Ancestors: part one

When I was little, my grandparents’ house was my personal wonderland. The back yard had a terraced patio with steps zagging between lush, carefully-tended beds of flowers and shrubs. A shallow drainage ditch circled the property like a moat. By the door, a mosquito zapper lamp gave off a lurid glow at dusk and sizzled like a cauldron.

Their house was a split-level 1950s ranch with teal carpeting – not exactly the stuff of gothic enchantment. But even the indoors had a fairy-tale patina. A seaside landscape mural covered one wall. The spare room housed a small hoard of aloof dolls in satiny dresses. In the basement was a tall, old-fashioned clock with shelves built into the front, holding all sorts of trinkets.

When my sister and I would stay the night, we slept down there, in a cozy room with shutters on the high windows. I’d wake to blades of light along the wall and the sounds of my grandfather making breakfast upstairs. He liked to sing hymns while he worked. Sometimes the smell and clatter of bacon frying reminds me of his voice:

I sing because I’m happy,
I sing because I’m free.
His eye is on the sparrow,
and I know he watches me.

I liked his hymns, but I didn’t know most of the words. My grandparents were Southern Baptist, and supposedly my father once was too, but we were Catholic like my mother. The first time I went into their church, I genuflected at the pew, and somebody actually gasped. Neither one of my grandparents ever said anything about us not being quite like them, but there were signs of how they felt: kids’ prayer books with Protestant theology, invitations to Sunday school events. Later, when I got to college, I found myself mysteriously subscribed to a magazine for “America’s evangelical youth.”

I joked about one of the articles with my mom during a call home, but her voice got unexpectedly tight. She asked for the name of the magazine. The next month it disappeared from my mailbox as abruptly as it had arrived.

Continue reading “Ancestors: part one”

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How to sew a poppet

I’ve got a new piece out in Luna Luna magazine, about creative ritual and tragically mediocre crafting skills.

Inside your poppet will be a prayer, or a spell, or a wish. Inside will be memories transformed into offerings (a tarnished locket, a chipped crystal). Set these offerings on the table. Feel calm and pleased as you look at them, as if they are a poem so perfect you don’t even want to show it to anybody. A potent secret, to be hidden away.

Click here for the full essay.

Terms and tables

There are two tables in the room where I do my writing. One is my “standing desk,” i.e. a cheap piece from a certain Swedish superstore with two filing boxes stacked on top (it’s hella classy and ergonomic). The other table is an altar.

I struggled with this description for a long time – I called it my meditation spot, my reflection table, my thing-over-there. Lots of people practice meditation or contemplation, people from all sorts of cultural traditions, so that word felt less loaded with religious assumptions. But the second table in my room is not solely a meditation spot. It has tarot cards on it, along with rocks and seeds and bits of bone and other items one might most accurately call icons. So, if I’m being honest, it’s an altar.

The problem with the word is that it implies some kind of belief, and my beliefs are slippery. I’m not a monotheist; I’m not a polytheist. I might be a pantheist, for certain definitions of “pan” and “theist,” which is to say eight out of ten people who give a shit would think I’m not a pantheist. Those people would probably call me an atheist, except I disagree with practically all the cultural meaning that word has been given by strident jerks on the internet. Not to mention my use of tarot cards and scraps and icons, which most atheists would give a vigorous side-eye.

“Altar” isn’t the only imprecise term I’ve dug up over my past couple years of metaphysical spelunking. There’s “pagan,” and “witchy,” and “woo,” all of which bear relevance to the stuff I actually do at my thing-over-there table. But the words don’t fit exactly the way I want them to. Like an itchy sweater with too much fabric around the armpits.

It makes me wish for a philosophical and spiritual equivalent to the term “queer,” which I happily affix to myself exactly because of its slipperiness – flexibility is the point of the word. If somebody wants me to nail things down, I can use other terms, but only with a cumbersome amount of clarification (“bisexual” where “bi” means “genders both like and unlike one’s own;” “pansexual” with explanations of “yes, that’s a thing” and/or “no, poly is different”).

Were somebody to ask me what my spiritual beliefs are, specifically, I can’t begin to imagine how I’d explain it concisely. Or even in a way that made much sense.

Maybe that will change with experience and with better vocabulary. In the meantime, I sit at my little table – at my altar – and throw cards and meditate and light incense. Because these are actions that help me think differently about my life and about the world, actions that have meaning for me. And because my altar makes my beliefs more nuanced, rather than just more easily described.