life

Dirt, Moss, and Cypress Knees

One of the really hecking sweet parts of having more physical endurance now is that places I already loved to go have opened up a lot more to me. Take Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, for one.

It’s a very quietly beautiful place most of the year, other than summer when the lotuses bloom in a sea of brilliant pink. It’s never very crowded, there are always plenty of places to sit, and you rarely hear people over the orchestra of insect calls and birdsong. Even the city traffic dulls to a low, forgettable roar in the background.

Even though the gardens are arguably at their best in summer, I like them the most in autumn. My favorite part of them isn’t the lotuses, really (though I have a certain appreciation for their alien-looking pods), it’s the bald cypress trees.

I love bald cypress trees. They’re my favorite tree. I love their scent (I once knelt down to take a picture of one, and ended up ruining a good pair of jeans by permanently staining the knees green. I felt embarrassed afterward, like a child ruining a set of school clothes on the playground, but sweet, fresh smell of crushed cypress needles was almost worth it). I love the way their needles turn brilliant orange in autumn. I love that they’re one of the few weirdo conifers that actually loses their needles in winter. I love the way they grow, in the liminal space between land and water. I love their alien-looking knees — mistaken for people, animals, and even monsters once they get large enough.

A bald cypress tree with a set of knee-like protuberances on its roots.
Knees!

Anyway, before I launch into another paean to bald cypress trees, all of this is to say that we took a long walk in the park and it was pretty nice. The boardwalk is especially pretty this time of year, with the leaves falling on it like confetti in shades of burgundy, vermillion, violet, and saffron.

There weren’t as many flowers, of course. I found some kind of yellow asteraceae, and these very pretty silver cock’s combs, but that was about it. I did also spot some aggressively purple berries on (what I think is) a viburnum, though. Judging by the number of bare twigs, the birds have been hitting them up for snacks pretty hardcore. I know cardinals will happily eat them — I used to have a bright red buddy who hung out outside of the window of my old apartment.

My partner and I sat on a bench for a bit, enjoying the sound of the insects chirping, birds warbling, and wind soughing through the trees.

“What… What are you doing?” He asked.

“Taking off my shoes,” I replied.

“Why?”

I shrugged. “Something about ions. Mostly because it feels good. Dirt. Moss. You know.”

“Fair enough.”

(He eventually followed suit and realized I was right — the cool ground felt wonderful, and the moss was very soft.)

As I write this, it’s Saturday night, I’m snuggled up and waiting to watch a livestream by Gareth Reynolds. I’ve got my partner, my cats, and a fantastic slice of pie. All told, not a bad end to the day!

crystals, Neodruidry, Plants and Herbs, Witchcraft

7 Ways to Set Up a Pet-Proof Altar

Let me preface this by saying that I love my cats. I do. But one of them has an odd obsession with getting into any plant that’s within reach (and several that aren’t), and the other will hurl things and scream if one of us fails to sit on the kitchen floor with him in the morning. I don’t know why this is, but it’s the reality of the situation.

Anyway, as you can probably tell, this makes setting up and maintaining a home altar somewhat… challenging, shall we say. Not only do I not want my altar disturbed, I also don’t want to have to worry about someone eating something they shouldn’t. So, here’s how I keep everyone (and everything) safe:

Train Your Cats to- hahahahahaha

Sorry, couldn’t resist. Couldn’t finish that thought with a straight face, either.

She might be your familiar, but that doesn’t mean she cares about your stuff.

Choose Portable Altar Decor (But a Permanent Space)

In my opinion, part of an altar’s power is in its presence even when it isn’t being used. Some of that is lost when you have to set up and take down your altar every time you need it, but that doesn’t make a portable altar any less beautiful or meaningful.

If you do have to go the portable route, however, I’d recommend keeping a dedicated altar space. Even if you can’t have food offerings out without your dog getting into them, or your cat tries to knock over all of your statuary, you can still have a specific space that’s only used for your temporary altar. Get a nice accent table and cover it with a cloth. Set it with a good-sized crystal or a vase of flowers (if your animal companions will allow for it). Save the other altar tools and decorations for when you’re actually performing a working, but keep that space as a designated altar even when it isn’t in use.

Use a Drawer

One of the best ways I’ve found to avoid my felines’ penchant for destruction is to choose a table with a nice, deep drawer, and set up an altar in that. You can still have a permanent space, and all you have to do is pull the drawer open to get to work.

Remember to close it gently, though — you’ll keep your altar tools and decorations from rattling and knocking around that way.

Use the Floor

If having things knocked over is your primary concern, why not just put them on the floor to begin with? The fact is, having chairs and tables so far from the floor isn’t a universal thing — plenty of cultures around the world use low tables, floor cushions, or nothing at all.

Designate a space for a floor altar. Set it with a small accent rug and your altar supplies. Place a comfy floor pillow in front of it, and you’re golden.

Use the Outdoors

If your interior space is too thoroughly dominated by your four-legged roommates, consider working outside. It’s a bit less convenient if the weather’s bad, but outdoor altars are beautiful, functional, and, if you work closely with your local nature spirits, immensely powerful.

The only tip I’d offer here is to choose altar decorations that are resistant to walking away. Expensive statues might disappear on you, and shiny crystals may prove irresistible to the local bird population. Materials that aren’t durable enough might end up a bit worse for wear after a few rainstorms and a couple of rounds of sun bleaching, too. Largish stones, garden statuary, candles, and — of course — plants are inconspicuous, not likely to disappear, and can handle being outside.

Watch the Center of Gravity

Few things are as nerve-wracking as a tall, lit candle. This is especially true when that candle is in the same room as a cat. If candles are part of your practice, make sure to invest in some good, heavy candle holders. If you can make sure your candles are sufficiently bottom-heavy, they’ll be less likely to tip over easily. For this reason, I also recommend tealights and jar candles over, say, long, fancy tapers.

The same is true of any statuary or other decorations. Avoid choosing items that have a high center of gravity, because they’re much more likely to tip over if, for example, a very zealous boxer puppy wags his tail too close to your altar.

Invest in Some Museum Wax

Museum wax is what helps keep museum displays in place. It comes in several types, from an opaque, gummy material to one more like clear dental wax, and can help things stay stationary if they get bumped. The only caveat here is that it doesn’t work on an altar cloth — museum wax provides a tacky surface between two smooth finishes, so it won’t really help to keep your statues in place on top of fabric.

Know Your Poisons (They May Not Be What You Think)

So, we probably all know not to let our pets get into toxic herbs or houseplants. The ASPCA has a good list of plants that can trigger adverse reactions.

I remember watching a video by a crystal worker a few years ago. In it, they mentioned being guided by their intuition to charge a piece of cinnabar(!) using fire(!!). The reason I mention this is that, sometimes, the list of things we know we should keep away from our pets isn’t as long as it ought to be.

For example, cinnabar is an ore of mercury. Some specimens even have droplets of mercury on or in them. Metallic mercury is, itself, not that toxic — organic mercury compounds are far more dangerous — but inhaling heated mercury vapor is a super bad idea. Honestly, you shouldn’t even really handle cinnabar or wear it next to your skin. If you want to work with it, use gloves, keep it in a glass container, and definitely don’t let your pets touch, lick, or play with it. Definitely definitely don’t heat it up.

Some other gemstones contain toxic materials, like lead, arsenic, or antimony.

Plants and mineral specimens aren’t the only sources of a potential poisoning, either. Some pottery — particularly very old or inexpensive stuff — may not be food safe. This means that its paint or glaze can contain toxic minerals that might leach out if you use it to cook with or eat from. While this isn’t usually a super serious concern for altar tools, it can be if you have a pet who tries to sneak a drink out of your altar’s water vessel or steal your food offerings!

The bottom line is, it’s important to know what goes on your altar. If you have pets, it’s equally important to assume that everything is going to end up on the floor or in someone’s mouth eventually.

life

Un/Whee

I can feel it.
Unreasonable.
Heavy.
It settles like an old velvet duvet — familiar and stifling.

“ENNUI,” I say out loud, “I declare an ennui!”

One thing I’ve learned about my mental health is that names are power. If I feel a panic attack coming on, saying, out loud, that that’s what’s happening makes it a tiny bit easier to deal with. This feeling is different, but I name it anyway.

I can always tell when it’s happening. It hits me when I’m in the middle of living life, and it’s like the color’s been sucked out of the world. Looking at interesting or beautiful things no longer inspires me. I don’t want to do anything. Nothing seems enjoyable. A tiny, evil thought in the back of my mind lies to me, telling me that this is it, I’ve reached the world’s level cap, life is about to be a long, tedious slog to the finish line.

I call it “ennui” because it defangs it, at least a little. Mental Floss points out that ennui has “connotations of self-indulgent posturing and European decadence.” It’s an oppressive existential apathy that’s hard to take seriously. Ennui isn’t as weighty as Depression, or as toothy as Anhedonia. If these neurotransmitters are going to attempt to seize power over me, they’re going to have to try harder than that. My absurdity is potent and not easily overthrown.

This feeling is scary, the lies it tells me are frightening. So, I name it something that makes it sound, to me, like the pseudo-deep affectation of a second-rate philosopher. As one of my friend’s uncles used to say, “Are you bored, or are you boring?”

Part of the trouble is that it isn’t enough to not be boring. I’d even argue that very few people are genuinely so. “Sonder” is a wonderful, if little-used, word that the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows defines as:

[T]he realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.

With that in mind, being legitimately boring takes effort.

My partner argues that this is neurochemical. It happens too regularly, with no special reason. I could be having a perfectly lovely day, capped off by sitting on a roof and watching the sunset with a slice of Baltimore Bomb pie, and suddenly the pinks and oranges look flat and muddy and the chocolate tastes like glue.

This joy-sucking specter sticks around for a few days, perhaps a week, before being distracted by something shiny and sweeping off to go find another haunt.

Tea leaves thwart those who court catastrophe,
designing futures where nothing will occur:
cross the gypsy’s palm and yawning she
will still predict no perils left to conquer.
Jeopardy is jejune now: naïve knight
finds ogres out-of-date and dragons unheard
of, while blasé princesses indict
tilts at terror as downright absurd.

The beast in Jamesian grove will never jump,
compelling hero’s dull career to crisis;
and when insouciant angels play God’s trump,
while bored arena crowds for once look eager,
hoping toward havoc, neither pleas nor prizes
shall coax from doom’s blank door lady or tiger.

Sylvia Plath, Ennui

I haven’t found a way to make it leave sooner (or, even better, keep it from bothering me at all). Energy cleanses and other rituals help remove some of the background static, but the ennui doesn’t budge. It’s another cycle to understand and endure, as surely as brilliant orange autumn turns to gray winter. The best I can do is give this unwanted guest a name, speak it out loud, and know that it never stays forever.

Environment, life, Plants and Herbs

Sharks’ Eyes and Poison Orange

Some parts of DC are weird.

I mean, some parts of everywhere are weird, don’t get me wrong. Where I grew up, our favorite activity was spelunking in the sewers (I found a stray femur and was almost eaten by geese). When I lived in Delaware, it took me a bit to get used to the way the landscape was broken up — apartment complex, forest, strip mall, pasture, wetlands, wetlands, wetlands, city. In California, the neighborhood was a very tiny island in the middle of fields and pastures. Sometimes, you’d wake up and see all of the puddles shimmering strangely with whatever the crop dusters were spraying the day before. At night, even without seeing any cows for miles, you’d hear their eldritch moos as if they were right in the yard. The songs of coyotes carried for untold distances. Uncanny-valley strangers would come and knock on your door, ask to borrow things, and disappear. It had a very Southern Gothic atmosphere, especially for a place that was emphatically neither.

DC is weird in its own way. I love it here, and there are some extremely cool places and people. The architecture is gorgeous, and you can find some very lovely Victorian-style houses and unexpected details. Still, there are plenty of other areas here that I try to avoid if there’s any way to help it.

This was one of those.

My partner and I were picking up food at this place we found at the beginning of COVID — a little pricey, but they’ve got the best damned catfish po’boy and blackberry shortcake I’ve ever had. (I’d drop the name, but the location is called four different things depending on whether you go there on foot, find it via Google Maps, read their bags, or try to order through a delivery app. Like I said, weird.)

It’s situated in an area that, not unlike the rest of the city, combines historical architecture with modern touches. The thing is, where other areas of DC seem to give the impression that this is done out of necessity, or to fulfill actual human needs, this seems almost malicious. Concrete angel faces stare mutely out over doorways to imposing office and municipal buildings, expressions framed in equally-stony olive branches. At street level, there are stores — jewelers, Nordstrom Rack, a seemingly impossible number of Starbucks cafés — with large, thoroughly modern plate glass windows with the dead, flat gleam of sharks’ eyes.

There’s something about it that strikes me as very calculated. There’s a cultivated air of diversity here, but the kind of diversity that wouldn’t welcome anything that wasn’t a high-end department store, a Starbucks, or an eatery capable of suiting a very narrowly defined sensibility. Some of it is very pretty, but stifling, almost.

On the sidewalks, people sit too close together at outdoor tables. A maskless couple walk by, pushing a leather-clad baby carriage that mommyblogs say could pay a month of my neighbors’ rent.

People live here, too, but everything feels aggressively tailored to those who work here instead. I don’t think they’re the same population. Thinking about it too much makes my teeth itch.

I need to get the fuck out of here,” I whisper-hiss to my partner, “Because I’ve got maybe ten minutes before this place turns me into an anprim.”

I wonder if this is how fireflies feel when you put them in a mason jar with a stick and a leaf.

Fortunately, getting elsewhere only takes about ten minutes. It might be a strange byproduct of this one self-hypnosis program I sort-of-kind-of-maybe did wrong a few years ago, but the sight of the color green makes my nerves finally start to unknot themselves.

We park and walk a ways. I know my food’s getting cold, but I don’t really care. I take big breaths — there’s smoke coming from somewhere, and it tinges the smell of soil, gently decaying leaves, and damp wood with an earthy sweetness.

We find a picnic table. I always eat fast, but today I manage to finish before my partner’s done unpacking.

“Okay! Gonna go climb on that tree and look for friends!”

He’s grown used to this. I think you kind of have to, after awhile — it’s something that seems pretty firmly baked-in to me. I’m told that when I was very little, maybe four, we had some kind of family function at a beach. My dad says he heard me walking around making tiny proclamations: “Anyone who wants to go find bentures, follow me!” (Then I disappeared into some trees for awhile and he had to peel me off of a sheer clay cliff face, but that’s another story.)

When I was dating one ex-partner, it was a near-constant bone of contention that he never wanted to go exploring with me. I ended up having a lot of adventures with my dog, including finding a broken wooden footbridge that led to nowhere, covered in graffiti that dated back to the ’40s. (I’m almost positive it was Extremely Haunted.)

After that, another ex-partner used to give me survival equipment for every holiday. They figured the odds were pretty good that I’d end up disappearing into the woods some day, and they wanted to hedge their bets on me coming back alive eventually.

In short, I think most of my loved ones throughout history have adapted to the idea of probably seeing me show up on the internet after being mistaken for some kind of pygmy sasquatch.

There’s so much moss. Damp and feathery, sporophytes reaching up on stalks like delicate red threads. I could probably photograph it all day, to be honest — the structures are so beautifully complex when you get close enough.

My partner comes to join me, so we can look for mushy boys.

Some type of Mycena builds a tiny cathedral in a fallen tree. I find another type growing from a separate tree, its cap an almost ghostly translucent white. It’s the only one there, and I don’t have the heart to touch it, see what color it bruises, or try to take a specimen for a spore print.

“Oh, hey,” my partner points to a dead stump. I make a kind of excited pterodactyl noise and get on my stomach for pictures. I haven’t seen jack-o-lantern mushrooms before, but their intense “fuck off” orange and fine, deeply-ridged gills are weirdly, poisonously beautiful.

I can see why they’re often mistaken for chanterelles, though it makes me wonder what came first. Did the chanterelle grow to resemble the false chanterelle and jack-o-lantern mushrooms because it kept it from being eaten, or was it a case of convergent evolution?

It strikes me with some irony that I feel better about poisonous mushrooms than I do about the “Welcome” sign in a shop. Warning orange is easier to look at than shark-eyed windows, I guess.

crystals

Working with Herkimer Diamonds

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I like crystals. Even if I didn’t work with them, I’d probably collect them.

I received my first one when I was very little — about five or so, I think. It was a piece of dyed hot pink agate, shaped into an egg about as long as my thumb. I didn’t know anything about geology or crystal properties, but I knew I liked it and so, like a corvid, I kept it with the rest of my treasures.

(Most of those “treasures” were dead swamp cicadas that I’d pick up on the sidewalk in late summer. I had — okay, have — a Thing for iridescent colors.)

I still collect crystals, though now they actually get used for things. Unfortunately, the reality of the crystal market means I can’t just buy whatever I like. There’s a vetting process. Since I’m also lazy, this means that, for the past couple of years, I’ve only picked up Arkansas quartz, Herkimer diamonds, and piece or two from Brazil after making a nuisance of myself to the seller.

All of this is to say that Herkimer diamonds kick ass and they’re very easy to obtain ethically. If I could only use one crystal for the rest of my life, it’d be one of these.

What are Herkimer diamonds?

Well, for one, they’re not diamonds. They earn their name because they come from Herkimer county, New York, and are an exceptionally hard, clear variety of (usually double-terminated) quartz.

Herkimer is known for these stones, so there are a bunch of mines you can visit to get your own from the source. There’s no child labor involved, and the process of mining is pretty much you, some hand tools, and a bucket, so these crystals are also lower on the social and environmental impact scale than many others. A bunch of Etsy merchants make a point to visit Herkimer once a year or so, dig for some, then sell them, so they’re also pretty easy to obtain even if you aren’t interested in making the trip yourself. (Two of my favorite sellers are Luminous Harvest and Greengem. Bonus, Greengem is also a source of beautiful, conflict-free rings — even some really fancy alternative engagement rings.)

How are Herkimer diamonds used for spiritual healing?

Herkimer diamonds have a reputation as extremely high-vibration crystals. They’re supposedly good for purifying the physical and astral body, attuning you to another person, group, or place, removing energy blocks, and increasing the “oomph” of the other stones they’re used with.

According to Michael Gienger’s Healing Crystals, they can be used for awareness, clarity, dream recall, heightened awareness and consciousness, and pain relief. It’s also trigonal and secondary, which makes it particularly helpful for people with “trigonal personalities,” and who wish to unlearn negative behavioral patterns and live in greater harmony with their external environment. For more information, read Gienger’s Crystal Power, Crystal Healing. It’s a very interesting read that outlines his really unique approach to the subject.

(Of course, I don’t endorse the use of crystals in place of conventional medicine. They’re great as a complementary therapy, but please consult a doctor first.)

A hand holds a Herkimer diamond in clear river water.
Cleaning a Herkimer diamond in the river. Look at all of those hydrocarbon inclusions!

What are the magical properties of Herkimer diamonds?

Since they’re clear quartz, they are pretty efficient “all purpose” stones. They do often come with some neat, unique features that make them particularly useful, in a magical sense:

  • Many of them contain hydrocarbons, visible as black lines, dots, or flecks within the crystal. These bits of incredibly ancient vegetable matter connect us to our ancestors, all the way back to our pre-human family tree. For this reason, they can be very helpful for ancestor work.
  • Most of them are double terminated, which makes them helpful for simultaneously sending and receiving energy.
  • A lucky few contain deposits of water, too! “Enhydro” crystals are strongly connected to the water element, as well as earth. This makes them useful for rituals for purification and emotional healing.
  • Some of the rainbow fractures and water or hydrocarbon inclusions give them a character that’s similar to garden quartz (or shaman quartz). The inclusions and “flaws” can create beautifully complex scenes inside the crystal that are lots of fun to fall into. This makes them great as a meditative focus, or an aid to trance or journeying work.
  • They’re generally not huge. To be honest, most of the ones you’ll find in metaphysical shops are downright tiny. This makes them great for including in pouches, sachets, bottles, or whatever else your witchy heart desires.

Herkimer Diamond Clearing Spray Recipe

This is a recipe for something I whip up when I’m in a situation where salt, smoke, or other methods of clearing energy aren’t advisable. Plus, it smells really good.

You’ll need:

  1. First, make sure your ingredients are good to go — tell them what you’re using them for, and what you’d like them to do for you. Bergamot protects from evil, cuts off interference, and functions as a “power” herb. Lavender cleanses and promotes peace. Ylang ylang is calming and uplifting. Rosemary is cleansing and protecting. Vervain purifies, gets rid of negative energy, and enhances the action of other herbs in the mixture. Frankincense is purifying and energy raising.
  2. Add the dried herbs and oils first. You can go with your preference here, one is no more powerful than the other. You don’t need much — a drop or two of oil, a pinch or two of herbs.
  3. Swirl the mixture when you’re through, and speak your intention again. This can be simple. Start with, “With this mixture, I[…]” and state your intent.
  4. If you plan to keep this for a long time, fill the bottle two thirds of the way with high proof grain alcohol, like Everclear. (The Tisserand Institute has more information on preservation here.)
  5. Fill the bottle the rest of the way with lavender hydrosol or distilled water. Swirl to mix.
  6. Add the Herkimer diamond.
  7. Screw the top on the bottle and label it. You’re done!

While the sun is great for empowering things, it’s also not super great for scents. If you want to charge this mixture, do so either under moonlight, or very briefly under sunlight. To use it, simply mist the object, person, or space in need of some energy clearing.

life

When CBT doesn’t cut it.

I’m not a psychologist, but I’ve been through some stuff — including several attempts at cognitive behavioral therapy. Here’s why it didn’t work for me, and what I did to get to where I wanted to be.

Cognitive behavioral therapy is considered the gold standard for treating anxiety disorders. It’s a reputation that isn’t entirely undeserved — there’s a load of research demonstrating its effectiveness, both combined with medication and on its own. It’s often the first thing that a doctor will suggest when a patient presents with anxiety problems.

CBT relies on recognizing thought patterns that we have that don’t line up with reality. The underlying concept is that, when we can identify distortions in our thinking, we can prevent or intervene in those distortions and keep them from negatively impacting our feelings and behavior.

But what do you do when CBT doesn’t work for you?

If you’re me, that means feeling like a failure and going into a deeper anxiety spiral first.

I first tried CBT through a workbook. It was helpful, but definitely not a substitute for going through it with an actual therapist. So, when that opportunity presented itself, I jumped on it.
And left feeling like my anxiety was entirely my fault.

I was able to identify distortions in my thinking, that wasn’t the problem. The problem was that identifying and reframing them didn’t actually seem to have much of an effect. My first therapist eventually cut me loose when I failed to make substantial progress after a few weeks, and oh boy did I feel like a lost cause.

There’s definitely something wrong with the messaging surrounding CBT. Because so much of it relies on the patient identifying and reframing cognitive distortions outside of therapy sessions, CBT comes packaged with a hearty side of moralizing — if it isn’t successful, it’s because the patient wasn’t willing to “put in the work.”

That’s not true.

When medication doesn’t work, you try a different one. When other modalities don’t work, you try another therapist or another type of therapy. When CBT doesn’t work, it might not have anything to do with your level of effort, willingness, or ability to get better.

Why CBT Wasn’t the Answer for Me

Don’t get me wrong, cognitive behavioral therapy has been enormously helpful for tons of people. I suggest that everyone at least try it, because it can be great for reducing some anxiety symptoms. There are two big reasons why I didn’t achieve the results I hoped for:

  1. It offered behavioral strategies for what might be a chemical and genetic issue.
  2. It didn’t help my specific worries.

Panic disorder can look like anxiety, but it definitely doesn’t feel like it. Panic attacks show up seemingly out of nowhere, and the idea behind treating them with CBT is that a panic attack happens when we catastrophize a sensation — like shortness of breath, or palpitations. This might be the case for some people with panic disorder, but may not be for all. Unfortunately, accepting the premise behind this treatment is what leads to some of the “victim blaming” mentality surrounding CBT.

If I’m bopping along, feeling perfectly fine, and suddenly get hit with a full-blown, unable-to-breathe-or-move panic attack, there’s no time. That overwhelming, unprovoked rush of adrenaline isn’t mitigated by identifying and reframing my thoughts. While cognitive behavioral therapy was helpful for reducing some manifestations of my anxiety, it wasn’t helpful for my panic attacks — the whole reason I was pursuing CBT in the first place. If I didn’t think my way into them, how was I going to think my way out of them? CBT gave me something to do for the twenty-odd minutes it takes for a panic attack to resolve anyway, but it didn’t actually seem to change anything. I couldn’t just think myself better. Knowing it was “just” a panic attack didn’t stop the chest pain, shortness of breath, terror, or inability to move.

It also didn’t help my obsessive-compulsive behaviors. Yes, I know that it isn’t logical or helpful to check the stove burners exactly five times each before leaving the house. I know that it doesn’t make sense to smell my hallway every hour to make sure there isn’t a gas leak. Even forcing myself to not do these things so I could achieve “mastery” over them did nothing to reduce the torment.

(I’m not alone, either. The NIH says that, “Unfortunately, CBT doesn’t work for up to half of people with OCD.” As it turns out, spotting activity in different areas of the brain may be a helpful predictor of what therapy might be the most effective for a specific patient. Not everyone with OCD has the same level of activity in the same areas.)

It didn’t help my cyclical bouts of minor depression, either. This was largely because they’re another thing I don’t think my way into, they just happen. I already recognized that they don’t last forever, but they were still as frequent and as soul-sucking after CBT as they were before it. Womp-womp.

My other problem with CBT was that there are some outcomes that just are catastrophic. If I’m afraid of performing in front of a crowd, it’s relatively easy for me to say, “What’s the worst that can happen? What am I afraid of? I’m afraid of bombing and embarrassing myself. That probably won’t happen, but what would be the outcome if I did? It won’t kill me. Nobody’s going to physically attack me. I’ll probably never even see these people again, so, if the worst actually did happen, its impact on my life would be momentary, at best. The people in the audience might go home with a funny story to tell about me, and that wouldn’t be so bad. I can defang the situation by being willing to laugh at myself.” It helps!

This was less helpful for me for, say, health anxiety. “What’s the worst that can happen? I die and it hurts the entire time. That probably won’t happen, but what would be the outcome if I did? I die, it hurts the entire time, and my loved ones suffer in the process. If I’m wrong, I’m fine, but if I’m not, it’s literally the worst possible outcome.” There’s only a slight chance that I have some potentially fatal undiagnosed health issue (something that I’ve actually experienced), but, if I do, I’m still 100% dead if I don’t act on it.

It wasn’t helpful for the anxiety surrounding a past sexual assault, either. I’ve been through that. I know how awful it was. The feelings are a product of experience, not catastrophizing. My reframed thoughts felt like lies.

In short, it wasn’t a great fit for me.

There are other issues with CBT, too. A big one is that it’s a bit of a darling for insurance companies. They love it because it doesn’t take long (a few weeks, as opposed to months or years for other therapies) and doesn’t cost much to cover. For this reason, your insurance company is likely far more willing to pay for CBT… and not much else. For a patient with significant trauma, a genetic predisposition to mental illness, neurotransmitter imbalances, chronic illness, life stress, or any number of other contributing factors, a couple of sessions and some homework probably isn’t going to cut it.

Another is that, even though CBT puts the patient in the driver’s seat, the therapist is still important. If you’re working with someone who comes off as uncaring, off-putting, or smug, you might not be in a great environment for you to learn and implement the therapy. This can be especially difficult if you’re working with someone who emphasizes the techniques over everything else — there were definitely times when I felt more like a collection of behaviors, and not like a human being with my own traumas, genetics, and brain chemistry.

The underlying premise of cognitive behavioral therapy is that your thoughts influence your behavior and mental health. If your therapist hammers at that to the exclusion of other factors, you could be missing a big part of the picture.

I’ve read some other interesting theories on why CBT doesn’t work for some forms of anxiety. One of them proposes that executive function shuts down when anxiety gets too high. Some people are able to engage their cognitive techniques before this occurs. If you already have trouble with executive function, or your arousal ramps up too quickly, this can’t happen in time. In those cases, your brain needs to rely on automatic self-soothing mechanisms that trigger relaxation via the parasympathetic nervous system and the release of oxytocin. I can’t speak to this personally, but it would explain a lot.

What I Did Instead

So, cognitive behavioral therapy didn’t work. What’s next?

After feeling like I needed more therapy to overcome my feelings about “failing” at CBT, I looked at other options. I still had medication, so that was helpful, but not as helpful as it could be combined with therapy. I knew that part of my problem was that my ex-therapist’s approach seemed very inflexible — there was no room to consider what other factors could be contributing to the problem. Every negative feeling had to be proceeded by a thought, and, if I couldn’t identify and “fix” that thought, I was doing it wrong.

So, I read over the “About” pages of a number of psychologists, eventually settling on one who mentioned methods other than CBT. And I lucked out.

The therapist I ended up seeing — with whom I’ve been very happy — uses CBT as part of a larger collection of therapies. We’ve worked on my past trauma. We’ve worked on my self-esteem. I get things to read and homework to do that have helped me grow, not feel like a failure for being unable to think my way out of a panic attack. We’ve explored everything from my diet (did you know that fenugreek could contribute to depression? I didn’t!) to physical relaxation techniques like progressive muscle relaxation. I feel like a person, not like a disjointed cloud of thoughts that need to be corrected. My panic attacks are less frequent and easier to deal with, and I can recognize the signs of an impending bout of depression and take steps to make it less disruptive to my life.

CBT doesn’t work for me. It’s the go-to treatment for anxiety because it’s very focused and able to produce results in a relatively short period of time, but the same things that make it work so quickly also force it to exclude other factors that can contribute to a patient’s mood. If you haven’t tried CBT, at least give it a shot — it teaches valuable skills. If you have tried it and you’re feeling disheartened, that’s natural. You aren’t a failure. There are plenty of other therapies out there that can help. They might take longer, you might have to try a few different things out, but they work. You’re worth the time and effort.

life, Plants and Herbs

New Leaves and a Public Universal Friend

We went to one of my favorite places in the whole city: Ginkgo Gardens. (It is not, however, my wallet’s favorite place. I never manage to leave there without at least a hundo in plant friends, pots, or sculpture. Whoops!)

Even though my window plant shelf is pretty full, my Calathea is doing so well that I wanted to find it a few buddies to fill out some empty spaces on the etagere next to my desk. Right now, it’s mostly occupied by picture frames and whatever oils I’ve set to infuse at the moment — it could definitely benefit from the acquisition of some new plants.

And oh boy, acquire I did!

It was rainy, but that’s okay. Rain always gives me a headache and makes it a bit tougher to get around, but I ain’t made of sugar. A little misting won’t keep me home!

I could probably spend all day walking around their outdoor area. It’s not large, but it’s packed with the most beautiful stuff. (Also, I thought the masks on the statues near the entrance was a tiny bit of brilliance.)

In the end, we came home with several treasures: a Pilea, a Calathea, a Maranta, an Asplenium (you know how much I love ferns), and a Tillandsia. I also found a lovely little brass pot tucked away on a shelf…

And this guy.

When my partner and I saw it, we both went, “Oh, whoa.”

“A Friend,” I declared.

He agreed, and we immediately set about figuring out which plant made for the superior hairstyle.

The Pilea won, hands down.

After calling it a Friend, I couldn’t really think of a suitable name. (I’m terrible at naming things, so this didn’t exactly come as a surprise.) I figured Public Universal Friend was as good a name as any!

Here’s hoping the weather is treating you well, and there are many small, green buddies in your future.

This image is the cover of the folk album I am never going to make.
life

Indigenous People’s Day

Hello! Rather than put up a full post of my shenanigans, here are some articles and resources to honor Indigenous People’s Day:

First Nations Development Institute This charity works to protect the long-term viability of Native communities, by restoring control of Native assets to Native people.

Native American Voters Face Challenges While there’re a lot of messages out there urging people to go out and vote, Native voting rights still get ignored. Here are some of the obstacles to equal representation for Indigenous people.

Meanwhile, Natives Vote 2020 is working to increase the registration and turnout of Native voters.

Cultural Appropriation and Unethical Practices in Witchcraft “It is perfectly fine to use smoke to cleanse yourself and your home, that’s not the issue, but smoke cleansing is not smudging.”

Smoke Cleansing as an Appropriate Alternative to Smudging This article delves a bit deeper into smoke cleansing traditions around the world, including herbs traditionally used by different cultures.

ARE WHITE SAGE & PALO SANTO ENDANGERED? NO, BUT READ THIS FIRST.

Interested in supporting Native artists? The Indian Pueblo Store, operated by the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, has jewelry, pottery, leatherwork, instruments, and more, created by Indigenous artists of the Southwest.

Are you a Native American artist, blogger, musician, or other creative type? Comment or contact me if you’d like me to drop a link to your portfolio, Soundcloud, or anything else!

Lastly, here’s my favorite song from when I was a tiny child. I can’t tell you how many summer nights I spent at powwows, tucked into my sleeping bag, with my dad’s bright yellow Walkman and this cassette hidden under my pillow, hoping my hair hid my headphones well enough that my dad wouldn’t tell me to cut it out and go to sleep. (It’s out of print now, and all of my attempts to find any legit copy have been unsuccessful, but enjoy this bit of YouTube nostalgia.)

Plants and Herbs, Witchcraft

Goldenrod Folklore and Magical Properties

Ah, goldenrod. To some, it’s an essential part of their herbal medicine cabinet. To others, it’s a source of misery. I love seeing the bright yellow flowers on their drooping, swaying stems, but I’m also not one of the people suffering from goldenrod allergies. (Allergies to plenty of other pollens, yes. Goldenrod specifically, no.)

Interestingly, many people blame goldenrod for late summer and autumn allergies. Without an allergy test, there’s really no way to tell — ragweed blooms at the same time, and it’s a very common allergen. Most pollen allergies are triggered by wind-pollinated plants, but goldenrod is pollinated by insects. Ragweed, however, is not.

(This is also why raw honey and bee pollen aren’t actually great ways to desensitize yourself to pollen. The pollen that makes it into the hive isn’t likely to be the same kind that’s making you sneeze.)

Goldenrod is a bit of a misnomer. It isn’t a single plant, it comprises 120 different members of the aster family. It’s scientific name is Solidago, via the Medieval Latin “soldago,” via a somewhat circuitous rout from the Latin “solidus.” It’s a name that references strength and solidity, the ability to make something (or someone) whole again. With goldenrod’s traditional medical and magical properties, it’s a very apt name.

Goldenrod Magical Uses and Folklore

Various legends tie goldenrod to the presence of wealth. One source said that, wherever goldenrod grows, gold is buried. (But, were that the case, I can guarantee that DC wouldn’t be nearly as economically stratified as it is. Just saying.) Another says that to find goldenrod growing near your home portends a spell of good luck.

Goldenrod is also tied to water. Folklore holds that, wherever it grows, a spring must be nearby. The plants were also used as effective, if temperamental, divining rods — they were said to only work in the hands of the right person.

One legend tells the story of how goldenrod received its bright yellow flowers. An old woman, traveling through the forest, was growing weary. She asked all of the trees around her for a walking stick, but they refused. She found a small stick on the ground, and asked it for help instead. The stick agreed, and she used it as a walking stick until she was out of the woods. As soon as she stepped beyond the tree line, she shed her disguise — revealing herself as a powerful fairy. In return for the stick’s help, she sprinkled it with gold.

Another story speaks of two little girls who went to an old witch for help. One girl, tall and blonde haired, asked the witch to grant her wish. She wanted to be admired by everyone. Her friend, short and blue-eyed, wished that she and the blonde girl would never have to grow apart. The girls were never seen again after that day, but it’s said that, wherever they walked, there sprung up the yellow goldenrod and the blue aster.

This isn’t folklore so much, but the tires on the Model T Ford that Henry Ford gave Thomas Edison were made of goldenrod. The plant naturally contains a decent amount of rubber — through experimentation, Thomas Edison managed to produce a taller goldenrod that was up to 12% rubber. He partnered with Henry Ford, George Washington Carver, and Henry Firestone to put these tires into mass production, but synthetic rubber arrived on the scene before goldenrod tires ever made it out of the experimental stage.

Goldenrod is one of those plants that seems to be an herbal pharmacy in itself. In America, indigenous people used the leaves externally for skin conditions, and internally for ulcers and lung or kidney problems. After colonists dumped tea into the Boston Harbor in protest, they used goldenrod as a tea substitute. One of Solidago virgaurea’s names is “woundwort,” and it was used in Europe to stop bleeding from wounds. Studies in Germany have found that it’s an effective treatment for kidney stones. It contains compounds that encourage urination, reduce inflammation, soothe pain, and kill pathogens, and the whole plant is edible (though easily confused with toxic Haplopappus heterophyllus, so be careful).

Of course, don’t take my word for this — if you have a medical condition, seek treatment from an expert..

Using Goldenrod

Keep your eyes peeled, since the appearance of goldenrod near your house means good luck is on the way. Of course, if you want to influence fate a little bit, you can plant goldenrod or keep a vase full of it in your home. If you practice feng shui, put it in the money areas of your home. If you don’t, put it near your front door to draw wealth in.

If money’s not your thing, you can also use it to bring in love. Wear or carry it, and you’ll soon cross paths with your true love. Add the dried leaves and flowers to sachets, herbal mixes, incense, or potions for love-drawing.

To dowse with goldenrod, hold a stem in your hand, and watch the flowers. They will nod in the direction of what you seek.

You can turn goldenrod into a useful yellow dye, paint, or magical ink:

  1. Collect the young flowers when they’re about to open, and their concentration of pigment is at its highest.
  2. Let the flowers dry completely.
  3. Simmer in a cup of hot water with a teaspoon of alum for twenty minutes. (Alternatively, grind the flowers fine with a mortar and pestle, add just enough boiling water and alum to cover, and sit in a sunny spot for a full day.)
  4. Filter out the flowers, and add about a half teaspoon of gum arabic if you’d like a thicker consistency. This part is mostly helpful for ink, since it makes it flow and adhere to the paper more nicely.
  5. If you don’t anticipate using all of your dye/ink/paint right away, add two or three drops of essential oil to inhibit mold. Thyme or oregano work well for this.
  6. Bottle, label, and store in a cool, dark place.

Goldenrod is a beautiful, magical plant with a bad rap. It’s showier than ragweed, so its bright yellow flowers are often erroneously blamed for symptoms actually caused by wind-pollinated plants. It’s abundant this time of year, so, if you find yourself in need of a little love or money magic, consider making an offering to the goldenrod plant and harvesting no more than 25% of its leaves and blooms. Even better, sow a local variety in your garden so you can enjoy its presence and provide a valuable food source to butterflies, moths, bees, and other pollinators at the same time!

art, divination, life, Witchcraft

Bustin’ (Disappointment) Makes Me Feel Good

Yesterday, literally the same day that I posted that tarot reading, I got a bit of disappointing news. I don’t want to get into the details, but it turns out that an artistic opportunity that I’d been pretty excited about isn’t going to happen for me. C’est la guerre. Even amid fulfillment and happiness, it’s a bit much to expect everything to be a slice of fried gold.

Still, understanding that fact doesn’t really banish the bad feelings. Here’s what did, though:

I set a timer.

I gave myself ten minutes to be completely self-indulgent in my complaining. After that, the grumpling grace period was over and I had to keep quiet about it. This serves two purposes:

  1. It keeps me from dwelling on whatever’s bothering me.
  2. It keeps me from becoming insufferable to absolutely everyone around me.

Don’t get me wrong, though. I use this time. I flop dramatically on furniture. I go full Howl’s-Moving-Castle-goopy-wizard. I get to feel my feelings, I can be cartoonishly whiny until I laugh at myself, and other people won’t secretly wish they could lock me in a dumpster.

I did some agitation pedaling.

My partner calls it “having the zoomies.” I call it having more energy than I know what to do with. Sometimes it’s from anger or annoyance. Sometimes it’s boredom. Sometimes, it’s because I ate four bowls of cereal for dinner.

All that corn syrup and riboflavin

Either way, ten minutes of furious living room biking usually sorts it out decently well. I work myself up to my top speed, and hold it as long as I can — all while mentally focused on a goal I have. When I get to the point where I can’t sustain it anymore, I release the energy toward that goal.

Sweat is also cleansing. Sweating can be a sacred act. There are reasons why so many cultures have traditions built around inducing a good sweat.

Singing along to Turisas is entirely optional, but it helps.

RA-RA-RASPUTIN, RUSSIA’S GREATEST LOVE MACHINE

I took a bath (with friends).

(No, not human ones. I don’t think any of them would talk to me afterward.)

When it comes to spells to fix a disappointment, I think they should be spontaneous. It’s not really the time to go worrying about moon phases or astrological timing — if you have needs, fulfill them. Emergency magic performed from the heart can be just as effective as a meticulously planned ritual.

Water is the element of emotions. It’s cleansing. It’s healing. It’s a great way to kill some time doing something that’s objectively good for you. It was late at night, so I didn’t have the energy to make myself a full-on brew, but I do pretty much own my weight in various teas. I boiled some water, added two bags of peppermint and one of chamomile, and asked for their help.

“Peppermint,” I said, said I, “I feel like complete ass and would like that to not be a thing anymore. Peppermint, clear my energy from all that’s dragging me down, and, with chamomile, fill that space with luck and prosperity.”

If you’re putting it in a bath, the garnish is probably kind of excessive

I held my projective (dominant) hand over the vessel, and did the energy thing. When I felt that it was good enough, I asked the brew if it was ready.

“If this be done, and done well, push my hand away from the vessel.”

(Fortunately, I felt the familiar little energetic “push” against my palm. I don’t think I had it in me to sit on my bathroom floor and troubleshoot this spell.)

I poured the brew in a bath full of warm, fresh water, dumped in an unmeasured buttload of Trader Joe’s $1.99 sea salt, stirred it with my projective hand, and called it good. As soon as I stepped in, feeling the silkiness of the water, smelling the fragrant peppermint-and-chamomile steam curling up from the surface of the water, I began to feel better.

I also had a bright, unmistakable vision of a wolf’s face when I closed my eyes, but that’s probably going to take some further research.

I followed the advice I’d been given in the first place.

There’s a lot to be said for the idea of conceptualizing things as happening “for” you instead of “to” you, though that can be tough to remember in the moment. Personally, every setback I’ve ever experienced — every call I never received after a job interview, every breakup — has always led to something better within the space of a few weeks, like clockwork. I don’t force positivity on myself, and you shouldn’t either if you’re really not feeling it, but I try to keep this track record in mind.

Anyway, all of this is to say that, when the sun is shining and everything’s going great, sometimes a minor bump in the road can seem bigger than it is. Tarot readings function as more than a prediction and an energetic snapshot of your life. They’re also advice. Yesterday’s advice was to celebrate, spread joy, and not let my emotions overrule my discernment. I have a lot to celebrate (I sold a painting recently! I can hike longer trails! I did a bunch of paid writing!), I’m hoping this post might be helpful to someone else who’s feeling the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and, logically, I know this disappointment will pass and be forgotten before long.

I turned it around.

Creativity is deeply personal. When you put yourself into what you make, it’s hard not to take rejection pretty hard. Most of the time, though, that rejection has nothing to do with you — because creativity is so personal, there’s no accounting for what people want. What I consider my best work is almost never as popular as the things I’m not nearly as attached to.

Similarly, this situation in no way impugns me as a person or a creative force. So, worn out from pedaling, freshly minty, and completely called out by my own tarot deck, I went to varnish some paintings.

I don’t want to suggest that vigorous cycling and a bath are the way to deal with, say, a house fire, the loss of a loved one, someone stealing your car, or a loved one burning down your house and stealing your car, but these techniques can help shift the energy around the things that occasionally show up to heck your day apart.