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

The Devil, the Tower, and the Star: Tarot Blog Hop

4585466_xxlI’m going through a Dark Night of the Soul. It’s seasonally appropriate during the dark time of the year, though I find I’m facing the darkness of winter again while  going through a “Tower” moment. If you’re not conversant in Tarot-reader lingo, the “Tower” is generally shorthand for, “life-altering disaster.” The Tower is one of the cards in the Major Arcana.

Before I get too far– this post is part of the “Darkness into Light” Tarot blog hop. The previous blogger is Chloe McCracken and you can check out her post, or there’s a link to all the posts at the bottom.

Tarot and Personal Spiritual Work
I teach workshops on spiritual, esoteric, and personal transformation topics. One workshop I offer is “The Devil, the Tower, and the Star,” which helps participants to work through current/past Tower moments. My work with the Tarot is less about doing readings, and more about working with the archetypes for deep transformative work.

So I definitely have tools when lightning strikes and the Tower is burning down around me. However– having tools to work through an experience doesn’t mean I’m not going through the stress, the impact. I can teach these tools, but I’d be a liar if I didn’t own up to going through my own dark nights where I doubt everything. My self, my work, my spirituality. I wonder, “Why me,” the same as anyone else. I wonder if I can survive it, wonder if I can pull myself up by my bootstraps yet again.

Because…I am very tired of hauling myself up by my bootstraps.

The Devil, the Tower, and the Star
Let’s talk about these three cards. My Tarot mentors at Diana’s Grove referred to the Devil card as contracts we signed, stories that we agreed to. These contracts bind up our identity, our life force.

I looked at those three cards and thought…the Tower falling is supposed to ultimately be a good thing. The Tower is a symbol for structures that keep us safe and insulated but that really doesn’t serve us. I saw the Tower as structures built out of contract after contract, story after story. It becomes a symbol for the old patterns we’ve bound ourselves into that  are more cage than protection.

Then, the Tower is destroyed in lightning and fire. The Star is the waters of starlight pouring down, it is unbound life force, healing, inspiration, and hope.

I think of it as, we’d never have seen that luscious starlight pouring down if we were stuck in that Tower. So while the ashes are burning down behind us, if we look, we can feel those waters, let that starlight pour into our heart and replenish us, and then we can do what we will with that energy. We aren’t bound by the old contracts.

The Tower
A “classic” Tower moment is losing a job. I was laid off once  from a job I hated. But I was stuck in that, “I can’t afford to not have a job, but I hate it,” position. My department getting downsized led me to the work I’m doing now–leadership, writing, artwork. Would I have ever gone down that path without getting laid off?

Other Tower moments are a major breakup or having a group blow up. Tower moments break up old structures–and it’s usually not pretty.

However, if you can look at those terrible life-shaking moments, you may see where this also broke the chains that bound you.

Two years ago my fiance left me without warning after stealing from me and leaving me in an apartment with months of unpaid rent and utilities. I’m still paying off debt incurred from his actions. Days after he left I thought I might to die. Not because I was in love–not after all the cheating, stealing, and emotional abuse.

But because I didn’t know if I could pull myself up by my bootstraps again. The financials were dire, and I thought, why keep fighting?

iStock_000001460525MediumWhy we Require Shock
However costly his leaving was, him being gone unshackled my hands. I tend to think, in for a penny, in for a pound. With him, I felt that I’d covered up his indiscretions so many times, done so much to make our relationship work, that I felt like I couldn’t back out. That would mean that the years I’d put into making it work had been a waste.

If he hadn’t left, I’d have kept trying to fix things. Sometimes the known, comfortable situation feels safer than the unknown–even if it’s hurting us.

I’m so glad I’m not bound by that particular contract any longer, that I’m not stuck in the “story” that I had to make things work. I’ll never thank him–but, I’m glad he’s gone. I didn’t have the strength to end things. Suddenly I was free and could move on.

Starlight Interrupted
It took a while for the light to come back. I was only just starting to feel the glimmer of hope. This summer I published my first book, and I have others coming out. Just when I thought that I was eking past that Dark Night and the wreckage of that Tower from two years ago…

Two weeks ago I was in a car accident. Nobody was seriously hurt, but the accident totaled my car. The other driver took an illegal left, though there may be no way for me to prove it. I’m waiting to hear if I’ll get any financial compensation. If I don’t, I’m stuck without a car and without any way to get one.

It really hasn’t set in yet that I could have died. The police were shocked I walked away from the accident with only a bump on the head. 

Dark Night
Here’s how my panic over this financial gut-punch leads to my current Dark Night of the Soul. The limited amount of income I’ve had in the past years has come from from traveling and teaching and selling my artwork. I had to cancel my teaching engagement this weekend. I currently live in a rural area. I’m really sunk without a car.

On one hand, I’m aware this is a Tower moment that might open the way to something else…but, I’m also still caught in the emotional undertow.

My dark night is about the deeper question–should I keep trying to follow my calling of teaching leadership, ritual facilitation, personal growth work, and writing and painting?

I’ve sacrificed a lot in order to follow my spiritual calling. I‘ve managed to hang on by the edges of my fingernails the past years by living simply, trying to make the work I do to start bringing in more income.

I was already running out of time–my current living situation won’t last forever and I’ll have to start paying for an apartment again. And yet, without a car, I can’t even get a local retail job, much less something that works with my skillsets as a graphic designer, consultant, or even temp secretary work.

Now–you might think, published author = raking in the dough. Did you know 3500 print books are published every day? That doesn’t count eBooks. My books are starting to sell, but it’ll take a while–and having more books out–before I start bringing in actual revenue.

Sacrifice and Fear
I have given up so much in my life, so many conveniences that people think of as basic, in order to live lean so I could do the work that calls to me. In working to make myself affordable for local Pagan groups to hire me for workshops, I’ve ultimately paid more out of pocket to travel and teach than I ever have made back in class stipends.

I just can’t do it any more. I can’t keep on going and wonder, am I ever going to be able to afford going to the doctor again? Can I afford the gas money it would take to be able to go out on a date? Can I afford food?

I’ve started to wonder, is it all worthless? Did I give up years of my life for nothing?

Even worse, I wonder, am I teaching people a bunch of crap? When I teach personal growth classes and lead rituals, I work to help people open up to their desires, to wanting, to reaching for the dreams and hopes they haven’t dared give name to. I work to help people identify what kind of work would bring meaning to their lives.

I’ve done my best to live that, to reach for my own dreams with both hands. And I’ve hung on, I’ve sacrificed a lot to make this work.

4418451_xxlThe Devil’s in the Contracts
The other day my mom’s words that fell on me like a hammerstroke. “You might have to put your dream on hold.” And all I could think was, no. NO. No, I will not put my dream on hold again. No, I will not put myself back into those chains and contracts.

I think of all the people shackled by the contracts they signed in their own blood, putting their dreams on hold. “I’ll just do this for a few years, and then I’ll live my dream.” And five years turned into ten years turned into twenty years.


I reject the chains of shame and “should” and “We’re supposed to.” I want to live in–and I work to build–a world where we get to do work that calls to our souls, where we get to live our dreams.

Yet, getting hit by that car brought reality into my windshield.

I don’t know what’s worse–wondering if I’m going to have to give up my dream, or wondering if I’ve been teaching a lie, a fancy dream that nobody can actually fulfill.

I need that unveiled light of the Star, that healing and life force, the waters of beauty and love. I need to remember why I bothered doing this work at all.  The only thread of hope I’m really holding onto right now is a dream I had about six months ago.

Tarot and Dreams
Dreams and Tarot share similar mythic, archetypal symbolism. I often teach people exploring Tarot to look into their dreams.

I had a dream in June relevant to my current Dark Night.

I’m running late, racing to get to an airplane in New York. I manage to get onto the plane. Then we’re flying over the pitch-black sea over the Atlantic, along the East Coast. Around Georgia, some people throw me off the plane, and I fall from the sky down into the  black waters.

shutterstock_30733696I begin to swim, but the waves keep going over my head, the waves are high, nauseating. I don’t have words for the horror and fear, I’m swimming in the terrifying dark. I don’t know how many hundreds of miles I must swim but I keep going. I wish for someone to help me. Or even just someone to witness what I’m going through. I keep swimming.

It seem that I wake up on a beach in Florida, and I’m found by Pagans who take me to the Pagan conference I’d been traveling to. Though I was swimming for days, I’m only one day late for the conference. Everyone there is glad I’m ok and talks about how I broke the

“Hex.” A notable Pagan leader is running a workshop and mentions that in the weeks I was swimming, several anthologies have come out that have my published works in them. One is an anthology on how I broke the “Hex” of the people who were on the plane who tried to kill me.

Dream Prophecies and Symbolism
On occasion, I have dreams that come true, but usually the symbolism is difficult to discern at best. It’s rare for a dream to just come directly true. In this case, symbol mixed with reality.

Right now, those waves are over my head. However, it has come to pass that several anthologies with my writing plus several standalone books are all coming out at about the same time–right before I’m supposed to be teaching at several Pagan conferences in February. I did teach in New York recently, though I drove. My mom will move to Florida once her house is fixed up; there have been delays but it’s looking like maybe spring.

If I read the dream correctly, late winter/early spring may see things easing up.


Tarot, Dark Nights, and Returning Light
Right now, I’m holding onto just a thin beam of light through the clouds. Just a couple of days ago, my book Dreamwork for the Initiate’s Path was released, and you can read the first chapter available as an excerpt.  

My Dark Night is not over, my mind is full of questions. I know that I must renegotiate a “contract” I hadn’t realized I’d made–the contract that I’d sacrifice everything to serve community. That “contract” I chose has helped to place me in this situation. I must find a way to take care of my own needs or I cannot do this work. There are things that I started thinking of as luxuries that are actually basic necessities, and I got into “contract tunnel vision.” I was so focused on my calling that I managed to convince myself that I could live without certain things–like health care. I took that to a dangerous place and thought it was ok.

And it’s not.

I know the light returns. I’ll climb out, though I’m unsure how. For me, it’s less about doing a Tarot reading than understanding the progression of the archetypes. The contracts are broken, and the light–somehow–returns. Until then, I’ll use this dark time of year to seek answers while I slog through dark waters to shore.

Tarot Blog Hop
Next in the Yule Tarot Blog Hop is Christiana Gaudet. You can see the entire lineup of Tarot bloggers at http://sungoddesstarot.blogspot.com/2013/12/yule-tarot-blog-hop-masterlist

Filed under: Dreamwork, Leadership, Personal Growth Tagged: community building, dark night, dark night of the soul, leadership, longest night, Major arcana, Personal growth, shadow work, shauna aura knight, Star, Tarot, Tower, winter solstice, Yule