the source of the stream or streams entering the cauldron; faucets might be a good way to visualize these, or natural springs. Consider how many sources replenish this cauldron, how strong the flow from each, and how clean the water is which emerges from the different spigots. What does each one represent? How confident are you that each will continue? How satisfied are you with the quality and quantity of each individual flow? Are any of your income streams from sources you consider ethically challenging?

Before considering outflow, meditate on the water in the cauldron itself. Is it hot, or cold? Clear, or murky? Does it have an odor? Would you bathe in it, or drink it? These insights are commentary not precisely on your financial situation, but how you feel about it, and money in general. Discernment is key here, and with something as bound in emotion as money, that discernment might require outside assistance to gel. A spiritual coach or diviner might be the right person to help, or a therapist or financial counselor.

For some, looking clearly at one’s financial health is as terrifying as learning about one’s physical condition. Recognize that this desire to look away is based upon deep-seated survival instincts, but then it’s time to allow rational examination of the cauldron to proceed. Realize that a visualization already keys into your emotional depths, which might be enough to make a look at the figures themselves possible. If not, that’s okay. Consider using techniques to separate your emotions from this analysis: journal about your money feelings before you begin, perhaps, or allow yourself some dispassionate time for money by promising a good cry or a hard run or some other emotional outlet when you’re done. If it helps, set a timer for five minutes, and don’t continue past that point; you can increase the length as you get more comfortable.

Ultimately, looking at the financial picture should become a regular routine, and the leaky cauldron can help with that. Light a money candle on a day each week that makes sense for you, and settle into visualizing the cauldron. Once you’ve spent time studying it, shift your focus to looking at the actual numbers, without leaving that altered state of visualization. Hold the image of the cauldron in the back of your mind, and once your allotted time is up, return to fully focusing on the visualization. Has your understanding of the numbers informed the appearance of the cauldron and its waters?

There’s more that can be done with the leaky cauldron, but that’s enough of a start for now. I may use it in some more in-depth exercises at another time.

Remember the offender

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to be part of some team reporting, which gives me a taste of what it must have been like back when newspapers had big budgets. After Cara Schulz detailed the challenges faced in one Wiccan community when complaints of sexual misconduct were brought forth, I followed up with some best practices for handling sex-abuse cases in Pagan groups.

Team reporting makes me better at this job, but it can become frantic.  I regret leaving out a point which probably is as controversial as it is important: abandoning abusers isn’t a solution.  When we banish, ostracize, or push out offenders, we hand the problem off to strangers and miss the opportunity to fix things.

While the high recidivism rate for sex offenders is a common topic of conversation, I learned through my interviews that treatment actually works.  While pushing someone out of one’s group might solve the immediate problem, without the tools to deal with the problem it’s pretty likely that there will be other victims at some point.  Is kicking the can down the road an ethical response?

Some sex offenders are ready to admit they have a problem, I now understand.  Among them, there’s a fear of reprisal and consequence for coming clean; being able to accept that fact is part of treatment.  Are there ways to continue to include a known offender without putting people at risk?  Of course, but it’s going to take work, and it’s going to take compassion for someone who may well have done some terrible things.  There’s also the question of potential offenders, who would prefer not to harm anyone but are afraid to admit they have a problem due to rejection.  Isolation does not help that work, which is all but impossible to do without help.

In Pagan and polytheist communities, we are moving toward a better understanding of how to support victims.  That includes believing them, and encouraging them to talk to the police.  We are not there yet, and it’s been a painful process to get even this far.  Finding ways to support offenders as well as victims is going to be a lot more painful, but I think it’s work we need to do if we are actually interested in healing.

Pixylations: a review

Genre: Fiction

Title: Pixylations

Author: Joe Laudati

If you’ve ever passed over a book because it’s about fairies and you’re not really into fairies, I stand with you yet I also stand corrected: my friend Joe Laudati handed me a copy of his book Pixylations, and I am glad to have read it. Yes, I read it out of friendship, but to my delight I enjoyed it as well!

Set in Ireland in a decade not too long before our own, Pixylations is a tale about Faela, a fairy with a solid streak of trickster, and what transpires when she is forced to spend time around a human family to make up for some unfortunate events in which she was thoroughly involved. The human characters inject many of the elements readers desire in a novel, such as romance and miscommunication. (As an aside, I’m now wondering why Apollon is closest to the muses, given the heavy influence Hermes and Aphrodite have in the best fiction.) Faela, as viewpoint character, provides insight into the realms of mortal and fey alike.

Laudati does what any author must when there’s a lot of (often contradictory) source material: he finds a solid thread, and uses it to weave together a fey world that is internally consistent and interesting to read about. It’s a thread tied to plausible human characters, characters who make decisions on insufficient information and with motivations that resonate with what the readers know of them. Some of those characters remind me of ones that crossed the screen during one of my father’s favorite movies, The Quiet Man, but I’m not suggesting that one begot the other. At least to an American such as myself, Ireland is a land full of magic and strong women, which perhaps are not unrelated. Pixylations has both, and if one of those women appears to be a man-hater, well there’s no reason to draw conclusions based on first impressions alone. To do different would be to judge a book by its cover, wouldn’t it?

Actually, judging this book by its cover might not be that terrible an idea. The art, as with all the illustrations, are painstakingly rendered by the author, who is also a really amazing sculptor. (He manifested my dream of a Hestia statue, and while I feel I can judge his writing independent of that relationship, the reader is invited to draw different conclusions that my own.) It appears he captured Faela just after she’s launched herself into the sky, to be carried upon breezes and gossamer wings to her next adventure. The expression on her face evokes the bliss of being a fairy, and similarly Laudati captures the motivations and emotions of each of his characters in the prose between these covers.

Title: Pixylations
Author: Joe Laudati
Publisher: CreateSpace
ISBN: 978-1541359277

Taking the vigil by the horns

Even a year ago, I knew that I would be performing the Vigil for the Bulls again.  This was the first observance I performed in my home temple, as part of my studies to become Poseidon’s priest, and I internalized the vigil as part of my own liturgical year, blending with the celebrations proscribed by my temple as well as festivals uniquely my own.

There are lessons learned by doing deep work again and again.  Going into it this year I was reminded that there are some Poseidon devotees who believe the running of the bulls, and subsequent bull fights, to be exciting or thrilling.  I cannot say that someone who feels this way is doing it wrong; I don’t know that they are.  What I do know is that this vigil focuses on the fear and death which descend upon those bulls each day, meaning that it may not be a good fit for someone who is a fan of the whole bullfighting scene.

On the other hand, it’s not beyond rationale thought to imagine this vigil, if followed by such an individual, might not change how they see the world.  All I can say for certain is that Poseidon was pleased that I joined him last year.  Even as a temple priest who is sometimes sought out for counsel, I can’t presume to guide someone based solely on my experience of Poseidon.  He is vast as the ocean, with moods as varied as all the fish which swim.  He may well have need of people who think quite differently than I do in order to complete his work.

That’s something for me to sit with as a priest.  I recognized something else last night, something I don’t recall from last year at all:  the weight of the grief.  It’s really too much to bear, and I admit I started to distract myself to get out from under it all.  A year ago I think I was more focused on the split-shift sleeping pattern I use to make the vigil possible:  down for a nap, awake just before 2 a.m. to do the work, then back to sleep for the rest of the night.  It would be a lot easier in Hawaii, but then again, being able to afford to live in Hawaii would have a lot of other benefits, too.

Off to bed.  This vigil won’t sit itself.

Difficult work

I volunteered to take on the Kenny Klein coverage for The Wild Hunt, which until this week was just a matter of checking a court docket from time to time.  That changed when Klein was convicted.  When witnesses finally testified, what came out of their mouths was horrifying to me.  It’s the first time I have ever felt the need to take a purifying bath after writing.

One thought remains with me:  I hope Klein will have access to ministers of his faith while imprisoned.  I believe everyone deserves that opportunity.

Finding Ares

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Ares icon created by PT Helms

It is no small thing to find a god, for deities are as elusive as a reflection on water, as insubstantial as the mote which dances before the eyes, as subtle as the shift of late winter to early spring. Many religions teach of a “God” or “Goddess” who is imbued in all things, or oversees each and every working of the universe, or whose omnipresence transcends the concepts of “within” and “without” and makes those words feel meaningless; while such teachings suggest that a deity which is everywhere might be easy to find, it is remarkably difficult to focus on the everywhere. Gods, while rarely far from us, can be easily overlooked.

Indeed, the very decision to seek out a god is a difficult one to make: this is a secular world, and belief in the unseen increasingly is looked at askance. Aside from religious services, citizens of the western world are counseled to trust their eyes, to be pragmatic, to shunt aside their emotions and focus on rational experience. Any deity, from a monotheistic father to the god of a tiny spring which wells forth only once in a generation, can have its voice lost in the cacophony of marketing messages, career choices, and family dynamics of 21st century life.

So it is no small thing to find a god, especially if one is not seeking to do so. It is no small thing to find a god, particularly if the god one seeks is not the god who wishes to be found.

I was not seeking a god, nor a religion. I believed I had both: I was Pagan and I embraced the pantheistic, multi-faced One through many faces. I was not Wiccan, although some of their teachings resonated with me. I understood that all deities were simply aspects that my limited mind could best accept and relate to, with distinct personalities and histories. My beliefs were broad, inclusive, and only slightly more meaningful to me than the Catholic teachings of my youth. Intellectually, the message of love and healing was important, but it didn’t speak to my emotional self. Paganism became more of a label than a life for me.

No subtle nudge would have roused me from this torpor; no whisper at the edge of my awareness could get me to take step back and reconsider my path. I was entrenched in a life as full of activity as it was devoid of meaning, a comfortable place in which a man to find himself.

Only a roar as loud as nine thousand men could have gotten my attention, and only a god that terrified me by virtue of what he represented could utter that cry. I heard it from the bottom of the pit into which I had crawled I knew not when. I heard it even as I became aware of the maggots gently consuming my diseased self, and preparing to consume those parts which remained healthy. I heard it with my ears, my eyes, my follicles, my soul. I heard it, and I obeyed.

Get up.

Get up, and show some respect for this gift you have been given.

Do you think I, steeped in the blood of the slain and crusher of the defeated underfoot, know nothing of cowardice, nothing of failure? You are wrong. When the faithful lift their craven thoughts up to me, unable to continue without my aid, I take them up and wrap them like a cloak about my shoulders. Your failings, your weakness, your whispered words of self-defeat, your limiting beliefs; these are my mantle as I wade into battle.

You, who feel the weight of all your mistakes and missed opportunities, know nothing of the burdens I carry for you and your kind. Without me, you would have been ground to dust long ago. I shoulder it precisely because you are frail, you are mortal, you are a passing mote blowing hither and yon.

Get up, for you are strong enough to carry what is left to you. If it remains too much, than either you hold back my due or you protest too much.

Get up.

I got up. I obeyed: studying Hellenismos, discovering my patron and others among the theoi to whom I am drawn, and eventually taking up the mantle of priest after some years of preparation and instruction.

Ares has not spoken to me since. I still make offerings to him as I am led, but to him I have sworn no oaths. He was and is my gatekeeper, and I feel him near when my blood boils or runs like ice, but for the most part his work on me appears to be done. The way was opened with violence and fury, and only now am I able to do work of healing, and peace.