Some ramblings about depression and religion

What do I believe? I find this question more and more confusing, and its answers more and more nebulous, the longer I dwell on it.

Tomorrow is the Spring Equinox in my neck of the woods, marking my seventh year as a Pagan of some stripe or another. My very first Pagan ritual was Ostara 2007 wherein I didn’t dedicate myself so much as light a bunch of candles and meditate a bit on my yoga map, generally letting the Powers That Be know I was interested and if They wanted to say hello, well then, I was here. My journey, which very nearly started out with me Ásatrú, has led me through Neo-Wicca (via Cunningham and an IRL!coven), two college Pagan groups, twoish years with ADF Druidry, an on-again-off-again fling with Kemetic Orthodoxy, and, more recently, helping shape the Brighid devotional group Clann Bhríde. Among many, many other things.

I find myself struggling (as I so often do) with issues of faith and trust and what the hell am I doing with my life, anyway? I wonder if I will ever find satisfactory answers or if I’m aiming too high, or aiming at the wrong thing altogether. I’m going through my own existential quarter-life crisis (again), this time exacerbated by the painful end of a two-and-a-half year relationship with the first person I really loved, and by my own crazy depression and anxiety issues. Last week, I believe I sank into a major depressive episode as I fought with “regular” depression and school-related anxiety and the guilt over initiating my breakup. The biggest thing I’ve been craving has been some sort of structure in my life, some sense of conviction. Even now, back in my more-or-less-normal mental state and not caught in the reality warp that is a depressive episode, I feel cast adrift and completely without a clue of what to do. Or rather, there are several avenues open to me and I feel… completely uninspired, lackluster, unsure. In several areas of my life (academic, spiritual, whatever) I just feel… stuck. And I’m not sure how to get unstuck, or even if I want to, which is the real kicker.

I miss my girlfriend (my ex, I suppose, even if that concept still feels so completely unreal and alien beyond all reason, even seven weeks later) like I’d miss a limb. I talk in therapy every week about making schedules and plans every day so I feel like I’m doing something and being productive, but then I don’t. I take on responsibilities and then don’t see them through. I sometimes wonder if I’m just so used to feeling useless and adrift that I’ve built my entire identity around these feelings, and the idea of not feeling like this is a threat to the weird comforting status quo I’ve built up over the years.

This was originally going to be a post about theology and trying to figure out what it is I believe and what I stand for, but I’m not even sure I’m at a point where I can do that sort of work right now.

Clann Bhride

 

Clann Bhride is proud to establish an internet presence with the launch of our website. Clann Bhride, also known as the Children of Brighid, is a spiritual path of devotion drawing from old traditions and new inspiration of our patron goddess Brighid.

Along with the website we’re also proud to offer our Book of Hours, an informational and devotional text for those interested in a life dedicated to Brighid in Her many guises. This text is available from Lulu, both as a free PDF download and as a paperback for a small fee to cover printing costs. The Book includes:

- An introduction to the basic elements of Clann Bhride

- Daily devotions including morning, midday, and evening prayers

- Prayers for special occasions including dedications, births, and deaths

- A basic liturgical calendar

- Articles on the academic and spiritual nature of Brighid

In the future we hope to offer a resource list and occasional blog posts on Brighid and the path of Clann Bhride. We offer this site to any fellow religionists as a greater offering to Brighid, our guide and friend. You can find us at http://clannbhride.wordpress.com/. We invite those interested to subscribe to our blog and read our Book of Hours.

Over the next year, we hope to develop an active community of people who are committed to incorporating the Nine Elements of Clann Bhride into their lives. If you are interested in such a community, please contact us at clannbhride@gmail.com or subscribe to our blog, where we will post updates as appropriate.

———————-

PS: I wrote most of the above press release and my name’s on some of the articles in the CB Book of Hours. So just saying… feel free to check it out. :) At some point I’ll write on how properly excited and terrified I am to be part of this, and part of something that’s now let loose into the wild blue yonder, but for now I will leave you, gentle readers, with warm thoughts for Imbolc. Take care, stay safe, and may our Lady keep you in Her mantle.

Brighid and Me

Light me as Your lantern,
Play me as Your harp,
Keep me in Your mantle,
Guide me to Your hearth.

Brighid has been part of my life in some way, large or small, since November 2010. I had just been diagnosed the month before with dysthymia and started medication for depression for the first time in my life. I’d started therapy at the beginning of the new school year at a new school, having transferred away from Bryn Mawr after serious depression and anxiety tanked my sophomore grades and led me into dark places. At that point I’d been a Pagan for three and a half years, give or take, and while I had some passing experience or at least familiarity with a variety of Pagan traditions I was still lost, confused, and hurting for the assurance and rightness I had felt as a Baptist growing up.

This is not a story of how I found Brighid and found my faith. This is not a story of finding surety and strength in the darkness. This is not a story of spiritual awakening and enlightenment. This is not a story of coming out of the woods and into the light. It is a story about the blessedness of being lost and meeting myself on my level, where I was — not where I thought Deity wanted me to be. It is a story about not having to be found before understanding that Deity could find me. And it is a story about how Depression Is Okay and like with any serious issue, mental health issues do not go away with the introduction of a new relationship.

Brighid did not “cure” my depression, nor will She, nor do I think She plans to, nor do I want Her to. I have depression and anxiety. They are part of my neurochemistry and genetic makeup as much as my PCOS, my family history of diabetes and cancer, my gender identity, my eye color. I am depressed. I have depression. These things can be managed and I want Brighid’s strength and comfort, but I do not want, nor do I need, to be fixed.

I think this is something to keep in mind when I think about perhaps the core symbolic imagery I associate with Brighid: the transforming fire that exists at the hearth, the forge, the fire of inspiration, the fire of cleansing and healing. Transformation, healing, and home can all exist with our cracks and pains and baggage. We can cultivate these attributes without waiting for being “fixed” or being “ready” or for “the right time.” I used to think of Brighid and depression in terms of Brighid healing my depression away, of Her taking me over Her forge, heating the impurities from my body, shaping me with swift, precise blows, plunging me into the water, and I would be reshaped into something new, something better, something in Her image and of Her making.

I don’t think that’s what is happening or will happen. Not that the forge metaphor is something I’ll throw away entirely — not that I don’t need Brighid’s transforming and loving hand to guide me. But this isn’t a matter of being made better. It’s being made whole. And it’s not a completely passive process. Brighid will not do the Work for me. She can assign me the Work, guide me, and walk with me, but it is my Work to be done.

Imbolc is always hard for me because February is not my month. Bryn Mawr, my first college, has a freshman initiation ritual called Hell Week in February which really fucked me up and felt more like hazing (and completely non-consensual) than anything celebratory or welcoming. It’s why I transferred away after sophomore year. So in many ways I look at Imbolc not as a happy festival, but as the festival before my unhealed traumas re-emerge for about a month. Ostara then becomes my renewal, my safe-again-for-a-year time when I can finally relax and put my hurts back into a box. I don’t think I’m ready to put Hell Week behind me — I’m not even sure if I want to heal — but I don’t think it’s coincidence that Brighid came into my life not long after my depression diagnosis, nor that Her holy day is in the month of my greatest trauma and depression.

All of these things are okay. I am okay. I do not need to be ‘fixed’ of my trauma before coming to Brighid. I do not need to be ready to face my demons before seeking or deserving comfort. I do not need to wait for the inner impulse of faith before acting on faith. And maybe this has nothing to do with faith at all. As much as I want to have trust in Brighid, I also know She needs to put Her trust in me. That’s how I want my relationships to function, involving deities or not.

Balance

Balance is something I have yet to master. Not that, I suppose, balance is something one masters or achieves with any finality. Balance is an ongoing process, a response and something to respond to. Balance is ma’at, a concept I’m struggling with as I come to terms with my new Kemetic faith. Balance is Brighid, the flame at the heart of three circles forming a triquetra, the still point of a turning universe.

This has something to do with ma’at. Come back when I’ve figured out what that is.

Balance needs to be fluid, dynamic, constantly moving and transforming. Life is a dance of energy, and I mean that on a physical, sub-atomic, I-learned-this-once-in-high-school level. Even things that appear rock solid and eternal are, in actuality, nothing but electrons swinging wildly around a nucleus. Circles and spirals and patterns that are constant, yet ever-moving; the journey of the solar barque and the swell of the moon to fullness; the Flamekeeping of Brighid’s devotees overseen by the Lady Herself on the 20th day, after which the cycle begins anew; Zep Tepi, which exists/existed/will exist in all the times that ever were, are, and shall be.

Balance is neutral in the sense everything affects balance and balance affects everything, but balance is not neutrality. Neither is balance stasis; there is a difference between the balance of a ball at the top of its arc, just before it begins dropping back to the earth, and the complete stasis of a photograph of that ball, removed from context, time, and life. This still photograph of a ball is stagnant and lifeless, useless for instilling any understanding of a real ball. True balance lies within the juggler keeping each ball in motion, a whirl of chaos hiding years of practice and ingrained muscle memory.

Balance is also tension, conflict, the keystone that only holds up the arch because of pressure exerted on other side. (Or something. Dammit Jim, I’m a blogger not an architect.) When I did more Druidry things, balance became the interplay between the Three Realms — Earth, Sea, and Sky — and the interconnected web of relationships between the Shining, Noble, and Mighty Ones. Politics, essentially. With Brighid, balance is the cruel heat of the smithy: the harsh clang of hammer against anvil, the merciless plunge of metal into waiting water, that creates the beauty and strength of skyforged steel. Balance is the fire-in-the-water, the dance of stars and the space-between-stars, the Woman Who Is Three and the Three Who Are One. (And perhaps this speaks to the balance of my Kemetic Orthodox studies, where Netjer is One and Many at the same time, both and neither at once.)

This has nothing to do with ma’at but I wanted a second picture. Pictured: the Skyforge from Skyrim, a not-so-subtle Pagan allegory.

I am craving balance and stability in my life. I feel incredibly inefficient spiritually, physically, mentally, emotionally, morally, grammatically… I feel myself sliding towards stasis and not-being rather than the natural pause and, well, balance of balance. I just wish I knew how to cultivate it.

Answering Anubis

Life has been rocky for awhile. I’m in graduate school and living at home, struggling with recurring depression and anxiety issues that like to get in the way of… everything, really. After a long, steady decline, my paternal grandmother passed away December 31, 2013; her funeral was just a few days ago. Funerals of course bring all sorts of family drama to the surface, especially things that have been clinging to the shadows for far too long. I don’t use this blog as my therapy session (that’s what my actual therapist is for!) so I’ll sidle past most of the details of aforementioned drama. To make a long story short: confrontation isn’t something my family has equipped me to deal with on an even remotely competent basis. Problems in our family don’t get addressed; victims get blamed; and keeping the peace is valued beyond actually having peace.

Anubis has been on my mind recently, ever since surprising me at a local antique mall with a hefty stone statue I was assured came directly from Egypt. (I also found a lovely framed painting of an ankh at this same store; it must have been a good shopping day for Kemetics!) This was the day before my grandmother died and I don’t feel it’s coincidence I was prepared with an image of the god of the dead. I’ll admit that when it comes to learning Kemetic mythology, I’m still very much a newbie. I know basic associations for a handful of deities and can recognize the names of many more. I can tell the Ennead from the Ogdoad and can list no fewer than five Eyes of Ra. At the very least I can tell my jackals from my falcons from my lionesses. But as I said in my last post, approaching ma’at — what I feel will be the core of my Kemetic practice — will take a different worldview than exists in white, middle-class America. Approaching and understanding the deities who work with/in/for ma’at will take a similar shift in thinking. There’s a context I need to create for myself to really grok Kemetic myth and I think this will only come with time, experience, and study.

I’ve started cobbling together information about Anubis from library books, including Erik Hornung’s Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt. When I first checked out this small stack of books on ancient Egypt, I was more than a little daunted. Exploring any new field is overwhelming until you get your bearings and begin to recognize important authors, arguments, and concepts. Turning this into a research project helped me make sense of all this new information. I wasn’t reading all of Hornung, I was just taking notes on what he had to say about Anubis. After two days and five books I had the beginnings of my very own article on just Who was this Anubis fellow, anyway. Much of the information I already knew — god of mummification and cemeteries, psychopomp of the dead, judger of souls — but the act of research and note-taking made it more personal. It also became an act of devotion, one that appeals greatly to my very logical and skeptical mind. I may not have an end “product” after prayer or ritual, but after research I’ve got footnotes and an article outline and some new knowledge floating around in my head that isn’t dependent on whether I was emotionally/spiritually engaged enough.

(I feel like this post is scattered and rambling, but maybe that’s what I need tonight. Moving along.)

I don’t know much about Anubis Himself, but I feel like He can help me through this time of transition and nasty interpersonal drama coming to light. I seem to remember at least one of his epithets reference him knowing/keeping secrets, at any rate. It also seems that if there’s any deity to understand struggles with faith and a skeptical nature, it’s Anubis. Anubis feels patient; He’d have to be, as a god of the dead. I feel like as a psychopomp, any period of transition could fall under His purview as well, or at the very least He’d be willing to help.

There’s still a lot I need to think about and I’ve lost a lot of spoons over the past two weeks or so. But I think that’s okay with Anubis too. People struggling with death and other painful transitions aren’t people at their best; they need a guide and psychopomp of their own, too.

About Ma’at

This is my first post for this year’s Pagan Blog Project. I’m not sure if I’ll stick with the alphabet theme or if these posts will be particularly long or coherent, but I want to get back into writing (don’t I say that every year?) and I might as well start now.

Several days ago I wrote in my spiritual journal about ma’at, my conceptions of the concept/force thus far, what it meant to me, and how very far I had to go. Between a conversation with other Kemetics that left me more confused than before — a good kind of confused though, the kind that makes you grow up big and strong! — and a death in the family, I’m not sure if the original words mean the same to me now as they did even a week ago. Funny how fast life changes.

But it’s a new year, a new lunar cycle, a new semester, a new life, and Zep Tepi starts us anew every second of our lives. So I thought, why not write a bit more about ma’at now, off the cuff and (one hopes) from the heart and see where that takes me?

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about gods and ancestors and spiritual praxis and such and it occurs to me that the many starts and restarts of my religious lives have been spent on… well, perhaps not the most important elements. Not that the gods are not important, or that ritual can’t play a central role in one’s religious life, but when it comes right down to it those aren’t the core of what I need. I keep thinking about this in terms of disease (which probably says more about my current mental and emotional state than anything) and assuming that the cause of a “good religious life” for myself would be relationship with deities, some regular ritual practice, philosophizing and theologizing, when really… those should be the “symptoms” of a good religious life. Having my core… thing set up for my religious life should, according to the theory that’s cooking in my head, facilitate a religious life that has gods and ritual and ancestors and such as part of the tapestry.

I know I’m mixing like twenty metaphors together; thank you for bearing with me. One of the limitations of language is I can’t directly transfer emotions to someone else’s brain, which would make this communication thing much easier. :)

Anyway, the point is: I already have a sort of “core religious thing” I’ve carried around for quite awhile that transcends whatever religious affiliation is happening to me on a given day. More than once I’ve described social justice as being my religion and I have certain values that cause me to act and believe in certain ways. I won’t go into my personal social justice philosophy right now, but suffice to say this world is a mess and I just need to rule it and someone really should do something about that, yeah? And that someone can be me. I can’t save the whole world but I can do things to make it suck less. I can care about people more than some fluffy, universal love that starts and stops with prayer.* My actions and words mean things and I can act in ways that make the world a little better and safer for folks who have the odds stacked against them. I might not be able to move mountains but I can change my tiny bit of the world.

(*My intention here wasn’t to disparage prayer or universal love at all; to the contrary I think they’re very powerful forces! I meant more that in my church growing up, there were a lot of words tossed around about caring for people, but that care didn’t go much further than praying (quite publicly, in front of other people to show off one’s own piety) to God for Him to help whomever.)

So it occurs to me that I really, really need to sit down and figure out ethics, if that’s even the word for this. (I made a post recently on the Cauldron trying to find definitions for “ethics” and “morality,” which has some pretty interesting replies on it. I should really respond to my own threads at some point!) I’m a Unitarian Universalist and social justice is a huge part of what makes UUism UU. I’m a somewhat lapsed follower of Brighid, Who in more than a few manifestations is a champion of the outcasts and rejects of society. And I’m a not-so-new-anymore Kemetic, which means… ma’at.

Ma’at is something I can understand if I don’t think about it too much and it makes sense on a gut level, but that sense doesn’t always translate to higher level thinking. Which is not to say I want to turn off my logical/rational brain when approaching ma’at, but I recognize that it is a concept from a different time and different place than early 21st century America and understanding ma’at is going to take a significantly different tool set than what I was given by my surrounding culture.

To call ma’at simply “ethics” is missing the point. Ma’at is That Which Is and The Way Things Are. Cause and effect are part of ma’at, but not in the sense of Hindu and Buddhist karma. But at the same time, one “example” of ma’at that works for me is for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. If I do something, other things happen that I need to take responsibility for. Everything is connected, everything has the potential to work with ma’at. (Which is different from working within ma’at, but I’m not sure I have the ability to parse that right now.) From how I’ve understood it thus far, ma’at is the force that that brings swinging pendulum back into balance, except that example gives too much credit to balance-as-stasis over balance-as-dynamism. Again, words aren’t helping and I think I’m grokking something on a gut deep level and my brain is frantically trying to catch up.

Speaking of grokking things and weird science metaphors, the law of conservation of energy somehow “explains” ma’at and isfet to me. Ma’at is the conservation of energy, the transformation of everything. Death, disease, and destruction are or can be part of ma’at, or under ma’at’s purview, or as full of ma’at-ness as birth, health, and creation. Isfet, on the other hand… it’s that impossible screwing with the system we can’t even properly understand. It’s something that’s not just wrong in a moral sense, but in the sense it just shouldn’t be. (That’s partially why I’ve been having problems with ma’at as an inherently moral concept as opposed to a concept from which morals may be derived… but again, I’m not sure I have the ability to do that subject justice right now, and this post is getting long enough as it is.) If ma’at is what brings us back to Zep Tepi, the first moment of creation where truth and justice and balance were the order of the day, then isfet is what pulls us farther away from that time, or is what is created when we move out of tandem with ma’at, but that metaphor is flawed too. And speaks way too closely to the myth of the Fall from Eden.

See what I mean about needing a different worldview than the one my culture gave me?

At any rate, wrestling with the concept of ma’at and what it means in living my life is something that feels grounding, feels needed in my life. I’m not always sure if I believe in the gods and ritual can be an emotional disappointment and I don’t even know if I LIKE most of my ancestors enough to talk with them, but how I should live and act in this world? That’s something I’m always going to care about no matter what shape my religion takes.

Month of the Akhu

November is a whirlwind of a month. The academic year is ramping up, which affects both my own coursework and my responsibilities at the college library that employs me. One volunteer position ended for the year while another looks like it’s just beginning. I’m recovered (mostly) from a nasty double infection that put me in bed for ten days, but now I’m experiencing recurring back pain and a general malaise.

Beyond my own problems — which always seem so small to me, until I remember they most certainly affect my spiritual life — November is undoubtably the Month of the Akhu. We come into the month on the tails of Halloween and then Samhain, which I think will always hold a special place in my heart no matter what tradition I follow. Día de los Angelitos and Día de los Muertos follow, this year coinciding with the Procession of Nebt-het. Not long after we see Veterans Day, Armistice Day, and Remembrance Day. In a few short weeks, Kemetic polytheists will observe the Wesir Mysteries. All of these festivals and observances, whether solemn or celebratory or a mix of the two, honor our ancestors and serve as a gentle yet implacable memento mori for the living. We are alive because our Ancestors once were and we continue to receive their blessings and guidance because they have gone west and become part of the canopy of stars above us.

Remembrance Day

I think there’s something beautiful about the symbols we use to honor our dead: blooming flowers, everlasting stars, flickering candlelight. Our Ancestors may be dead, but that doesn’t mean they’re inert. Whatever we believe comes after our physical death, those who have crossed that threshold before us still impact our lives on a daily basis. Their memory, words, actions, and deed — good, bad, and indifferent — continue echoing through their descendants, through the lives of the people they touched, through communities who will not be able to fill the them-shaped hole they left behind.

In Kemetic iconography the Akhu are shown as stars within Nut’s body, always watching over the living from the nighttime sky. Not only are the Akhu part of Nut’s celestial form, but She and they surround and protect the living.

Nut, the Akhu, and the Living

There is comfort here, a promise that death does not remove us from the protective arms of Netjer. That what is loved, what is named, what is remembered persists — even beyond the realm of death. It may be residual thinking from ADF theology, but I see this as a promise of and gentle admonition for future giving. Our Akhu gave us life, language, culture, handing the earth over to us to cultivate on our own terms. We in turn remember them through prayers, offerings, and libations, returning a flow of gifts. They in turn continue to bestow upon us blessings, guidance, and love, so that we might give in return… and so our relationship is reciprocal and cyclical, like most best things are. We take care of our Akhu the way we take care of our loved ones still physically present on earth, and we hope that one day we, too, are remembered beyond the grave.

Egyptian Hieroglyphic clipart symbol for star or night, Click here to get more Free Clipart at ClipartPal.com

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