Tuesday, August 30, 2016

On Safe Spaces and Ritual Purity

My gods are ancient and immense.

Like me, they emanate from the ecstatic explosion that ensued when the original darkness looked on darknesself's reflection and fell in love and in lust with darkness' own reflection.

Like me, they contain multitudes.

They are irreducible, and they teach me to own and to stand in the fullness of who I am.

Each morning, I pray that they help me keep pure the intentions of my heart.

They tell me "the only thing that is impure is your concept of impurity."

And so I take a cup of water in my hands and begin the work of releasing and transmuting all the fear and hate and guilt and shame that cause me to reject any part of their beauty, my beauty, and the beauty of the world we weave together, along with the myriad embodied and disembodied beings who join us in the perpetual orgasm of creation.


So what would it say if I invited them into a space that was hostile and uninviting to people who have been marginalized and oppressed?

My teacher, Karina taught me that Victor Anderson said that if we did not address our racism and misogyny, we would be in danger when we stood with the gods in circle.

My gods exist before and outside human gender.   What do I say to them if I say that only people performing the gender they were assigned at birth are welcome in my circle?

My gods are lusty and fecund.  What do I say to them if entry into my circle is denied to people based on who and how they love and desire?

My gods take pleasure in the multitudes of biological expressions that exist even within a species.   What do I say to them if my circle is not welcoming to every kind of human body?

Before they were my gods, my gods were the gods of the East African ancestors of all of humanity (or at least of those among them who walked beyond the edge of the fire to re-encounter the wild).   What do I say to them if I disown these ancestors or their fellow descendants just because they do not come from the same continent or have the same skin color as my more recent ancestors?

Freeing my circle and myself of hatred, bigotry, and oppression is the most important act of ritual purification I can engage in.


Those who say "sacred spaces are not safe" engage in the fallacy of equivocation.

On the one hand, absolutely, no ritual space worth of the name is truly safe, in that encounters with the divine and with the wild tend to upend all our categories of judgement, all our structures of belief, all the places we have become rigid.

But if by "safe spaces" we mean spaces that are as free as we can make them of oppressive actions and attitudes and images,  then the only truly sacred spaces are safe spaces, because they are the only spaces in which the gods we invite are invited to bring all of who they are.    Its not that these spaces are unsafe for the gods, they will sanctify whatever they touch by pulling it into resonance with their own natures, but rather that they are unsafe for those who would enter them clinging tightly to their own fear and hatred.   The gods will shake them loose.   And if someone is holding tight to their bigotry, the shaking will not be a pleasant one.

Standing in the presence of the old gods is unsafe for those who make spaces unsafe for others.  The only thing that is impure is our concept of impurity.  And it, too, will be purified, one way or another.


Sunday, July 24, 2016

Ghost Pipe: A Cautionary Tale

Thank you to Renee Davis for the Facebook post that pushed me to stop procrastinating on writing this.  And to Howie Brounstein for telling me many of these things in is inimitably loving way.

"I won't tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods 
meeting the unmarked strip of light— 
ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise: 
I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear. 

"And I won't tell you where it is, so why do I tell you 
anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these 
to have you listen at all, it's necessary 
to talk about trees." 

-- Adrinenne Rich "Revolutionary Road"

I thought it was enough that I didn't give the names of the forests where I found it.

I thought it was enough that I told people to take only the aerial parts and only a few from each stand and not share their harvest spots and only use the medicine when nothing else would do.

But none of that matters to the plant whose populations my writing and teaching served a role in decimating.

I thought it was enough that I had the plant's permission to teach about it.

But plant's don't know  much about our culture's desire to take things and have them for our own.  So it was never really informed consent.

I told myself it was ok because William Cook had written about Monotropa uniflora all the way back in the nineteenth century and he hadn't made its populations dwindle.  But I didn't understand the impact another century of removing people further and further from the wild and from their own wildness would have.

I thought, nobody is going to read what some upstart late bloomer herbalist  in rural Maine says, these words won't reach very far.   My false humility kept me from understanding how far my voice would carry.

I wish I had never begun writing and speaking about Ghost Pipe.

Yes, there are people who were helped who no other plant could serve who met Ghost Pipe through my writings.   And people who fell in love with the plant after I introduced them to hir and have built loving relationships with hir.   But I know enough about plants and about magic to know that I could have made this happen in more discerning ways.

So I am writing this now so you do not accidentally betray a beloved plant in the way that I have.


Another Adrienne Rich poem comes to mind:

"Everything we write
will be used against us
or against those we love.
These are the terms,
take them or leave them.
Poetry never stood a chance
of standing outside history.
One line typed twenty years ago
can be blazed on a wall in spraypaint
to glorify art as detachment
or torture of those we
did not love but also
did not want to kill.
We move but our words stand
become responsibly
for more than we intended
and this is verbal privilege"

The nature of plant knowledge is similar to that of other magical lore.  Those new to the Craft, tasting the liberation and vitality they are feeling in enduring ways for the first time in their lives, want to share everything so that others can be free too.   They assume the magic they have found is so pure and so powerful that it will transform the hearts of those who engage it, leaving no need to fear for its abuse.

That was what I believed when I began writing and teaching about Ghost Pipe.  Connecting with plants made you a better person, so all knowledge should be out there, free for the reading and finding.   

The years that followed gave me a more nuanced understanding.

Yes, absolutely, the plants are there for all to encounter.  Just like the gods and the elements of nature.

But as with gods, there are some plants, and some aspects of their being and their medicine that are best shared by the plants themselves alone, when and how they choose to share them.   Or, by a seasoned practitioner with a trusted student after years of working together.    Not because that knowledge belongs to an elect few, but because it loses meaning outside its context.

Many of us who teach hold this to be true about poisonous plants and profoundly mind altering plants, because of the dangers they might pose to people using them without the knowledge of the proper time and place and manner.

It is equally true of rare and fragile plants, because of the danger people might pose to them by using them without the knowledge of the proper time and place and manner.


I understand why knowledge of a plant like Ghost Pipe spreads like wildfire.   We live in a time when people feel cut off from the living world, and finding out about a strange, beautiful plant that taps into the mind of an entire forest brings a stir of recognition of the kind of connection the deepest parts of ourselves know is possible, even when we so seldom experience it in our lives and our worlds.

And I understand why so many feel the need to harvest the plant for themselves or buy the tincture from someone else.   We live in a culture that has objectified and commodified everything.   And in which the sense of our entitlement is magnified and the sense of our impact on the living world is diminished -- my own included, or I wouldn't be here writing this mea culpa.   It can seem like the only way to access the magic Ghost Pipe represents to us is to hold something made of the body through which that magic moves.

I am not saying nobody should use Ghost Pipe as medicine.   I am saying it should be used only when no other medicine will do, by people with enough knowledge to know that no other medicine will do, who have also cultivated a deep relationship with the plant.

For those who have come here seeking knowledge about this plant, here is what I suggest you do instead:

go to the forests, the fields, the deserts, the mountains

find strange and beautiful beings

make respectful loving  relationships with them

and hold their medicine as close as you would hold a Beloved.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Our Existence is Not an Epidemic: An Open Letter to Jill Stein

Dear Dr. Stein,

I was an activist in the early days of the Massachusetts Green Party in the late 1990's and early 2000's.   We met briefly a few times when you were running for Governor.

I am also Autistic. 

The last time you ran for President, you told John Saul of the Seattle Times that:

"In 25 years in clinics, I witnessed an increase in diseases – asthma, obesity, autism. Certainly our DNA did not change in that short time; the problem is with our sick food system, pollution and failing health care,”

When you make statements like this you are further marginalizing people like me -- which flies in the face of the values the Green Party is supposed to represent.

Autism is not a disease.    As Autistic scholar Nick Walker writes "Autism is a genetically-based human neurological variant."  Our divergence comes in the form of increased sensitivity to sensory and emotional stimuli, marked differences in verbal and non-verbal communication from the general population, and a tendency toward non-linear systems-oriented thinking.   These differences have made us driving forces in technological and cultural change throughout human history.  And, in this culture, they have made us pathologized and feared.   Many of us have trouble "functioning" in the ways this society expects us to, because this society was not made with us in mind -- just as Queer and Trans people often find challenges to integrating into a society that is based on heteronormative and cis-normative assumptions about gender and sexuality, Autistic people often find it challenging to integrate into a culture rooted in assumed neurotypicality.

(Incidentally, being fat is not a disease, either.   While there is some correlation between a variety of health problems and high body weight or high body fat, correlation does not equal causation, and healthy bodies come in many shapes and sizes.  The moral panic about "obesity" is unscientific and contributes to discrimination against fat people.)

Nor is there an "Autism epidemic."   First of all, in order to have an epidemic you have to have a disease.   But, secondly, the increase in the frequency of Autism diagnoses is explained by changes in definitions and diagnostic criteria.

As someone who struggled with asthma most of my life, in part because of growing up in a cluster of trash incinerators in Massachusetts, I am more aware than most of the public health crises caused by pollution.    But my neurobiology is neither a pathological condition nor is it the result of anything in my environment.


  • Stop talking about Autism as a "disease" or an "epidemic."
  • Clearly and publicly distance yourself from the fraudulent and hurtful claims of former gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield that vaccines cause Autism.   While I understand your principled position that vaccines should not be mandatory because people should have a right to make their own health care decisions, in the absence of such a clear statement, your opposition to vaccine laws provides cover for those spreading false information about vaccines and Autism.
  • Get to know Autistic adults.   Consult with us about our needs.   Adopt policies that support the work and struggles of Autistic people.

I would love to be able to support your campaign, but I cannot do so while you pathologize people like me.

Sean Donahue

Sunday, April 10, 2016

All Acts of Love and Pleasure

"Both of us say there are laws to obey.  But frankly, I don't like your tone.  You want to change the way I make love.   I want to leave it alone." --  Leonard Cohen

What does it mean to be sex positive?

Seeing more and more people openly express the vibrant, healthy, holy, liberatory potential of sexuality is a beautiful thing.

But from lube shaming and to descriptions and proscriptions and prescriptions of right and wrong ways to experience orgasms to the erasure and/or objectification of the bodies and sexualities experiences of Queer people, Trans people, fat people, disabled people, and People of Color to the lack of understanding of how the sensory experiences of neurodivergent people and trauma survivors shape their sexual experiences, a lot of what passes for sex positivity in contemporary culture too often excludes a lot of people's experiences of sex.

So, I want to spell out what I mean when I talk about being a sex positive herbalist, a sex positive priest, a sex positive person:

I am sex positive even when I struggle with shame and fear about my own sexuality.   Even when shame makes it difficult for me to engage or express my own desire.   Even when fear makes me too dissociated to be able to connect with a lover.    Just as much as when I am feeling as free and embodied and lusty as a rutting stag.   All of these have been common experiences at different points in my life.   All of them are part of my experience now.   Sometimes I experience all of them at once. I am sex positive because I believe in being present to my body's authentic responses and sensations and desires and emotions however they show up.

I am sex positive when I encourage other people to allow themselves to play with and explore their own bodies.   And when I celebrate the pleasure they share with each other.   And when I encourage them to be honor their own boundaries, their own hesitation, to be still and slow and present with all of their parts as they come into different states of embodiment and different intensities and flavors of sexual desire and sexual aversion.

I am sex positive when I say that there are no right or wrong ways for people to have or not have sex, to have or not have orgasms, to ejaculate or not ejaculate,  to stretch their own boundaries or honor their own need safety, to run power through their bodies alone or with other people, to play with flows of power and pleasure between people, to explore sensation so long as they are grounded in authenticity, respect, and consent.    No such thing as too much or too little sex as long as a person's relationship with their sexuality helps them engage their vitality.   No profane sex except that which violates someone's sense of integrity.    

As Doreen Valiente wrote in "The Charge of the Goddess,"  "All acts of love and pleasure are my rituals."

And it is my goal to liberate my own love and pleasure, and be an ally in others' liberation.

That is what sex positivity means to me.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Gods, Authority, and Sovereignty

"A witch bows to no one."

This was among the first things I was taught in my training as a Feri priest.

No human, no institution, and no god ultimately holds authority over me.  I am responsible for standing in the fullness of my power, taking responsibility for my role in events unfolding in all worlds, for the ripples across space and time that trace back to my presence, my movements, my very breath.   My own godsoul, the divine aspect of my being, is the only being that rightly sits on the throne of my heart.    Victor Anderson taught that the true meaning of the first commandment was that nothing should ever be allowed to come between us and our highest selves, no god should come before our godsoul.  

What, then is our relationship with the gods?

They are part of the same world that we are.  Older and more immense by almost unimaginable magnitudes, to be sure.  But they are like us, but they are not greater than us.   A Redwood is far older and larger than a Hummingbird, but it is not holier or more important, both are part of the same ecology.  The same is true of gods and humans.   Anaar, the one living Grandmaster of my tradition, says "We sit at the table of the gods.  Sometimes we need booster seats, but we sit at the table of the gods."

Our tradition agrees with physics that our universe is made of matter and energy that came into being in the orgasmic explosion science calls the Big Bang, arranging and rearranging itself over and over again.   Gods have persisted in form for longer than we have.   But we are now less creators of worlds.  I create the world within me and reshape the world around me, as do all other beings.   And my world is transformed by the Sage that exhales the carvone that I inhale, that relaxes tension and opens the senses so I can connect more deeply with the living world around me.

I grew up in a religion that taught that the sacrifice of our body's pleasure and our own lifeforce was necessary to show devotion to a god who was crucified.   The church that taught that enforced it with emotional, psychological, and emotional violence and I still carry scars from that time.   To sacrifice means to make sacred.  Our bodies, our sovereignty, our autonomy, and our authentic desires are already sacred.  Any human or institution or god that demands their sacrifice is lying to us, promising to make us what we already are if only we give up what makes us who we are.    The gods I ally with are the gods who love me and want to see me free.

There are gods who are my lovers, gods who are my teachers and counselors, gods who are my protectors, gods I work with to turn the tides of history.    But there are no gods to whom I surrender my authority and autonomy.    And no human to whom I will give authority over my relationships with gods -- or overwhom I will assume authority.

 If the role of a priest is to practice theology and teach the truest law, then the law I teach is the only one that arises from my theology, the same one that Crowley expressed when he said that love is the whole of the law, love under Will.   And the only correction I will offer if I see someone not living that law will be the example of my own continuing liberation and my solidarity and willingness to be an ally in theirs.   Unless they are trying to take from others the ability to live that law, in which case I will resist them.

"A witch bows to no one."