The year I almost missed the Solstice

I may need reminding why I thought setting off on these life changes was a good idea.  I’ve now hit the halfway mark of this summer intensive program, and last week I only got between 1-3 hours of sleep a night between Sunday and Thursday, and just 10 hours for the entire five day period.  I made up for it by sleeping 14 hours Friday night and 12 hours Saturday night…and utterly forgetting everything else save work.

I may have missed the Solstice sunrise, and I don’t have it in me to perform ritual today…but tonight, I am going to sit on the porch, drink some wine, and watch the gloaming deepen into night.

Happy solstice, everyone.

A bit of a pause

It’s been forever since I updated, and I’ve got a great excuse:  Life Changes!

I’m not entirely ready to share the details of these life changes here at this point, but what I can share is that I am moving back to Indiana.  In fact, I’m actually en route right now, writing this from the dining room of my friend Shea in Minneapolis. Between all the stuff that goes on with a big move, I’ve had precious little time for writing and study.  This is likely going to continue for at least a month as one of the reasons I chose to move was that I am starting another graduate program (because I am an idiot and a masochist), and this program starts a summer intensive session in a few days where I do 8-12 hours of classwork a day, five days out of the week.  Apparently the weekend is for homework.  It’s going to be rough going, and I’m not looking forward to it.

At this time, I don’t have any plans to discontinue Three Hundred and Sixty-Six.  I will probably have a random post or two over the next month, and will almost certainly resume regular-ish posting at some point this summer when life starts to chill out.

The Blade Collection Expands Yet Again

Nearly my entire collection of magical knives through the years.

Nearly my entire collection of magical blades through the years.  My very first athame was one like this.  I never cared for it, barely used it in ritual, and I’m pretty sure it ended up in the box of stuff I gave Natalie to donate to Pagan Pride Day raffles when I moved from Indiana to Oregon.

At this point, I’m starting to feel like I acquire ritual tools the way some women acquire shoes, and this is something I have mixed emotions about.  The 2005 me was very adamant that a witch should hold off on acquiring a tool until he or she found the right tool, and then they should hang onto it for life.  The 2015 me still feels that way, but seems to be crying out “bring on the stuff!” in a horrendous case of hypocrisy.  Since I began journaling here (almost 7 years ago!), I went from eschewing the use of blades to using a modified butter knife as an athame.  Then I acquired Candle once I realized the energy wasn’t quite jiving and that I should treat myself to a “grown up blade”.  I was so pleased with Candle, I acquired a boline, Crooked, soon thereafter from the same smith.  Of course, using a curved knife makes most things short of cutting plants rather difficult, so I bought a paring knife with a light handle, Olive, to use as my white-handled knife.  And now, I’ve cycled through to another set.

I began looking to replace my athame, Candle, because it is not a traditional blade and I am starting to investigate inter-coven work, and there are plenty of Gardnerians who strongly hold that athame’s should be sharp, ferrous, double-edged, black-hilted daggers with magical sigils carved into the handle.  My dull, copper, single-edged Candle hardly meets that mark, though it does have a lovely black handle.  Interestingly, the adherence to these standards seem fairly new to the community.  There’s evidence that, at least in 1970s America, making your blade by hand was far more important than the materials the blade was made from, and a fair number of witches ran around with athames they’d made by cutting craft-store copper sheeting into blade shape.  Going back further, there’s evidence that witches who worked with Gardner used single-edged blades for their athames (though there’s less evidence they used those blades while they worked with Gardner).  One thing that has been consistent, though, is that there is a strong preference for sharp blades in the community.

When I began pondering inter-coven work, I thought long and hard about what to do about my athame.  I considered sharpening Candle for the sake of community appeasement, but ultimately I love Candle just the way it is and couldn’t bring myself to do it.  With far more sadness than I would have thought myself capable of, I decided to get another knife and make it my primary athame.  I rationalized this decision by telling myself this wasn’t close redundancy.  After all, you can’t use a ferrous blade to work with the fey and nature spirits (though a wand does just as well), and I would be able to use Candle at public gatherings where I wouldn’t be able to use a sharp knife.  So I went shopping.

My new white handled knife and athame.

My new athame and white-handled knife.  I’m toying with the idea of naming them Chakra and Scion, largely because the patterning on the athame blade looks like it has chakra centers and the white knife feels like a “chip of the old block” when I see the two together.

I tried contacting local bladesmiths and pagan smiths, but I wasn’t able to make anything work.  Many of the smiths I knew were scaling down their operations and not taking custom work, and much of their stock was a bit too embellished for my tastes.  Others had a wait list that numbered in years to order completion.  Consequently, I found myself researching out new sources.  During an Etsy binge, I happened across Poshland Knives, which also operates their own site.  They are a dealer based out of London, but with prices like theirs, I knew they were having the blades made in Pakistan (which was confirmed when I received a custom knife).  I wasn’t overly thrilled with the prospect of going global for my blades, and knife-heads commonly put down the quality that comes out of Pakistan, but I sincerely doubted I would actually put my athame to any stress tests, so I decided to take the risk and ordered one of their stock blades.  When it arrived, I quite fell in love with it.  The rosewood handle is a little lighter than pictured above–the first picture is more true to life.  A knife aficionado friend of mind pointed out the blade has a slight lean to it, but even he said the quality far surpassed what he was anticipating.  After working with the new athame in circle, I decided I wanted to work with Poshland again to create a complementary white-handled knife.

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My white-handled knife…and its evil twin.

This customization experience is really what endeared me to Poshland, because they very much messed up my order and were very kind about correcting it.  The gentleman who runs it, Uzzy, is not a native English speaker, and he read my customization request very literally.  I had requested only one deviation from their standard BC 61-40 knife, and that was to replace their colored bone handle with white bone or horn.  Uzzy did not realize that an adjective can modify all nouns that follow it, so I received a horn handled knife, bull horn to be precise, and bull horn is naturally black. Once the misunderstanding was cleared up, Uzzy graciously offered me a discount on a new knife and I sold the mistake to my knife aficionado friend.  Truthfully, I rather like the black knife more.  As you can see, its handle is slightly thinner, which makes it easier for me to grip and use.  It is also significantly lighter and actually balances, and I’m partial to its damascene patterning.  If only it were white!  I should not complain; the knife I ended up with is still a very pretty knife, and it gets the job done quite admirably.  The 4.5 inch blade is long enough and wide enough to tackle larger jobs, but small enough to carve candles without a problem.  And I very much appreciate how my white-handled knife and my athame look like they belong together without being exactly matched.

If you happen to be in the market for magical blades, you could do worse than Poshland.  They do good work at incredibly reasonable prices for the quality, and customization is easy provided you are very careful in your descriptions!  It’s also surprisingly inexpensive:  customization on my white handled knife was only £10 (about $15) more than the price of the standard knife.  They will also do completely custom blades, though pricing would definitely be commensurate.

An Amazing Commercial May Wine

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The photo of the woodruff and strawberries (infusing water, not wine…try it, it’s great!) is from Gardenista.  The photo of the Latah Creek Maywine is from Amazon.

May wine has come up a time or two throughout the years.  It’s a traditional German drink around the start of May when the first strawberries are ripening and woodruff blossoms, and witches have incorporated it into Beltane festivities.  It is incredibly easy to make: just chop up a few strawberries and throw them and a few sprigs of fresh woodruff into some sweet white wine.  You don’t have to infuse it for very long–an hour or so will be fine, especially in regards to the woodruff, which is surprisingly potent–and you’re left with a wonderful spring drink tasting of vanilla, sweetgrass, muscat, and berry.

It is very easy to make up, but some wineries do make their own May wine blends, and the best one I have ever tried is that from the Pacific Northwest’s Latah Creek Wine Cellars.  They’re a 30-year-old company based out of Spokane Valley, Washington.  They’re innovators in slow-cold fermentation wines, and their Maywine is spot-freaking-on.  Most commercial may wines taste like someone stirred Smuckers strawberry jam into a sweet box white, but Latah Creek’s is smooth and balanced.  It may be a tad sweeter than when made fresh, but the strawberry is a light touch behind the woodruff and white wine, just as it should be.

The wine is made from 100% Chenin Blanc grapes grown in the Columbia Valley and blended with dried woodruff and natural strawberry concentrate.  The winery says that their 2015 vintage is their best ever, which is saying something as Wine Press Northwest Magazine rated their 2010 as outstanding, noting:

This traditional German-style wine has a significant following around Spokane, Wash., thanks to Mike Conway. The long-time Washington winemaker takes Chenin Blanc then adds woodruff and strawberry concentrate to create a fun drink that pairs marvelously with holiday fare and curries. Its nose brings hints of sweet strawberry jam, apricot, banana, honey, patchouli and honey. Flavors include strawberry, raspberry, lemon chiffon, pineapple, and clover. Granted, there’s considerable sugar (6%), yet its acid profile is reminiscent of an orange milkshake and enough to create balance.

Latah Creek products are available in stores throughout Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, and a full store listing for any vintage can be found through the winery’s website.  Bottles can also be ordered through the website or through Amazon.  Prices average around $10 per bottle, plus shipping.

A Nifty Way to Store Incense Charcoal

What can't you do with a mason jar?

What can’t you do with a mason jar?

I got an e-mail yesterday after I released the incense post asking how I store my incense charcoal to keep it fresh, and thought I’d share my answer with everyone.

I use a 12-ounce mason jar.  They are exactly tall enough to fit a full cylinder of Three Kings, completely air tight if you use a canning lid, infinitely reusable, and just wide enough that you can fit a random cake or two around a new cylinder if you need to.  Prior to this, I used gallon-size Ziploc bags, which were fine, but they aren’t exactly airtight and they become black with dust over time, which means your hands get black every time you reach in to grab the charcoal roll.  With the mason jar, I usually just get my fingertips a little dusty, and that just wipes off.

So there you go.  A Pagan life hack!

Trying Handmade Incense

The Incense Dragon’s Blend 29 burning in front of the Earth Mother.

This weekend, I finally braved up enough to try some of the incense I acquired during Pantheacon.  And I say “braved up” because my own explorations with handmade incense via Roderick were borderline disastrous.  I have painful memories of billowing clouds of acrid campfire smoke, setting off my smoke detector (which was wired into the house and required the fire department to fix), and making all my clothes and bed linens smell like I aired them while a neighbor was burning leaves.

I was being an idiot.  Everything was more than fine.

I first tried a blend I bought from Carl, Blend 29 for Deepest Meditation.  It is a combination of Australian sandalwood, Omani frankincense, Sumatran aloeswood, Siamese benzoin, a natural gum binder (likely xantham or guar gum), and Willamette River water.  The box pictured above contained three hand-formed cones, each wrapped in a strip of blue tissue paper.  Frankly, the whole packaging gave me great hopes of someday providing gifts of my own incense cones to loved ones for Sabbats and the like.  Lighting the cone had a small learning curve.  I was expecting it to light rather like the heavily oil-saturated cones I burnt as a teen.  For those, you just need a tiny smoldering cherry tip, and they burn right along.  For this, I eventually found I needed to encourage a fairly large burning tip for the rest to autoignite, but eventually it caught and burnt without issue.

At first, I wasn’t too fussed about the blend.  It was lovely, but fairly similar to many blends I buy–largely because I favor sandalwood and frankincense.  The addition of aloeswood was very nice and did instantly snap me into a ritual mindset, as it is an ingredient my coven uses in important incense blends.  I shook it off, though, and went about my mundane business as I noted how the scent developed.  Curiously, I did notice that after about a half an hour had passed, I noticed that my mind was quite a bit calmer than it typically is.  It did not put me into a meditative trance, but it did leave me feeling rather similar to how I feel after a meditation.  That feeling carried over for a couple of hours.  I was calm, focused, and surprisingly productive with my reading and editing I’d planned for that time.  It was definitely a lesson in how incense can leave a biological effect.

A chunk of my neri-koh insulated by a square of foil on top of a 3 King's charcoal.

A chunk of my neri-koh insulated by a square of foil on top of a 3 King’s charcoal.

I also tried the neri-koh I had made during the workshop.  Traditionally, these are formed into pea-sized pellets while still fairly moist, but I molded mine into a log on the grounds that would be less squishable in transport back to my home.  In theory, I could have started burning it after about a week, but it definitely cured to a state almost like it is now after about two weeks.  When I went to burn it, I broke a few chunks off the end of the log.  It broke right away, to my surprise, and had hardened very well.  I sincerely doubt I could shape it into balls at this point, so the incense has definitely cured.

I experimented a bit with how to burn this type of incense.  When I tried popping it directly onto the coal, the smell was too much like burning sugar to me.  I tried lightly burying the coal and setting the neri-koh on top of the sand, but that put out the coal.  Finally, I tried a little square of tin foil on top of the coal, and that worked out surprisingly well.  I eventually hit on a decent size:  long enough to hit the rims of the charcoal, but small enough to leave surface area open.  In this way, the incense smoldered while the coal continued to burn.  The only way I could tell it was done burning was that smoke stopped issuing from the lump.  They completely carbonized without changing shape or form, and that actually made changing out the pellets really easy:  just snag one with some tweezers and pop another onto the foil.

I freaking loved this incense.  I struggled to identify what it smelled like, and the best smell association I could come up with was “warm spices” rather like when you make a spice cake.  My housemates came home from their weekend away around this time and exclaimed, “Gosh, it smells great in here!” But they struggled to say what it smelled like, too.  C. said it smelled like cinnamon, but more than cinnamon.  K. said it smelled like Christmas to her: cinnamon and spice in the air and drinking cocoa by the fire.  To me, the strongest associations I had when burning the incense were more synesthetic.  It had this dark, sexy, slow, undulating quality to it, a little bit like what I feel whenever I hear Godsmack’s song “Voodoo” or watch a really amazing belly dancer.  I could definitely see burning it while practicing Kundalini Yoga or Meditation, or for a more movement-focused ritual.  Or just to enjoy; it certainly is fragrant.

The recipe used for the neri-koh is below.  I’d say it would make enough for about a week’s worth of burning if you burned a little once a day.  The only real tricks to making it are to thoroughly mix all the powders together into a uniform mixture before adding any honey and to add the honey to the powder slowly; perhaps a quarter teaspoon to start with, and then adding it drop by drop from there.  Once the mixture kneads into a uniform, stiff dough texture, shape it into balls or whatever, pop them in a plastic bag, and forget about them for at least a week or two.

Carl Neal’s Introduction to Neri-koh

  • 1 1/4 teaspoon sandalwood powder (red or yellow)
  • 1 teaspoon ground clove
  • 1/2 teaspoon bamboo charcoal powder
  • 3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground anise
  • 1/4 teaspoon benzoin powder
  • 1/8 teaspoon aloeswood powder (optional, though I used it here)
  • Honey as needed

Carl recommends Mermade Magickal Arts for incense and incense making ingredients.  If you order through them, tell them he sent you!

Paper Reduction Mission 1: Overcoming the Paper Towel Habit

Happy Earth Day 2015!  Over the past handful of years, I’ve taken steps to greening my life that I never would have considered back when I lived in the Midwest.  It started with realizing just how many plastic bottles I was using in my beauty products and eliminating shampoo from my consumer purchases.  But then I branched out in a big way.  I’d already come a long way in eliminating Ready-To-Drink plastic bottled beverages from my diet (I still keep a case of ’emergency Coke’ on hand…but a 24-can case lasts me well over 6 months), but I also found a travel-bottle method (a Cuppow and a canning jar) that allowed me to recycle my entire collection of mismatched bottles and plastic cups.  I began to eschew the paper and plastic bags my grocery stores provide and brought my own straw baskets to the supermarkets and shopping malls.  I stopped buying thousands of single serving plastic containers of yogurt and started making my own Fage and packing it into small, infinitely reusable canning jars.  Most recently, I’ve begun making my own laundry soap and eliminating chemical fabric softeners to avoid amassing more plastic bottles.

Over the past couple of months, though, my focus has shifted from my plastic consumption to my paper consumption.  I’ve done a few basic things to bring my paper consumption down, such as discontinuing my newspaper service in favor of online publications and contacting all the stores that send me promotional materials in the mail and requesting that they either remove me from their lists or switch to contacting me via e-mail.  I’ve also finally broken myself of my Post-It habit by substituting it with Apple’s Stickies program and augmenting it with an occasional 3×5 card.  There’s really only been one thing so far that I’ve struggled with reducing:  paper towels.

The average person uses 2,400-3,000 paper towels--at work alone!--each year, which looks like this.

The average person uses 2,400-3,000 paper towels–at work alone!–each year, which looks like this when you put it all together.

As much as I wish it were otherwise, paper towels are just not good for the environment on any level.  Even once you get past the fact that they are incredibly bulky for their weight and so require a lot more energy to transport from point A to point B, there’s still a lot of environmental issues.  For starters, most paper towels are made from virgin tree pulp.  This means that trees are cut down and harvested for a product that will be used ONCE.  There are also myriad environmental issues all along the manufacturing process with one of the biggest being the amount of dioxin released during the bleaching process.  There’s also a ton of waste in the packaging, including but not limited to the plastic that is wrapped around each and every roll.  And this process is repeated over and over again to feed our desire for having a paper towel handy.   And at the end of this whole cycle, the used paper towel ends up in the garbage!  Once it’s there, all it does is fester and add to the methane gas issue and global warming.  Can we say “not worth it!”?

"Flour Sacl

Flour sack kitchen towels from Target.  This 4-pack current retails for $3.99.  Wal-mart’s Mainstay’s 5-pack currently retails for about $4.99.

Back when I was researching green fabric softening ideas, I came across a massive group of new mothers who had taken up using cloth diapers for their babies, and many of them were raving about the absorbancy of clean, white cotton flour sack kitchen towels, which can be found very economically at Wal-marts and Targets across America (in addition to many other less problematic establishments).  As it turns out, these cloths are astoundingly absorbent so long as you avoid using commercial fabric softener on them, and their lack of any colored decoration means that if they get really grimy, you can bleach them to your heart’s content.  Their uniform size and thickness makes them a cinch to fold quickly, and their relative thinness means that a ton of them will fit into even the smallest drawer in the kitchen.  They’re also only about $1 each, so if you do have to get rid of any, you won’t go broke replacing them.  I’ve been using these flour sack towels for a couple of months now, and I really can’t say enough good things about them.  In fact, I recently used some to clean my bathroom–something I would have only used disposable paper towels for before.  I used only 3 towels for the whole grimy job, rinsing them frequently, and popped them right in the washer when I was finished, making sure to splash some bleach in the dispenser.  They emerged perfectly clean and perfectly sanitized.

The only real beef I have with these towels is their size.  The towels wad down to a comfortable large handful, but they can still be a little unwieldy.  So I returned back to the cloth diapering forums and discovered that many DIY mommies had turned to using white Birdseye Cotton fabric to make their own diaper cloths.  Better still, many people were commenting that the thinness of this fabric reminded them (positively!) of paper towels!  As I did a bit of research, I discovered that other crafty folk had taken to using this fabric to create what they called “unpaper towels.”

Basic "unpaper towels" from Birdseye cotton.  Just cut out squares of your desired size and serge the edges.

Basic “unpaper towels” from birdseye cotton, as crafted by the Etsy seller Natural Linens. They’re pretty easy to make.  Just cut out squares of your desired size and serge the edges.  Rounded corners make the serging very easy, and it also looks pretty.

At their most basic, all these “unpaper towels” are are smaller squares of pre-shrunk birdseye cotton that are then ironed flat and the edges serged to keep them from fraying.  To keep their awesome absorbancy, they should not be washed or dried with a commercial fabric softener.  Some crafters prefer to make the squares of a double-thickness of the fabric, and still others like to top the birdseye cotton with a more decorative, pre-shrunk cotton.  One idea that I’m quite fond of is fastening snaps to the corners of these clothes, then snapping a bunch of the towels together and then spinning them around an old paper towel cardboard roll.  This would effectively allow you to put these towels onto a standard paper towel dispenser, which can certainly be a lot more convenient than keeping them in a drawer.

Particularly pretty "unpaper towels" using a green microfiber "working side" and a cheery retro kitchen print as the "decorative side".

Particularly pretty “unpaper towels” using a green microfiber “working side” and a cheery retro kitchen print as the “decorative side”.

Honestly, you can really go a bit nuts making super-attractive “unpaper towels.”  I think that if I made anything that looked quite as pretty as the vegetable print ones seen here, I’d never trust myself to use them for the dirty messes they really should be used for.  That being said, if I was going to whip up a set for a gift, I would probably go the more decorative route.  I have a feeling that the extra touch would probably nudge most people into using the towels more than a plain set would.  I can also see a more decorative set being especially useful in a bathroom where you’d primarily be using them to dry just-washed hands.  There’s no real risk of massive staining in this application, and it’s really a lot more sanitary than using the same towel everyone’s been using for the past week.

If crafting up a few rolls of “unpaper towels” seems like it would interest you, birdseye cotton is fairly inexpensive.  You could probably get it for maybe $4 a yard, which will probably craft about 9 “sheets” altogether.  To properly serge the edges, you will need an overlock sewing machine.  These are unfortunately really expensive machines, ranging between $300 and $600.  You can, however, make a passable substitution by using a zig-zag or elastic stitch on a standard sewing machine.  A nicely instructive video for this process can be seen below: