the most ordinary magic

by Sarah Twichell

I spent last week at my family’s cabin on the St. Lawrence Seaway. It has a tiny kitchen with an electric stove whose best quality is that it functions, and the running water isn’t potable, but it’s beautiful – for me, almost archetypically so. I woke up every morning to the boughs of a pine tree outside my bedroom windows, and they’re the same ones I’ve seen every morning up here since I was old enough to get a separate bedroom from my sister. When it is cloudy, as it is today, the water looks flat and grey in a particular way that is completely familiar to me. When it is sunny, I know exactly how it sparkles. Although I have no sense of direction normally, in this place, the knowledge of which way is north is as sure as a compass. In short, this place is one of my homes, a landscape so familiar that it feels burned into my heart.

From my office, I often take a walk at lunch, up behind an office building and past a river, then around to see a pond on the other side of the road. I count swans and kayaks. This, too, is familiar: the house with the gate like a tree branch, the spot where the men play chess on the hood of a car, the place where there’s a lilac whose blossoms hang over the road in May.

This is the most ordinary magic in the world: our feet cross a place over and over – whether it’s most days for a year or most years for decades – and slowly, we come to belong to that place. We don’t need any special techniques or well-honed skills, or any traditions other than those we make ourselves. In a world where things move quickly and it’s easy to feel adrift, this is how we make places where we feel rooted, connected, grounded. And as we return to these places, we return to our own inner quiet, to a measured motion as reliable as the turning of a clock or a monk praying liturgical hours. To ourselves.

Spirituality into Action: Finding My Pagan Values

by Sarah Twichell

Values are a bridge. They connect our spiritual practice to our actions in the world, helping us to discern what to do in big and small ways. While they are often called upon in political debates and named in the kinds of issues that polarize our society, they’re also active in our lives. When we live in accordance with our values, we feel we are acting with integrity; when we are confused about what to do, they’re a compass that can help us figure it out.

Because paganism is so firmly rooted in individual experiences of the sacred, it can be hard to identify anything we might have in common. But I think there may be a few things, and in that spirit, I offer up a few of my pagan values, as a starting point for a discussion.

Walking lightly on the Earth
My first devotional relationship was not with a god or spirit, but with the Earth itself, whose body literally supports me every moment of every day. I honor the cycles of the Earth through ritual, through my garden and cooking, and with my magic. I honor the body of the Earth by striving to live sustainably: by eating food from the area where I live, by recycling and reusing to reduce trash, by trying to avoid plastic and reduce energy consumption. Of course, there are a thousand ways to do this, and it’s often difficult to know how to even start, but for me, the important thing is to keep moving in the right direction.

Celebrating interdependence
One of the things I am most awed by in the natural world is the complex relationships between its parts. Our lives are intertwined with the lives of everything around us, from the microbes in our dirt to the animals in our neighborhoods to the air flowing in the jet stream. When I distance myself from these things or reduce my understanding of them to the mechnical, the world no longer calls on my compassion. When I nurture and celebrate those connections, on the other hand, I build the kind of network of relationships that sustains all of its members.

Honoring each other
If the sacred is in the world, as most pagans believe, it is in each of us. If that is so, there is no place in the world for racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, or discrimination based on physical ability, body type, gender, religion, choice of clothing… we could go on and on. Of course, it is also true that all of us harbor the seeds of discrimination, not because we are bad people, but because these seeds are ingrained in the culture we live in. It is my job, I believe, to search for those seeds in myself, to apologize when they cause me to treat someone badly or to speak offensively, and to be as much of an ally as I can to people who suffer more directly than I do from these forms of discrimination.

Honoring our passions
If we carry the spark of the sacred within us, the way it gets from us into the world is through our passion. It’s so easy to write these passions off as impractical or unworthy — or to write ourselves off as selfish, undeserving, or doomed to starve on the street. To me, understanding my passion as a manifestation of the sacredness of the world lets me trust myself and my desires more deeply, and helps me see the beauty in other people’s passion as well.

I could go on and on with this list, but I’m curious to hear from you! How does your spiritual practice lead to your values? How do those values show up in your life?

(photo by fetopher, Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license)

Pondering the magic of containers

by Mark Girard

So I have an overwhelming attraction to two things: striking things to see what sound they make and pondering the magic of containers. Now discovering the percussive qualities of solid objects is an exciting topic, but it is the latter that I wish to discuss.

See, everything is a container of some form or another. I am a container of thoughts, blood, and air; the Sun contains heat, light, and thermonuclear reactions; the Earth contains all of our shared experiences; and the Universe is a container of infinite possibility. It is the label that defines them that is of interest to me. I can say ‘sphere’ and ponder the inherent qualities of sphere-ness, but if I label that sphere a planet it invites a wonderful thought experiment. How big? Is it a gas giant or terrestrial? Does it have life? Do those life forms play drums? It is the strength and shortcoming of our brain that we need labels to identify the objects and experiences in our lives if we are to retain and share them with others. I have no way other than language to express my ideas to you the reader. And the words I choose to construct this essay are in themselves a factor in the challenge of constructing descriptive containers. Even if we share the same language our differing experiences flavor the event in a way where mere words fall short. Even when we are in agreement about the meaning of a word, each of us carries a meta-meaning.

So let us limit our thought experiment to a single object: fire. Aside from its mundane functionality of heat and light, it has been ascribed values that are less quantifiable; properties that are alchemical in nature. If we focus on the property of transformation, we find that the metaphysical concept of change eschews containment. Our differing experiences illustrate the challenge in ascribing descriptive language to magical experiences. Even when we partake in a similar event, say being present around a fire, what happens to me may not be what happens for you. You may have a deeply profound moment of perfect bliss, I may just get bit by a mosquito. Even though we share a moment in time–that of being around the fire–the events that transpire within that container are vastly different. It is precisely the difference of the shared moment that makes it both powerful and meaningful. My connection to that fire is as uniquely singular to me as your experience is to you but it is no more or less valid.

So why is it then that we sometimes choose to diminish another’s spiritual experience as less rich, less potent? Are we elevating our own path as the one with a deeper truth? Are we afraid that we may be unsure of our own connection to that which we consider divine? Could it be that the container that we often create that holds the mysteries of the universe no longer serves but we still cling to what we know rather than face the uncontainable unknown? I don’t have an answer, nor do I wish to find one; for I am a fool on the fools journey and that is a rich enough container for me.