Seasonal sadness—the slow sinking into darkness—is not a new phenomenon.
The low light of winter has been bringing people down since the Greeks inked the myth of Persephone. It goes like this:
Persephone was walking on a hillside with her friends when she came across the most beautiful flower. She was captivated by its bloom and its sweet smell, and she paused to be with it, her heart full of joy.
The flower was a narcissus, grown by the Goddess Gaia, at the request of her son Hades, who was in love with Persephone.
“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 Barach 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 bodhrán (traditional Irish drum), 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 bodhráns 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 in, 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. Download it by clicking Get the Recipe! 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.
So much of who we are is contained in the folds and crevices of this incredible organ called a brain; we rarely think about brain health, about the mechanics of how we think, or about how this truly miraculous organ works, until it begins to fail.
The good news? It doesn’t have to. But in order to create that future, we need to start thinking differently now.
My friend Charis Lindrooth has been studying the brain for years. Below, in her own words, is her very best advice:
As a student in chiropractic school one of the greatest privileges I experienced was holding a human brain in my hands. Just three pounds of what feels and looks like a pile of fresh sausages governs the entire workings of our body and is entirely responsible for who we are, what we think, how we behave, as well as a myriad of bodily functions.
The mystery that remains hidden within these grey coils still astounds and intrigues me.
The internet is full of news breaking the old way of thinking that fat is bad, and by now most of us have a clue that we need healthy fats to stay healthy, and even that eating these fats can help us lose weight. But did you know that almost two-thirds of your brain is made of fatty tissues, and that the integrity of these tissues depends on a diet rich in fatty acids, the building block for fatty tissues?
Most likely you have been convinced in the past that eating fat is a bad thing for your health. The media, advertisers, food manufacturers and even scientists have warned against the deleterious effects of eating foods with any sort of fats. Products such as phony eggs, or egg white only eggs, no fat milk, cheese and other dairy products, have replaced the real deal. Low fat processed foods have relied on sugar and other not-so-healthy additives to make them more satisfying… and less nourishing.
The consequence? Our brains are starving. The consequence of that? Our nation suffers from a startling rise in Alzheimer’s and cognitive issues.
- 1:3 people over the age of 85 have Alzheimer’s disease. With an increase in age span, the thought of living for years with dementia can be frightening.
- The rate of autism in children has increased more than 100% since the year 2000, from 1:150 to 1:68 kids.
- Approximately 7% of adults in the US suffers from anxiety and depression—diagnosed, that is. We know that many cases of mild depression go undiagnosed or ignored.
David Ludwig, MD, PhD at Harvard University writes about the connection between obesity, cravings and dietary consumption of fat. His book, Always Hungry? Conquer Cravings, Retrain Your Fat Cells and Lose Weight Permanently, highlights the important role dietary fat plays in our feelings of satisfaction.
Dr. Ludwig points to insulin as a type of “Miracle Grow for your fat cells.” When we eat too many refined carbohydrates, a habit that often results when we are avoiding fat, our pancreas releases a rush of insulin.
Insulin is a good thing. It acts like an usher escorting glucose molecules out of the blood, where it can wreak havoc, into the cells of the body where it is needed for energy production.
Too much sugar intake is handily stored as fat, a sort of storage unit to be used when food later becomes scarce. But when our carb intake rises, insulin does too, and persistent levels of insulin create a myriad of problems which ultimately leads to Type II and Type III diabetes. Chronic high levels of insulin not only strain the pancreas, but also keep us feeling hungry, never satiated, and make it impossible for us to burn the fat we are so busy stockpiling.
Dr. Ludwig states that the simplest way to reduce chronically high insulin is to eat more fat. Ironically his research indicates that a healthy intake of fat reduces our cravings for sugary foods, helps us feel full and helps us maintain healthy blood sugar and insulin levels. There is evidence that periodic fasting is also helpful, since it helps to make the cells more responsive to insulin, potentially decreasing the need for higher and higher levels of insulin to clear the blood stream of glucose.
I wish to high heaven this meant we could eat ice cream for breakfast, and potato chips for lunch.
But there is a difference between healthy and not so healthy fats. Naturally, one can only achieve good health at the hands of healthy fats—foods like avocados that contain raw, unadulterated nourishment. Coldwater fish like salmon, raw nuts and seeds, and eggs from chickens that eat vegetation and insects regularly. Grass-fed and finished meats are also helpful.
This same principle can be applied to healthy brain function as well. A diet rich in healthy fats is essential to maintain a youthful, high-functioning brain.
Fats that occur in processed foods, or that contain heated, processed or hydrogenated fats are obviously on the “NO!” list. These fats are found in foods like french fries, packaged crackers, chips, cookies, donuts, fried foods, ketchup, mayonnaise, salad dressings and bread. These fats can make the cell membranes of your brain, of the neurons, rigid and unresponsive.
And guess what? Rigid unresponsive cell membranes don’t work well. They can’t receive proper nourishment, or send messages properly.
They degenerate, and then they promote brain inflammation. If your brain isn’t working as well as you’d like it to, take a look at your diet first thing and entirely eliminate foods which contain unhealthy fats. Which fats promote healthy brain and body functions? Essential fatty acids are the key components of healthy fats. Two essential fatty acids that should be part of your diet are omega 3 and omega 6.
Essential fatty acids provide building blocks for:
- Fluid cell membranes which conduct messages fluently and easily take in nourishment to stay healthy
- Fatty tissues that make up our brain and nervous tissue
- Healthy hormone and cholesterol production
- Healthy immune and inflammatory responses
- Blood pressure and stroke prevention
- Healthy skin and hair
Signs of fatty acid deficiency include poor brain function and endurance, inflammation, achey joints or muscles, arthritis, dry skin or skin rashes, dandruff and hormone imbalances. Eating fried foods, partially hydrogenated processed foods can bring on deficiencies, as can lack of dietary consumption of fatty fish, raw nuts and seeds, uncooked olive oil and avocados.
Omega 3’s are readily available in cold water fish such as salmon and sardines. If you are vegetarian you can also get them from micro algae products. This is the essential fatty acid-rich algae that the cold water fish eat. Fish oil contains 2 very important fatty acids: DHA (docosahexanoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentanoic acid). When you buy a standard fish oil supplement these two are usually in a ratio of approximately 1:1.
DHA is particularly useful for brain function, especially brain fatigue or brain fog. You might consider using a product that has a high DHA level if you have memory issues, concentration or focus issues, mood swings or other chemical imbalance in your brain, or a family history of dementia. This is because DHA is a major building block of the brain and essential nutrient for function of the neurons, supporting growth of neuronal dendrites, improving the ability of the neurons to release neurotransmitters and enhancing communication between neurons.
DHA has also been shown to boost brain endurance, improve quality of life and reduce the incidence of dementia by improving both long and short term memory. The only limiting factor of high DHA oils is their price tag.
Fish oil high in EPA is anti-inflammatory and supportive of healthy immune function. It is useful if you have system-wide inflammation such as achy joints, sore muscles, skin rashes, allergies, or autoimmune disease.
Vegetarian sources of omega 3’s are highest in flax oil, but also chlorella, dark green veggies such as kale, eggs, walnuts and pumpkin seeds. These omega 3’s provide ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) which the body must convert to DHA and EPA to be useful. This can be problematic especially if dietary protein is lacking or someone is insulin resistant. A diet high in omega 6’s also inhibit the conversion. A better option might be microalgae omega 3 oil. It is expensive, but may be more sustainable for the environment than fish oils.
How much omega 3 is enough?
Research is now indicating that greater quantities than previously thought are needed for good health. In general you may need about 3500 mg/2000 calories. Most people are falling short of this target, so are not getting the benefit they need from proper supplementation. If you prefer to eat your omega 3s, rather than supplement them, note that a can of Wild Planet Sardines contains about 1000 mg of DHA/EPA as well as B12, Vitamin D, CoQ10 and selenium.
Want the rest of this story? Watch the FREE online class, Eat Fat and Stay Smart
Ready to create your own personal brain care program? Join the 6-week online course Keeping Your Brain Brilliant and use the special code MAIA for $20 off. Learn more here.
Charis Lindrooth, D.C. has helped her patients for more than 20 years, working with plant medicine and natural methods to restore well-being on all levels. During her formal training she fell in love with the brain and spent many hours tutoring the entire neurology class, one of the toughest subjects for students to grasp. Since then she has continued her studies on the brain, focusing especially on natural methods to improve memory and cognition. She has a reputation for teaching difficult topics in a way that is easy to understand. Learn more about her work at CharisLindrooth.com.
“Hello—Herbiary. How can I help you?”
“Hi. I bought Citronella essential oil from you the other day. How many drops should I be taking?”
“Why are you using Citronella essential oil internally?”
“I read on the internet that it’s good for detoxing.”
Oh, of course! Insert sarcasm: If you read it on the internet, it must be true!
People! Please, I beg you:
Do not confuse “I read it on the internet” with empowering yourself to take care of your own health.
Is internal use of Citronella good for detoxing? It depends what you mean by the word “detoxing.” If you mean expelling worms or other parasites, then yes, Citronella can get that done for you and it may be more gentle than pharmaceuticals.
This stuff is as strong as many antibiotics (would you take antibiotics ’cause you want to detox?) and just like when you take antibiotics, you’ll need to rebuild your gut flora when you’re through.
So if what you mean by detox is “I’ve been eating too many sweets and processed foods and I want to give my body a rest and reset,” then no, Citronella is not good for detox.
Although Citronella oil is Generally Regarded As Safe by the FDA the amounts their talking about is minuscule—parts per million—not an entire drop. It takes a ridiculous amount of plant material to make that one drop of oil, more than you’d consume in a month if you were just munching on Citronella… which is a grass, by the way.
Plus whenever you’re putting a strong compound into your body, your liver needs to jump into action, figure out what is it you ingested, and then break it down into usable parts.
Usually when you detox you want to rest your liver. Does this sound restful to you?
If you want to detox, the very best you can do is eat simple, fresh whole foods, and drink lots of water for a week. Cut out all sugars. Lay off the caffeine. Lots of veggies, lots of juice, lots of bone broth. Add some supportive herbal teas like dandelion or burdock root or alternatives like red clover or cleavers (don’t know what an alternative is? Then you really shouldn’t be using essential oils internally. This is basic botanical knowledge and if you’re not willing to do a little learning than you shouldn’t be using the hard-core stuff).
Is some whiny part of you thinking this sounds kinda hard…. I’d rather just take a drop of citronella… ?
I hear you. And I’ve got news for you: being self-empowered isn’t always easy. It takes a bit of discipline to take responsibility for yourself…
… And in that discipline lies freedom.
I want you to be empowered to own your own wellness, to make wise decisions about your well-being. If this is what you want for yourself, you need to be digging deep and cross-referencing what you read. One internet article that randomly came up when you researched “detox” does not make for a wellness plan.
Maybe you’re gonna get into essential oils and do a bit of studying. Maybe you’re gonna realize there’s more to it than you thought and consult with a professional.
Either way, you’re stepping up and taking responsibility for yourself and your healing.
‘Cause your health shouldn’t be dictated by the latest internet fad.
Ready to create your essential oil library?
I’ve made you a list of must-have books here!
“It don’t mean a thing if you ain’t got that jing!”
My teacher, David Winston, used to sing this little jingle when talking about herbs for, ahem, male potency.
Jing sounds a wee bit dirty, doesn’t it? But David’s diddy was actually riffing on the Taoist healing philosophy in which health is based on the balance of three “treasures”: jing, qi, and shen.
Jing is the substance of our selves. It’s our fundamental life force. It lives in the kidneys and the adrenals and from there fuels everything we do. You can think of it as fuel or a battery pack.
Qi is movement and flow. It’s jing in action.
Where does qi come from?
Some of our qi is built into our DNA but most is acquired through air and food: breathing and eating. But here’s what I’ve been learning (life is sometimes too full of lessons): eating and breathing isn’t enough. You have to be able to assimilate what you take in… because if you can’t, then your body begins to dig into your jing, depleting your back stash.
Welcome to my winter.
I can now assure you David was right: it don’t mean a thing if you ain’t got that jing.
If you’ve ever studied with me, you know I harp on digestion.
Why? ‘Cause your immune system and your nervous system both do a lot of their work from your gut. So when your digestion goes to hell, it creates a domino effect.
Digestion should break down what you consume so your body can use it. If you can’t assimilate what comes in, it can’t nourish you… and if you’re malnourished, you start living smaller and smaller.
All of a sudden you’re at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy, simply tending to the physical with no room or energy for anything else.
Here’s what’s fascinating: when you can’t digest your food, it’s hard to digest your experiences.
This may sound metaphoric but it’s more than that: being fully present takes energy. When you’re not being nourished by your food (or oxygenated by your breath) you don’t have the energy to be present in your life or to explore deeper psychological and spiritual states.
Remember the third of the Taoist three treasures?
Shen is our potential, our life’s purpose. It’s our spirit. And it’s powered by a balance of jing and qi.
This is very different from a Western conception of spirit, especially the new age teachings which tell us our thoughts and energy set the tone for our bodies. But the Taoists teach spirit arises from the flow of energy through our physical bodies.
I watch Witch Campers beat themselves up for falling out of spiritual flow.
This winter, I fell out of all of it. I spun into a pit of numbness. And, like my Witch Campers, I beat myself up over it… chastising myself not only for the grayness of my soul but also for not being good enough to do my work in the world. Who are you, I asked myself, to write a blog post or lead a community when you hardly feel like getting out of bed?
When this sort of thing happens (and it happens to each of us, doesn’t it?), we whip out words like depression or seasonal affective disorder.
But for me it wasn’t until I looked from a Taoist point of view that I found relief (and my jing): turns out my digestion was pretty much non-functioning. All that good organic food? It wasn’t making it past the lack of hydrochloric acid in my stomach.
It’s been pretty exciting to feel energy moving through my limbs again. And with the return of qi, my spirit is rekindling. Isn’t that just seasonally appropriate as the forsythia are blooming and the daffodils pushing up through the soil?
Energy effects matter and matter effects energy.
Sometimes we just have to flip our conception of what’s wrong on its head and explore the opposite side of the spectrum. What if your spiritual malaise is actually physical? What if your physical pain is actually emotional or spiritual?
When you’re out-of-sync, it reverberates through all of your being, showing up differently in the physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual bodies. The body in which your symptoms show most strongly may not be the root of the problem.
So if you’re feeling emotionally or spiritually out of sorts, remember: it don’t mean a thing if you ain’t got that jing.
Ever had a similar experience? Share with me!
Big Hugs and Lots of Jing—
“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.