Guest Post: Niki Whiting Reviews Witches of America

A friend of mine, former Patheos blogger Niki Whiting, recently wrote a review of Alex Mar’s book Witches in America, and posted it to her Facebook account.  The book has been fairly popular among the general population, but received poorly among most Pagans.  Several reviews have already been written, notably from  John Beckett, Segomâros Widugeni, David Salisbury, Jason Mankey, and perhaps most famously by Rhyd Wildermuth, who rocked his ten ways to Sunday.

Witches is a book that I’ve been struggling to finish myself ever since it was published.  For me, Mar’s hypocrisy makes it almost impossible for me to engage with the book.  It is a similar phenomenon I feel when watching the antics of Steve Carell’s Michael Scott on The Office:  that character makes me feel so embarrassed for him that the embarrassment carries over into how I actually feel.  Like Scott, Mar’s antics are so over the top, the embarrassment I feel for her ends up making me feel embarrassed to be a Pagan seeker.  Especially one who writes of the journeys on my own path for all to see.

Niki’s review is one of the cleanest, most succinct accounts I’ve read of the hypocrisy that I react to most strongly and so, with her permission, I have re-posted it here.

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9780374291372_custom-999258ada9215870892413b0928b340bd9ff75a1-s400-c85So, I finished Alex Mar’s Witches of America. For those not in the loop, this is a mainstream book about a woman’s spiritual “journey,” involving traditions I am involved with and people I know personally. It has been favorably reviewed in mainstream publications, including NPR, and reviled among those in the actual Pagan world.

I don’t need to rehash the questionable ethics Mar displayed to the communities involved, but for those unfamiliar with this kerfuffle, please note that she did not change any names or details, including those of minors, with the exception of one person, who the wider community suspects scammed her.

I admit I expected much more from this book, seeing as how it is published by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, a quality publisher. What we get is a series of undergraduate reports from a college level “Intro to 20th Century Paganism” mashed together with what could be her LiveJournal. Except…. Mar is an accomplished writer in her 30s.

(I should say I skimmed a few sections: I refused to read about anyone’s initiatory experiences, especially as conveyed in Mar’s artless writing.)

Some wondered if Pagans and witches were so upset with this book because of what she says about the groups she’s in. This is not it. No one else has said it, but I will: many of her feelings about her experiences and her opinions of certain groups and people I shared at one point! I’ve been in ritual and wondered what the hell was going on, feeling out of place, and so on. To trot out my favorite quote: “You’re not *wrong*, Walter; you’re just an asshole.”

Two examples, if I may. Two examples that I have not seen addressed in any reviews, but to me are the shining examples of what a failure this book is.

Throughout the book Mar describes her yearning for Secrets, for the je ne sais quoi that a certain priestess has in spades. Yet, again and again the Mysteries are laid out before her and she swots them away because they do not fit her preconceived notions, nor do they get her what she wants.

Early on in the book she describes living with the Jesus Movement, a tiny Christian sect in California, hoping to convince them to be filmed for her documentary. She mentions how exhausting it was to smile just right all the time. Instead of *being* a trustworthy person, she tries to convince them she’s trustworthy.

Finally, the group lets her know that they decline the offer to be filmed. Instead, they tell her “What we would really like is for you to become our sister.” They offer her a place in their community. Rather than reflect with humility on the gift being offered her, Mar is “disturbed, nauseous…. I’d been emotionally sideswiped.” Sure, there is disappointment in having the project “derailed,” but she views the relationships built over the months together as a waste.

This section, not 50 pages in, let me know right away what kind of person was narrating this story. She could be handed the keys to the kingdom and she would throw them away assuming the shed was of no worth.

The second example comes 50 pages later. Mar has found a teacher to study with. She is filling out the extensive vetting questionnaire. Mar writes “the cynic in me realizes that this would be a neat document for someone to have her in back pocket if we were ever to part ways unhappily. So while remaining pretty candid in my responses, I double-check for any comments I’d hate to have get out. After all, Karina is literally compiling a file on me.”

The stark irony of this stopped me cold. There is no reflection here about the fact that Mar herself is compiling a file and she *will* give away information. She shares intimate stories and deeply personal details of people she claims to be friends with. This is a place where I would hope an editor stopped and said, “Is this all you want to say about this?”

And that is crux of this book’s deepest flaws: for all of her angst, Mar is incapable of self-reflection in any meaningful way. The books seems to want to be a hip, darker version of Eat, Pray, Love – a flawed book that I quite liked. Sadly, Eat, Pray, Love may as well be a Pulitzer prize winning book of deep insight in comparison.

In the end, the people portrayed in Witches of America come across as complex and very human people. Mar, however, reveals herself as shallow, deeply insecure, and riddled with status-anxiety.

This book is a failure of a memoir and/or a sociological book. It is an embarrassment and should not have been published.

Avoid it all costs.

An Improved Matchstick Container

Jar vs. bottle

Jar vs. Bottle:  How crafty do you want to be?

Last year around this time, I wrote about how I’d thrown out my ratty matchbooks in lieu of a mason jar and sandpaper rig.  I do love the mason jar set up as it is such a simple fix to an annoying problem, but over the last year I did notice that I was experiencing a couple problems.  The first was that every time I needed to grab a match, I had to unscrew the jar top.  I had to be a bit careful about this because of all the layers of sandpaper I’d nestled in the top.  If I opened everything too quickly or turned the lid the wrong way, I’d be spending a few seconds cleaning up rounds of sandpaper.  The other issue I noticed was that I would have to frequently use 2-3 matches to get one to light.  Granted, this may be because I used a very fine grit of sandpaper and could have changed out to a larger grit pretty easily, but cutting out sandpaper rounds gives me a similar reaction as some people have to “nails on a chalkboard,” and I procrastinated horribly on that task.

Bottle

Carol Watson Artwork’s Matchstick Bottles, as shown on her Etsy store.  She can also be contacted via her website or Facebook page.

Well, during a shopping trip at an artist’s co-op the other day, I discovered an iteration on this theme that I think is brilliant.  Hoosier bead and jewelry artist Carol Watson has taken small glass bottles and Dremel-engraved a rough crosshatch pattern on the bottom.  All you do is tip a match out of the bottle, strike it on the bottom, and go about your business.  I’ve yet to have a match fail on this crosshatch, which is engraved pretty deeply–it’s no light frosting!  The engraved lines are just deep and wide enough enough for the match to catch and light, but spaced enough to clean any residue easily with just a damp cloth.  Carol also dresses her bottles up with a bit of raffia and one of her own lampwork bead creations.

Carol’s bottles are about $20 each, but provided one has a Dremel tool and an appropriate bit (this one should do fine with a standard Dremel and eliminate the need for engraving bits) as well as appropriately-sized bottles and patience, this could be a ridiculously simple, cheap, and effective gift option for coven mates and friends.  Perhaps an appropriate one for Candlemas?

NOTE:  These containers only work with “Strike Anywhere” Matches.

Updates and Oddments

"Hare and Owl" (2015) by Jackie Morris. A watercolor made for the Suffolk Wildlife Trust. Presented here because it is wintery and gorgeous.

“Hare and Owl” (2015) by Jackie Morris. A watercolor made for the Suffolk Wildlife Trust. Presented here because it is winter-y and gorgeous…pretty much what I hope January brings.  December was so unseasonally warm!

What an odd, exhausting few months it has been!  My teaching job continues to be more demanding than I ever thought it would be, and I can feel myself becoming burnt out.  I thought that the winter break would get me some much-needed R&R time, but instead I find myself slogging through paper grading and lesson planning.  It’s been a full-time (and then some!) job, and I don’t even have kids for two weeks.  I’m surviving, and I’m told that next year will be better…but holy mother, May cannot come soon enough.  I need a long stretch of flex time.

Grad school is going well–I’m currently rocking a 4.0 with two semesters under my belt–and so far it has proven to be a manageable work load with teaching.  My classes this next term, however, are going to be more demanding, and one of my professors wants me to write a book with her…so we’ll see how the balance progresses.

Craft wise, it’s a bit of a toss-up.  I am so, so happy with the coven that I was initiated into this past November, and I adore everyone in the community and I am loving the new practices that I’ve been learning.  But my personal practice has definitely slid to nearly non-existent what with the demands of work and school.  I really need to find a way to carve “me time” into my day…and get the energy to do more than lounge on the couch and watch Netflix!  I have a mountain of BOS copying to perform and ponder, meditation and energy work techniques to practice, and a whole slew of other things I’d like to take on.

In the interest of New Year’s Resolutions, then, my resolution will be to develop a better work/school/Craft/life balance.  I definitely do not function well when I do not have a true “weekend” to follow my own needs, so my working solution for now will be to try to accomplish all my school and work tasks during Monday-Friday.  I think it can be done if I work a little smarter.  I suppose we’ll see if I can do it.

Krampus: Folklore gone Fad?

Well that's just pleasant.

Well that’s just pleasant.

Not to sound like a crotchety old lady…but what on earth is up with Krampus saturation in pop culture and pagandom this year?  I know there’s got to be something going on when I’m seeing bumper stickers all over the city with some sort of iteration is “Krampus is the reason for the season.”  Indiana is a very Christian place–the majority of students in my classes aren’t permitted to celebrate Halloween–and Krampus…well, he’s cosmetically challenging to Christian culture.

Google tells me there’s a horror film by that name that came out on the fourth.  Is that the source of all this Krampus stuff every where I turn?  Is there something else in the zeitgeist?  I literally can’t recall ever seeing a piece of folklore become so faddish so quickly.

Flipbooks: Eliminate Losing Your Place in Ritual

A potentially easy way to organize a ritual script.

A potentially easy way to organize a ritual script.

In teacher school, I recently took a class where we learned about “foldables” or “interactive notebooks.”  These are basically semi-complicated ways of making notebooks more fun and showing students new ways to organize material.  If you want to see how absolutely bananas these things can get, I highly suggest searching both of those terms on Pinterest.  I have to admit, I’m fairly glad I didn’t do these in my own primary and secondary school days.  I was so OCD, I never would have used my notes for fear of ruining the artwork!

The simple foldables, however, I think are brilliant, both as teacher and student.  One organizer I really enjoyed was the flipbook.  I thought this particular one would be very handy for discrete notes, like parts of speech or comma rules, or even summary notes for reading a novel (a page for setting, rising action events, climax, new vocabulary, etc.)  But as I made my sample flipbook in class, it struck me that this would be brilliant for use in Wiccan ritual.

Follow me here.  How many of us have printed off a ritual script, brought it into circle, and then stumbled to find the different sections?  I know I certainly have.  And then you flip back and forth through different pages, convince yourself they’re in the wrong order, and basically go nuts trying to find your flow.  It doesn’t matter how big the font is–you constantly lose your place.

With a flipbook like this, though, you basically create labelled tabs for each ritual part, and the tabs let you quickly turn to the right area of your “script”.  If one page isn’t enough, you can always stack two or three and create a mini booklet for a section.  I’ve been using one for a couple weeks now to help me learn a new Outer Court script, and it’s been genius.

J

Count the number of steps you have in your script.  Take half that number in pieces of paper.  Fan out the pieces evenly as shown in picture one.  Then, take the bottom page and fold it so that the middle page meets itself in a second fan.  (Note how their are two blue strips in the middle.)

To make the booklet like you see in the first page, just count out the number of steps in your ritual, then take half that many pages.  You may wish to do as I did and add another page as a “cover”.  Fan stack the pages in an even row so that they are offset from each other by a quarter inch or so.  Then fold the stack over upon itself so that the top half of the middle page fans over the bottom half of itself.  Staple the folded edge to hold everything together.  Write the name of each step on the exposed flap of a page, then fill in the rest of the page with your script for that step.  With the booklet closed, you’ll just see the names of the steps and can easily go to any with just a page turn.  And all it takes to make this booklet is paper, a stapler, and a pen.  Easy as pie.

d

I actually prefer this method of creating a flip chart.  I made this one just for show.  If creating it for real use, I recommend extending the tape across the entire top of the card.  I also recommend using a plastic backer board instead of cardstock, which doesn’t hold up well against the weight of the cards over time.

There is one downside to the paper flipbook, though.  The amount of space you have on any particular page changes.  It’s hardly noticeable if you have four or five pages, but if you have 12, you’re really short on writing space for that first step. The outer court script I’m trying to memorize has 24 stages.  It’s impossible to get workable writing space using the construction method I described above, so what I actually did for this “ritual flipbook” was to return to my high school calculus days where I taped a series of notecards to a backer board to organize my notes.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was creating a flipbook.

These notecard flipbooks are also dead easy, though they require more supplies.  You basically take a piece of cardstock and a few pieces of note cards (4×6 unruled ones here), decide on a spacing you like (if you use ruled notecards, just space each on the last line), and then paste the cards into place with Scotch tape.  A nice bonus here is that you can change your printing settings to print to a 3×5 or 4×6 card, and thus save yourself some writer’s cramp.  You can even laminate the cards if you want to.  Whatever you do, I definitely recommend writing out all your note cards before taping them into place, as you won’t be able to write or print over the tape.

My calculus flipbook survived my year of high school calculus and my semester of college calculus.  It also survived both of my brothers’ high school years.  My current students are actually referring to it to help them pass their own calculus classes, so clearly a well-constructed notecard flipbook can take a beating.  I think the cards and tape can just go on forever, and it is fairly easy to replace one if it gets too beaten up. However, the cardstock will fall apart pretty easily in a binder.  The weight of all those cards and gravity is just more than the hole punches can take.  I actually stuck my calculus cards to plastic full-page sheet lifters for binders.  I also made sure that my tape went all the way across the top edge of a card, and overlapped the card on top of it.  They were really strongly affixed that way, and I never lost one.  If you’re creating a flipbook like this for a ritual you’ll be doing more than once, I really recommend finding the plastic lifters.  They can be hard to find, but definitely worth it.

An Initial Review of Timothy Roderick’s Wicca: Another Year and a Day

Well look at what the Amazon fairies left in my mailbox...

Well look at what the Amazon fairies left in my mailbox…

As of October 8th, Timothy Roderick’s second year-and-a-day course has been on the shelves of fine booksellers around the nation…or at least in Amazon warehouses readily awaiting shipment.

When I first learned about “Roderick Round 2”, I didn’t think I’d be all that interested in working through a second year and a day.  As much as I enjoyed going through the first book, it did take an awful lot of time to thoroughly journal, and time is thin on the ground for me at the moment.  In addition to the new job, I’m working with a new coven, and they take their training super seriously.  While little I am seeing in Round 2 would conflict with what I know about this new coven’s tradition, I think its best that I focus exclusively on the coven teachings for awhile.

That being said, I think I am going to put Round 2 on my horizon.  Flipping through the pages, I realized how much I’d missed the direct, concrete practices.  Most of the exercises are a page or so and incredibly approachable.  As the queen of the procrastinators, I appreciate anything that makes me think, “I can do this.  Let’s do it now!” and Roderick’s presentation definitely delivers on that.  I truthfully think it is his greatest strength.

There’s  more to love in this version.  In Round 1, the book was organized by topic.  You moved through several days on a particular topic, then did not really ever return to that topic.  I completely understand why that organization is useful in an introductory text–the neophyte needs time to taste and savor the major concepts before they can internalize them and use them in context.  After all, I don’t teach my writing students to do everything all at once–that would confuse them beyond measure!  Round 2 begins this complication.  The book is organized in a series of thirteen lunations, which are further divided into waxing and waning stages.  Here’s my description of the various stages:

  • First Lunation Waxing:  Preparation and execution of the first degree initiation.
  • First Lunation Waning:  Developing relationship with patron deities.
  • Second Lunation Waxing:  Air elemental work in knowing and wondering.
  • Second Lunation Waning:  Solomonic magic with Saturn.
  • Third Lunation Waxing:  Fire elemental work in willing and surrendering.
  • Third Lunation Waning:  Solomonic magic with Jupiter.
  • Fourth Lunation Waxing:  Water elemental work with daring and accepting.
  • Fourth Lunation Waning:  Solomonic magic with Mars.
  • Fifth Lunation Waxing:  Earth elemental work with silence and resonance.
  • Fifth Lunation Waning:  Solomonic magic with the Sun.
  • Sixth Lunation Waxing:  Affirmation.
  • Sixth Lunation Waning:  Reactive karmic clean-up.
  • Seventh Lunation Waxing:  Responsibility and vows.
  • Seventh Lunation Waning:  Exorcism.
  • Eighth Lunation Waxing: Unity and tree magic.
  • Eighth Lunation Waning:  Drawing Down the God
  • Ninth Lunation Waxing:  Bounty and generosity.
  • Ninth Lunation Waning:  Samhain and Yule
  • Tenth Lunation Waxing:  Imbolc, Spring, and Beltane
  • Tenth Lunation Waning:  Summer, Lammas, Autumn
  • Eleventh Lunation Waxing:  Impermanence and Ancestors
  • Eleventh Lunation Waning:  Unpleasantry and planetary Condensers
  • Twelfth Lunation Waxing:  Planetary condensers and the five points of fellowship.
  • Twelfth Lunation Waning:  Five points of fellowship.
  • Thirteenth Lunation Waxing:  Magic squares.
  • Thirteenth Lunation Waning:  Magic squares and preparing for elevation.

As you can see, there is some necessary “topic grouping,” but when looking at any unique exercise, you will see skill bleedover, so the whole year feels more cohesive and purposed.

I was also pleased to see that almost every exercise is to be lingered on over two days, which makes everything far more manageable.  For example, there’s an exercise that teaches how to image transfer a printed image onto a candle.  Having done this before, I know the whole process can take 2-3 hours, depending on the fiddliness of one’s printer, how many times the tissue paper rips, etc.  Life is much more manageable when you divide up the project; for example, printing the image on day 1 and transferring it to the candle on day 2.  On other exercises, you can take care of all the mundane preparation on one day and practice a dry run on day 1 in order to really sink into the exercise on day 2.  It’s  very simple and subtle change from Round 1, but it makes the whole year far more manageable.

My largest criticism at this point is that Roderick persisted in his exotic oils list.  Now, I love essential oils.  I have a whole drawer full of them, and use them frequently in my magic.  Roderick does ask for several oils that you can readily find, though some will be very expensive–jasmine, lemongrass, rose, cinnamon, clove, pine, myrrh, sage, sandalwood, frankincense, geranium, patchouli, cassia, cinnamon, and lemon dominate this list.  But he also asks for some oils that are difficult to find (if not impossible) or beyond expensive–musk, amber, dragon’s blood, gardenia, iris, lily of the valley, meadowsweet, violet, heather, apple, pear, ambergris, water lily, balm of gilead, storax.  Musk and ambergris I’m frankly shocked to see maintained–the proper version of these come from animals that ought not to be killed.  Amber and copal come from fossilized resins, which to my thought, are better used as resins than forced to yield tiny amounts of tarry oil.  Apple and pear literally cannot be found at all; 100% of oils under these names are synthetic.  And some of these oils are not essential oils at all.  Dragon’s blood, for example, is dragon’s blood resin chunks whizzed through industrial blenders with a carrier oil.

There is something undeniably witchy about mixing oils, and an amazing blend is pure magic.  But unless you’re going through a perfumery course, there is no compelling magical reason to knock yourself out trying to find heather oil when other correspondences will have the same effect.  (And if it’s a Scotch connection you’re seeking, just invest in a nice bottle of Glenmorangie.  You’ll enjoy it more, I promise.)

I’m also a little disappointed in how much Roderick glosses over in the Solomonic magic sections.  I was not expecting a doctoral dissertation’s worth of breakdown, but The Key of Solomon is an incredibly dense text that is utterly inaccessible to most.  Some attempt at a stronger explanation of what exactly has been cherry picked for this instructional year would not have gone amiss.

That being said, I continue to think that Roderick compiles a great training course, and one that honors traditional witchcraft well.  I look forward to working through the book myself.

Pray for Roseburg. Pray for the Pagans.

There are no words.

There are no words.

On October 1st as I left my classroom around 9 pm, I swiped through my phone’s apps to get a quick Facebook update in before my commute home.  My entire newsfeed was plastered with conflicting news stories about the Umpqua Community College shooting.

My blood ran cold and my legs went out from under me.  I sat there in the deserted hall of my school trying desperately to get the most updated, the most correct information while simultaneously trying to make contact with the faculty members I knew there.  Roseburg is the next large town south of Eugene, and a nice handful of my grad school friends work there either full time or adjunct–including one very favorite former housemate.  I was a wreck.

My people, as it turns out, are all physically fine.  Psychically…that’s a whole other story.  I don’t know how their healing will even begin.  I had a tiny taste this summer of what they’ve experienced, and it still affects me.

On my very first day of student teaching, I thought for a brief, brief moment that there was a shooter in my school.  I had looked up from helping a student and caught sight of the door.  There was a strange man there, and he was pointing a gun into my room.  My first thought was “protect the kids.”  I flew to put myself between them and the shooter.

It was the janitor.  Our air conditioner had gone out and he was using an infrared gun to take temperature readings of the classrooms without disturbing anyone.  I figured it out in seconds and continued teaching.  My kids never noticed, never knew how terrified I had been.  As soon as my time with them was over, I ran to the nearest restroom and was sick.  It’s now been months since that happened, and I jump a little when I see someone unexpected peering into my classroom.  I startle wildly when I hear a loud noise in the hallway.  The bile rises in my throat as I remember that simultaneous rush of pure terror and tiger-like protection.

Pray for Roseburg.  If my seconds of nothing affected me so, their road to healing will be a long and arduous one.

And pray for the Pagans, too.  We lost one of our own in the shooting.  As the Wild Hunt has reported, victim Kim Saltmarsh Dietz was one of us.  My HPS in Washington knew her.  They met at a shamanism class.  We’ve lost a wonderful soul there.

And we might have gained a black mark in return.  The media–to their credit–have not been focusing overmuch on the shooter.  But those stories that do show him as an “involuntary virgin”–a lonely, deeply pathetic young man.  Several cite an online dating profile he had made that lists “the left hand path” and “magick and the occult” as interests, and that he desired a partner who was “Pagan, Wiccan, Not Religious, but Spiritual.”

Already stories abound that the shooter was targeting Christians.  This has the potential to escalate.  Pray for the Pagans.  And educate yourself.  Calm and logic are the best defense against “war on Christianity” rhetoric.