Smudging is not just for the woo.
‘Cause if my mom can smudge, you can too!
My mother is most emphatically not woo-woo. She’s not even woo-curious.
(At least that’s what she wants me to believe, but I remember her sitting on the edge of my bed when I was a half-asleep twelve-year-old and asking me to guess which color she was thinking of. I must have failed abysmally, moving Mom forever to the non-woo end of the spectrum!)
Yet despite Mom’s more mainstream thinking, when her house was on the market (sitting, unmoving on the market) she asked me if there was some ceremony she could do to move things along. (more…)
Late autumn: the final unwinding… the dying back… the sinking in. The nights are long, the light is crisp, the magic is close. Use this time to prepare yourself, body and spirit, for the deep inner-workings of Winter.
Winter is the time of compost and of the crone; it’s the underworld and the undoing, when even colors lose their vigor to the season’s whites and grays and browns. It’s the time of accepting death. (more…)
“Am I doing this right? Will you tell me how you do ritual?”
I’m asked this all the time.
So this is it: the big reveal, your glimpse behind the curtain of my Samhain rituals:*
I woke to morning mist, a frisson in the air. The day had all the hallmarks of magical and I was determined to make the most of it.
First stop, Instagram (’cause that’s super-magical, right?). I found a great photo by Poppy Baruch and quickly dictated this post:
Before I wax prolific on Samhain, I need to send you to check out Poppy Barach’s Instagram feed @poppybarach. The images are moody and nostalgic and so yummy…
…especially today as the veils thin and we slip into liminal space which, for me, lasts ‘til Winter solstice.
When I lived in Ireland, studying under a traditional healer, this day was pure magic. It felt like I became transparent and all the myths and stories of my being rose up through layers of self to be worn on my skin… like my cosmic insides became my outsides. I painted a black band over my eyes, wove feathers in my hair, and called the most ancient bird goddesses to cloak me in their grace.
There and then, in that place and that time out of time, it felt not like a costume but a revelation. We told stories into the night, set intentions into apple seeds (to be planted for the year to come), danced to the bodhran, and left heaping plates of sweets and shots of whiskey under the hawthorn for any spirits or ancestors abroad in the night…
By morning it was a dream, a passing fancy, dishes to do and crumbs on the floor…
But every year, on this day, the gates open and I once again hear the goddesses laughing.
It occurred to me, as it does every Samhain, that there was very little chance this Samhain was going to live up to that one. But this particular memory is precious; I pull it out and dust it off year after year, because it reminds me of how we can slip, back and forth, from real time to mystical time, how we humans can become gods and goddesses for a night, how the spirit of the many overlapping worlds longs to move in us and through us.
I had no real plans for the evening, no bodhrans wallowing in the closet, no friends coming by for stories and craic.
Then this appeared in my Instagram feed (I told you it was magic):
riverislandapothecary Cool, so whiskey shots at your house tonight? I’m there!! 😆✨😇🕸✨🕸
Whiskey and craic—things were suddenly looking up!
The day went on, as days do. I ran about, getting ready for this weekend’s retreat, taking care of things for Witch Camp and Medicine Keepers, doing the usual doings of the day.
Shannon, my online community manager, messaged me:
shannon [12:19 PM]
Part of my job is bumbling around Facebook to spread witchy cheer…um, what did I do to deserve this life?!?
maia [12:21 PM]
I no longer have to bumble around on Facebook to spread witchy cheer. What did I do to deserve this life?
Which is not to disparage social media which, on this day, produced whiskey, craic, and what looks to be a kick-ass biscotti recipe.
The latter from a Witch Camper who shared her Nana’s recipe after she and I went back and forth about connecting with lineage and our ancestors through food. You can grab her recipe, which she was kind enough to share, below.
Talk of food got me thinking about my own evening and what would go well with whiskey. Did I have time to cook? Maybe something super-simple like apple cobbler… which was actually perfect since we ate apples, wishing on the seeds, as part of our Samhain celebration in Ireland, plus I had apples from my friend’s farm.
As I chopped the apples, I sent a bit of gratitude to my friend who grew the apples. My mind wandered to the ways in which food connects us, the similarities between Celtic culture and the Jewish cultures I grew up, the prevalence of apples in world myth, my mother’s apple cake recipe… hey, is that really Grandma’s recipe? I decided to use real sugar, ’cause Grandma would have. And… I almost forgot… Grandma had a luncheonette. What did she cook there? I texted my mom.
And so the spirits began to creep closer, whispering of meals past and afternoons in the heat of the kitchen.
I love cooking a beautiful meal on Samhain, a meal which I share with the ancestors. I put out what I call a spirit plate—a bit of everything on the table—to honor those who came before.
What do they say? Man plans, God laughs?
Early in the evening the dogs—both of them—came down with some sort of stomach bug. The kind of stomach bug that means I’m making them rice and boiled turkey for dinner. Which really is no trouble… except that the gas cooktop has been glitchy and I’m cooking on a hotplate. A one burner hotplate.
All of a sudden I crossed that invisible line, the one which divides I can handle this from I’m losing my mind.
I texted Andrew pick up something for dinner.
Do spirits like take-out?
By the time our friends arrived we’d been fed, watered, and I’d regained my equilibrium. The cobbler was both tart and sweet and the whiskey smooth.
Around 10 pm we heaped a plate with cobbler, filled a mason jar with whiskey, and lit a few candles.
The moon was cresting the tree tops as we placed the plate on a flat stone next to the driveway, the whiskey nestled next to it and the candles propped in crevices between the rocks.
Ummmm… I said, I usually just send a silent call to my ancestors and any others who may be abroad tonight. And a thank you, definitely a thank you, to the spirits of this place.
We all stood in companionable silence for a few minutes.
When we’d returned inside, I turned to my friend: I hope you didn’t expect me to call the quarters or something. I really only do that when I’m alone, I confessed.
Me too! she said and we laughed with relief. The conversation turned to more comfortable things: witches in Romania; how to best teach about essential oils, scent, and divination; and a piece of property they’re thinking about buying.
Why am I telling you all this about my Samhain rituals?
Because we live in a world where people shout out their best and worst moments—their most dramatic times, each documented as though it were a magazine spread. But the truth is: most of life happens in between these extremes, a lot of it’s not particularly elegant or lyrical.
Even when I’ve had a particularly mystical day, there are still dishes to wash: first the magic, then the mopping.
So if you’re wondering if you did it right, if your Samhain was magical enough, I want to give you permission to just be real, to embrace both the magic and the mopping. Ritual doesn’t have to be picture perfect, it just has to leave you feeling a little more whole and a bit more connected.
* Samhain is pronounced sow-when. It’s the ancient Celtic New Year and a mystical time of year when ancestors are honored and the spirits wander abroad.
P.S. Kim, one of my Witch Campers, honored her Nana by sharing this fabulous recipe with all of us. Kim writes:
Nana’s Almond and Whiskey Biscotti
My Nana was the mother of 8, grandmother of 42 (I’m the oldest) and great Nana to 39 (my son the oldest). She was first generation Italian and taught all of us grandchildren how to cook, knit, crochet and sew. I’ve been thinking so hard about her the last few weeks and feeling her presence (she promised before she died to visit me in the kitchen 🤗) so I decided to make her biscotti recipe. It’s very time consuming but I promise your house will smell like a hug and your tummy will thank you.
The Amazon was never on my bucket-list. Fist-sized spiders? No thanks.
But when I was asked to join a shaman and a botanist in the Peruvian rainforest to lead a trip for ACEER (The Amazon Center for Environmental Education and Research), I couldn’t say no.
It wasn’t because the Amazon rainforest is home to more than 40,000 plants and 430 mammals. Or because it’s considered the lungs of the earth, producing about 20% of our oxygen.
I decided to take on giant mosquitoes and a hundred percent humidity because I was a little obsessed with the mythos of the shaman.
To be clear, I was not obsessed with Americans who have studied shamanism. I was a member of that tribe already. Standing around a fire and calling in jaguar energy felt like wearing clothes that pinched in some places and gaped in others. What did I know of jaguars? I wasn’t sure I’d even seen one in a zoo.
So the chance to teach beside a for-real shaman? Irresistible.
I worked myself into quite the pre-trip tizzy, shopping for mosquito-proof clothing (hint: there’s no such thing) and shoes which would be light and comfortable while still protecting my ankles from snakes. And since I was going to be teaching, I aimed for clothes which would look respectable while soaked in sweat.
When I arrived in Peru, I quickly realized I’d put a lot more effort into my wardrobe than Don Antonio. I’d finally met a for-real shaman and he dressed like an American grandfather about to hit the shopping mall. I loved him immediately.
Don Antonio was generous with his small stash of English, telling me stories of his grueling and often lonely childhood training in the jungle. As a child and teenager, he wished more than anything to be normal, to play soccer and laugh with his friends. When he was old enough, he escaped the family shaman business by joining the army.
But eventually the jungle called him back.
Whatever you may think when you encounter the word “shaman”, erase those thoughts from your mind.
Imagine instead someone who finds joy in the smallest thing, who observes patiently and kindly, and who doesn’t bind himself with unnecessary rules.
While we were traveling, I got a urinary tract infection. Don Antonio delivered cucumber juice to my room each morning to cool the burning. But despite traveling through the largest living pharmacy on the planet, there was nothing on hand which would clear the infection. For me, taking an antibiotic is always a decision; in this situation it seemed cosmically ironic.
As I sat in the mess hall contemplating the white capsule, Don Antonio joined me. He took the capsule in his hand and focused on it for a few moments before closing my hands around the pill. He put his hands over mine. “You take,” he instructed, smiling infectiously.
I knew in that moment it wasn’t about the pill; it was about the energy I put into taking it.
I also knew I’d learned more from being with Don Antonio for a few minutes than I had from years of study.
So I continued to watch.
I studied him in the back of the boat, making microscopic movements with his fingers and chuckling to himself. He caught me watching and nodded toward the trees. I scanned the treeline, baffled.
It was a few days before I realized he was imitating the sloths, perezoso in Spanish. They hung from branches high in the canopy, the moss growing off their backs blending them into the foliage. Sloths do move, but you’ll need a huge dose of patience to see it.
Don Antonio imitated their slow-motion movement, amusing himself for hours as we toured up and down the river.
When I returned to the States, I spent a few days imitating my dogs; I’ll still “get in the skin” of any animal I want to know better by mimicking their movements.
Yes, there were ceremonies, but they’ve flowed from my mind like the water of that mighty river. What has stayed is the joy, the patience, the deep respect and observation, and the sense of being “one with” and “part of.”
I’m still obsessed with the idea of the shaman, but I know now they wear many faces and labels. I see a shaman’s joy in a photo of the Dalai Lama and deep respect in the eyes of my dog’s veterinarian. The herbal world has many women who exude “one with” and my carpenter embodies deep patience and care.
Being a shaman is about taking the time to know deeply. It’s a gift which lives like a seed in each of our souls.
Tell me, what bit of the shaman lives within you?
“Listen to your inner voice.”
Easily instituted advice if you’re on a silent retreat or doing a weekend of journeywork, but harder in the midst of daily life when you’re not sure you can hear your own thoughts—let alone the voice of your heart.
I have a secret for you:
Your biggest hurdle to hearing your inner truth is getting out of reaction mode.
When you’re in fight-or-flight response and can’t hear the voice of your heart, you’re actually not supposed to; our bodies are hardwired to get us out of danger.
(If neolithic woman hung around wondering if it was her dharma to get eaten by the saber-toothed tiger, our species would have died off long ago. Which I’m sure some would argue would’ve been a good thing.)
Your hair-trigger fight-or-flight reflex works great for tigers of the saber-toothed variety but not so well for daily modern life…
…. which admittedly sometimes leaves you feeling like you’re being chased by a whole streak of tigers (yes, that’s really what a group of tigers is called—a streak. Thus giving us a moment when humans—and human language—are sooooo cool).
The most important thing to know about being in constant, low-grade reaction: you don’t realize you’re in it.
So you think you’re being ridiculously rational, but you’re behaving more like a drunk driver who’s sure she’s road-safe.
In order to break the cycle, you’ve got to build some calming into your day, whether you think you need it or not.
My daily ritual?
(It only works if you stay off social media while you’re sipping.)
Turn the process into ritual:
- As you boil the water, notice the interaction of fire and water.
- Listen to your favorite song while your tea steeps (tea = water and earth).
- Breathe in the steam (water and air) before your first sip.
- Taste your tea. Roll it on your tongue before swallowing.
- Remember this is your time. I don’t answer the phone or finish the laundry. I sit and sip and breathe.
I’m a black tea drinker myself—a holdover from my time in Ireland—but milky oats, holy basil, a little chamomile or lemon balm will all help you calm the heck down. I sometimes add cinnamon or roses to my assam, both of which work wonders for my stress levels.
(The cinnamon is more personal than medicinal. My Aunt Ceil would make cinnamon tea and it’s atavistically soothing for me.)
Tea not your thing? No worries: it doesn’t much matter what you do (as long as it calms you). It matters that it’s daily. The dailyness is what lets you break out of fight or flight mode (’cause remember you might not realize you’re in it).
The other day whilst sipping tea, I listened to FDR’s “there is nothing to fear but fear itself” speech.
Roosevelt knew the power of fear. He knew a bunch of humans in reaction mode was truly something scary.
You are beautiful and strong and full of purpose. Find your daily check-in, whatever it is that lets you come back to center and share the power of your heart.
Tell me in the comments below how you will be finding some quiet in these overly loud times.
I learned something while leading the Witch Camp retreat last weekend.
Maybe learned is the wrong word; languaged may be better…
‘Cause I’ve been learning this for a long, painful time.
Self-contained: making a container of the self. I’d never been particularly good at that.
When something bad happened, I’d reach for the phone, telling my story over and over to whoever would listen.
But a decade ago something odd started to happen:
I’d chain-dial, friend after friend, working down the list… and each call would go to voicemail. When no one picked up, I would run to Facebook and spill my emotions over hundreds of “friends” who would in turn ignite, exacerbate or offer platitudes. Which makes perfect sense; they didn’t know me, so all they saw was a reflection of themselves.
Fate, serendipity, coincidence? Whatever it was left me no choice: I had to begin to hold my own feelings, to become a container for rage and grief, sadness and joy. And as I learned to hold my own story, to honor the feelings moving moving through my soul, I found I no longer needed someone else to pick up the phone and corroborate it.
As I learned to cradle my hurts and angers, I felt something within come into balance, like I’d plugged an energy leak that’d been seeping for decades.
What am I telling you?
Feel your feelings. Feel them. See how they move through your gut and your liver, scratch at your heart and claw at the backs of your eyeballs. Rage and cry and moan. Laugh and sing. Becoming a container doesn’t mean you should shut it down. Holding your story sacred is not the same as stuffing it or suffering in silence.
Let emotion expand you, let it be a deep belly breath that makes you wiser and more compassionate, that fills you, then empties you.
When I allow this process to move through me, there’s a release at the end. A letting go that feels more complete than the brain-on-a-hamster wheel feeling I got from sharing with seventeen friends. A stillness, a quietude.
I wish this for you.
25 women (myself included) who work at the juncture of spirit and wellness are sharing their stories as well as tips to help you wholly live yours. Join us here.
And as we move through these times, loud with pain and opinion, hold your story sacred so when you choose your words and actions, they come from the stillness of your heart.
Have something to say? Comment below.