2013, Aging, Uncategorized

A Few Thoughts on Aging and Paganism

Lately, I  have been thinking of what happens when we age. I watch my mother, her gait slowed by arthritis and the effects of a life ravaged by urban living and the urgency of our modern times. She is Christian. She can find any place she wishes in a variety of Christian denominations, should she wish to enjoy assisted living or even a nursing home in a Christian-positive religious setting.  Yet, when my time comes, as I know it will, where will I go? As a witch, as a pagan, as a lesbian, there are few places for me. For a witch of color, there are even fewer places.

I have observed the vagaries of aging in our society through the lens of assisted living and nursing home practices during the past ten years. I have watched how those who manage and interact with the aged on a day to day basis treat those who age. The administrative detritus that swamps the nurses, aides and staff build on a daily, monthly and yearly basis to the point where the aged are no longer individuals, valued for their wisdom, but bodies, numbers and problems.

Privacy and rights that many of the able-bodied and young take for granted erode during the process of a slow decline in the present state of assisted living and nursing home facilities. For each vibrant ninety year old who lives at home, drives his or her on car and amazes the world through the maintenance of an ordinary life, there are dozens of aged who are simply marking time in a listless, institutionalized existence.

As Pagans, we embrace free will and  the freedom to do as we please. We enjoy festivals, gatherings, rituals and the beauty of honoring nature, Earth and the Gods who exist around and among us.  We have made great strides in coming out of the closet as individual religious traditions under the common umbrella known as Paganism.  Soldiers’ tombstones can now be marked with a pentacle. Clergy are more frequently granted access to Pagans of all religious traditions in hospitals and in prisons.  It is not perfect;however, it is progress.

Yet when one looks around at Pagan gatherings and festivals, there is a segment that is greying. Current crones and elders in their fifties and sixties soon shall become the blessed guides of wisdom in their seventies, eighties, nineties and beyond.  The gods grant us time to learn, to enjoy and to embrace the world around us and each other. We speak of personal responsibility to ourselves and to the the larger community of Pagans. If we truly wish to continue and to prosper, even as those of the first and second generations raise third, fourth and fifth generations, then we need to honor a placed for the aged among us, as we do the young.

We are saddened when a crone or an elder passes. I have observed recent obituaries in our local PNC. None of the elders was over 65 or 70. As I care for my own mother, who has passed that age, and my nonagenarian grandmother, I think of what can be done now, so that those whose mundane lives will be dependent on non-Pagans will have a home to embrace and enjoy as Pagans.

We are many and widespread throughout the world.  Perhaps there might not be a senior building, but perhaps a series of homes, places there are wheelchairs and eldercare friendly. These spaces would have wide doorways, lower countertops and shelving units, and companions  who share earth-based and nature based values. Companions can be paid and volunteer. They can live onsite or off. Ritual would be a common occurrence, bi-monthly or more as moons and sabbats allow.  Eldercare friendly ritual materials would be a common sight. Unlike the current system of care for the aged, where activities are subtly or openly monotheistic and primarily Christian or Jewish based, a new system based on the variety of religious traditions would be permitted.  Given the nature of some in the Pagan community who are also LGBTQIA, there would be room for those who affiliate with both groups.

Will there be costs and questions of how to finance such an an undertaking, as well as where to locate it? Absolutely.  I used to teach a course called “Voices on Aging”.  One of the final projects that I would give to students was the challenge to design a greenhouse, an intentional living community for the aged.  Only one student ever included an actual greenhouse for plants because she farmed. Her idea of an intentional community included giving back to the larger community with a food bank consisting of fresh, greenhouse-grown vegetables.

In a model greenhouse, crones and elders are not tagged or institutionalized, but thriving in an emotionally, physically, mentally and spiritually nurturing environment. Such communities can include care centers, hospitals and joint community centers to encourage interaction. The benefit of the greenhouse approach opposed to current standards is the emphasis on avoiding isolationism and the encouragement of freedom for those who live there. This would not be a place, similar to one Midwestern home my student described, where you could look out back window of the assisted living facility and see the cemetery where you would eventually be buried and the nursing home where you might stop along the way.

This is a place that considers the economic reality and the rights of those who only have social security as being equal to the rights of those who have several hundred thousand set aside for retirement. In each case, students were required to figure out how such facilities could be reasonably financed.  For some partnerships with local and state governments in addition to plans that start 10 to 30 years before a resident expects to enter are solutions. For the more able-bodied, bartering services, time and resources to support the cost are options.  For some greenhouses, private pay with a small circle on private land was the key.  There is more than one method and more than one location.

I live in a cold weather state, blessed by winter four to five months during most years. I was not surprised at the range of student suggestions for greenhouse communities set anywhere south of I-10, in the desert, or close to vibrant locations that cater to retirees, such as Ithaca, NY. Other potential locations could be close to educational communities, good quality and inexpensive medical facilities and a plethora of family.

Each time I leave my adopted home and return to the temperate climes of the mid-Atlantic region, I think of these things. My nonagenarian grandmother has her sights set on the century mark, in a monotheistic facility. I hope that in the coming years, each of us will find a place where we can freely and openly commune and identify as Pagan.

This was just to get the ball rolling.

What are your thoughts?

April 16, 2013 by Clio Ajana

2014, Prison Ministry, The Gods, Thoughts, Uncategorized

Memories, Apologies and Veneration

As the moon continues its waxing course, while the chronological year draws to a close, there is much in the air to remember. Today, on my way to my regular prison ministry visit, a local talk show aired a segment about the most memorable public apologies made during the year 2014. Often an apology can range from the “Don’t do as I did, learn from my mistakes” category to the “My bad” non-apology apology to a nagging silence that can a gaping wound in the psyche of the one who needs and deserves the apology.

Photo Dec 31, 6 24 13 PMThis is the time of year when many look for new paths, beginnings or a fresh start. Apologies can be brief, with the saying “off with the old, on with the new” being the catch phrase to absolve our own conscience or those of others who might not want to reflect upon the pain or unresolved issues of 2014.  Yet, this should be the very time that we consider apologies, those others gave to us, those we made to others, and most of all, those we wish we had made, but did not. Perhaps we ran out of time through the death of a loved one. Others could not turn back the clock due to a move to another locale, hundreds or even thousands of miles away.  Some chose the “let sleeping dogs lie” rationale to counter the voice of one’s own conscience that reminds the heart of a needed apology.

One lesson that I have learned through my visits to men, incarcerated for years, and sometimes decades, is that an apology is not just a saying or a brief “I’m sorry” hastily given.

Instead, these men have reminded me how in Paganism, in the Craft, or in any tradition, self-reflection and self-accountability are key to a strong religious practice.  Yes, many will say that they came to a particular aspect of Paganism because they hate organized religion; however, I have not yet found a Pagan path or tradition that does not emphasize some aspect of knowing the self and making amends, either through action, words or both, as a part of an ethical framework. There is something in the human condition, regardless of religious or spiritual path that cries out for fairness, balance and redress when a perceived slight has occurred. For most of us, that comes down to a sincere act of reflection and awareness of the impact of our words or actions on others. An apology can be the very act that demonstrates to the recipient the true nature of the giver.  When we apologize in sincerity, we are saying that we know and are aware of our flaw in a certain area, that we publicly declare our remorse for said action, and that we intend to change our future behavior to reflect this newfound recognition.  This is also a lesson that is given in many so-called “organized” religions.

Today, I saw men who were attempting to grapple with the depths of human emotion for actions committed years or decades earlier. Their reflections on 2014 were based in part on improvement in their relationships with each other and their families. Some placed their remorse on the page, while others recollected their successes trusting others to accept their verbal confessions. These mens’ lives are incredibly structured and at times, it is only the perceived sincerity of an apology by those around them that will help to move them a fraction of a step closer to eventual release. Some crave the freedom to do what many of us are able to do freely: demonstrate awareness of our remorse publicly with the knowledge that our apology is received and accepted in kind.   Others remain haunted by the first step towards a genuine apology: remembrance of the words or actions that require the apology.

It is in memory that we reflect and grow as humans.  For those who are on Facebook, there is a commonly seen item on news feeds of late:  X’s Year in Review. You are invited to see your particular friend’s year in pictures and quotes. In a way, Facebook is allowing its users to take a step to see the good and bad of a particular year. For those who live on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and the like, technology provides the tools either to recall good times or to express a sigh of relief at the “oops” moments swiftly deleted from public memory – and ours.

courtesy of pixabay.com

As the year closes, we can see our memories and make promises to do better. This brings to the surface the matter of veneration. We honor and revere our Gods and our ancestors through the acts of memory, acknowledgement and apology. Regardless of one’s path, the ethical and personal connection with the ancestors and Gods is strengthened by the choices made in these areas. This year’s Winter Solstice on December 21 (in the US, December 22 01:36am GMT) was also a Dark Moon at zero degrees Capricorn, an auspicious time to sweep the slate clean and to begin major undertakings for the year 2015.  Capricorn signifies, among other things, discipline and commitment.  We do both when we choose to remember and to apologize.  I am grateful to the men who shared freely of their own remembrances of 2014 with honesty and the understanding that trust and faith in the Gods means being ready to move forward in awareness and apology.  May we each have the same courage as we begin 2015.

12/31/2014 by Clio Ajana

2012, The Gods, Uncategorized

Reality Check


Six in the evening on a quiet rainy March Saturday in St. Paul can be dreary, even with a partly visible moon. The bare US Bank parking lot across the street from the Sacred Paths Community Center and the slow foot traffic into the corner liquor store said it all.

The distinct smell of Nag Champa and the sound of brass bells permeated the room as I opened the heavy glass door.

“Our Lady of Celestial Fire?” the dark haired woman, dressed in a fluorescent orange sweater and blue jeans, looked closer to fifteen than the twenty-five she probably was, looked up,held a place in her book and nudged her shoulder towards the back. I nodded.

“Set up’s back there. It’s twenty-five an hour now.”

“Sure. Is it okay to pay at the end?”

“Absolutely. Susan will be in later to collect.” She smiled as though relieved not to have to handle money. Some of the volunteers at this center were like that.

“I’m Joan, in case you need anything.”

I chuckled and picked up the heavy bag of ritual papers, food and clothing. Joan was already back into her book by the time I looked up again.

The room, with collage of blue carpet samples, bare spots in the corners, five misshapen tables , and a late 90s microwave stand, reminded me more of my mother’s basement or an antique shop. Our group came for convenience, not the atmosphere: it was on a bus line. The Sabbat feast of Quinquatrus marked the start of the campaign season, just
before spring. Tonight I would state my intentions before the Gods, for the remainder of the year. What would I manifest in my life? What would I nurture? What would I fight to build in my life? Like a warrior, I wore full gear: a white peplos or toga, sewn from crisp white linen bedsheets, a red sash, a set of braided cords (scarlet, black, silver, gold and white), a measure of rope, an athame and brown leather sandals with white seashells. Now, at my fifth Quinquatrus, I was finally campaigning for a change in my own life on paper, in prayer and into action. My writing addressed the harder
questions that I hadn’t dared to do five years ago: infertility, grief and a final spiritual resting place. I needed more of a challenge in the classroom and less of the gypsy existence of adjunct life. Spiritual questions were no longer about my connection to the Gods or why their existence in my life mattered: I was in the driver’s seat of my own life, where the entrance to the mysteries was a reality, not an afterthought.

Perhaps five or six new people might show up. But the rain earlier and the musky, funky Saturday evening, promised just our group, pilgrims in prayer and devotion to our Gods, enjoying the last bits of winter before spring.

I had to find the plug in for the crockpot that someone would inevitably bring, so I asked Joan when she came back to see if I had everything I needed in the room.

“Sure, we have the cord here,” she said, pointing to a tangled mess of one table, four chairs and a thin yellow extension cord that wound through it all.

“Thanks. Do you want to come to ritual?” I asked. It was a polite enquiry.

“Sure. I’ve always wanted to know more about Orisha.” I tried not to raise my eyebrows too much. Here I am, dressed in a white toga with red stola, setting up a Hellenistic ritual that has been advertised in their store. I wondered, did this woman not read? Our group’s name “Our Lady of Celestial Fire” should have been a clue.

“Ummm…” Silence. I don’t know what to say. What can I say in the face of ignorance?

“ Hey, don’t you teach that? Haven’t I seen you giving classes in Orisha here at the Center before?”

And there it was. The moment I dreaded. As a black Pagan, my skin color and dark brown eyes stand out in this northern land of white skins, pink tones, blond or red hair and light colored eyes.

“No. I’m Hellenic Alexandrian. That’s all I’ve done.”

I left my anger and frustration linger in the silence. She paused, with the  awkwardness common in these exchanges. Do I save this woman or not? I wonder.

“Oh, okay.” Joan doesn’t flinch from my stare, but rocks back and forth on her feet, her hair dangling at an odd angle.

“You probably met me at Pagan Pride last year.” I toss her a nudge.   She grabs onto my words, a sigh of relief in her eyes.

“Yeah. That’s it.” She smiled and walked back to the front.

As we began chanting our opening prayer, the Dialexis a Stauros, I caught a glimpse of dark hair and a bright orange shirt off to the right side. Joan’s body swayed to the invisible rhythm. By the middle part of ritual, the orange had disappeared. On my way out, I saw her again, fingers in book, as she stood by the cash register.

“So, did you like ritual?”

“I couldn’t stay. I liked that sing song part at first, but I had to work in the basement.” She shrugged as though she had no choice in the matter.

“The fridge was dirty, and it was my turn…” Her voice trailed off.

“Maybe next time.” I smiled and left.

I wanted to tell her about my past, before I found my true home in Paganism. I wanted her to see me as more than just a freak, an anomaly in the land of pale whiteness. I was just like her.

I sought the spiritual home that would fulfill me. I didn’t find it with the Christian God for 19 years. I didn’t find it with the Jewish God for 18 years. I found it within the call from the Gods as a Pagan.

Only in Christianity was skin color not an issue. I wanted to ask her: why do you presume that black skin means we only practice African tradition? Why do we, the pagans of color, remain restricted to a box that can be easily identified and marked? Why do you stare when we show up as though we were lost on the way to someplace else? I wanted to ask her in the name of every white Pagan stare and questioning eyes each time I put on my robe and cords, each time I cast a circle, each time I draw down, each time I lead a ritual. The answers were memorized now: no, I’m not crazy.. No, I am not any less black, any less human because I do not practice African tradition. Yes, I am offended by your willful ignorance, by your need to ask these  questions, and by my need to be polite and silent in the land of paleness and presumptions.

09/15/2012 by Clio Ajana


Lessons Learned from When a Friend Says Goodbye

In a day, December and the calendar year of 2015 will come to an end.  Although December still reigns as one of the most festive months due to its many intersecting religious and secular observances throughout its days, the year of 2015 has continued a path of turbulence for many. For many, the year was a growing awareness of the balance or imbalance in the outside. For some, it was the yearly time to battle or celebrate with one’s family, whether of origin or of choice.  For a few, this is a time when the soul questions whether a continued choice to live and practice a tradition under the Pagan umbrella would last into 2016.   This year, I found out that one didn’t make it.

sad-674809_960_720Ten years after swearing off Christianity as too controlling and embracing  not just Paganism, but a hard polytheist tradition as freedom, one of my friends abruptly left the faith last Tuesday, the day after Winter Solstice – for Catholicism. There was no prior notice or indication of dissatisfaction with Gods worshipped, any particular individuals, or even with the Pagan umbrella-structure in general.  After more than a decade of living, loving and fighting as a Pagan, she decided that those she left behind were just poor souls meant to be saved, if possible, and pitied through prayer and ignored, if not.  Any hope that she was coming back was destroyed by a glance at her Facebook page: any Pagan friends were erased; any Pagan references for the past decade were deleted.

At first, I was furious. How could someone swear loyalty, love, and devotion to the Gods only to walk away?  What happened to the joys shared, and the visible public pride at being a Pagan during celebrations at Pagan Pride in September, Paganicon in March, and TC Pride in the summer? This was not a Seeker, a newcomer to our side of the fence trying to decide a flavor of the year from among the Druids, Wiccas, Yoruba, Asatru, Santeria, Shamanism and the like.  After all, our community understands that these paths are not for everyone. We welcome those who come and don’t try to hold those who leave. This openness is what makes choosing to find and to follow a Pagan path of any type easy. It is what makes many paths under this tradition attractive.

In my anger, I reached out to the Gods. I wanted to know why someone might choose to leave a religious home, even after years or decades of choosing to stay in one or more traditions under the Pagan umbrella.  Why could most of those whom I’ve met in our large community of Pagans choose to stay, year after year, while others just walk for seemingly trivial reasons or none at all? Although I spoke with many, the answers so far have come through the most clearly from Hecate, Hestia, and Kwan Yin: Commitment, Courage, and Compassion.

One of the things I have heard repeatedly over a number of years from a variety of folk as to why “home” is a Pagan tradition was a strong dislike of “organized” religion. The irony is that for those who are in a circle or even practice as a solitary, there is a type of organization implicit in the nature of practice. For Discordians and any who consider themselves to be eclectic in nature and in practice, devotion to this very principle is a type of rule or method of organization.  In short, any Pagan path, including that of the solitary practitioner is a form of organized religion, since humans gather (even as just one person), and there is a familiarity in ritual (even if the ritual changes or is done in a new way every time or without a pattern). Non-organization is a type of organization.   Each of these requires commitment to the journey, even if one is a solitary practitioner. Commitment to a path includes making promises of honesty to the self and to any deities of one’s chosen devotion.  It also means renewing that commitment to keep your faith strong.  Personally, I find this solace and renewed commitment through daily prayer, regular ritual, and frequent conversations with the Gods. Others find strength through fighting for causes dear to the hearts of many such as the environment and keeping our planet whole and safe as a legacy for those who will come after us.

Photo by Alex Polo, courtesy of Shutterstock.

For those who do decide to join a particular group or whose solitary practice includes the taking of oaths to the Gods, these promises and oaths to the Gods however, are not so easily broken by simply walking away. Courage is the second element that is required to both know the self and to stay the course, especially during the rough times, such as the so-called “Dark Night of the Soul”.   Forget political correctness. In some areas, it is still not safe to be openly non-monotheist or non-Christian.  This does not negate the commitment and maybe courage means practicing at home, in private, rather than in the middle of a park.  Were recent events in her life, with the apparent pressure of conforming to a pro-monotheist, pro-Christian appearance too much to handle? It takes courage to function as a minority religious practitioner in a majority monotheist world. Sometimes the difference between accepting the commitment and staying the course with courage is simply reaching out to someone, anyone, and asking for help. I’ve been struggling with these questions over the past week and have reached out to a few Pagans from different paths who have been in our big community for varying lengths of time.  Talking to others, in person, on Facebook, and on the phone has helped me to face my own internal fears about how to stay strong, committed, and fully present in my faith.  This is why having Pagan friends who know and understand the walk, whether they are in a tradition or not, is so important. We grow as a community and support each other when we have the courage to reinforce our existence with pride.

In the end, however, there are some who may choose to go.  I go through waves of anger with my friend and her decision. In speaking with Kwan Yin, I recall the use and purpose of compassion in this type of situation.   It is not just giving someone who chooses to leave our path a pass, simply because on the surface we are non-proselytizing and accepting of those who come and go.  Compassion means that perhaps the path the person walks is one that will involve pain. There is pain in committing to the Gods, embracing the wealth of a community, and then giving it all up for a sense of perceived normalcy.

Friendships made are not easily mended.  For some time to come, I know that when I run into my friend, who now considers my workings as a witch and polythesist to be evil and dark, there will be an awareness:  who I am and what our community happens to be will not be good enough.  I strive now for compassion for the fear that I see in her last written words to me, for the anxiety that I still hear in her voice.  She is scared. Perhaps one day she will change her mind and try to come back, although I do not expect that to happen.

Like her final message to me, I will keep her in my prayers to the Gods.  In 2016, I pray that the lessons I have learned from her choices will keep me strong in my own journey with the Gods. I pray that if she is meant to return that she does so for the right reasons, as determined between the Gods and herself. And I pray that one day, being Pagan does not mean having to make such choices in this land, or any other.

12/30/2015 – Clio Ajana