A steward into death

St. Brynach's, Nevern, Wales
St. Brynach’s churchyard, Nevern, Wales

How do you steward someone into death? (Warning: rambling, maudlin navel gazing ahead.)

I’ve always been attracted to psychopomps, whether we are talking about deities or the mythic symbolism attached to animals. I don’t know when that started. When I was a little kid, I saw ghosts and could communicate with them. Then at some point, I became terrified of them. I stopped seeing them, though I could still sense their presence sometimes. I was also terrified of mummies and skeletons. I had repeating nightmares where I was being hunted by revenant mummies and skeletons. Even when I was a teenager, I couldn’t go into the Egyptian wing of the British Museum for fear of seeing mummies. (Talk about a wasted opportunity!)

Old colorized postcard of Mary's Chapel, outside Woodland, California
Old colorized postcard of Mary’s Chapel, outside Woodland, California (courtesy of CAGenWeb). They’ve refurbished, unattractively, the inside since I was there, and something tells me they probably got rid of the old outhouse charmingly graffittoed “Mary’s Crapper.”

It was weird because I wasn’t bothered at all by the idea of death, maybe because I was still young enough to believe myself immortal. I remember when I first found out about death. My dad and I were talking a walk down a country lane near our house. My parents were still together, so I was younger than 4. We found a dead black cat on the road; I asked my dad what had happened to it, and he explained how it had probably been hit by a car and killed. When I was around 8 or 9, some kids found another dead cat in the street. A grey tabby kitten. I don’t know how it was possible, anatomically speaking, but the entire skull, eyeballs still in situ, had come out of the skin through the mouth. We poked it with sticks. I wasn’t a baby sociopath. I was sad when pets died. I empathized with grieving survivors. I was just matter-of-fact in the way little kids are when they haven’t been traumatized yet.

St. Brynach's churchyard, Nevern, Wales
St. Brynach’s churchyard, Nevern, Wales

From a pretty early age my mom took me walking in graveyards, a hobby of hers since her own childhood. Years later my grandmother shyly confessed that walking in cemeteries had been a hobby of hers since she was a girl. She had never told my mother that. Sharing stories of our ancestors has always been very important in my maternal family and many an entertaining evening of my childhood was passed in fond reminiscences of our Beloved Dead. I still love visiting graveyards, feeling the unique vibes that each one has. (The photos here are from some of my favorite cemeteries. All photos are by me unless otherwise indicated.)

Yet at the same time I had these insane nightmares. After my parents divorced, my dad got remarried and I had to spend weekends at my stepmonster’s house. I would lie awake in the dark listening to the hall clock ticking outside my room, paralyzed with terror that a skeleton would come out of the closet and turn me into a skeleton too. I’m quite comfortable around skeletons now, but to this day I cannot be in a room with a ticking clock.

Crookes Cemetery, Crookes, Sheffield, England
Crookes Cemetery, Crookes, Sheffield, England

I am completely baffled as to what might have happened to stop me seeing ghosts and start me being terrified of reanimated corpses (and note this was way before zombies got popular). If I had the money I think I might go get hypnotically regressed to see what might turn up. I have always just assumed I absorbed the death-phobic messages of our culture, and maybe that’s all it was.

When I went to college, I was considering majoring in archaeology. I decided to take a course in human osteology (the analysis of skeletal materials) because (1) I thought it might desensitize me to my fear of skeletons, and whether or not this experiment worked would determine whether archaeology was a viable career path; and (2) it counted toward the math and science distribution requirements, sparing me from having to take something even more frightening. To my surprise, I wasn’t the least bothered by the bones and in fact I loved working with them. I ended up taking all the human skeletal-themed classes offered, as well as gross anatomy. In my time as an archaeologist I excavated various burials, analyzed many bones in the lab, even butchered (predeceased) animals with stone tools. Sometime during my 15 or so years of working with bits of dead persons, it occurred to me that I Worked With the Dead, and that this was a Very Serious and Important Thing.

(Please don’t judge my youthful naïveté too harshly. We were all dumb in our 20s.)

Crookes Cemetery, Crookes, Sheffield, England
Crookes Cemetery, Crookes, Sheffield, England

Only later did I realize that in these early forays, the dead were made to serve my ends, and not the other way around. Oh, I was always respectful, humble, and completely honored to be there “analyzing” these Dead Ones, but it did not occur to me that my ends might not be their ends.

Sometimes when Native American/First Nations people want to bring home to whites how it feels to have their ancestors’ burials excavated and analyzed, they say some version of, “How would you feel if someone came and dug up your grandmother’s bones?” I’ve always thought this question perfectly encapsulated the difference in worldview between Natives and modern Western white people–because I would be truly surprised if your average modern Western white person gave one damn about whether their grandmother’s bones were dug up (as long as they personally don’t have to see them, because ew). I know I didn’t. First, I grew up in a New Age-Christian milieu that said that once you are dead, you shuffle off your mortal coil and have no further need of it. (I realize this has not always been the prevailing attitude among Christians, but it’s pretty de rigeur for all the 20th-century American Christians that I ever encountered.) Certainly that’s what my grandma believed. Second, it was all for the good of Science and Knowledge. Surely no one would mind donating their physical remains to that cause? I mean, since they weren’t using them and all? And third, not to put too fine a point on it, who cares about old people or even worse, old dead people? (I didn’t share that last opinion, at least, but I do think it’s pretty common.)

(I’m so embarrassed.)

My philosophical and spiritual views on the dead have evolved over the years, as middle age inevitably brings infinite shades of grey. In fact by the time I finished my dissertation, I wanted to throw the whole thing away because of the unsophisticated views of death and the spirit world that I was forced to assume due to the nature of academia. But for the past four years I have been truly Working with Death, in ways silly self-important 20-year-old me could never have imagined. I have been working on my genealogy, a family tree that now contains several thousand nuts people and stretches back beyond the end of the Roman Empire. I’ve always been ambivalent about having children, as if I could afford them, because I’m uncomfortable with the idea of bringing new people into this world in this time; but now I feel equally uncomfortable with the idea that when I die, there may be no one to whom I can pass on the family lore or blood. (Also the genes for excellent teeth. I have my genetic shortcomings, but they are non-dental in nature. Never had a cavity, have all my wisdom teeth, and am blessed with a diastema at least as good as Lauren Hutton’s. And, pro tip: When civilization crashes and burns, your teeth may be all that stands between you and certain death.) I suffer from eschatological dissonance.

Trafalgar Cemetery, Gibraltar (photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons)
Trafalgar Cemetery, Gibraltar (photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

More immediately, I am trying to consciously steward my mother into death. (Unsurprisingly, Saturn–duty, responsibility–is currently transiting my 8th house and conjoining my progressed Moon–family, roots, one’s mother, emotional sensibility.) I debated about how detailed and how honest to be or whether I should write about this at all. I don’t want to seem self-pitying and I’m not looking for pity, sympathy, or anything else. But I feel like the topic is important; and I know there are others facing the same situation. And for those of us who aren’t members of the dominant religions and/or don’t hold with dominant worldviews, there is no community to provide the sort of naturalized, taken-for-granted rationales and explanations that can be so comforting.We have to work it out for ourselves, making it up as we go, and then fight hard to hold onto what we find in the face of overwhelming naysaying.

When I came here my mom was in an induced coma in intensive care and I thought her death was imminent. I managed to pack all my belongings in three days–a minor miracle–threw them into storage, and drove halfway across the US in four days (for those of you not from the US, that is fast), hoping she would hold out long enough for me to get there before she died.

Four years later, she is still alive. And my feelings about it are so mixed, I sometimes think they will tear me apart. Caregiving is physically and psycologically grueling work. Every day I walk a mile and a half to two miles, just crisscrossing this tiny apartment doing chores (or so says my pedometer). It is way too tiny an apartment for two adults, but my mom is too frail to move. That’s also why I had to move in with her instead of vice versa. There is no privacy, no alone time, no respite from the 24/7 hum and rumble of various machines keeping her tethered to the world. I can’t leave the house for more than a few hours at a time (and even that is a rare luxury), so there are no vacations either. I don’t know if she’s afraid to die–she’d never admit it if she were–but I know that the way she is dying is a painful and terrifying way, suffocating slowly. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.

I am thankful for these “extra” four years I have had with my mom. Dropping my barely-begun career to come here had the unexpected benefit of allowing me to see it wasn’t right for me and giving me a chance to explore things that may be. We have no extra money, but we get by, which is more than many Americans can say these days. I even have very (very) rudimentary health insurance.

But I won’t be free to have my own adult life again–you know, with friends, and socializing, and living in a part of the world that doesn’t make me miserable, and uninterrupted sleep at night, and sweet, sweet, precious alone time–until she dies. I had some chronic low-level health problems that have grown into scary health problems, most of which boil down to the stress of watching someone you love in agony and fear, yet not really wanting to die, yet always seeming as if they might die any moment, for years. And the rock-and-a-hard-place bind of knowing you can’t be free until your loved one dies, yet not wanting to be the kind of person who wishes a loved one dead, which you don’t, but you want to be free. I get irritable and bitchy and then feel ashamed of myself.

The most important thing to me now is to ensure my mom gets the best death possible, whenever it may come. Modern medicine saved her from a bad death in her youth, but has cheated her of a good death in her old age. Like many a caregiver before me I lament that our social and medical systems are all about increasing quantity of life at the expense of quality. I am grateful beyond what words can express to the hospice nurses who are (fingers crossed) making it possible for my mom to die at home, in relative comfort, but she will not go gently into that good night, oh no, she will fight tooth and nail to hold on because that’s her nature. She’s hell-bent on survival no matter how miserable it makes her.

I lack the magical chops to be an effective psychopomp myself. I can, and do, ask for help from the real deal and from my ancestors–some of whom are themselves psychopomps if legend is to be believed. Happily my aunts, my mom’s sisters who are already dead, have appeared in my dreams several times to assure me they are on it. It’s still important to me, ethically, personally, and spiritually, to step up and do my part as a steward while my mom is still alive–preferably without measurably shortening my own life or flying into a homicidal rage or indigo depression in the process. I am mostly making a mess of it. I am not a practical person and even if I weren’t always exhausted I would still be a terrible procrastinator.

I welcome any thoughts on this. Have you ever stewarded someone into a good death? How did you conceive your role and responsibilities?

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Chrysanthemum Festival

chrysanthemum-202483_1920

For the past couple days, this date–9 September–has been nagging at me. I knew it was supposed to be significant, but couldn’t remember why. Maybe it’s just because I know that in East Asian cultures, when the day and month are the same number, and especially when that number is odd, it’s a festival day. The 5th day of the 5th month is Boys’ Day/Dragon Boat Festival, the 7th day of the 7th Month is the Star Festival, and so on. But although I’ve visited Japan and Korea quite a bit, it has always been in summer, so I haven’t had the opportunity to experience most of the seasonal festivals, including this one; I have a sort of vague sense that they exist is all. But I had a strong urge to find out what 9/9 might be about.

Turns out today is the celebration of the Chrysanthemum Festival in Japan. The festival properly belongs to the 9th day of the 9th lunar month, but whereas in China lunar dates are still observed, in Japan they have been shifted to the Gregorian solar calendar. In China it is more commonly known as the Double Ninth Festival or Double Yang Festival. Odd numbers are associated with yang (and even numbers with yin), and as 9 is the highest single-digit yang number, yang energy is thought to be at a peak on this day. This year, the lunar date of the festival is 21 October–which is proper autumn, unlike today in Southern California where it is 103 degrees and most definitely still summer.

For wealthy Chinese, the festival seems to have grown increasingly aesthetically elaborate, with displays of assorted chrysanthemum cultivars, mountain- or hill-top picnics, drinking of crysanthemum wine with toasts to the celebrants’ longevity, and composing and reciting poems.

chrysanthemum-805718_1280

However, I suspect the festival came to my attention, whether it was some long-buried subconscious memory surfacing or something more synchronicitous, because of its ancestor- and mortality-themed aspects. I don’t know if I’m becoming especially ancestor-oriented lately, or if my ancestors are clamoring for attention. I think, due to life circumstances which I will touch on in my next couple of posts, it’s a little of both. It is interesting that the chrysanthemum is associated with death in both Western and Eastern cultures; perhaps because, “Blooming late in autumn, the chrysanthemum signals the coming of winter, and death…” (Casal 1967: 102). I suppose it’s equally possible that Europeans simply imported the Asian symbolic associations of mums along with the flowers themselves.

Casal (op. cit.) speculates that in its original form, prior to being co-opted for rich people’s poetry parties, the chrysanthemum festival was a solar ritual focused on the mutual preservation of the sun’s and people’s vitality through the winter. I’m not sure I buy the solar hypothesis per se, but I do think that the complex symbolism of the chrysanthemum–mourning and melancholy, good health and longevity (it’s an important herbal medicine in Asia), protection and purification–make the most sense in the context of the contemplation of and encounter with our own mortality. And although I couldn’t find a single decently-cited internet source* (not even on Google Scholar) with much information on the Chrysanthemum or Double Ninth Festivals, I did find repeated references to it being a day to honor ancestors and the elderly. Note that there are other festivals and ceremonies in honor of the dead at other times of year, which might be why this aspect of the Chrysanthemum Festival has been downplayed over the years.

*This is why I didn’t bother putting in many links. If you’re interested, google Double Ninth and Chrysanthemum Festival and you will easily find the few crummy sources available. They mostly just repeat each other.

On appropriation

What is appropriation? And what does it mean for magic?

Appropriation is a topic that circulated through the magical blogosphere a couple years ago, but it still gets referred to frequently in passing. Honestly, I am tired of it. But it seems de rigeur that one should articulate a position on the topic, and I kind of promised I would when I wrote about Xi Wangmu and the Star Festival. I hate to conform to trends, but on the other hand, the worries about appropriation are a reflection of wider social trends in the West and I do think it is useful to critically consider the issue, so here I go…generating more questions than answers.

I am not even going to address the ubiquitous hipster violations of good taste. I’m talking to, and about, people making respectful, good-faith efforts not to trespass on or steal from others.

appropriation

Just to get straight to the point, my opinion is that the real problem is usually not appropriation per se, but alienation or de-contextualization. I guess you could say that I am turning the point of view around, from focusing on the alleged perpetrator to focusing on the implications for the relationships involved. There are two areas of concern: operational and ethical.

Appropriation means co-opting elements of other people’s culture without consent. There is a lot of hand-wringing about it in well-meaning, liberal or “progressive” circles, but mostly it stays in the realm of talk. Calling an injustice out as such is an important task and I don’t want to denigrate that or discourage anyone from doing that, but most of what I see nowadays, from all political sides, is more group-identity-signalling as opposed to any attempt to actually change anything. I don’t intend to go into all the ramifications of white privilege here, because I’m only addressing one aspect of that, I could not possibly hope to cover it comprehensively, and I feel it’s already been done more eloquently than I am capable of. This doesn’t mean I’m not aware of the issues involved. The only reason I am addressing this topic at all is that I want to bring up some points I haven’t seen addressed elsewhere, that I think are worth consideration.

Operational issues

We in the West are heavily invested in essentialist notions of culture, ethnicity, gender, and race that developed along with our imperial ambitions. But contrary to our wishes, cultures are not bounded entities. They have always been permeable, negotiable, in flux–they form, separate, regroup, identify, and reinvent themselves with reference to other groups of people. Even when human population density was very low, due to Homo sapiens’ propensity to move around and covet shiny stuff, human communities were in direct and indirect contact with other groups, exchanging stuff, ideas, and bodily fluids. Yet for some reason, even though reality keeps slapping us in the face with the inadequacy of our models, we don’t easily let go of them.

Archaeologists call the spread of technologies, styles, and objects from group to group “diffusion.” Sometimes it happens through imitation of something seen at a distance; sometimes it happens through direct teaching. At what point does this normal human behavior become the dreaded appropriation?

Anyone active in the Western Magical Tradition is the beneficiary of cultural diffusion. Some major cultural threads in the WMT include Greek, Jewish, and Egyptian, just to name a few. The populace of Alexandria 2000 years ago don’t seem to have been too fussed about the potential ethical perils of syncretism–their focus was operational: Does this work, or doesn’t it?

Abraxas stone
Abraxas stone

These are the operational questions as I see them:

1. If you take X out of its original context, will it still work? Will there be undesirable blowback?

It’s in the magician’s best interest to tread carefully, since we may attract more than rolled eyes and tsk-tsking if we err. (Though–full disclosure–I have not yet been smitten by any wrathful beings. As far as I know.) Magic tends to bring one into the orbit of the sacred, or at least the uncanny. And though globalization is nothing new, its scale is certainly magnified compared to pre-steam engine days; so all of us are constantly within the orbit of other cultures, ethnicities, and identities. Safety requires knowing what you are doing, and more importantly, knowing when you don’t know. Working with magical “tech,” deities or spirits, or charged objects outside their original context means you are taking them into terra incognita. You won’t know how they are going to react until you try, and hopefully you understand there is risk attached to that. Then it’s a matter of pivoting and course correcting as necessary to avoid calamity.

Of course, not everyone is agreed as to what works: e.g., some have argued that deities from different pantheons can’t play nice together; others say it’s no big deal, and rightly point out that pantheons have been mixed since forever. Some have argued that you can’t cherry pick deities from a pantheon, but must work with an entire pantheon together (e.g., multiple posts on this blog); chaos magicians would beg to differ. If we assume that deities and spirits are sufficiently au courant to understand the workings of, e.g., cars, vaccinations, and paper money, why wouldn’t we think that they understand globalization?

2. Can X be known/have meaning outside its original context?

Every attempt to reconstruct or revive religions of old involves de-contextualization (and re-contextualization). Take druidry for example. What we really know about druidry in ancient times pretty much boils down to something something oak trees something something mistletoe something something wicker men. The rest is cobbled together from the testimony of lying and/or baffled Romans, de-contextualized interpretations of de-contextualized oral literature, and UPG. Authenticity is really unattainable, and every act that makes these religions more relatable for us probably alienates it from its original setting. This doesn’t make revived religions invalid, but these uncomfortable facts should not be allowed to go unrecognized. If results is your only metric of success, then the proof is in the pudding. If, on the other hand, your magic is theurgic or goetic, you would presumably care about the answer(s) to this question. Which brings me to the third issue…

3. Are the deities, or spirits, or ancestors, etc. ok with it?

When it comes to dealing with Otherworld beings, I’m not particularly swayed by humans’ dickering over legitimacy and authenticity. If I’m going to be working magically with an inner contact, deity, etc., it seems to me the only person who’s qualified to determine if that’s ok is the being in question. Of course, since my conversations with that being would be UPG, I wouldn’t presume to tell others that my way is the right way for all.

If, on the other hand, I wanted to serve a deity in a religious context, and that religion were still a living tradition, then it would only make sense to become initiated within that tradition. If that were not possible, I wouldn’t claim to be a priestess of that deity.

Ethical issues

The main ethical issue with appropriation in the modern context is whether an empowered group, by co-opting material culture or traditions from a disempowered group, is effectively using that theft as a club to further beat the subaltern down. (Intentionally or not.) Most complaints about appropriation–so far as I have seen–are triggered by the dominant group secularizing and commodifying something sacred to the marginalized group.

1. Is it possible to not appropriate from others?

I think it’s impossible not to appropriate, and that being the case, the term becomes useless. We need vocabulary to distinguish qualitative differences in “appropriation.” To my view, this complicates discussion of the topic. In cultural studies parlance, it’s impossible for, say, African-Americans to be “racist” towards whites, for for women to be “sexist” towards men, because African-Americans and women don’t have the power of an entire social system behind them. In other words, they can feel the bias, but they can’t enforce it.If we extend the same rationale to appropriation, then a disadvantaged group “borrowing” from the dominant culture is not appropriation; and conversely, no matter how innocent the intent, when the dominant group “borrows,” it is always appropriation. So you can see how neither “diffusion” nor “appropriation” really works to cover all aspects of the dynamic.

Globalization is nothing new, and neither are differential power dynamics. Like it or not, de- and re-contextualization are an inevitable part of the interaction of human communities. You don’t think Gravettian mammoth hunters were complaining about those tacky Neandertals appropriating their backed foliate side scrapers or whatever? Well maybe not, but I’ll wager it started up not too long after that.

Consent or permission seems like a pretty good rubric for what is ok to use and what isn’t, but what if we’re talking about the culture of dead ancestors? I mean, we can and undoubtedly should ask those ancestors, but the answer will always be UPG and thus not necessarily universally applicable. I look at this problem much as I do at eating: Since humans are not autotrophs, it’s impossible for us to eat without killing something; but it’s still possible to approach the issue consciously and conscientiously and define a system of personal ethics in light of one’s values. Similarly, viewed in the long duree, appropriation may be unavoidable, but that doesn’t mean we get free license to be dicks about it.

2. Does using X out of context cause unintentional harm? Who gets to determine that? And who then determines the appropriate remedial action or laws?

I know who should not determine those things: The privileged, young, white, liberal, “progressive” Westerners who would like to. As much as they like to think they have the moral high ground for calling attention to the evils of appropriation, there is danger inherent even in anti-appropriation stances: to wit, racial or cultural essentialism and white-guilt-as-noblesse-oblige. Declaring an anti-appropriation stance requires drawing unrealistic notional bounds around cultures–mistaking your abstract heuristic model for reality. This has always been a prerogative of the empowered. Another prerogative is the claim to speak for the disempowered. Even if my intentions are good, if I as a white American draw the boundaries, am I not just reasserting and reifying my own relatively more empowered status? It’s all fine and good to recognize one’s own privilege, but who gives me the right to be the appropriation police?

It is for the harmed to determine whether harm has been done; and yet I have seen claims of appropriation that I think are frankly a bit of a stretch. Just because you personally are offended by something does not mean it is systemic oppression.

In any event, the best remedy is probably going to be an honest assessment of just how much one doesn’t know, and then a respectful, kind, but wary approach to finding out more. A sincere effort not to be a jerk combined with willingness to take responsibility and make amends if necessary seems to me like a good general policy in human relations.

So that is my statement on that.

Connecting to this land–an assay

silvery blue butterfly

I begin with a story to set the stage. It is a very Homo sapiens story.

Sometimes we find ourselves living in places where we just don’t fit, and so it is for me. During my previous incarnation as an academic, one of the topics I studied intensively was human population movements, which archaeologists usually refer to as “migration” although we’re not talking about a seasonal migration like that of animals. Anyway, the motivations for picking up sticks are various, but the pattern is pretty consistent. It usually starts with a bunch of young men in search of land or booty or glory. A few of them settle down in a new place and marry local women. Word gets around that they found a good patch or a made their pile, and others follow–significantly, relatives of those first young men. Entire families start to relocate, along with women and children and animals. From then on, barring some calamity, there is usually a more or less continuous trickle of people from the Old Sod to the New.

This pattern has played out in my own family over and over. I come from a long line of younger sons and daughters of younger sons and daughters. I have traced my ancestry back to the late Roman Empire and perhaps even earlier, but dates get fuzzy that far back–a thousand years or so ago, many of my ancestors were wealthy members of European warrior aristocracies. But by the time my ancestors started coming to the Americas, 350-400 years ago for most of them, they were just ordinary Joes and Janes. The first sons had inherited, so the younger sons had to make their own fortunes, and the daughters had to marry them, or die trying. Younger children of younger children grew ever more distant from the patrilineal line of primogeniture, first becoming poor cousins, then merchants and peasants, until there was no room left for them in Europe, no more booty, no more glory.

A warrior-pillager ethos seems to have been pretty common in European societies, from Odysseus to the Vikings. Its eldest son was empire and colonialism; its youngest son was poverty and exile.

In the last couple generations of my family, this pattern played out again. It started with my uncle, the young warrior (an Air Force officer). He settled where I now find myself, the suburban jungle of greater Los Angeles/inland Southern California. He didn’t have any choice about coming here, but he and his wife decided to stay. His wife, my aunt, was my mother’s eldest sister. When I was away at college, my mother was caring for my grandmother. My aunt promised to help. So my mother followed her family out here. Necessity was the engine of the move, but family was the compass. And when my mother became ill and it was my turn to be the caregiver, I had to move here because she was already too weak to come to where I was. But it all started with a young warrior.

There is no truly empty land, and with young men roaming around in search of brave deeds to do and whatnot, it’s inevitable they will bump up against other people. After all, there has to be somebody else to make war on, somebody else to trade with, somebody else’s women to…er, marry. In the Americas–and maybe other places as well, lost to history–this story became a tragedy when the settlers find their New World inconveniently occupied.


I like cities (lots to do, good food, museums), and I love the countryside (because nature and ponies), but I can’t stand the suburbs. Suburbs have none of those good things. From where I live, you can drive almost an hour in every direction and never leave the suburbs; in some directions you can drive considerably further, like three or four hours, all the way to the sea. One ‘burb simply fades into another. The rivers of this landscape are freeways, the hills are overpasses, the soil is concrete and asphalt, the sky is smog. Everything is tamed, flattened, homogenized, neutered, policed, regimented, and ranked.

Plus it’s hot here. What little green there is, is not native and is inappropriate considering the severity of the drought.

But since this is where I find myself, I have been trying to learn about the land and its history. I have studied some of the native plants. I try to learn the names of the species I encounter so I can try to be friends with them. In spite of all this, it feels incredibly sterile here. I was honestly wondering if the spirits of this land had fled elsewhere, or just gone to sleep underground, to reawaken when wildness comes back to the region.

The first thing I looked for was native folklore, but there isn’t any. No one bothered to write it down in the brief period–about 100 years–between Europeans first settling here and the indigenous peoples being almost exterminated. One of the “Indian Schools” is right in this area–they brought native children from all over the country to this spot to rub the Indianness out of them. There are still some native people left, and I don’t mean to detract from their survival or achievements, but overall, what I see in this area is a monument to their erasure.

Traffic here gets worse every year. When my aunt and uncle first moved here, people regularly commuted to LA to catch a show or visit a museum. Now you take your life in your hands with LA drivers, if you’re willing to put in the hours of freeway commute to get there. So these former bedroom communities have been cut off and are slowly necrotizing. I do believe the apartment complex is in the most moribund neighborhood of these moribund suburbs. On one side is a concrete-and-chain-link drainage channel that only ever has enough water in it to stink. Usually it’s full of trash and invasive plants. On the opposite side is an abandoned orchard full of dead and neglected trees–at least the cats love that place–and a small nursing home where Alzheimer’s patients are sent to die. The nursing home is hidden from the street, but you can tell where it is because the driveway is lined with cypresses, the “mourning trees.” How perfect.

And yet, the river.

The Santa Ana river–Wanaawna to the Tongva people–flows from the San Bernardino mountains,  across the heart of the Inland Empire, through the Santa Ana mountains that bear her name, and onto the flats of Orange County, out to the sea. She may not seem very grand compared to your Nile or your Mississippi, but she is ancient, millions of years old, and her watershed covers more than 2500 square miles.

Santa Ana river in flood, 1938.
Santa Ana river in flood, 1938.

Every generation, the river would flood, bringing nutrient-dense river silt to the plain. It was this silt that made this area so agriculturally rich. (In the early 1890s, Riverside was the wealthiest city in the nation thanks to citrus agriculture.) But flooding and permanent settlements are not very compatible, and the last great flood in 1938 killed more than 50 people, so they lined much of the river bed with concrete, made her straight where she was curvy, built dams and drains, flumes, canals, and ditches, and now they say there will never be another flood. I wonder. Although I don’t want to see anyone hurt or made homeless, part of me wants the river to flood, to show everyone that Wanaawna cannot be tamed.

My garden allotment is in the mouth of what once was a shallow canyon where seasonal storm water flowed to the river. It actually has its own microclimate, a few degrees cooler and just a little more humid than the rest of this dusty place. We gardeners share the place with rabbits, mice, ground and tree squirrels, raccoons, snakes, coyotes, teenage skateboarders, bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, roadrunners, bicyclists, and a homeless community. My point is it’s a desirable locale. And it’s all because of the river.


Recently I’ve been thinking that I’ve gone as far as I can with book learning about this area, and while my meditation skills are still pretty weak, I decided to just go ahead and try to make contact with the genius of this land. (I tend to be unwilling to move forward until I have perfected whatever skill I’m currently working on, and sometimes I have to remind myself that perfection will never happen–and neither will progress, unless I just go for it.) As the first part of my story shows, this isn’t a land where I have any natural links–no deep ancestral roots, no particular love for the scenery, no attachment to any denizens other than my small immediate family. When my mom passes, I don’t expect I’ll linger here. But who knows what the Fates have in store? This is where I am now, and I’m sure there is much it could teach me if I can only bring myself to open to it. And so the obvious candidate for me to try contacting in vision was the river herself, as the dominant natural feature and shaper of this land.

There’s not a lot to tell. I guess it’s not much of a reward for you, if you’ve stuck with me this long! I was interrupted at what I anticipated would be about the halfway point. Oh and also I’m not very good at this yet. I saw the river in her natural state in a kind of flyover, racing from the source out to the sea; then I was taken back to the source, but this time I could see a native person canoeing down the river. It was impressed upon me that the river enabled many cultures to travel and communicate along her length. And then it was just water rushing over me, on and on.

At the end of the vision I saw the lined, brown face of an old gnomish woman–that’s why I call the river “she”–and then in a flash, superimposed on her face, a glowing blue butterfly.

I tried to research the butterfly, but aside from finding out that there are several species of blue butterfly in the area, I can’t find any stories or traditions that might explain or describe it.

Since this vision, I have been struck several times by the beauty of moving water. I suppose that sounds sort of duh; I mean, we’re in the middle of a horrendous drought and we live on the edge of the desert, obviously water is precious. All I can say is that I am more aware. I see this silvery luminosity in it, and the simple act of pouring out a stream of water for a plant touches me and makes me feel connected in a way it never did before.

I plan to revisit the river, both physically and in vision. If I learn any more I will share it, though of course it’s only my UPG. I’d like to try drawing what I see too, though my art skillz are not up to the job.

Santa-Ana-River

Xi Wangmu and the Star Festival

Tanabata streamers and wishes.
Tanabata streamers and wishes.

Tanabata, or the Star Festival (the 7th day of the 7th month, by either the lunar or solar calendar), is a holiday I was introduced to while staying in Japan. According to legend, on this day each year, two mythic lovers separated by the Milky Way are reunited. In China, where the story originates, the festival is known as Qixi or the Festival to Plead for Skills, and in Korea as Chilseok. When the festival is celebrated according to the solar calendar, it corresponds generally to the beginning of the summer monsoon rains, when the oppressive heat and humidity becomes slightly more tolerable; however, in the lunar calendar it falls around mid-August and was originally the beginning of autumn.

Andromeda Galaxy and the Milky Way

In brief–Orihime (the star Vega), the weaver-princess, was the daughter of the King of Heaven. She fell in love with Hikoboshi the cowherd (Altair). But when they were together, Orihime neglected her weaving and Hikoboshi his cattle, so the King of Heaven cast them apart and created the River of Heaven (the Milky Way) to keep them apart. Orihime was grief-stricken at the loss of her husband, so the King of Heaven agreed to let the couple meet once a year on the 7th day of the 7th month. But neither could cross the river, until the magpies, or in some versions the magpies and crows, made a bridge for them.

In one Chinese version of the story, Orihime (or as she is known in Chinese, Zhinu) is the daughter of Xi Wangmu (the Queen Mother of the West, or Great Female Ancestor of the West) rather than the King of Heaven. Xi Wangmu is a very ancient deity, whose cult exploded in popularity during the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), and one that I find particularly fascinating. I am indebted to the webpage “Xi Wangmu, the shamanic great goddess of China” by Max Dashu for the following information.

Xi Wangmu lives between heaven and earth, in a paradise garden among the clouds on Jade Mountain or She Wu (“Female-Snake-Shaman”) Mountain. In her garden grows the World Tree which bears peaches of immortality. With her are various magical animals, including the three-footed crow, the nine-tailed fox, the rabbit in the moon, phoenixes, and qilin. In a 3rd-century AD scroll, Xi Wangmu describes herself thus: “With tigers and leopards I form a pride; Together with crows and magpies I share the same dwelling place.”

“Xi Wang Mu controls the cosmic forces: time and space and the pivotal Great Dipper constellation. With her powers of creation and destruction, she ordains life and death, disease and healing, and determines the life spans of all living beings. The energies of new growth surround her like a cloud. She is attended by hosts of spirits and transcendentals. She presides over the dead and afterlife, and confers divine realization and immortality on spiritual seekers.”

Xi Wangmu, right, with tiger teeth and a leopard's tail.
Xi Wangmu, right, with tiger teeth and a leopard’s tail.

In the earliest representations of her, Xi Wangmu looks like a human but has the teeth of a tiger and tail of a snow leopard. The tiger is the directional symbol of the west, and may have been since the very dawn of Chinese civilization in the Neolithic. She bears a staff, and wears a sheng headdress marking her as a weaver “who creates and maintains the universe” and controls the stars and constellations. The involvement of Xi Wangmu in the myth of Tanabata might indicate that it was originally a festival in her honor:

“This sign [the sheng headdress] was regarded as an auspicious symbol during the Han dynasty, and possibly earlier. People exchanged sheng tokens as gifts on stellar holidays, especially the Double Seven festival in which women’s weaving figured prominently. It was celebrated on the seventh day of the seventh month, at the seventh hour, when Xi Wangmu descended among humans. Taoists considered it the most important night of the year, ‘the perfect night for divine meetings and ascents.’ [Cahill, 16, 167-8] It was the year’s midpoint, ‘when the divine and human worlds touch,’ and cosmic energies were in perfect balance.”

(My emphasis.) After the Han Dynasty, the worship of Xi Wangmu was blamed for inciting ecstatic peasant movements and especially for too many uppity women peasants, so the goddess was “civilized.” Gone were her wild hair and fangs, replaced by royal robes and jewels, and her opposite, the Queen Mother of the East, was replaced by the King Father of the East to balance out what was perceived as an excess of feminine directional power and yin. In some literature she was demoted to mortal human status, or even depicted as a kind of succubus. Nevertheless Xi Wangmu remained beloved by the people, who often referred to her as “Nanny.”

tanabata streamers

Inspired by a miraculous tale of love, or by the awesome cosmic powers of Xi Wangmu, Tanabata is a day to make wishes for the fulfillment of long-cherished dreams, in particular the desire for new skills. People write these wishes on slips of paper and hang them on tree branches, and colorful streamers decorate the streets. Japanese festivals are open to all comers, being a matter of community participation rather than religious or cultural identification, while the stars are visible from all over Earth (albeit different ones in different hemispheres), so I don’t think there are any issues of appropriation to fear here.

If you wish to celebrate the Star Festival, you can complement the colorful modern traditions with more ancient ones, including:

  • Nine lamps dedicated to Xi Wangmu
  • Propitiating ghosts and the dead
  • Sewing fall/winter clothes, embroidery, weaving
  • Offerings of melons and fruit, candles, incense, and miniature clothing, shoes, or furniture in groups of seven
  • A “wish-fulfillment banquet”