Return of the Light: Seeking Joy

WinterKnightWishI have a hard time with the word “fun.” The words “happy” and “joy” are difficult words too, for that matter. Yet, a year ago around the Winter Solstice I committed to finding more real joy in my life and actually experience that elusive sensation known as happiness. And I found some of it, though I have more seeking to do. Part of my Winter Solstice practices is reviewing the past year and looking forward to the next.

Recently I was trying to explain Yule and the Winter Solstice to my non-Pagan boyfriend. My own spiritual tradition has changed a bit over the years, so I had to think for a bit about what the Solstice still means to me.

I couldn’t really define it by a religious observance with a group, since I don’t have a group I practice with. I couldn’t define it by public ritual offerings as I haven’t hosted rituals in Chicago for a year. I’m a pantheist–barely a theist at that–and there aren’t particular deities I work with that have any Yule practices I’m obliged to perform.

Since my boyfriend is a science geek, I told him a bit about the astronomical importance of the Solstice…in a nutshell, imagine it’s thousands of years ago, the nights are getting darker and longer, the sun is setting further and further south…and suddenly, the sun slowly starts to return north. The nights get shorter. It’s a time of hope that the winter is going to end, that the days will return and there will be food and plenty again.

In fact, as an astronomy geek, that’s always been one of my core attraction to the solstices. I swear, in a past life, I was one of those crazy people who thought that hauling large rocks into place to mark astronomical observances was a great idea.

What Is My Practice?

After I explained the sciency part of things, I had to think about what the Winter Solstice even means for me these days. I tend to work with the dark season from Samhain to Winter Solstice as a time for reflection on the past year, what I accomplished, what I didn’t.

Solstice is, for me, a more spiritual take on New Year’s resolutions. I feel the death of the old year, the things undone, the things I want to release…and I also feel the light of the new year. I look forward to what I’d like to focus on in the coming year.

And as I thought about that, I realize that a lot of my spiritual work isn’t done through solitary ritual with candles and all the trappings–it’s done through writing. Some of you reading this are probably thinking, “Duh. Of course writing is part of your spiritual work.” But sometimes I suppose we each have to re-remember these things for ourselves.

Thus, this post is part of my spiritual practice. And since I took a big risk in seeking joy, I wanted to dig into what it meant for me, and how it played out.

Elusive Joy

I’ve always been a workaholic; I was a straight-A student in school and I suppose that’s probably where I developed the idea that “fun” was for unfocused slackers. I’ve always had a hard time articulating that work–writing, painting, studying, event planning–is “fun” for me. Happiness wasn’t always such a difficult word, but for the past decade, I’ve struggled with depression. When someone asks me what would make me happy, what would bring me joy…I’m genuinely at a loss for what to say.

I’ve been emotionally numb for a long time. People say things like, “Wow, you have another book out! You must be so happy!” And I just think, no, I really don’t feel anything except relief that it’s  done and I’m not stressing about blowing deadlines.

However, in the past year, I have found some things that genuinely brought me joy, those elusive moments of actual happiness.

What Brings Me Joy?

I sing to keep my voice warmed up and to reduce my anxiety/depression. Sometimes singing on my own brings me joy, but typically singing is more uplifting for me in group rituals when there’s all the layered chanting and harmonies.

I have playlists of music and certain songs bring out intense emotional responses. It’s not always joy in the sense of, being happy…sometimes it’s tears. But for me, the ability to feel at all is a joy in itself, even if I’m weeping in grief, in sorrow.

When I give myself over to it, painting is so meditative and centering. I will offer that when I go on an art-making jag, I do increase my stress level in the sense that, I have zero desire to check email and respond to communications, or deal with my other to do’s. These to do’s can sometimes pile up when I’m painting for days and days, and my awareness that they are piling up makes it harder to enjoy the process of painting. I will say that I deal with less insomnia when I’m painting. For that matter, if I’m having a bad depression day, I can often still paint even if I have too much brain fog to write or do anything that requires more focus.

Friendships and Romance:
I’ve spent a lot of my life terrified that I’d be lonely forever. Or, sticking with unhealthy relationships so that I don’t have to feel lonely. The past years, I’ve spent a lot of time alone–I’m far less afraid of alone now. Some friendships have sustained me, though my Pagan hermit lifestyle has cut me off from other friendships, and I’ve faced difficulties the past years connecting with romantic partners. There’s a fair amount of science around how lack of touch can contribute to depression, anxiety, etc. About six months ago I started dating someone and–to our mutual surprise–we fell for each other. Love is a heck of a thing, and being with my partner makes me really happy.

Getting Paid:
This past summer I was driving home after a weekend festival. I was sunburned, it was at least 95 degrees in my car, I had a five-hour drive in front of me, but a song I liked started playing and I just smiled. I just felt joy. Why? I got paid. I not only sold artwork, but I got paid for my travel expenses and a decent stipend beyond that.

Joy isn’t usually what I feel after an event. Exhaustion, yeah. Dread for the drive home. Relief that the event is over. Aftereffects of social anxiety. Sometimes I feel a little pleasure if a ritual went particularly well, but the work I do is difficult and it’s hard to get groups of people to participate in ecstatic rituals. Sometimes after an event I’m scrabbling for any positives I can take away.

I had this ludicrous surge of joy realizing that I’d been paid a reasonable fee for my work–and it is work. It’s my soul’s calling but it rarely pays the bills, and it doesn’t feel very good to put myself out there with long days and travel and not get paid for it.

Reducing Stressors

I sometimes call this “Reducing the suck.” It’s hard to fill your cup with joy if there are holes punched in the sides. In the past decade of personal and spiritual growth work, one of my focuses has been on removing various stressors, specifically, the stuff that makes me less effective at my work and in my life. Typically I find that a lot of these are things that I agreed to don’t have time to actually complete. This leads to the really sucky spiral of dropping the ball and disappointing people.


I’ve worked to notice the things I am, by my nature, not necessarily good at, or things that irritate me to do.

One red flag for stressors is if I am consistently procrastinating something. It turns out, for instance, that although I have all the skills to edit Pagan anthologies–and I’m very proud of the Pagan Leadership Anthology that will be released soon–editing anthologies is difficult for me. I’ve written more about that in the intro to the Pagan Leadership Anthology, but in a nutshell, editing an anthology is far more about communication with the authors and managing the project than it is about writing. And when I’m overwhelmed with anxiety, I spiral into communication avoidance-land.

The past two years I’ve also floundered when I took on paid work as a graphic designer. I’m a good designer; I’m a crappy freelancer. I especially struggle when I’m traveling and teaching. Traveling takes a lot out of me and I have had difficulty getting paid projects done on time. I was talking about this to Taylor Ellwood; he’s a Pagan author and publisher, and he and I are co-editing the above-mentioned leadership anthology, but he’s also a business coach. I realized that freelance design work is essentially my fifth job. I write fiction, and nonfiction, and I’m an artist, and I travel and teach workshops, and then I also do graphic design.

I take on graphic design work because the first four jobs don’t pay well and I live far below the poverty line. This should be pretty obvious but taking on extra work when you’re already working 12-16 hour days, when you’re already stressed out…well. Not really a good equation.

I suppose that brings me to another clear stressor, and that’s money. Another obvious point but worth stating: When my bank account is approaching zero and I haven’t sold any artwork or books lately, and I have no paid graphic design work, there’s not much that’s going to make me “happy.” The best I can hope for is feeling “not terrified.” I will say that this year I made more than in past years. I focused more on events that paid me to present, I raised the prices on my artwork, and did more vending of my artwork than in past years. Vending itself is a stressor, so that’s something I have to keep in mind for the coming year.

I reduced some stress this past year by not organizing any Pagan events in Chicago. I’ve been running Pagan rituals, classes, concerts, and other events in Chicagoland on and off for years, and–while I love running events, there’s the stress of:

  • Getting enough volunteers to run the event and take ritual roles
  • Planning the ritual without knowing how many ritualists or attendees I’ll have
  • Working with presenters, musicians, and the people hosting them
  • Dealing with the venue including flaky venue contacts
  • Marketing the event to ensure there will be enough (paid) attendees to cover the costs of the event
  • Running the event and dealing with all the last minute problems

…Yeah. When I’m running a public ritual, I have no idea–until the event is done–if we broke even on the rental fees, or if we’re in the hole and I have to figure out how to cover the shortfall.

I’d like to go back to organizing occasional events, but I really can’t do that without some kind of financial backing, and without at least a few committed event organizers. I enjoy planning events if there’s at least one organizer who enjoys planning.

Health is another stressor. I’ve been dealing with anxiety and depression for a long time now, and some of that is related to my hypothyroidism and Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS). Over the years, I’ve minimized the impacts of these ct on my health and life, from adding in vitamin supplements to eliminating wheat and dairy, losing over a hundred pounds, and techniques from cognitive behavioral therapy to meditation/mindfulness to reduce anxiety and the spiral to depression.

However, in the past years, some of the symptoms of PCOS have caused me some serious grief, in specific, my acne has gotten progressively worse despite eliminating a lot of the foods that seemed to exacerbate it. I’ll be blogging on Patheos in more depth about my experience of how body image connects to my anxiety. Currently I’m taking antibiotics which reduce the acne–and thus–my anxiety and depression, but I need to explore treating the PCOS and not just the symptoms. However, that costs money I don’t have.

These stressors feed into one another; health issues that could be easily resolved with proper medical treatment, but I can’t because of my limited income. When I try to take on paid work to buy myself more time to do the work I actually love, I end up overextending myself…and then I drop the ball on projects like books I’m writing.

This past year I also reduced how many incendiary/activist blog posts I wrote. I used to write for Pagan Activist, but when I took on writing for Patheos and for Witches and Pagans, I was overwhelmed with blogging. Plus, I noticed that the activist-focused articles calling out the Pagan community on our flaws…those posts got me the most nasty comments. There are still plenty of issues to wrestle with in the Pagan community, and I still write about them, however, to prevent burnout, I have written less on those issues, and I consider more carefully when I write those posts.

Goals for this coming year:

A focus on financial abundance: While I don’t want my life to be about making money, I’ve also hit the edge where not having enough money for food, bills, medical care, etc. are serious risks. My challenge here is that focusing on financial abundance may mean I have to do less of the work that I love, so I’m struggling with that. I don’t think there’s any way for me to make a living wage teaching and writing about ritual and leadership, but I’m going to try and find a way to make that work bring in more money so that I can continue to justify time to write and teach on those topics.

This means you’ll see me posting more about my books and artwork for sale, and I’m accepting sliding-scale donations to pay for my time writing articles and creating educational videos. I’ll be traveling less, and focusing on events that pay me. Likely I’ll blog less and focus more on writing books.

Health: I need to take the next steps with dealing with my PCOS. This is going to mean some shorter-term anxiety in the form of filling out a lot of paperwork to get financial assistance with healthcare, but the potential positives are worth that.

Love: I’ve found a romantic relationship with a man I love, and that relationship will take time and care. It’s my first time having feelings for someone when we’re in an open relationship, but being with him sure does make me happy, so it’s worth dealing with the complexities.

Event Organizing: I really miss doing this, and I want to find a way to do some events in a sustainable way. I’m definitely on the lookout for co-conspirators who might want to plan some bigger events, like a Pagan leadership conference or a Faerie masquerade ball.

I’m also looking forward to more singing, painting, and writing that genuinely makes me happy.

Filed under: Personal Growth Tagged: abundance, activism, anxiety, burnout, depression, financial difficulties, happiness, health, joy, love, seeking joy, self reflection, stress, wellness, winter solstice, Yule

What Brings Your Life Meaning?

WinterSolsticeArchIn my process of seeking joy this past year, I ended up reading a lot of articles and watching TED talks about what makes people happy, what people regret, and what gets people through the trauma and difficulty. Are you looking for more meaning in your life?

For the Winter Solstice I’m thinking a lot about what brings me joy, and I’ll be posting a bit more on my own process this past year about seeking joy. However, it’s worth starting out with some basics.

If you read a bit about existential psychology and philosophy, it’s clear that one of the things that impacts human physical and psychological health is a sense of our own existence, a reason for existing, a purpose. When we have a purpose and a focus as part of our identity, it’s possible to weather the dark times and challenges. In fact, this comes up a lot in spiritual work; when people have no sense of meaning in their lives, they flounder. They struggle.

I can honestly say that it’s my focus, my work, my sense of purpose within that work, that has been my silver thread through the labyrinth of pain that is dealing with depression. It’s the sliver of light that called me forward when I dealt with abuse from my peers in school as a kid, and from my more recent abusive relationship.

Often times when I teach workshops on “Finding Your Personal Magic,” finding meaning is the essence of that.

Meaning and purpose isn’t the only important thing, and there are other facets to happiness and joy. In fact, I’ve sometimes focused so much on what I find meaningful and my soul’s work that I’ve neglected things like friendships and relationships.

I’ve found some guidance on those from the regrets of the dying and the experiences of people who have recovered from trauma. Here are a few articles that inspired me in my own work this past year, and they might provide some direction for you. Are you seeking joy?

Sense of meaning and purpose in life linked to longer lifespan
A “study of 9,050 English people with an average age of 65 found that the people with the greatest wellbeing were 30% less likely to die during the average eight and a half year follow-up period than those with the least wellbeing.”

Having a sense of purpose may add years to your life
“Our findings point to the fact that finding a direction for life, and setting overarching goals for what you want to achieve can help you actually live longer, regardless of when you find your purpose,” says Hill.

Top 5 regrets of the dying in hospice 

  1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
  3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
  5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

Top 5 Post Traumatic Growth
People experienced “greater appreciation of life, changed sense of priorities, warmer, more intimate relationships, greater sense of personal strength, and recognition of new possibilities or paths for one’s life and spiritual development.

If you’re really interested in learning more about the importance of meaning in our lives, one additional resource is Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning. It’s worth pointing out that Frankl was a Jewish Holocaust survivor who wrote about his horrific experiences in the camps, so the first part of the book is a difficult read. That being said, Frankl was also a psychiatrist, and his experiences in the camps led him to more deeply understand how meaning helped people survive the camps.

I also recommend the book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Looks like you can also find some of his work online if you search on his name; here’s a TED Talk, and of course Wikipedia outlining the essence of his work with the concept of flow.


Filed under: Personal Growth Tagged: anxiety, depression, existentialism, finding meaning, Personal growth, personal magic