I’m Still Here, But “BarkingShaman” Isn’t – Here’s Why

I wrote my first entry for this blog ten years, four months, and ten days ago. That first entry was titled “Welcome to Notes from a Barking Shaman” and touched on the odd contradictions that have, and continue, to make up my life. I was in the midst of my cycle of death and rebirth ordeals, our puppy Lilu was just ten weeks old, and earlier that day I had finalized plans to give a presentation on Tourette Syndrome for an elementary school a few hours away.

My life today looks at once radically different and remarkably similar to the one I was living when I sat down to pen that brief introduction to my new blog.

Among the differences, which you may have noticed already, is that as of last night this website and blog are no longer called “BarkingShaman.com” and “Notes From A Barking Shaman” respectively. The change has been a long time coming, and in keeping with the best traditions of this blog, I want to take some time to address why those changes have been made.

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My Summer’s Dawn

Summer's Dawn

The winter’s dark and cold have finally relinquished their hold on us, and not a moment too soon. Here in southern Maine, Beltane marks the turning point passed which snow, while not impossible, would at the least be a surprise, and wouldn’t last long.

We’re into the time between Beltane and Solstice, a fertile time for growth and beginnings. It’s a scary, but also exciting time in my own life right now. My day job, which I’m generally fond of doesn’t pay enough to cover my share of our bills. In six months, with my folks’ retirement, we will lose the generous financial support that has helped keep us afloat.

The pressure of needing to look for more income has forced me to finally actively pursue answers to some of my lifelong health issues, in the hope that new management strategies could make it easier for me to stay healthy enough for work.

It’s also led me to ask some of the really big and complex questions about who I am and where I want to go with my life and my Work. My Lady affords me quite a lot of freedom in many ways, and that freedom can be both heady and scary.

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Adrift And Looking For A Clue

There are days when I frankly have no clue whatsoever about what I’m doing.

Maybe I simply don’t have the right kind of faith, the right kind of relationship to deity, or maybe I’ve been delinquent on my payments and my god-phone has been shut off.

In the years since the dissolution of Asrik, Fire, and my partnership, I’ve frequently felt a lack of purpose or goal in my spiritual and magical work. Some of this was clearly driven by the faith-quake brought about by the complicated end of our relationship, (fun note: just as I was typing this sentence, REM’s “Loosing My Religion” came up on shuffle. Because subtlety isn’t really how my gods roll) although there was a lot more to it than that.

I spent a decade of my life working very hard in the pursuit of the aims that They had set me. First to become a dedicated and highly proficient magic and energy worker, and then to submit to, and persevere through the traumatic death and rebirth process that made me a shaman. Just before Asrik left, Fireheart and I both passed the final test to be consider Masters in our magical tradition (which is not the highest level of proficiency, but was a huge achievement). I came out the other side of my shamanic rebirth changed in ways that I’m still discovering, but confident that I had the tools and talents to begin working in earnest at the tasks the role entailed.

But then… nothing. Or so it seems at first blush.

 Just over two years ago we were given a clear directive from the Lady and Var: keep our heads down

That’s it. All She had to say on the subject, just keep our heads down.

There has been little of the familiar Work that shaped the preceding decade in the long intervening months. The vrescht that Tashrisketin claims here in Gorham has little need of our attentions, and while it doesn’t offer us much in the way of power, it meets our basic needs. There was some excitement for a couple of months when we were given a challenging magical task, one suitable for two Vreschtik masters, but once it was completed to the best of our abilities with the resources available to us, silence reigned again.

I journeyed to the Underworld a month ago, to the boarders of Helheim (I am forbidden from entering any boarded land of the Dead without escort) to carry a message. It felt good and right, but then the job was done and again I had no Work to do. Moreover, I know that I was rusty. No journey to the Underworld is safe, but this one was more dangerous for than it should have been for someone who always has one foot (or hand) in Death.

For his part, Fire’s task at the moment is personal, and deeply bound up in his own journey of destructive rebirth, as the hormones he takes weekly remake his body, and in many ways his mind as well, in to new patterns of being.

Into this silence, elements of the mundane world have flowed in. I have a paying (part-time) job that I love, and which puts me in a position to help shape and provide for spiritual/magical opportunities for a couple of thousand people a year (not that all of them avail themselves of said opportunities, but they are there). I’ve also slowly established a strong voice and position for myself as a blogger in the queer/LGBT community, something that feels incredibly important to me on a personal and spiritual level, but again doesn’t look anything like the “real” work my spirit-worker colleagues do.

Our relationship with our gods doesn’t look like a lot of people’s. In the absence of Work to do, keeping our heads down, we’ve often felt abandoned by Them. It doesn’t help that in many ways the community of spirit-work colleagues we once looked to for reciprocal support has largely shattered into jagged splinters that will cut you if you get to close. Aside from that loss of camaraderie, a lot of the Work we’ve done over the years has come out our interactions with other people and their gods. 

I had a meltdown this morning on the phone with my lover, fellow Clan member, and spirit-work colleague Del Tashlin. Fire lost his job yesterday, less than a week after he and I had gotten legally married, in part to provide for my health insurance needs. We’re facing more severe financial hardship than normal, and the physical, mundane things that make our lives feasible, like my glasses and his car are desperately in need of costly repairs. Some level of poverty has been our companion since our divorce from Asrik and the implosion of our failed design firm.

 And the truth is that I fucking hate it.

The overwhelming majority of my fellow-spirit workers I’ve talked to feel that poverty and deprivation are essential elements of being servants of the divine. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not asking for a Porsche in the driveway, although I doubt I’d say “no,” but I would love to not have to worry about our card being declined at the supermarket check-out line. Or lie awake at night wondering what the hell we’ll do if Fire’s right front wheel bearing catastrophically fails at 65mph.

Yet, for all that these things feel counter-productive to my spiritual health, the argument I’ve been hearing is that those very stressors are what makes one a spiritual being. The idea is that if our lives lacked these sorts of trials, we’d be distant from deity. Without the need to pray to the gods every time we get into Fire’s battered Toyota, the gods would not feel like imminent presences in our lives.

Which brings us back to having no clue whatsoever about what I’m doing.

I don’t know if what I’m doing with my life is in anyway right or not. If the Lady told me tomorrow to give up blogging for the LGBT community I’d be crushed, and something blossoming in me that I didn’t know existed before would die. But of course I’d do it, that’s the nature of being a godslave. Likewise, I’ve devoted a large amount of time and energy over the last several months to relearning my craft as a photographer, one of my first deep passions. I believe that I can serve Them through my art, although I’m not sure how, and photography just isn’t a medium we think of when the topic of sacred art comes up. If we have to sell off my camera gear to keep the lights on we will. But I find it hard to believe that doing so will make me a more spiritual person.

It’s very tempting to say:

My/our Work has never been conventional. Our relationship to our gods doesn’t look like other people’s. How we serve, and what They value in us has always been a bit different. Which isn’t to say that we’ve haven’t drifted a bit, but in general we’re where we’re on the path we’re supposed to be.

But because that is so tempting, it also is hard to accept. For all that we’re in a really rough spot at the moment, and I’m personally having some additional issues that I’m struggling with, there are a lot of ways in which we’re in a really good place in our lives. The idea that we’re clearly screwing up because our lives aren’t total shit is very hard for me to wrestle with. Which, it has been pointed out, may be the whole damn point of our current situation.

I’ll own up to this: there are clear ways in which I’ve let some of my Work slide. I know that there are some hard and scary things that I’ve not done in my Work because they are hard and scary. Baphomet has asked some things of me that I don’t know if it’s within me to do, and there is a final physical mark of my shamanic transformation that I’ve not gotten because it is so terrifying to me. Which is no excuse, particularly for an Ordeal Path shaman. But pushing through those deeply human places is one place where the power in Ordeal comes from.

There’s no way to talk about my failings without acknowledging that I’ve not had the level of public presence in my magical and spiritual capacities that They require of me. This is in part because of the potential damage it could do to other parts of my career (BAD WINTY – this is a great way to loose those parts of my life for good), but also in part because what I see in the broader pagan and polytheistic communities saddens and sickens me. The Lady hasn’t quite given us leave yet to stop keeping our heads down (though we have a timeline), and I don’t know that one can be involved in modern pagan discourse without stepping right into the line of fire. 

It’s funny, in the thirty five minutes it’s taken me to write this post, a lot of my perspective on what I had to say has changed.

I opened this document in part to write about the fact that I/we weren’t doing any Work and felt completely adrift. But as I typed, it became more and more evident to me that at least some of what we’ve been doing could be construed as Work of a sort, even if it looks different from what we might typically picture a shaman or magician doing.

As to the poverty question though, I just don’t know. I have deep respect for the value of asceticism, and believe it or not, there are ways that I work to incorporate those values in my own life and practices. However, the idea that one can best achieve a state of union with the divine through constant fear that the precarious infrastructure of daily life could come crashing down at the slightest nudge doesn’t ring true for my own spiritual self. Of course, that could just be my privileged upbringing speaking.

Likewise, while it’s possible that I could make a case to the government for getting on permanent disability, that has never felt like what I was supposed to do. Continued engagement of some (certainly unconventional) form of interaction with the working world and currents of monetary exchange feel like how I’m supposed to be living and practicing my faith and power. Again though, I perhaps lack the distance to see if that’s the ghosts of my upbringing or the tides of Wyrd speaking to my heart.

See early comment about my god-phone not getting such great reception I guess.

 

Coming Out About A Difficult Truth

It’s now after 4am, and I’ve already worked nearly seven hours today for Dark Odyssey, and an additional three hours on my second day as associate editor of The Bilerico Project. Yet instead of going to bed, which would be the logical thing to do, I’m sitting here in front of my computer. Because in the end, for better or worse, I am still a spirit worker, and sometimes the Work takes priority over needs like rest. 

I have quite obviously been away from Notes From a Barking Shaman for some time now. Astute readers may note that my most recent stretch of regular blogging here pretty much ended after I wrote a now-deleted post about a delicate and personal subject that landed me in no small amount of social and professional trouble. Not to mention requiring from a me a difficult spiritual sacrifice that I am forbidden from discussing. 

It is easy to conclude that the personal or professional ramifications of that post are the reason I have been away from NFABS, and I will admit to doing little to dissuade anyone from drawing that conclusion. But while that post was tangentially related to the issues that drove me away from here, the truth is in fact far more complex, and difficult for me to grapple with:

Over the past year or two of blogging here, I have been incredibly dishonest with you, my readers, friends, and colleagues. 

Somewhere along the line, I made an unconscious decision to convey a certain image of who I am. In a time of great uncertainty, strife, and doubt in my life, I chose to present myself not as I am, but as I so dearly wished to be. Within the pages of Notes From A Barking Shaman I have deliberately avoided mention of anything that manifestly detracted from the image of me as confident and self-assured, while in truth my Journey has been far more challenging. And one in which I don’t know that I’ve always succeeded in rising to meet that challenge. 

I have spent the past few years caught up in the tumultuous throws of what one might choose to call a “faith-quake” or maybe more aptly a “purpose-quake.” I’ve tried my damnedest to keep that fact out of the public eye, because many of the people whom I looked to over the years as models of how to be a spirit worker in the pubic eye are deeply invested in maintaining an illusion of infallibility. I believed that if anyone knew of my struggles I would be unable to do my Work. 

Much though I’d dearly love to dwell on the “why” and avoid the “what,” there is no way I can hope to move forward with NFABS without acknowledging some of the “what” right off the bat. 

For starters, I have felt abandoned by my gods. 

I don’t know if you can appreciate how hard a sentence that is to see written in black & white. While proofreading this post I found myself unconsciously lowering my voice when I got to it. 

There are many ways this manifests, but perhaps the most stark is in the matter of the disillusion of Fire, Summer (who now goes by Asrik), and my relationship. 

Ours was a partnership arranged by the hand of the gods, and it was something promised to Fire and I in the earliest and darkest days of our association and Work. While responsibility for the actual failure rests at once with all of us and none of us, it is all too easy to see it as a failure on Their part to stick to a bargain. That Asrik has been manifestly rewarded by the Universe for leaving us, while our own road has been far rougher and uncertain only deepens both Fire and my feelings of resentment. Lingering spiritual complications between he and us only serves to make the situation more difficult. 

Then there’s the matter of the Work itself. There simply hasn’t been much, and what there has been has more often than not led only to heartache and hardship. This is where The Blog Post That Shall Remain Nameless serves as a valuable example. In a community of people where doing and saying what the gods tell you to is generally seen as a Good Thing, I received significant criticism for that post from within the spirit work world, even when I explained that I had made binding promises to both a mortal person and the gods to write it. Moreover, despite having been told by my patron that I was to write it when I did, I felt like She left me out to dry when the consequences threatened both my spiritual and mundane work. 

A brief story: many years ago there were two blogs/online magazines named Gods’ Mouths and Blood For Divine respectively. They were created by my partner Fire at the instruction of our Lady, and he was incredibly proud of their early successes. However, they dealt with difficult topics: spirit work and ordeal work, and soon became lightning rods for people’s personal agendas and vendettas. They went down in flames, and both the community and the gods left our bare asses hanging in the wind. Even today, years after the last time they were updated, they still serve as weapons to be used against us. Some deep rooted hope in my partner died a hard death when he lost them, and he still can’t talk about what went down without either crying or becoming unendurably angry. 

Today it seems like just one more in a long line of times we’ve done what They asked of us, only to be smacked down for doing our Jobs. Yet at the same time, a part of me feels more wounded by not having much Work to do, than by the fact that the Work often leaves us feeling isolated and ostracized. I don’t know what I’m to be doing. They have invested considerable time and energy in Tashrisketlin, yet it often feels like we sit on the sidelines with little idea of what we could do differently. 

But even in the best of circumstances, one cannot thrive on the Work alone. I’m a polytheistic pagan and a spirit worker. Ironically, it sometimes seems like many of my fellows leave religion, worship, and practice behind as the spirit work consumes more of their energies. But I cannot live that way. We have not had a spiritual community where we felt at home since leaving Raven Kaldera’s Pagan Kingdom of Asphodel, although in truth we hadn’t felt at home there for a good many years before we left. 

The Lady says that the answer is that we need to create space for respectful polytheistic pagan worship, particularly in an alternative lifestyle inclusive way, and which addresses some of the aesthetic problems gnawing away at the pagan demographic, a topic I intend to address in the near future in this blog. 

For a while, we thought we might be able to do that here in the Portland Maine area. But we have been nomadic for some time now, and it’s looking more and more like Portland will prove just another layover rather than a long term home for us. Not to mention that we, and Fire in particular, are so burned out on the drama and pain that comes with community that the idea of trying to form one of our own is beyond daunting. 

Then there is the issue of my non-spiritual work. 

For the first time since Brigantian Designs closed it’s doors and sold off its assets, I feel like I have achieved some measure of personal success on the job front. This week marks one year I’ve been working for Dark Odyssey Events, first as a programing assistant, then a programing coordinator, and now as both a programing coordinator and production assistant. Over that same time I was made a regular contributor to The Bilerico Project, and starting this week have become associate editor. Neither really gets me a living wage (ok, The Bilerico Project doesn’t pay at all), but it is intensely satisfying work, and for the first time since my pain issues began to become debilitating, I feel like I’m helping to pull my financial weight, and like there may be a path forward for me professionally that I don’t want to screw up. 

My work with Dark Odyssey is remarkably spooky friendly, and I’m supposed to be working to bring more spirituality programing into the our events, although I fear I haven’t done as well as I could have hopped, due in large part to my own issues. 

On the other hand, The Bilerico Project is a serious LGBT politics and culture blog, and the LGBT community is emphatically not friendly to spiritual and religious beliefs. With the deep vein of skepticism and atheism that runs through the community, it is easy to see how a blogger, educator, and activist who talks to the gods and spirits (and they talk back!) might not go far. I find that I care about that more than I would have imagined a few years ago. 

What everything I’ve said so far boils down to in no small part, is that my confidence in the Work and in my own voice as a pagan/spirit work blogger is totally shot. I have a backlog of posts I want to write, or at least feel that I  should, that I can’t get out on the screen because I have become so fragile that even the fear of criticism leaves me a gibbering mess. Not because I’m hurt that someone might disagree with me, but because on some level I can’t seem to believe in myself. 

I can’t shake the idea that to be “good” at this (whatever that looks like) I have to be a vision of collected confidence. But that’s not working for me, and as a result I simply haven’t been able to do what I need to, both on Notes From A Barking Shaman and elsewhere in my spiritual Work and my life. 

Thus, I’m committing to a personal ordeal and inviting you all along for the ride. I’m going to resume a weekly posting schedule here, although I am not resuming my Posts of the Day as I’m doing basically that same thing for Bilerico, and only have so many hours in the day. I’m not going to try to pretend I’m perfect and I’m going to be more upfront about my own Journey and process.

Some of the posts here will be of a more personal nature than we’ve had this last year or so, but at the same time I’m not going to turn NFABS into an LJ analog. Many of the posts will be unrelated to the issues I’ve discussed here, such as an upcoming essay on pagan spirituality and space exploration, while others may very well be the sort of the thing I wouldn’t have written publicly during the last couple of years. 

It’s daunting and terrifying, as I suppose an ordeal should be, but for now it’s 6am and I really must go to sleep. There’s a good bit of both work and Work I need to be ready for after all. 

Equality Under (Whatever)

Longtime readers of NFABS may recognize the bones of a 2011 post underpinning this new essay, which originally ran 8/10/12 Bilerico.com. 

Converting, proselytizing, Witnessing . . .

My personal spiritual practice does not call for the conversion of other people to my experience of the divine. While this is not the case for a small minority of my co-religionists, for the most part my faith encourages people to find their own path and truth.

Proselytizing sometimes strikes me as the spiritual version of what the kink/BDSM community calls “involving bystanders in your scene,” but I try to be sympathetic towards those who are called to or required by the dictates of their religion to engage in these public exhibitions of their faith

That said, many of you have likely encountered Witnesses who are challenging or belligerent; I know I have. My forbearance only lasts as long as they restrict themselves to telling me how their faith brings them joy. My patience ends where their intolerance begins, and I do not allow aspersions against my sexuality or own faith.

As arrogant as I personally find the idea that someone else has appointing themselves guardian of my soul, I try to remember that a great many Witnesses truly are acting out of a sense of love and caring for their fellows.

I bring this all up because in the last several years I have noticed what one might call a new Witnessing tradition develop, particularly in LGBT community.

I’m certain it is born out of the exact same caring for one’s fellow people, and perhaps the same desire to save others from being led astray. I know these folk might not be thrilled by the comparison to Witnessing traditions practiced by people with radically different belief systems, but there are some inescapable parallels.

I am of course, talking about what one might consider to be the “proselytizing” segment of the atheist community.

Now, there are several important points I want to make abundantly clear:

  • In my experience, only a small percentage of the atheist demographic engages in what could be considered “witnessing” or “proselytizing” behavior. Regardless of your perspective on the nature of the universe, simply discussing your worldview, or even respectfully critiquing someone else’s, is not inherently an aggressive act.
  • I am well aware that the atheist community in the United States faces serious persecution throughout many areas of life.
  • People who identify as atheist have been some of the most stalwart supporters of the LGBT community’s struggle for equality.
  • For many atheists, the journey out of the religion/indoctrination of their birth is incredibly difficult, and often follows a similar trajectory to the journey out of the closet for LGBT people, up to and including the loss of family and community support.
  • The path out of religion can be a deeply fulfilling and healing one for many people, particularly for people who are part of the queer/LGBT community.

All that said, like any other convert, be it into or out of (a) faith, political party, dietary model, or any other significant part of our lives, atheists often feel it important to share their values and beliefs with people who may or may not be receptive. The parallels between religious and atheist “Witnesses” for lack of a better word, can be striking:

  • The desire to help someone see “truth” or “save” them from a life built on lies
  • Concern for others’ emotional and sometimes physical wellbeing
  • A belief that if more people thought/felt like they do the world would be a better place
  • The belief that people will come around to the rightness of their perspective if presented with it properly
  • An unshakable conviction that theirs is the One True/Right Way to think or believe
  • Disdain and pity for those of us who aren’t as “enlightened”

Reluctance to socialize or associate with those who think or believe differently is also not uncommon, but I don’t know that I’d consider that to be proselytizing behavior. I do appreciate that people often prefer to socialize and engage with people they have a shared value system with.

Directly and indirectly, I’ve been called some pretty unpleasant things by people within the LGBT community over the last few years because I am a queer person of faith. Additionally, a number of people I’ve encountered have been open about choosing not to associate with me purely on the basis of my not sharing the atheist worldview.

What the particular dictates of my faith say about queer/LGBT people, or any other topic for that matter, is considered irrelevant. It’s one of several reasons I don’t as a rule discuss my religious beliefs as part of my writing on The Bilerico Project (which I should clarify is a personal decision and not directed by the editorial staff).

I am not here to say that anyone needs to stop advocating for their perspective. A tenant of my personal faith is that faith is personal. There are those for whom atheism, or Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, or any other system of belief for that matter, is the right path in life. Just as there are those for whom it isn’t.

Diversity has long been been a guiding principle for queer/LGBT people and the struggle for our rights. Embracing diversity should mean embracing a broad spectrum of beliefs, political views (save perhaps for those that contribute to our oppression), racial and ethnic backgrounds, experiences of gender, sexuality, identity, and much more.

The LGBT community has achieved amazing gains in civil rights, visibility, and societal acceptance in the past twenty years. Many of those gains happened against an intransigent coalition of faith-based groups. But many of them happened in no small part to the direct and vocal support of a diverse range of groups that are also faith oriented.

This post in no way should be construed as saying that we have any obligation to respect or abide by the beliefs of people who use their faith as a tool for our oppression.

However, the reality is that there are many queer/LGBT people and allies who derive value from their spiritual beliefs, and who use that faith as a tool to benefit us all. As a community we spend a great deal of time and energy asking society to see us as individuals and take us on our own merits rather than be painted with a broad brush of intolerance. We shouldn’t allow beliefs and positions within our community to have the same effect.