Posts in lifestyle
Dispatches from a Haunted City

The roots of gnarled oak trees snaked underneath the sidewalks. They cracked and broke the pavement - a reminder that here, in New Orleans, nature is in control.  I later learned that these ancient sentinels were in fact mostly hollow as termites slowly gnawed at them from the inside out.  A fitting macabre symbol for a city all too familiar with death and slow decay.  As I passed these great dames I was grateful that they were still able to cloak the city beneath their verdant leaves.  The dappled light from the trees shimmered through the branches, providing momentary shade from the heat that steamed up from the ground and fogged my glasses.  

The misty air was enveloping and heavy.  It laid thickly upon my skin and soaked my patterned dress till it clung heavy to my shape.  I greeted the smallest breeze like a savior and I smiled and swayed as the lightest of air swirled past.  It seemed so remarkable to be in a city, yet be immersed in such a vibrant and lush dreamscape.

As I meandered, the jungle of boughs and branches twisted above my head.  Turning onto Gov. Nicholls street I came across rows of shotgun and creole homes.  Each were painted differently in vivid hues of turquoise, burgundy, sunshine yellow, and chartreuse.  The homes themselves were not immune to the cover of nature.  Cascades of honeysuckle burst over crooked fences and green ferns peeked through the gaps.  Like the sidewalks, many of the homes were off-kilter and tilted precariously to the side.  I peaked through the many rod iron gates and glimpsed endless courtyards and fountains - little secret gardens for the citizens of the city.  

As I passed one home a large black cat greeted me with a long stretch before lazily returning to his nap.  As the afternoon light darkened I came across many more felines; stray cats that gravitated to the Jackson Square courtyard.  No one knows why these cats come to sleep there.  Perhaps, they too, are drawn to the city center in search of misty apparitions and midnight revelry.  Nighttime in this city is not passive, it swallows you whole.  Everything, no matter your hearts desire, seems like a good idea in New Orleans.

I chose to forego the bustle of Bourbon street and ventured off to the quieter pathways that seemed to call my name.  As I wandered the darkened streets of the French Quarter it seemed like I traveled back in time.  The only light came from the moon above and the gas lit lanterns that flickered from porches and beneath balconies.  The clip of horse hooves bounced through the streets and the ever-present music seemed to rise from the very earth itself.  A city more dream than reality.  

Stumbling across the LaLaurie mansion I was reminded that this too was a city of ghosts and mystery.  Anyone in tune with such things can feel the cloak of otherworldliness that permeates the air.  The souls of yesteryear inhabit the streets and drip from the trees.  You can almost feel their slow breath as they float swamp-like from one darkened corner to another.  Instead of being frightened I welcomed such feelings.  In fact, I smiled -  glad to be close to such mystery, glad to be part of it all, glad to be in the one place that truly felt like home.

Climbing the Branches of Yggdrasil

A Review and Reflection of Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

We are all brought up with the classical myths of Ancient Greece and Rome.  We can recall their stories, visualize the characters, and visit their ancient temples and sites.  By comparison, the Norse myths seem shrouded in mystery and misunderstandings.  They somehow feel more foreign, more ancient, and more inaccessible.  With Norse Mythology, Neil Gaiman takes us in hand and guides us through these powerful tales.  He does so with a narrative prose that makes these myths feel familiar and relatable.  Relying upon the Poetic Edda and it’s various translations, Gaiman weaves a collection of tales that introduce us to these larger than life figures and the many worlds they inhabit.  

Many of us are already acquainted with the mighty Thor.  A generation of children, including Gaiman himself, eagerly followed the adventures of Thor as a superhero through his comic book series.  Despite the comic's mythological and historical inaccuracies, it helped bring the world of Asgard and its divine inhabitants to life.  The recent Thor movies additionally help contribute to widening the audience for this mythology.  

The comics and movies, however, provide only a sliver of light onto the vast world of Norse mythology.  Gaiman is on a quest to deepen our understanding and as he guides us through Yggdrasil and it’s nine distinctive worlds, one begins to understand the complexity and richness of this web of gods, goddess, frost giants, elves, and dwarves.

Gaiman gives the Gods and Goddesses personality and thus brings them to life.  As I read through these tales I found myself joyfully laughing at Thor’s wild antics and smiling at Loki’s cleverness.  I felt concern when lovely Freja was about to be wed to an ugly giant and I felt triumph when Thor recovers his stolen Mjölnir.  These stories sometimes balance on the absurd.  You will read of Loki giving birth to a giant horse, Thor dressing as a bride to disguise a thieving giant, and Odin transforming into a Snake in order to sip the mead of poetry.  Instead of being jarring, these moments become believable through Gaiman’s brilliant storytelling.  

The tales go beyond the humorous and absurd.  They are touching, imaginative, and contain themes that translate into our present day.  Loki gains complexity with each tale as his intelligence is both admired and vilified by the other Gods.  As a half giant, Loki represents the ultimate outsider.  He’s not even supposed to be in Asgard with the others and no one knows how he ascended to their realm.  He vacillates between being an agent of chaos and risking his life and dignity to assist those who may never truly accept him.  Loki is a villain we can all see within ourselves and thus we too can both admire and scorn his actions.

Watching over these realms is the All-Father, Odin.  Odin gave his eye for wisdom and hung himself from the world-tree, Yggdrasil, for knowledge of the runes.  Odin understands that knowledge is power and has sacrificed himself many times over to achieve it.  His thirst for knowledge is insatiable, and he even enters our world dressed in disguise to see things from our point of view.  Odin sends his two ravens, Huginn and Muninn (‘thought' and ‘memory’) to travel the realms far and wide so that they might bring him new knowledge and perspective.  It is honorable that the leader of the Norse Gods should have such respect for knowledge and understanding.  With each story Odin becomes more mysterious, more complex, and more worthy of our admiration.    

Many question why mythology is important and if it still holds value in our modern tech-focused society.  I exclaim a resounding ‘YES’ to such questions.  We humans are storytellers.  The stories we tell define our culture and bring us together in common knowledge.  The great myths of the old Gods reference a world we could only dream of, yet their wisdom gives us guidance and comfort.  These ‘tall-tales’ illuminate our imagination and kindle our compassion.  Such stories are worth preserving and sharing among generations yet to come.  With Norse Mythology, Neil Gaiman helps these deities maintain their immortality and refreshes their stories for a new collective of storytellers, big-thinkers, and adventurers.  

How to Become an Expert at Walking Meditation

The melody of spring softly soars above as I begin my walking meditation.  The steady drum beat of the woodpecker mingles with the chipper notes from the morning doves and wrens.  A glorious prelude to the birth of spring in the city.  Along the lakeshore cardinals dance through the trees, their red feathers beating like hearts as they flit in and out of view.  Squirrels erratically run from tree to tree trying to remember when they've hidden acorns and a solitary chipmunk peaks it’s head up from underground.  

I walk steadily along the pavement as I focus on my breathing.  I inhale the scent of petrichor and pine and exhale my internal tension and anxieties.  Approaching the edge of the lake I reach a deep state of relaxation and feel more at peace with myself and my place within the world.  As I walk along the edge of the lake I let the sound of the waves soothe my senses.  The lake glimmers in the morning light and radiates a golden glow.  I spend several moments gazing out at the horizon feeling gratitude for this beautiful moment.  After a whisper of thanks to the spirits I begin my journey home with a renewed positive outlook and an extra spring in my step.  


Tips for Walking Meditation

Location: Decide where you plan to walk before you begin.  You should be focusing on your breathing while walking, not which direction to turn.  Finding a relatively secluded spot is best so you will be less distracted by others.

Timing: Plan for at least 15 minutes for your walking meditation.  I personally find walking meditation easier to do for extend periods of time as opposed to seated meditation.

Walking: Spend the first few minutes finding a steady rhythm for your walk.  Be sure to stand up straight with your shoulders and neck relaxed.  You should walk slower than your normal pace and focus on staying present within the moment.  Notice the sensations of your body as you move.  Feel the confidence and strength in your bones and muscles as they propel you forward.

Breathing: Inhale deeply through the nose and exhale through the mouth.  Try to line up your breathing with the the rhythm of your walk.  Focus on breathing in the clean air from the atmosphere and breathing out any tension.  Should your mind begin to wonder, simply return your attention back to your breath.

If you have any additional tips for walking meditation, please comment below.  Blessed be!

Why I Run Into the Woods

I feel that void too.  A vacuous emptiness caused by the lack of connection within our current society.  Dating has been reduced from a serendipitous adventure to a swipe of a finger on a tablet.  True connection has been superseded by a selfish need to prove one’s worth through vacation photos on Facebook and carefully manipulated profiles on LinkedIn.  The pressures of our culture have warped our relationships and clouded our desires.

I believe such unfulfilled longing to be symptomatic of a disconnect with our own ‘humanity’ and our place within nature.  In our world of big data it seems that every aspect of our life has been reduced to a statistic used to further our own unhappiness.  What could be more sterile and inhuman than a number?  In the undercurrent of my daily activities lies a treasure trove of data to be used by others.  What I purchase, what sites I visit, all recorded to help companies decipher my ‘desires’ in order to sell me more.  How Orwellian does our society need to become before we realize this does not make us happy?

Paganism is my antidote.  Paganism is raw, unstructured, and unorganized.  Even among other Pagans we rarely find consensus and agreement deciphering our path.  There is no book of rules other than the ones we write ourselves.  The pagan practice is unabashedly human.  It is oftentimes illogical, holding conflicting ideas in equal reverence.  It is the opposite of data, it is the opposite of sterile, and it is gloriously sublime.  

Dig your hands into the dirt in glorious rebellion.  Dance naked under the stars in riotous defiance.  Be illogical.  Be impractical.  Wash off the prescriptive conventions of happiness and venture back in the woods to reconnect with our own divinity.  Scream at the sky if you need to.  Once you let it all out you're ready to connect with what you’ve been missing all along.  Lay upon the ground and let the leaves tangle in your hair as you ground yourself and relax your mind.  Whatever your individual practice might be, we are united in the sense of sublime we feel when we connect with this energy.   

I feel this sublime energy throughout my rituals.  I feel it when I call upon the elements and discover the rush of wind, the swell of water, the burst of flames, and the strength of earth.  I feel the tingling of frisson catapult through my body when I cast a circle.  I feel an almost inhuman exhilaration as I dance around the bonfire beneath the stars.  At these moments I experience the height of human emotion and connectedness to the divine.  It makes me glad to be alive and reminds me that our essential humanity is something that cannot simply be measured and contained.

Such transcendent acts are in wondrous opposition to our daily lives and yet I feel they are needed more now than ever.  A reminder that we are not numbers, we are not statistics.  We are part of this Earth and that means something, regardless of what wider society might preach.

Rose Ritual Bath

The Rose.  A regal flower used for centuries to attract love, enhance femininity, and assist in seduction.  Such exquisite beauty is made even more profound due to its impermanence.  A few days of heightened refinement surround your space when the flower is at its peak.  However, like all life, such delicate beauty is temporary and will eventually fade.  With roses, the artistry of decay haunts the passing of this beauty.  I keep my roses in their vase as I watch the petals shrivel and the color dim.  A most exquisite momento mori expressing our connection to the cycle of life.

Still, us humans desire to hold on to our beauty.  We grasp at it, reluctant to give up its power.  As such it's only natural that we have a long history of preserving rose petals and incorporating them in our lives.  These delicate, yet beautiful dried rose petals permeate our homes, championing our control over decay.  

I use rose petals in a variety of ways in my Pagan practice. I lay them atop my altar during Ostara to welcome spring.  I might covertly carry a pouch filled with red petals in my purse during a date to enhance my desirability.  Additionally, ground-up rose petals feature as a common ingredient in many of my spells.

I regularly create a ritual bath mixture using crushed dried rose petals.  Bathing in this aroma infuses the power of attraction deep into my skin and enhances my confidence.  In this way, ritual baths can be used as a powerful form of glamour magic.

I pampered myself with a rose ritual bath as part of my beauty routine before attending Carmen at the Chicago Opera House.  I strode into the theater with a confident smile across my lips and a secret gleam of magic shining through my eyes.  A refined grace enchanted my walk as I made my way through the corridors greeting fellow music lovers.  

 Enjoy this wonderful magic yourself by creating your own rose ritual bath using the recipe below.


Rose Ritual Bath

To make a rose ritual bath combine the following ingredients and mix to combine.

1-1/2 cups epsom salts

1/2 cup sea salt

1/4 cup baking soda

1/2 cup dried rose petals (I dry my rose petals by laying them in a single layer atop a paper towel and microwaving for a minute.)

Place a cupful of this mixture in your bath water and reserve the rest for future use.  

While bathing, visualize the essence of beauty seeping from the rose petals and swirling atop the water.  Focus on your skin soaking in this essence and feel the light radiating through your body.  At the end of your bath, you will feel confident in your beauty and grace and ready to take on the world.


How do you incorporate the enchanting power of the rose in your practice?  Share below in the comments.

Thirteen Craft Rites of The Old One - Are you Brave Enough?

A review and reflection of The Devil’s Dozen: Thirteen Craft Rites of The Old One by Gemma Gary


One should not judge a book by it’s cover, yet I am often guilty of such an act.  How could anyone merely pass by this book without flipping through its pages, anxious to discover the mysteries contained within.

The aesthetics are striking.  A small black tome, only slightly larger than a hand.  The cover gleams with with a bronze shimmer that looks like fire when reflecting light.  The front contains no title.  Instead you’re greeted with an eerie image of a goat head with horns cradling a assemblage of shining candles.  The spine of the book reveals the title and author, The Devil’s Dozen: Thirteen Craft Rites of the Old One by Gemma Gary.

To get past the first page of this book you will need to face your fears.  With this book Gemma Gary attempts to reclaim the concept of the Devil, something I don’t think many contemporary witches would have the gumption or desire to do and I commend her bravery for attempting to do so.  

Gemma Gary gives us not a book but a poetically beautiful instruction guide.  Using traditional witchcraft and folklore practices as inspiration she has created thirteen unique rites.  All with the intent to bring us closer to the Devil.  You might be questioning why anyone would want to develop a personal relationship with such a sinister creature.  Before delving deeper you need to first ask yourself some difficult questions.  Who is the Devil?  How has this character been defined by religious history?  Are you able to look past preconceived notions and open your mind?  Do you even want to open this pandora’s box or would you rather keep your concept of the Devil closed and contained in a box with all your other dark fears.  Gemma gives us a helping hand by first making a distinction between Satan, a creation of the church, and the Devil, an embodiment not of evil but instead the protector of our personal power, sexual freedom, and desire.       

This book is after all a call to action so philosophizing on concepts of Satan vs. The Devil will only get you so far.  Gemma asks us to seek out into the wild to experience these ideas, not just merely read about them.  To perform any of the rites in this book you need bravery.  You will have to hold steadfast and push out any remaining Christian guilt that might try to creep in.  

While I was not brought up Christian, I still faced her first request with trepidation.  I stared at the words: Nema. Reve dna reve rof, yrolg ehy dna, rewop eht, modgnik eht si… She was asking me to read the Lord’s prayer backwards.  I see why she wants us to do this.  One must first undo any previous religious indoctrination in order to become an empty vessel and thus ready to take forth communion with a significantly different sort of deity.

It took me several days before I felt brave enough to do it.  Christian guilt and fear still permeates our society to some extent and even I, a practicing Pagan for over 13 years, still felt the trepidation.  What if my pagan beliefs are wrong? What if hell really does exist and this is the point where I cross that line?  A whisper of fear beat a steady drum in my heart as I said the words slowly but carefully.  I’ll admit it, the perversive nature of the act was exciting and afterward I greedily sped through the next pages, excited about what I might be asked to do next.  

Each rite contains beautiful black and white artwork that sets the tone for the ritual.  Gemma Gary begins with an explanation of the concepts and the historical context for the traditions and tools that will be used.  She then proceeds to tell how to perform the ritual yourself, giving instructions on where to go, what (or what not) to wear, what tools to bring, and what to say for the ritual.  The words she asks us to speak are dark and sensual poems that exemplify and enhance the experience.  These unnerving rites are filled with dark dedications in churchyards, dances to raise the Devil’s power, conjurations to awaken the spirit, and full nights spent alone in the woods.

As I read each rite I couldn't help but wonder how many, if any, people have performed these rituals.  I began to think about making a trip to the woods myself and which ritual I might choose to perform.  One rite asks the witch to find a secluded old barn where one would not be disturbed and draw a pentacle on the surface of the ground.  After laying five candles around the points of the star you disrobe and lay nude alone and unmoving for an entire night.  Eventually the fear becomes ever more consuming until you enter a trance where your spirit leaves the body and merges with the spirit of the Old One, becoming a vessel for the powers and wisdom of the night’s mysteries.

I shivered with exhilaration considering what it would be like to perform such a ritual myself.  I also questioned why I found this all so exciting.  There’s a reason many people enjoy the perverse pleasure that comes with fear.  It’s why we seek out scary movies and haunted houses. People like being scared because it makes them feel alive.  It reminds us that we’re human in a society that too often tries to make us into robots.  

Maybe this desire to feel human is part of why I was drawn to Paganism in the first place many years ago.  A desire turn away from the cold city sidewalks of modernity and run back into the forest.  A desire to feel the fear and exhilaration that comes with dancing round the fire under the stars.  

Paganism is refreshingly unsanitized compared with the abrahamic religions that permeate our society.  A catholic mass contains social norms and rigid procedures, all within a safe and enclosed space.  An Esbat, by comparison, is wild and unstructured.  You are not safe.  You are in the woods with all of natures creatures, facing a night sky that reminds you how insignificant you are within the cosmos and by extension how much a miracle it is to be here in the first place.  It makes the concept of reveling in our human desires not something unclean, but something religiously profound.  Gemma Gary exalts these concepts and expands them to their height.  She asks us to cultivate a relationship with our fear and in doing so develop a connection with the untamed spirit of The Old One.

The wild and raw power is out there for the taking.  Gemma Gary implores us to be brave enough to seek it out.

Yule Witch Ball

My life is becoming quite chaotic (last minute holiday shoppers unite!) as the end of December approaches.  My weekends have been filled with commuting back and forth all over the city to various dinners and festivities and I haven’t had as much time as I would like to focus on my practice.

Like many pagans, I will be celebrating Yule this week.  I’m mostly a solitary witch so I’ve planned a simple feast (with a tasting of my Solstice Brew) and ritual that I will be performing at home.  Sometimes I wish I was a member of a coven that had big sabbat celebrations I could join.  Despite Chicago being such a large city, the pagan groups here are fairly small and often too far away to go to regularly.  I like to think that in the future I might create my own coven, but if that’s to happen, it would most likely be a couple years from now.  

That hasn’t dampened my spirits much though.  I really enjoy my solitary rituals and I’ve been filling my time with lots of Yule-themed crafts and meals.  The most recent activity I’ve worked on was to create a Yule Witch Ball.

Witch Balls can be used for protection against negativity, evil spells, ill fortune, and sickness.  They are best hung in an east window where they can catch the morning light, though you can really place them anywhere in your home or garden.  

The theory behind Witch Balls is that negative energies or malevolent spirits become mesmerized by the bright colors on the outside of the ball and get trapped inside, thus preventing any bad energies from affecting its surroundings.  

My Yule-themed Witch Ball is filled with fragrant cinnamon sticks and anise stars, silver snowflakes made from cardboard, and a variety of red (fake) berries.  I draped the ball with bright red ribbon to make it even more festive.  I look forward to displaying this object each Yule season and I’m confident that it will facilitate positive thoughts and energies at this joyous time.

Yule Wreath

It’s now less than two weeks till Yule.  Though the days continue to shorten and the nights seem forever long, I feel much joy looking forward to the upcoming solstice.  In this great countdown to the return of the sun, I try to surround myself with as much festivity and comfort as possible.  I’ve strewn bright twinkle lights around my city apartment and decorated with garlands made from pine branches.  My kitchen is warm with scents of cinnamon and clove as I cook my Yuletide favorites.  

Each day, despite the often bitter cold, I walk to lakefront path and find beauty in the gentle snowfall and icy winds.  I’m not alone, every day I see runners and bikers upon the path.  Looking at them running through the frost in their brightly colored neon gear always makes me smile.  I admire their determination and resolve to get outside everyday no matter the weather.

Yesterday while I was walking amongst the path, I noticed many small branches that had fallen to the ground.  I took some in hand and headed home to make a rustic Yule wreath.  One of the great things about decorating for the sabbats is that it’s best to use natural materials when possible, which means of course, that the materials are free.  While I have made more of an effort recently to incorporate natural materials in my craft, I still couldn’t resist buying a big red bow to place upon my homespun wreath.

Below are instructions for making your very own festive Yule wreath.
These instructions adapted from Starburst Twig Wreath

You will need:
A collection of branches
Cardboard cut into a disc shape
Twine
Glue and a hot glue gun
A bow (optional)

The instructions are as simple as wrapping your cardboard disc in twine, gluing your branches to the disc in a starburst pattern, and finally adding a bow and a string to hang the wreath from.

image1.JPG
Winter Brew

Looking towards the next month I know that the days will continue to shorten.  Luckily, December is a month filled with merriment and joy for Christians and Pagans alike.  As the days get colder, we decorate our homes and make time for dinner with friends and family.  The city too reflects our cheer as red bows, pine garlands, and bright lights cloak the city in merriment.

For me, the festivities culminate at the winter solstice.  A joyful time as we can welcome the growth of the sun and take comfort in knowing that the daylight hours will extend.  If I can manage, I like to wake up to see the sunrise on solstice morning.  I take a mug of coffee out to the lake, find a good bench, and watch the sun illuminate the city.  Our winter season in Chicago is long, but I take comfort through the months knowing that after the solstice each day becomes just a little bit longer than the day before.  

As I walked home from work the other day I stopped to pick up a few items to make a certain winter brew.  Something that will surely warm me and my friends through these upcoming winter months.  

This jar of spiced deliciousness takes 5 weeks to fully infuse so I recommend making it as soon as possible.  I confess that I should have planned it a bit better.  I was hoping to have the brew ready for drinking by the solstice.  Though of course, life tends to get in the way at times so I will need to wait till the very end of December to taste my first sip.  

 

WINTER BREW

This recipe is from the lifestyle blog Sidewalk Shoes

Ingredients

IMG_3054.jpg

- 4 cups brandy
- 1 piece cinnamon stick
- 2 star anise
- 1 vanilla bean, sliced lengthwise
- 24 black peppercorns
- 4 navel oranges, chopped into large pieces

Instructions

  1. Combine all ingredients in a large mason jar.  Cap it tightly and store in a cool dark place for two weeks.  Shake the jar daily.

  2. After the two weeks strain the brew through a fine mesh strainer or coffee filter.  Return the liquid to the jar and let it mellow for three weeks in a cool and dark place.

  3. Enjoy with friends throughout the winter.