What’s in a Name

Several years ago I participated in a course of focused education offered by a local kink-oriented group. I chose to participate for several reasons  and found it educational in several ways, not all of which were necessarily positive. Near the end of my time with this group, one woman – ostensibly in a leadership position – chose to challenge us on the topic of names. Though I suppose her reasons for doing so were grounded in some sort of altruistic aspiration, that aspiration was also tinged with a deep ribbon of selfish desire for control and leverage.

Names in the BDSM and kinky communities have some similarities to names in the greater Pagan and polytheist communities. We choose the names we use in these circles to represent something very particular about ourselves and to communicate with our peers in a way that is specifically meaningful to us individually and us in a community sense. Names are also a safeguard against being outed and against plain old social awkwardness when two radically different spheres of our lives collide.

Though this instructor’s desire to help us strip away false fronts and confront our emotionally authentic selves was, in its own way, altruistic, it was driven by a desire for private knowledge. There are some people in this world who love a secret. They love to hold it and cherish it like it’s some kind of hidden treasure saved up against a day when a secret will be needed to leverage some advantage. And that’s exactly what this woman was doing. Her desire for our secret names was about much more than the moment we were sharing in this discussion.

This kind of behavior is actually quite familiar to transpeople. Though anyone who has deliberately chosen a name for themselves later in life might well face this sort of conflict, there is a particular malevolence surrounding the extraction of a “real” name from a transperson. Even if the coaxing is sweet, gentle, covered in lovely sentiment, the desire and the attempts to draw it out is virtually always at the expense of the person whose name is being challenged.

These attempts at naming are weird, rude, intrusive, and in my case at least, spiritually violent.

Many years ago I had a different name. Someone gave it to me and it stuck firmly in place. Even if it sounded strange sometimes and if I couldn’t mentally grasp its contours if I thought about it too hard, it was mine and I knew that fact when I heard it. I could encounter it written and that little cerebral jump of recognition would result. I knew what that word meant. It meant me.

Nearly ten years ago I took a basket of baked goods to Helheim. I handed it to Garm and continued on my way. Not much later I was laying on the hard rocky soil of the grey-brown-red underworld with an enormous spear stuck through my chest. My eyes were plucked out by slender white hands. I bled out and died.

My physical body woke up and I was empty. The meat was electrified but there was nothing inside. I seconds I was asleep and I don’t remember dreaming.

What followed were several years of slowly, painfully, gradually learning the finer points of embodiment. I learned how to reoccupy the mortal world and tried to get my spirit to fit my body. The mental journal of those years were exceptionally painful, not the least because My Lord was absent for a long period. I wasn’t the same person that had gone to sleep. I had woken up different. I didn’t recognize the memories in my head even if they were attached to me. The best metaphor I was ever able to come up with was that of inheriting an enormous and richly furnished mansion that had belonged to an elderly aunt I never even knew existed and it was suddenly my job to handle all her things after her passing.

Of all the things lost and found during that transition, perhaps the strangest and most fundamental was the loss of the name. I didn’t have one. Hearing it was the worst, most cutting insult, the most alien and inappropriate sound ever made. It slid off, bounced off, simply dropped away from my psychic person.

I tried on different names in my head but none of them quite fit, either. I discussed all this with the Lady In Question, who had conducted me through this exchange, who had taken my brown eyes and given me gold ones, who lurked in the corner like a lonely hologram when all other Powers went away. I knew I had to earn a name but that was the only guidance I was given.

I did, eventually. I pursued the course set in front of me and as soon as I took the first definitive step, I was given a name. And I knew that name was me and I knew that I was that name. It stuck firmly and would cut through any surrounding volume of sound and yank my attention. I would see it in writing and my eyes would flick to it; I knew it deeply and I recognized it.

I earned it. It was mine.

So when this unpleasant woman demanded my real name, I told her. She said no, and I said yes. I knew what my name was. I had earned it. The goddess of death and rebirth, of rot and renewal had given it to me. Anything less than that was a false front, a matrix for engagement in systems that would crumble into dust while Her appellation remained.

Today the name doesn’t work quite so well. As My Lady giveth, she taketh away. When I was kicked out of the company for failing at some task, she took the passcodes and protocols that let me journey with relative freedom and safety. All company property was revoked, including my name. It still functions in a very limited way but each time it’s spoken I hear the inauthentic quality behind it. No one believes it. No one believes it. It’s a hollow noise, not much better than any other word. But I still recognize it in writing. I see it on the page and I still know myself.

Last week Facebook took my name away. It took away the face I use to interact with a large portion of my social world. I hadn’t even wanted an account in the first place but in college I had a leadership position in the queer kids’ club and I needed to use whatever social media was most popular so I made an account. That was in 2008. For seven years I’ve used FB without ever being challenged on a first and last name that are both incredibly silly.

But see, it wasn’t just Facebook that took my name away. It was someone who decided that my name was inauthentic, unreal, false, contrived. Someone took it upon themselves to police the naming of others, to judge if our names – whether earned, given, or chosen – were real or not. Someone did this to me.

This isn’t the first time that someone has felt entitled to decide which name of mine is real. It won’t be the last. I accept My Lady’s right to give and revoke; I’m subject to Her decisions of what name of mine is real or not. Currently none are. That’s my own fault and my own problem. As far as human-level engagement is concerned, the name is still valid. It’s still real.

I miss my FB account because I miss my friends, their pictures, and their pets. I miss what they’re up to. I miss the convenience of knowing which social events I’ll be too tired to go to and I miss staying in touch with people who live a long way from me. But I lived many years without FB and I will live many more years without it. It is not necessary even if it is rather convenient. (It’s also an enormous time-sink!)

My relationship with names is somewhat unique and I imagine that the story of my name is not over yet. Maybe someday I’ll even earn it back. In the meantime, I don’t get to forget the complexity of the authentic and the desire of others to control the deployment of authenticity. I just shrug and know that when they and their systems are dust the fact of my naming will remain.

Who He Is

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A couple recent posts by friends (specifically Beth’s “What do you seek from the divine?” and Heather’s “The Pagan Experience: Gebo”) got me thinking about who Loki is to me. That’s a very complicated subject and is actually one that’s difficult to talk about. For all that He is the center of my emotional and spiritual life, He doesn’t really make an appearance in a blog that’s primarily about my emotional and spiritual life. That’s because He is part of my most private life and this blog is as public a face as I’m comfortable having – on many days it’s more public than I’m comfortable with. But as a recent tarot reading reminded me, I am not the hidden hermit scholar. Or at least, I’m not only that.

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Welcoming Dead Folks (Reblog of “Appealing to your ancestors”)

I’m very glad Beth chose to share this post when she did. This subject has been on my mind for a little while and the words finally fell into place today.

For a long time, ancestor work simply wasn’t a big part of my practice. It was really almost non-existent. I knew it was important but I simply didn’t get any feeling from them. They didn’t seem present or accessible the way that other people seemed to experience their ancestors. When I graduated and finally moved out of the dorms, I had the space to set up an ancestor altar and so I did. I still didn’t have a strong sense of who my ancestors were but I figured that they did. I prepared a hospitable space and sent out an invitation.

The ancestors that showed up were a particular segment of the transsexual and gender variant dead and a handful of old women. The gender variant dead who settled in were all sex workers on what we’d now refer to as the MtF spectrum. They were quite responsive to the liquor and cigarettes I had on the altar. The old women were less distinct; I simply saw them sweeping a floor, endlessly. They were less responsive but always there.

These members of my ancestral altar are very dear to me but I suspect they’re part of my extended spiritual and cultural tribe rather than my blood relations (and whatever, I’m happy to offer hospitality; my ancestral altar is set up for that sort of thing). The idea of having a strong relationship with my ancestral forces was still complicated, no doubt because I don’t really have a firm idea of who I am. I don’t know how I fit into my greater family tree and I don’t know how they have brought me to the point I am today. I have no doubt that my ambivalence about ancestral work is related to my ambivalence about my ancestry and about how that ancestry shapes my place in the world today. This is a big subject and not really what I want to talk about right now.

Last fall my ancestral altar was a little more elaborate than usual and I made an extra effort to really call out. I still didn’t know exactly who might show up – but when I saw them, I knew who they were.

There were dozens, maybe hundreds of them, walking steadily together over the western mountains through the night sky towards me. Their long road opened up across my salt desert valley and they stepped into my home. I had so little and they were so many. I’m still quite speechless at the memory of that sight.

**

These experiences have helped me feel more connected to ancestor work but a connection to *them* still eludes me. The boozy sex workers are less present than they used to be and those who visited during their long walk moved on after just a few days. However, in the last little while I’ve gotten some very clear signals that my paternal grandmother is now a spiritual force in my life.

This is strange. To start with, I don’t expect her to be here. I expect her to be off in the blessed arms of Jesus. I don’t expect her to be hanging out with a failed transsexual spirit worker who gets itchy inside churches. I don’t expect her to be spending time with a pierced and tattooed weirdo who’s surrounded with chaos n death. I really don’t expect her to be taking an active and personal interest in me. I don’t get it; nothing about myself fits with what I know about her or her life or her faith.

And see, here’s where I make the same mistake that a lot of people seem to make when it comes to ancestors.mary17

I expect my grandmother’s spirit to be the same as her body. I expect her afterlife to be based entirely on her physical life. I expect her spiritual path to be fundamentally incompatible with mine. I expect her Powers to be at odds with mine. Above all, I expect that her Catholicism is bad, icky, gross, contaminate, and not-Pagan.

Most polytheists seem to be on board with the idea that our ancestors have the power to influence our lives. Further, there’s the frequent half-stated assumption that if they weren’t some variety of pagan/polytheist, then they wouldn’t want us praying with/to them. In any discussion of ancestor veneration there’s the question of “well, what if they were’t polytheist? What if they were some kind of icky Christian? Do we really have to venerate them, too?” Well, no, we don’t. You don’t have to do anything. There’s no polytheist pope or piety possum gonna bite your nose if you don’t. You’ll just be missing out, is all.

I had a long hot bath with myself and wondered – really, really wondered – what precise harm would be done by allowing my dead gramma’s Catholicism to influence my life. Because it is, no doubt about it. I’ve been bonked on the head with Blessed Virgin Mary stuff for, uh, long enough that I’m finally starting to pay attention and connect it with this particular relative. It’s really only been 10 months or so but the incidents are pointed enough that I kinda have to pay attention.

As a polytheist – and more importantly, as a spirit worker – I can’t really say that one Power’s influence is better than another. If anything, having a big team cheering you on and helping out is for the best. There are no doubt Powers that I get along better with, Powers who I find most compatible with my goals, and Powers who I find challenging to work with – but none of that actually has anything to do with them and their value. All of these judgment calls are about me.

So – What am I so afraid of? What about these new contacts is negative? Well, nothing really. Powers do not belong to the tradition(s) that honor them; traditions are built by humans (with the help of some divine inspiration). Traditions therefore are part of human-level concerns. I can’t really attribute the problems of dogma, theology, and practice to the deities themselves anymore than I can blame Loki for hanging out with people who are sometimes asshole troublemakers. Human-level problems.

This is what happens when you play with ancestors. Your shit is called in a very obvious, very direct way. You are forced to grow past the artificial limits you’ve created for yourself. You are offered relationships that require the release of prejudice, preconceptions, and assumptions. And all of these things are very good things.

Witching As I Go

In a recent Immersive Reading I did for a client regarding a problematic spirit relationship, one of the potential solutions that came up for dealing with her situation was to appeal to her ancestors and the gods of her bloodline for assistance. Since she had questions about this, I’m thinking other people out there might, too.

Yes, I know the topic of ancestor work can be a controversial one in the pagan community, because so many of us have deceased family members we wouldn’t call on if it was the last option open to us. For example, if your late Uncle Mort was a child molester, chances are you don’t really want to be inviting him into your home. Also, as many of us are first generation pagans in monotheistic families, we might feel alienated by some of our immediate ancestors, feeling that they can’t possibly share very much with…

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Powers in my life: Saint Death (Pagan Experience Project Feb week 3)

santamuertaLooking back over my blog I’m noticing a very heavy emphasis on the Hindu side of things, which might suggest that this is a dominant force in my religious life. It’s actually not, at least not on a day to day basis. There are some devotions and observances I maintain and I’ll eventually get to those but at most I regard myself as a student of this collection of traditions, not as a member or participant.

I’ll start by talking about the Power in my life with the most controversy. Interestingly enough, that Power is not Loki.

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Petition As Magic; Petition Is Magic

In my mind, I’ve had this rather clear distinction between prayer and magic. Prayer is a private conversation between you and a Power. That conversation might be celebrating that Power, thanking them, praising them, asking for their assistance, expressing your fears and concerns, or just touching in. It’s characterized by communication.

Magic, specifically spell work, is also expressive but less nebulous in its purpose. Magic (spell work) is intended to get shit done. Instead of talking to someone, you go out and take care of business. The spell worker draws upon personal skill, the ability to move energy around, and a high degree of problem solving ability in order to bring about their desired outcome. Though there are instances when spells and prayers might be very similar in form, in my mind these two things work best when they’re fairly distinct. To me, calling spell work “just another word for praying” was rather missing the point of both activities, but to each their own.

Recently though I’ve been rolling around a new perspective on both these activities. The ability to get your ideas across, to communicate clearly and meaningfully with the Powers, and the confidence that help will be forthcoming are all important parts of prayer. Praying is in its own way a magical skill. It’s the power of petition. Anyone can pray, just like anyone can do magic. However, saying a prayer does not make you a pray-er any more than doing magic makes you a magician. Time, effort, and a good relationship with the relevant Powers are also important.

There are Powers for whom prayer is magic. They are easily petitioned and respond rapidly. Some people are exceptionally good at achieving outcomes through prayer. Some people are able to become exceptionally good at it. All this means that the same ethical guidelines that apply to one’s magical practice must be applied to any practice of prayer that might be undertaken.

Prayer is not necessarily “safe” or “harmless”; ask anyone whose family members have tried to pray their gay away, to pray away the perceived flaws of gender identity or expression, or for that person to return to the fold of a religion left behind. Prayers don’t simply just hang out in the universe doing nothing if some sacred mediator decides that that power isn’t needed. Your actions, including the energy you send out in the form of a prayer or petition for intervention, will have consequences.

Right now I’m thinking about sitting down at the bargaining table with a particular Power, one who likes prayers. Learning her prayers and then reciting them would incline this Lady towards my request. Her eagerness for this particular offering suggests that prayers do, in fact, have more value than we (I) might have ever imagined.

Letter to a New Spirit Worker (pt. II)

Dear You,

If the Powers and Potencies can be said to have one shared, defining characteristic, it might dynamism. Their ability to effect change manifests in more ways than we are even aware of, though we try to make sense of these sacred personalities by outlining the ways in which their dynamism is most obvious to us and our interests. This is why we say one Power is like lightening while another is like the slow inexorable pace of a glacier. This is why we say one Power is related to love spells and high wild windy places and tiny Shetland ponies and another is related to the depths of computer networks. It’s all just various avenues of potential change.

It’s helpful to remember that this dynamism is a naturally arising property of their being; they can’t not act and they can’t not cause change through their proximity. Sometimes they can be convinced to throw some weight behind a particular magickal working of ours but that’s more a matter of focusing sunlight through a pinhole than turning on a light. You’re not getting something new; you’re getting a focused measure of something that’s already there and active.

Since the Powers effect change and make things happen by virtue of their being, and not necessarily for any specific reason or motivation, we have to be cautious when assigning reason and motivation to them. The Powers have their own motivating concerns and those very rarely have anything to do with us. We as human beings are not likely to be their priority unless they’ve specifically chosen to get involved with us. Even then, but for a scant handful of savior-types, our human comfort and well-being is not a major concern. Do you care about one particular variety of crustacean endemic to a few volcanic islands? You probably care in a general sense of having concern for the welfare of the planet and you might have a more personal sense of concern if those volcanic islands happened to be near and dear to your heart for some reason but you do probably aren’t super concerned about the intimate struggles and concerns of these crustaceans on a day to day basis. Not because you’re a bad person, but just because you have other concerns occupying your mind.

The Powers are generally quite responsive to human attention and will reciprocate when approached with courtesy and kindness. However, you must never mistake affection for altruism. Your welfare is up to you. The Powers will help you and they will do so because maybe they like you and because maybe your goals are in line with their goals or maybe because they owe you a favor or maybe because they’re hoping that you’ll owe them a favor or maybe because you’re working on an interesting project and they want to get involved, or whatever. They will help you for a million and one reasons but not at the expense of other goals they have in mind.

They will, however, help you grow if you’re willing to take responsibility for your welfare and for your own decisions. Getting circumstances to transform into more a more harmonious arrangement is kinda what they do (see above). If you’re lucky and have a good working relationship with the Powers then this arrangement will have a harmony that strongly benefits you. If not, you’ll have to tough it out or maybe find a Power whose dynamism is more in line with yours.

A lot of people don’t want to step up to this responsibility. I know they don’t because I didn’t. I went through the same growing pains of developing a greater sense of spiritual and material maturity. I wanted the Gods or the lottery or a guru or *anyone* to come along and make life better for me – and by better, I meant easier. By better I meant simpler. By better I meant advantageous to me.

I got all this, but not the way I wanted. I got these things because I was given lots of practice taking care of myself. And life got better and easier and simpler and started providing more advantages for me. And yes, I had and still have a whole hell of a lot of help. The help that came my way made such a positive difference because I was already putting in effort on my own. The Gods can help with this but they can’t and won’t and don’t want to do it for you.

This isn’t a bootstrapping philosophy. This is more about recognizing your own power, your own worth, your own ability, and the utter dread power of your own responsibility. The power of choice and consequence is yours. By making choices with the weight of deliberate effort behind them, you can reap more potent consequences. Just make sure you’re actually choosing to do the things you want to do. There will always be unforeseen consequences; the only thing you can control is your ability to choose.

In an effort to make life easier and better and more advantageous people will sometimes shop around for answers. There are countless Powers and Potencies out there and each one of them has all the answers you could ever want to hear. Some of those answers might even be helpful and relevant. You must never bargain your autonomy for answers. Many Powers – even several who would be considered “good” or “benevolent” or “white hat” by those of us on the ground – will feed you answers till you burst just to get you on their team. It’s less work for them this way because you’ll be able to plug in their answers to every question and conflict you ever come up against.

Your number one loyalty has to be to yourself. I’m a Lokean, so I get to tell this particular secret. Any compromise on this point will turn your autonomy into an ante and you will loose the greater capacity for effecting change on your own terms. Without this greater capacity, you’ll never grow into the kind of worker you have the potential to be. And that’s fine – if that’s what you want. Is it?

All my love,

Me