The Dawn of 2017

The sun at last has set on 2016, and I’m glad to see it go. It was a year that saw a seemingly endless cavalcade of personal, cultural, humanitarian, and political horrors. From my mother’s cancer battle, to my father-in-law’s suicide, to the protracted shit-show of the US election, and so many other individual and collective struggles, the last twelve months have been simply brutal.

www.winterwindphoto.comAnd although it is tough to summon up much optimism for the coming year, the dawn of 2017 nevertheless found me watching for the first light of a new year, having returned Camp Ellis, where I shot my Solstice vigil photos. There were other places I might have gone, but after my dispiriting Solstice dawn, I wanted to try again for a joyous sunrise, rather than the miserable one that ended the Long Night.

There are two reasons why I shoot the sunrise of January 1st every year, and they are both so vitally important to me:

The first is that shooting the sunrise is itself a profound act of hope. Against a black sky, it is difficult to know what a sunrise will look like. Even with weather radar and satellite maps, the sunrise is something of a mystery until it happens. When I am packing up my gear and loading everything into the car, I am committing to a course of action based solely on the hope that the sunrise will be worth the effort. And if there is one thing above all else that I have to hold close to my heart going into the new year, it is hope.

The second reason is intimately linked to the first. It may not be possible to live without hope, but it is equally true that it isn’t possible to succeed without making the best of the hand that the Fates deal us. I made a commitment both to shoot the sunrise of the new year, and to share that sunrise with all of you. With that as a given, I have no choice but to make sure the results are worth being seen. That puts me under no small amount of pressure, but I need to be able to use that pressure to make myself and my art better.

In the divination system of the magical/mystery www.winterwindphoto.comtradition I belong to, we talk about the Left Hand, in which we hold close the things that we use to shield ourselves from an often harsh world, while in our Right Hand we hold that which we put out into that world. Making an effort to be mindful of what I’m holding close to heart and what I’m putting out into the world is a perspective I find particularly useful to my mental and emotional well-being.

And so as the sun rose on the first dawn of 2017, I held hope in my left hand and hard work in my right.
I suspect that we all will need an abundance of both before the last sun sets on the coming year.

Is Magic Being Left Behind?

Attentive readers of my blog may have noticed that it’s been quite a while since I posted here. Unlike previous unexplained silences, which as a rule were attributable to health issues, my recent blogging absence has an underpinning that is very relevant to this essay: namely that I have been trying to avoid writing it. The Universe and my Patron prompted me to write this essay several months ago, and after dodging and weaving to the best of my ability, I can’t really run any further. It has been explained to me that until this one gets written, nothing else will, so here goes. 

There is a conversation I’ve been having over and over again with other spirit workers, shamans, bards, and magicians: Where has magic gone? Not in a broad Arthurian or Tolkein-esque sense of magic leaving the world; nor are we speaking metaphorically, such as “the magic has gone out of my sex life”. What we all shared in common was that we speak, write, and travel in the pagan community, and we had all noticed that the pagan community/demographic has grown very quiet on the subject of magic. 

A clear factor is that devotional, spiritual, and ritual practices have come to dominate pagan discourse. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a shaman, spirit worker, and god-slave. I think devotional, spiritual, and ritual practices are all kinds of awesome. But I think it’s very interesting that they have supplanted even the discussion of magic in many public forums. People who were being asked to teach classes on magic even three or four years ago are now being asked for other material, and there seems to be a growing sense even among those of us who practice magical arts, that the topic is not for polite company. 

I’m not trying to say that magic has been entirely forgotten. A glance at the Pantheacon 2012 program shows quite a bit of magic themed programing for instance. However, a closer read finds that with very few exceptions, magic is intertwined with either ritual, or a specific spiritual practice. What remains is largely ceremonial magic, itself highly ritualized, or classes/discussions taught by a tiny handful of unimpeachable elders of the past 30yrs (note: Pantheacon does specifically attract elders to present for them, so this is not wholly supportive of my point). 

Likewise, the venerated Free Spirit Gathering has seen their magic-oriented programing drop steadily from nearly thirteen percent in 2005 to less than five percent in 2011. 

Of course, no matter how much we want to pretend that gatherings and festivals serve the community, they are also business ventures that must at least do well enough to survive to the next year. I believe the drop off in magical programing is an indicator of a trend, rather than a causal factor. But why might this be?

There is a saying that makes my blood boil: magic is just pagan for prayer. To a great many people this is crap. Prayer is pagan for prayer, while magic is something else entirely. The problem is that to borrow a term from Neil Stephenson, magic is not mediapathic. That is, it doesn’t look too good for the image of our community to have people openly practice it. 

Paganism has come into the mainstream in the United States, and for the most part that is a very good thing. I want pagan war dead to have pentagram headstones in Arlington National Cemetery, if that was their wish. Pagan parents should not need to fear the attentions of Child Protective Services simply because of their faith. I like that the teller at the bank we used in rural New Hampshire openly wore a pentacle necklace without issue. 

 I should say here that I in no way consider the practice of magic to be inherently pagan. Tashrisketlin has had students of other faiths, and none at all, who were successful in their studies. That said, magic has traditionally been seen as a vibrant cultural element of modern paganism, and the idea of it being shoved back into the broom closet worries me. 

Of course, I am as guilty of this as anyone. I have achieved a measure of professional success that I value for both its own sake, and for the ability to keep my bills paid. Moreover, I have a clear desire to advance in the fields of writing and of sexuality education and LGBT activism. I am quite aware of how fragile my positions are, and downplaying my identity as a magic practitioner is as obvious a path as it is counter-productive to my Lady’s goals. 

For myself, letting my mundane work interfere with my Work for Her is virtually guaranteed to lead to the destruction of my mundane work. But I’m not certain that is even the biggest factor in my decision to be more public about my magical practices. Fire, Asrik, Ironsong, and I used some of the best years of our lives to build Tashrisketlin’s body of magical knowledge and practices, even at the expense of our work, education, and family lives when necessary. Being a talented energy worker and magician has long been a huge point of pride for me, and the achievement of my Mastery at thirty years old ranks in the top couple of experiences of my life. 

Where once magical (and spiritual) mastery was seen as the purview of elders, there has sprung up a perception of magic as being a child’s pastime, to be discarded with age and maturity. One pagan woman I recently discussed this issue with described “growing out” of magic in favor of devotional practice, and this idea seems to be somewhat common. 

Of course, magic in neo-paganism has always been a sticky subject. A multitude of different modalities and philosophies make it difficult to even talk about magic without first having a lengthy discussion to find common ground. What’s more, many magical traditions work in the context of someone’s “knack” or “gift” (to borrow the overused language of fantasy novels). Magic is not always egalitarian, and that can make it extremely challenging to incorporate magic oriented programing into public events and festivals. Not to mention the social and cultural issues that surround that thorny point. 

Despite that, we in Tashrisketlin, along with many of the community leaders and magic practitioners I’ve spoken to in the last six months, believe that the world needs our skills and talents. And I know that I am not the only master worried at a lack of dedicated students these past couple of years. None of us want to see our hard won knowledge lost to the mists of time, sacrificed on the altar of social acceptance. 

I don’t know what the solution to this issue is, if in fact this is the sort of thing that calls for solutions. But I know that speaking about the unspoken is often the first step towards a new future, so here you go.