Flamekeeping and Healing

Note: this blog post discusses hazing that happened some years ago. While it doesn’t go into specifics, please be aware if this is a trigger for you as it is for me.

This is the second shift cycle for the Clann Bhride Cill. I’ve never started a Flamekeeping Cill before, though I’ve belonged to the one at the Cauldron for a few years before the launch of Clann Bhride last year. I still belong to the Cauldron Cill; in fact, I even scheduled my shift on the Clann Bhride Cill to be the same as the Cauldron Cill, to make sure I wasn’t overwhelmed with devotional work. But Brighid has a sense of humor (or maybe I just have a sense of duty) and I picked up an extra shift to cover when someone left. As you do. So as I end one shift tonight, I know that tomorrow night at sundown I will begin my second shift and continue the work started over the past 24-hours.

This shift cycle was especially important because of where it falls. Those of you following along at home know that February is an awful time for me because of hazing I faced at my first undergraduate school. Though I try not to know anymore exactly when the school does its Hell Week anymore, I found out anyway that it was this past week, culminating on Friday, and that my shift the next day would be tinted with that. I was a little distressed, I won’t lie; there’s always a knot of panic around this particular traumaversary. But it is amazing what changes in a year. I have done a lot over the past several months in purging this pain and guilt from my heart. I have distance; I have clarity; I have age, and with it some degree of wisdom. I’m not the same eighteen- and nineteen-year-old student surrounded by peer pressure. I wouldn’t make the same choices I made years ago.

Most importantly, I’ve spoken up about my experience and been able to get this poison out of my system. Allowing myself to heal, forgiving myself, and making sure that I have a phenomenally wonderful life despite what happened to me in my past, has been anything but easy. Yet when I think of this past weekend – perhaps the least pained and troubled I’ve been in since my own hazing in 2009 – I know that I’ve made progress. I can see it; I can feel it. I’m the person I am today because of my trauma, yes, but more so I’m who I am today because I got through it. Everything from my feminism to my religious preferences to how I think about community and consent comes from this experience.

Which brings us back to Brighid, and Flamekeeping, and this particular shift that ended some hours ago. The weather outside yesterday was horrendous, as it was for much of the eastern half of the United States; it snowed for fifteen straight hours and left over a foot and a half of snow, which is particularly dangerous in a mountainous region like ours. And yet today the temperatures soared into the low 50s, much of the snow melted, and I went outside in just a t-shirt to soak up the first sun in weeks.

Today was glorious and amazingly, almost ridiculously symbolic.

Keeping Brighid’s flame is the one regular devotional act I perform for my goddess. From sundown to sundown I literally (with a seven-day jar candle) or figuratively (with a special bracelet only worn on my shifts) watch over a flame that represents the same fire St. Brigit tended at Her abbey so many hundreds of years ago. I sing, I pray, I clean up Her altar and the rest of my room, and I do Her Work. As a goddess of healing and justice, I’d say that I’ve been in Her arms for a long, long time, possibly since before I realized Who She was. Every shift, even those I forget to keep, I can see the progress I’ve made and the subtle changes manifesting in my life. Just since the previous shift I’ve applied for a full-time job and given a talk at the local UU congregation about Brighid. And sometime in the next shift cycle, I look forward to seeing some beans sprout that I planted just today.

Following the symbolism of today – rebirth and coming through the darkness and just wanting it to be spring already – I planted seeds: two dozen marigolds, one dozen slicer tomatoes, and one dozen green beans. It was good to be outside in the sun and even better to have my hands in the dirt. This time last year, torn apart by the dissolution of my first serious relationship, I’d been too bereft to care about the garden I wanted to cultivate. Now I have two egg crates full of soil and seeds, resting by a south-facing window in my room.

I haven’t celebrated Imbolc in years, precisely because it coincides with the month of my traumaversary, but even the part of me that’s just logic and skepticism has to admit that Brighid coming into my life when She did, the way She did, and being Who She is, is a wonderful twist of fate. The goddess I love has Her most sacred festival in my month of sorrows. The goddess I love is a protector of women – and though I am trans and not always or exactly a woman, my hazing happened at a woman’s college at the hands of women in the name of sisterhood – and a dispenser of justice and judgment. While I’m not arrogant enough to think She personally fixed me wholesale, nor disparaging enough of myself to think I had nothing to do with my own changes, I acknowledge and am so grateful for the fact She has stayed with me through my transformations. I am not the person I was when I first prayed to the Lady of the Stars in late 2010. And for that, I am truly thankful.

From heart to hearth I pass this flame ’til next I tend it in Your name.

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The State of the Sage

Good Lords and Ladies (does that sound too pretentious? I feel like that might be too pretentious) it’s been a long time since I actually blogged for Sage and Starshine instead of just reblogging content I’d written elsewhere. Let’s recap what I’ve been up to in the past few months.

Library Stuff

I’m in my final calendar year of my MLIS (Masters of Library and Information Science) and will be graduating next December/January with my expensive piece of paper that says I’m a real live library adult and can be paid real live adult money. I’m both excited and terrified at the same time.

This semester I’m in Multimedia Production, which builds on an earlier class on web design. Our final project will be a website that functions as our online business card of sorts. Fun fact: Holly Black (yes, the Holly Black, and if you don’t know who she is drop everything in your life and go to your local public library’s YA section and check out all her books) took this exact class in my exact university in 2002 and her final project is still used as an example of building a cool website. That practically makes me royalty, right? Here’s the first project I turned in this week, which is just a basic site to house my analysis of another website. I’m so ridiculously proud you have no idea.

My other class is Social Informatics which is, among other things, the field that studies how society and technology interact. It’s mostly a fun class, though I am frustrated by the number of older students and sources that are technophobic and complain about what the Milleannials and Homelanders are doing with their Googles and their YouTubes. One interview we listened to put technology at the opposite end of the spectrum from spirituality, which is of course bullshit. My religious life is plenty technological and vice versa. I like to stir up trouble in class.

Also, I’ve applied for a full-time position at a local(ish) library! I’m crossing fingers and toes.

Brighid Stuff

Last month, Clann Bhride started its own Flamekeeping Cill. I’m really excited about this and the growing Clann Bhride community on Facebook. I tend to go through cycles with my Brigidine practice; it’s been on the quiet side recently, but I’ve come to realize the embers never really go out. I often think of myself as a “Brighid kid,” not so much in that I’ve been chosen to be Her child, but in that Our relationship is always open and I’m welcome to come home whenever I want. It’s a comforting position to be in.

On Imbolc I gave the sermon at my local Unitarian Universalist congregation on Brighid and St. Brigit. It was pretty anxiety-inducing for me and I feel like I flubbed it, but the folks who talked with me after the service said I did well and no one could tell I was nervous. It’s so difficult to condense Who This Goddess Is in a twenty-minute slideshow presentation with Q&A afterward. It did have me think about how to communicate my ideas to a non-Pagan or non-polytheist audience. The UUA is a liberal religious organization but one that also has a strong intellectual, sometimes humanist or theologically secular bent. I actually find it easier to talk with my Baptist mother about my deity beliefs than I do folks who are largely nontheistic. (Not that talking with Mom is always easy; this past Christmas she told me she wished I’d reconsider Christianity. My insistence that I was a polytheist and couldn’t/didn’t want to make Christianity work for me didn’t really make a dent.)

It also reminds me of a conversation I had with a close friend of mine who’s a secular humanist. She’s known I’ve been Pagan for years, and we both actually met when we were evangelical teenagers who were Totally Christian and Totally Straight. (That didn’t last.) I realized that she didn’t realize that many Pagans and polytheists literally believe in the gods. It was… awkward. Not that she was disrespectful – she’s always been very supportive of me, which is why we’re friends 13 years later – but it was disquieting to explain my thoughts about Brighid.

It’s easy to be outwardly religious because I do go to a church (just not a Christian one) and we have things like sermons and hymns and meet on Sunday mornings at 11 AM. Oftentimes I can pass as Christian without overtly lying about it, which is a boon in this part of the state. I just also get frustrated at lacking my awesome online community in the physical world. What I wouldn’t give for Wednesday night prayer circle and spaghetti dinners for Brighid, you know?

Otherfaith Stuff

I’ve really enjoyed the past few months getting to know the Otherfaith community. Recently I started blogging on a mostly weekly basis on Of the Other People. What I love most about the Otherfaith is the emphasis on values like consent and personal autonomy, and the fact we value stories and modern folklore as a way to understand a pantheon of gods and spirits. Being part of a modern religious tradition is freeing, in many ways; there’s no Lore to creep around, no ancient traditions to care about resurrected, no cultural appropriation to avoid. Aine, the founder of the Otherfaith, has also made it explicitly clear that those of us without mystic bents have just as much ability to understand the gods and contribute to the faith. She’s been wonderful about answering questions and letting me bounce ideas off her at all hours of the day. Being able to write mythology and meet the gods that way is freeing and empowering.

Right now I have two half-finished myths. The first is about Epiphany, a spirit of books, knowledge, and chance, and her relationship with the Clarene, founder of the West. The second is about the Ophelene, a goddess of retributive justice, and the holiday of Reunion.

Speaking of Reunion – which is held from Dec 25 to December 31 – I had a really good time celebrating it with the Otherfaith community this past December. I’ve got a small project in the works of collecting the Reunion essays and poetry we all created and publishing a free, spiffy-looking PDF to showcase our work.

Sunrise Goddess

I see You in the early hours of the morning when I wake up before my alarm

Or when I roll over and hit the snooze button one too many times

Or when I wake up unable or unwilling to get back to sleep

When the house is cool and dark

When the light through the shades is still watery, weak

When darkness pulls back from the land like a lover

Reluctant to leave the warm embrace of her beloved

Soft and slow, taking its own sweet time

Dawn begins its careful ascent above the tops of the mountains

My mountains

Peaks long since rounded and softened with the weariness of age

Trees catching the golden light one leaf at a time

 

You are the scalding coffee and the sizzle of bacon

The bright sunshiney eggs and the tiny furry head

Belonging to the not so tiny dog (not anymore, at least)

Who rests her head in my lap hoping for a scrap or two

Or six or six dozen

Thoughtfully dropped from my breakfast plate

You are the morning paper and the rumble of school buses

The chorus of birdsong that speaks in a language of territory

And mating and family and migration and life

 

You are the diurnal insects beginning to stir with life-giving

UV rays finally spilling down into our valley

Lighting up the flowers like neon signs

You are the little brown bats returning to their roosts

Softly chirruping to each other as they settle in barns

Steeples and attics and rafters and belfries

You are the luna moth and the firefly 

Curled up now in safety until the return of the moon

 

You are the glorious warmth of the heavens

The riot of life even in the middle of winter

The force that turns the flowers to the sun

You are the ripening of the dogwood berries

The long-awaited frost on the pumpkin

The morning glories and hummingbird bush

Curled happily along lampposts and wheelbarrows

In a haphazard spill of color and scent

 

You are my cup of coffee doing battle

With sleep still nipping at my heels

You are the whisper of a dream-fueled haze

Pushing me across the threshold of my home

And into the startlingly clear light of day.

Tending Brighid’s Flame: Flamekeeping Shift Ideas

It’s my flamekeeping shift again for the Cauldron Cill and I wanted to share a brainstormy list of things to do when it’s time to keep Brighid’s flame. Flamekeeping is, by its nature, already an act separate from everyday life; once every twenty days I light a candle, sing songs, and wear jewelry that remain untouched and unused the other nineteen days of the shift cycle. However, I cannot and don’t wish to spend an entire 24-hour period in deep, spiritual contemplation and communion with Brighid, if for no other reason than life goes on and I don’t want to miss it by literally tending an open flame between sundown and sundown. Also because psychologically and spiritually speaking, my focus doesn’t work that way. I cannot be engaged all the time. I doubt many of us can. After all, I’m not a trained priest(ess) but instead a layperson looking to work more closely with Brighid on my own terms and on my own turf. As much as I am drawing closer to Brighid through the honor of tending Her flame once a cycle, I’m also inviting Brighid to draw closer to me. And my life, such as it is in this very moment, is as much a part of my flamekeeping practice as the literal candle flame to mark Brighid’s presence.

I’ve been inspired by the Puzzle of Life with Religion Worksheet over at Fluid Morality, which encourages practitioners (of any faith tradition) to seek religion in the mundane areas of our lives and to see those same mundane areas as something already sacred. In that spirit I’ve started a list of things to do during a flamekeeping shift. (Obviously not all during one shift. There’s a lot in there!) Some suggestions are more traditionally religiousy, like reciting prayer and reading myths. Others I’ve pulled from my own experience of incorporating Brighid’s Work into my own life. I expect this list to grow – and, perhaps with time, I hope to go into more detail with each item on the list.

 

Things to Do While Keeping Brighid’s Flame (a list)

  1. Pray
  2. Read myths
  3. Meditate
  4. Housework
  5. Homework (yes, it can be sacred too)
  6. Cook
  7. Bake
  8. Spend time with animals
  9. Engage in self-care
  10. Volunteer
  11. Donate time/money/goods to a food pantry
  12. Get crafty (especially things like knitting, weaving, or quilting)
  13. Reach out to friends and family
  14. Write. Write all the things.
  15. Visit a body of water
  16. Listen to music
  17. Memorize and recite poetry
  18. Create art or music
  19. Talk with other Brighid kids
  20. Research your family tree
  21. Study a social justice issue

 

Those are just what popped into my head after two minutes of brainstorming. Can you think of anything else? What do you do during a flamekeeping shift?

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.

Flamekeeping for 11/26/12

I belong to Cauldron Cill, a flamekeeping group (no, not that kind of Flamekeeping) dedicated to the Gaelic goddess Brighid. Known by many names – the Scottish Bride, the Continental Brigantia, the Catholic St. Brigit – Brighid is a fiery triple goddess of healing, smithcraft, and poetry, the flames of inspiration as well as the fires that burn brightly in every home’s hearth. In a flamekeeping group, members take rotating shifts over a 20-day period to keep Brighid’s flame – lighting candles, saying prayers, perhaps wearing special jewelry – with the Lady Herself taking the shift on the 20th day. Last night my shift began, and a few hours ago it ended. And wouldn’t you know, I have some experiences and musings I’d like to share with you.

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