Thursday, June 27, 2013

Midsummer's Dying Light

The petals are falling off the Blackberry blossoms as the fruits begin to form.

Just as Yule marks the return of the light, Midsummer marks the return of the darkness, which will come first in the sweet flesh of summer fruit and then in the dryness of seed.

Its in this liminal time that I seek intimacy with dying things.

My friend Kathleen Maier speaks about how our culture doesn't teach us how to give death to things.  So we carry our grief with us and it gets heavy and weighs us down.  Something I know all too well as a watery person who has spent most of my life burying emotion deep and holding it tightly -- even when the phlegm of grief clogged my lungs, and my liver grew hot and congested from the anger I refused to feel, and the tension of trying to hold it all in made my blood pressure rise.

Kathleen says that she makes time to grieve each year at the Autumn Equinox, releasing sadness and pain, giving death to that which has been lost, so that she will not need to carry it into winter's darkness.

In the space that is opened, new seeds can be planted, waiting to be wakened by sun and rain in springtime.  (Which, here on Vancouver Island, begins at Imbolc.)

For me, though, this year, Midsummer is the time to begin letting go of what I no longer want or need to give my life-force to, so I can reclaim it for the work I choose and the pleasure I desire in this world.

There is still enough light that I will not be overwhelmed by darkness -- remembering how pneumonia struck me last year at Samhain and at Yule when I waited until the nights were long and dark to begin turning inward.   But the dying of the year has already begun, so I will not be swimming against the tide.

In the cool, dark of the woods, Ghost Pipe is beginning to emerge, opening the way to the world beneath the forest floor.

But at the edge of the field, the last wild Roses still bloom, calling me back home with their sweetness when I begin to dive too deep.

The same gate opens in both directions.

What will you give death to here in Midsummer's dying light, that it might return to the earth before its time for seeds to fall to the ground?

Monday, April 15, 2013

Quick Notes on Herbs for Grief and Fear

This winter, when a student of mine died in a fire, I put together these notes for my class.

I offer them now, rough and quick as they are, for all in Boston who are feeling grief and fear in the wake of today's explosions.

Please remember that plants are allies in healing but are not substitutes for psychotherapy or for ceremony in the process of healing the mind and heart -- as you move through deeper dimensions of pain and trauma you will need skilled support.

Be careful and conscious in the way you manage the influx of media information.   It is good to be well informed, and having accurate information is important to establish a sense of safety.  But also be aware that repeated exposure to the same traumatic stories and images has a cumulative effect.

Above all be kind and gentle to each other and yourselves.

And also remember the deep healing to be had just by being present to the beauty of the living world, human and wild.


As I am writing this, Cedar and Douglas Fir are drying in the kitchen for incense, their scents filling the apartment, and there is ocean water on the table in front of me to take in some of the grief moving through.  


Bleeding Heart -- Dicentra formosa when given during a time of acute crisis will help to calm shakiness and fear.  I give 2-5 drops of the tincture generally.   Once the body has settled out of immediate shock and panic, the medicine works differently -- helping to bring the tears you have been holding back flowing to the surface.  A beautiful gift, but one to be received when you are in a place where its safe and right to let the tears flow.

Pasque Flower --Anemone pulsatilla, Anemone patens, Anemone tuberosa, etc. will help someone when intense grief or terror come on suddenly, as if brought in by an ill wind.  Think of the downy hairs on the flowers and leaves as a signature for being that kind of soft, warm blanket.   Contraindicated when there is a strong, forceful pulse or a lot of redness is the face.   2-5 drops.

Ghost Pipe -- Monotropa uniflora -- When pain, physical or emotional, is so intense as to overwhelm a person completely, Ghost Pipe helps to regulate sensory gating so that the pain is processed differently - the person will still be aware of the pain, but will feel, as one of my clients said, "as if everything I was worried about was taken outside of me and put in front of me where I could see it and work with it."   I initially give 3 drops, but some people less sensitive to the medicine will require 30.

Skullcap, as a smoke, a tea, or a tincture can be administered liberally to help bring calm in an intense situation.

Wood Betony (Stachys betonica) helps to anchor a person in the physical body after a traumatic event.


In Chinese medicine, a person's emotional self is connected with a spirit called Shen, and the heart is sometimes envisioned as a clay vessel that stores the Shen.  When the vessel is shaken, the Shen becomes scattered and disturbed -- which is marked by insomnia, restlessness, irritability, emotional upheaval, and decreased attention span.

Schizandra and Reishi are both used traditionally to settle and nourish the Shen, and I find they combine together wonderfully to support the emotional heart through difficult times.  Both also support the liver, aiding with the processing of difficult emotions.    Both are also adaptogens, helping the body to regulate its response to continual stress.  I will give both liberally, though some caution is advisable when giving Schizandra to people who are on dose dependent medications that are processed through the liver.

Hawthorn helps to nourish, cool, and repair the heart and blood vessels.  Its berries feed the heart, its leaf and flower bring lightness and relaxation to the cardiovascular system, and its thorns provide protection.   I tend to use the berries and flowers together in equal proportions in a tincture or an infusion which I will give liberally -- and if I am harvesting the medicine myself I will add a few thorns.  Thorns can also be carried as talismans for protection.   The flowers make a beautiful bath.    Use caution with internal use with anyone on beta blockers, as Hawthorn may potentiate them. 

Motherwort calms and protects the heart, especially when there is anxiety driven by unsettled emotion.   It combines really beautifully with Passionflower when emotional anxiety is driving circular thinking and creating insomnia.


Aromatic plants help to move emotions and energies -- hence their use as smudges and ceremonial incense around the world.

Our own Western Red Cedar has been one of my closest allies in moving through grief this past week.  Walking in the forest, I feel its boughs bending to brush away my sadness.  I have been burning Cedar as a smudge as well.   Other evergreens bring similar medicine.

Monarda spp. are used in the Muskogee Creek tradition to clear the ways in which death hangs over and clings onto the living.   I have been taking baths with Monarda this week.

Sweet smelling aromatic plants like Sweetgrass and Cottonwood and Rose help to remind the heart and the spirit of the sweetness and beauty of the world after intense tragedy.   They can also open the heart to bring tears and pain to the surface so they can move out.   But it is important to have a space of emotional safety and support when working with them in these ways.


The bark of the Mimosa tree -- Albizia julibrisin - known as "collective happiness bark" in China -- helps to restore the ability to feel joy after the heart has been broken.  30-60 drops/day

Gentle joy tonics include Linen blossoms -- Tilia spp.,  Lavender, and Lemonbalm.   They bring a soft lifting of worry and a subtle return of brightness to the heart.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Black Magic

"Every tool is a weapon if you hold it right." -- Ani DiFranco

Any discussion about magic ("the art and science of creating change in conformity with Will," as Crowley defined it)  is a discussion about power and the ways we wield it -- a discussion that cannot be separated from the social, political, cultural, and economic realities people inhabit.

The popular conception of "white magic," guided by the ethic "do what tho wilt, an' it harm none" feeds and is fed by the illusions of privilege that obscure the fact that that the lives we live are lived at others' expense.   In a society where the messier aspects of securing survival are shunted off to armed forces that do their work out of sight and far away, rougher edged magics are not as relevant in the lives of those who have social and economic capital as they are to those who live at the edges and in the shadows.    But magic has long been a means by which people have done what they need to do feed and heal and clothe and house and protect themselves and their communities.    The magic that has historically been the magic of the poor and the oppressed is labeled "black magic" by those who do not need it to survive and would rather not face the realities it entails.

Victor Anderson famously said "White magic is poetry, black magic is whatever works."

White magic is reverent and celebratory.  It is the right hand magic that gives thanks for the blessing and abundance that rain down from the universe.

Black magic is done with urgency, when children are starving and need food,  when someone is coming to harm your family, when someone is halfway through death's door and a witch needs to tear through the veil to pull her back into this world.     It is the left handed magic that takes what is needed and does not apologize for that need.

But ultimately, there is no white magic or black magic, there is only magic, wild and transgressive and resisting description.   To heal and to hex, to bless and to curse, are not just  identical powers that flow from the same source, they are the same action seen from different points of view.

Magic is neutral.  Its application is not.   Its our right and responsibility to wield it with precision and intention, knowing and choosing the blessings and the curses we enact as we do.   

Sunday, March 24, 2013

7 Problems With the "Obesity Epidemic"

Here are 7 reasons why I cringe every time I hear someone talking about "the obesity epidemic"

1. "Obesity" is not contagious.

Consciously or unconsciously, when most of us hear the word epidemic we think of a virus rapidly spreading through a population.   And consciously or unconsciously we tend to think of its "carriers" as a threat.   Speaking of "obesity" as an epidemic thus further stigmatizes fat people who are already having to deal with discrimination in a society that privileges thinness

2. "Obesity" is not a disease.

The idea that high body weight or high percentages of body fat correlate to poor health are based on just that -- correlation.    Most studies that suggest a link between a high BMI or high body fat percentage fail to account for confounding factors such as behavioural patterns around diet, exercise, and yo-yo dieting.   When those factors are taken into account, differences in mortality between "overweight" or "obese" people and people whose body weights or health percentages are considered "healthy" begin to disappear.   People at the extreme high end of the spectrum for BMI or body fat do have higher mortality rates -- but the same is true for people at the extreme low end of either spectrum.    A disease is a physiological disorder that causes impairments in biological function.  Hence obesity is not a disease. 

3. BMI, the primary measurement of "obesity" is a virtually meaningless indicator.

The much vaunted "Body Mass Index,"  used to "measure" obesity by many physicians, and increasingly, educators and public health workers, is a crude ratio of weight to height that does nothing to take into account even obvious factors like bone density and muscle mass, not to mention the wide diversity of body types that exist around the world.   Its definitions of "overweight" and "underweight" are also pegged to already dubious assumptions about the "proper" weight of people of European descent that are even less applicable to people of non-European ancestry.

4. Public education campaigns about "obesity" tend to focus on giving people information about better food choices, while glossing over the real problem of malnutrition in North America rooted in a broken food system that denies many people access to good food.

 There is a real public health crisis in North America related to food -- malnutrition, which can express itself in weight gain, in weight loss, and in chronic disease.   At issue is the accessibility of food that provides people with their nutritional needs.   The nutrient poor "Standard American Diet" is the result not of poor education about nutrition, but of the fact that a carbohydrate and sugar rich diet is the most affordable diet for many people  a) because of agricultural subsidies for corn, wheat, and sugar and b) because carbohydrates and sugars are sources of quick energy that can more easily satisfy cravings when people haven't had enough to eat.   The problem isn't that people don't know that Kale is healthier than Kraft Dinner.   The problem is that people are trying to feed their families on wages too low to pay the escalating costs of food, housing, transportation, clothing, and medical care.    As a brilliant post at the Fat Nutritionist blog points out:

"You want people to eat better? Give them enough money, a place for cooking and storage, and access to a decent variety of food. "

5. The pathologization of fatness tends to lead health care practitioners to pay less attention to other causes of health problems in fat people.

Over the years I have had many doctors simply chalk chronic health problems I was dealing with up to weight while ignoring other factors.   The expectation that fat people will be less healthy tends to lead many healthcare practitioners to accept a lower quality of life as normal for fat people.   As I have dealt with many of my own chronic health issues, addressing them through diet and exercise, I have lost weight.   But some problems doctors previously chalked up to weight have remained.   And the underlying problem was not that I was fat, the underlying problem was that shaming about my body had made me believe my health was hopeless.   If instead of just telling me I was too fat my doctors had encouraged me to see how I could make changes in my life that would make me feel better regardless of my weight, I probably would have started making those changes at least 10 years earlier than I did.    And I also would have sought guidance from health care practitioners earlier and more often I had expected something other than shaming.

6.  Defining weight or body fat as the problem tends to encourage people to take drastic measures to lose weight rather than focusing on health.

There are lots of ways to lose weight -- and most of them are taxing on the body and difficult to sustain.   Pressuring people to lose weight makes them more likely to focus on whatever will bring off the pounds rather than on finding sustainable practices to integrate into their lives that can make them healthier in the long run.

7.  The campaign against "obesity" is rooted in a puritanical ethic.

Anti-obesity campaigns judge, criticize, and shame people not only based on their body size, but also based on the often erroneous assumption that fat people lack discipline and just need to say "no" to immediate gratification in order to lose weight.   The underlying ideology is one of denying pleasure in order to achieve virtue -- a repressive ideology that cuts people off further from their bodies.  And its in truly learning to find comfort and pleasure in their own bodies that people can best find their way to health.

There are dozens of other reasons I could give, but these are just a few thoughts to further questioning and discussion  . .

Wednesday, March 20, 2013


I wrote this poem several Aprils ago in New England . .  tonight, on the Equinox, on the other side of the continent, it speaks to me of the liminal space at the edge of spring:


Deep crimson blossoms
recall blood
and the taste of iron,

spray of stars
in the center
guide you in

to the carress
of petals

that draw you
down to

in the moments
before spring
has decided
to remain,

Our Lady of the Forest
draws no distinction
between birth
and death.

Whichever passage
you choose
she will hold you
through the night

then deliver you
to the April morning,

or drawing
your first breath.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Exorcising the false god

In his poem, "Imagine the Angels of Bread", Martin Espada wrote:
"[. . . ] every rebellion begins with the idea
that conquerors on horseback
are not many-legged gods, that they too drown
if plunged in the river"
These words keep coming back to me as I navigate the emotions unleashed by the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI.

Growing up Catholic, the Pope was God's representative on Earth.

And even though I left the church many years ago, the Pope continued to be, for me, the personification of a faith that insisted that I was born tainted with sin and could only hope to be saved from it by renouncing the body I was born into and its desires, and making penance for every time I failed to hold them at bay.

But yesterday, when Benedict XVI announced that he would again become Joseph Ratzinger, the child inside me was finally able to see the man behind the curtain, and realize that neither he, nor the false god he represents, have any any power over.    And since then the rage and grief I didn't let myself feel for years have been pouring out through me.   And behind them, I feel a sense of freedom I never knew was possible.

In many ways, I was one of the lucky ones.    I never endured any physical abuse. My hell was all in my own head and my own heart.

Despite coming from a liberal family, I was an oddly devout and conservative Catholic as a kid.   I wanted desperately to know and experience the divine.   And I considered myself utterly wretched, rescued by grace I did not deserve, grace that would run out before I could make myself worthy of love.  

For years I would joke about it:  how at 13, when I went to bed, I would pray for forgiveness for all the "impure thoughts" I had during the day.   But as I prayed, thoughts and images of sex would come slipping in around the edges of my mind.  So I would pray for forgiveness again.   But my prayers could never keep up with my libido.   And I would wake up the next morning, afraid I was going to hell.

When I tell the story now, grief and rage come as I see the ways I was denied a chance to experience the goodness, the power, and the wild innocence of my body and its pleasures. 

Praying over and over again, "Lord, I am not worthy to receive you," robbed me of my sense of my own goodness.   I kept looking to some outside authority to finally absolve and bless me long after I stopped consciously believing the theology that told me I was a sinner in need of forgiveness.

With the Pope's abdication, that scared 13 year old inside me can finally see the hollowness, the powerlessness, and the cruelty of all claims to authority over my soul by anyone other than my highest self.

And I realize that the denial of the goodness, the innocence, the blessedness, the divinity of every one of us is the root of all the church's crimes from the Inquisition to the blessing of genocide in the Americas to the Magdalane laundries to the coverup of the rape of children to the silencing of the prophetic voices within its own fold who speak out against oppression and corruption and violence.

And so I pray:

By the Holly that guards the darkness,
my innocence is protected

By the Hawthorn that opens the gate,
what left this world returns,

By the fire of Devil's Club,
I  step forward in the fullness of who I am.

Blessed be my wildness

Blessed be my humanity

Blessed be my divinity

In the name of my Godself I am free.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Swamp Lantern at Imbolc

Swamp Lantern (Lysichiton americanum -- aka Western Skunk Cabbage) emerges from the frigid, still waters of the swamp at Imbolc.

What waited all winter, dreaming beneath earth and water, is beginning to stir.

Heat builds in the spadix that will become a yellow flower as it grows toward the returning sun.   It flows downward through the roots, warming the cold mud.

Soon the bears will awaken too, from long winter dreams where they heard the song the Swamp Lantern roots sang underground.   Hungry, they will dig the roots and devour them.

Winter is still here, but life is stirring.   Swamp Lantern comes ahead to prepare the way and open the gate, just as hir cousin, Skunk Cabbage, does in the eastern swamps of my childhood.

The blossoms that survive the bears will be dusted with pollen at Beltane, which I will  use to anoint myself, blessing my body with blazing, ecstatic light and fire.

But for now, its the fire in my head that's blazing, as inspiration returns, and I engage with the world anew.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Practical Plant Magic

January 15  — February 26 — $200
Just as people living in the countryside traditionally knew how to deal with colds and coughs and scrapes and bruises using the plants around them, so too they knew how to enlist the plants’ help for clearing energies, protecting themselves and their homes, and blessing their lives.
Through a series of talks (given on conference calls but available afterward as recordings), traditional herbalist and witch, Sean Donahue will teach you how to begin doing this work with the plants around you.   Calls will take place on Tuesdays at 5:30 pm Pacific Standard Time.  A class forum will also be available for participants to post questions after the calls.
January  15 — What is magic anyway?
January 22 — Clearing energies with plants
January 29 — Plants for protection
February 5 — Plants for dreams and visions
February 12 — Love charms
February 19  — Plant allies
February 26 — Plants for prayers and blessing
This course will provide the basic knowledge necessary for those wishing to take the more intensive  year long Plant Magic course  at a later time.
A limited number of partial scholarships are available for people doing transformational work in their communities
To register, e-mail

Friday, January 4, 2013

Clearing with aromatic plants

"Medicine and magick started as aspects of the same activity and gnosis - they only are separate if you make them so." -- Mitch Bebel Stargrove

The medicinal and magical actions of a plant are inextricably linked. Medicine is just a specialized form of magic -- ``the art and science of creating change in conformity with Will`` applied within the realm of the human body. All magic operates within this same universe of matter and energy we inhabit, and so it stands to reason that the physical properties which we use to identify the medicinal actions of a plant can also be used to understand and describe that plant`s more esoteric gifts.

Aromatic plants exist in most every ecosystem.  They release volatile oils into the environment that help to kill airborne pathogens, protecting the plants (and the other plants around it) from infection.  Aromatherapist and herbalist David Crow coined the phrase ``community immunity`to describe the ecological function of these volatile oils.

These plants are easy to identify.  When you rub their leaves between your fingers they release their potent scents (and the scent will likely linger a bit on your skin.)

When ingested (whether by chewing on the leaves or taking a tea or a tincture or absorbing them through the skin in a bath or by burning the plants and inhaling the smoke), plants rich in these volatile oils:

-- Combat infection in the tissues they come in contact with

-- Irritate the mucosa (some mildly and some more severely) promoting the secretion of new healthy mucous and thus breaking up congestion

-- Help to carry other medicines more efficiently through the body when included in formulae

Not surprisingly, most cultures use the aromatic plants growing in their environment ceremonially to clear stagnant emotions and protect, clear the mind and heart, and protect against spiritual contagions such as rage, envy, jealousy, and resentment (known in many traditions as the evil eye).   Whether burned as smudges, infused in bath water, or carried as talismans, these plants can be powerful allies in clearing the way for magical work by dispersing unwanted energies from in and around a witch.

Aromatic plants with a nauseatingly bitter taste like Wormwood and can serve to root out deeply festering energetic infestations.

Oily, aromatic roots like Angelica and Osha, with their spicy, earthy scents, stir what sleeps in the deepest waters of the unconscious, opening the way to dreams and visions.

Sweetly aromatic plants like Sweetgrass help to nourish the heart and settle parts of us that have been upset by grief or pain.

It is essential when working with plants, however, to remember that they are not inert objects, but living entities -- not ingredients in ritual preparations, but active partners in the magic being done.   Treated with respect, over time a plant will reveal more of its character to you and offer itself more deeply in your work.  

But it all begins with meeting the plants around you and engaging them with your own senses.  And the aromatic plants, filling the air with their scent, are ready to begin sharing themselves with you.