Saturnalia: To the Mothers


Mother is a place to rest, a warmth, a tuneless song.
Mother is a voice that cuts.
Mother is a lady in a blue veil, a blue robe.
Mother is a lady with a baby in her arms.
Mother is a grandmother fixing hot tea and cold cereal on a school morning
Mother is a grandmother putting my clothes near the radiator
Mother is a woman who sleeps late while I rise early
Mother is a woman who smokes and drinks coffee
Mother is a May Day procession dressed in white
Mother is an ivory statue of the Virgin and Child with a Gothic sway
Mother is a possibly heretical vierge ouvrante
Mother is the goddess Isis with baby Horus on her lap
Mother is an icon with stars on the Virgin’s brow and shoulders
Mother is a Middle Eastern woman wrapped in layers of veils and shawls
carrying her child away from danger, shielding it with her body
Mother is my mother’s mother’s mother, who died when I was one
Mother is my mother’s father’s mother, was her name Louisa?
Mother is my father’s mother Grace, his adoptive mother,
and his mother Clara, his birth mother, whose last name was Gunsales
Mother is the woman who bore my husband a child
who bore her second husband a child
Mother is my sister, who bore my niece
Mother is my niece, who has borne a son
Mother is a link in a chain, a cell in the umbilical cord
Mother is the land I walk on, the nourishing earth, the turning planet
Mother is the night sky, spangled with stars
the brightness of the stars
and the darkness between
the beginning
and the end


A couple inches of dirty water in the bottom of an otherwise empty vase

That’s my emotional state right now, there in the title: An image worthy of haiku, perhaps, or of Rilke, who wrote so movingly of roses in a bowl. That’s depression, gentle readers–a few inches of stagnant, smelly water, with a rotting leaf or two, in the bottom of a vase from which the dead flowers have been removed.

I suffer from depression. And it is a kind of suffering, though much of the time depression means “not feeling much of anything” rather than “feeling bad”. Depression means I sometimes don’t make it to work because taking a shower, or facing a rainy day and public transportation, seems too much to bear. It means some days the only thing that interests me is Township, a mobile game where you plant crops, feed critters, and gradually build a town with houses, factories, and public buildings. (I’ve just reached level 35 and acquired an apiary!) It means writing is difficult or simply seems meaningless, pointless.

Yet I find myself holding on to my daily devotions in spite of everything. And yesterday, in spite of not being able to cope with work, I managed to clear a space and set up a minimal shrine for an ancestor elevation. I am once again participating in the Trans Rite of Ancestor Elevation, for the benefit of the far too many transgender folks who died by violence in the past year. In addition, I am doing my first elevation for a personal ancestor, for my Aunt Margaret, whose birthday is the nineteenth of this month.

Aunt Margaret was actually my great-aunt, my mother’s father’s younger sister. Born in the ‘teens, she was several years old before being diagnosed with a hip out of the socket, probably a result of the difficult birthing. As an adult, she was still wearing a heavy metal brace on one leg and walking slowly, with a limp. Back then we didn’t call people disabled, or handicapped; we called them crippled, lame. Aunt Margaret was crippled, but that didn’t stop her from holding down a job for decades, or living on her own. She rented a room from another lady of her own generation, up the street and around the corner from our house, and had dinner with us every night before walking home around ten o’clock.

Aunt Margaret was a constant presence in my childhood. She gave me money for the collection plate at church and bought me a new winter coat every year. She played cards with me for hours on end. She went on bus trips with my grandmother and me; my mother hated to travel and could not sleep away from home, but Mom and Aunt Margaret and I travelled up and down the east coast from Quebec to Nashville. Did I mention that she stood all of four-foot-six? Outgrowing Aunt Margaret was a benchmark.

My life has turned out more like hers than I could have anticipated. Like me, she was divorced, lived alone, and supported herself. I have her body type, inherited from my maternal grandfather’s family. I fear I have her wonky hips, too. Her picture has been on my shrine all along, but this year I felt the call to honor her more directly and to do something for her benefit. She gave me so much when I was a child, and it took me far too long to appreciate that.

As for the transgender dead, I was informed, more or less, that participating in this year’s elevation rite–and next year’s, for that matter–is just something that I am required to do. It’s my job. I volunteered for it when I did it last year, and the Tetrad deities noticed me; now I have to keep up that responsibility. And last night, in spite of everything, I did.

I have some half-formed thoughts on what my calling is, what work the Tetrad want me to do, but they are not nearly ready for a blog post. In the meantime, think of your ancestors, dear readers, and pray for me in my depression. I’ll write again soon.

Two wallets, a prayer book, and some photographs

I don’t like being called “Generation X”. Most people who were born between 1966 and 1976 probably had parents who were born during World War Two, parents who listened to rock ‘n’ roll, moms who had jobs outside the home. I was born at the very beginning of that period, in January 1966, to parents who were born in the 1920s, married in the ’40s, and had their first child in 1955. I think of myself as the Schoolhouse Rock Generation. Remember Schoolhouse Rock, those little animated shorts in between the commercials on Saturday mornings? “I’m Just A Bill”? I know you know the words to “Conjunction Junction”.

I’m the late-life child of Greatest Generation parents. My Aunt Margaret, whom I think I have mentioned here, was actually my great-aunt, born around 1918; her brother, my grandfather, was born in the 19th century, as was my grandmother, his wife, Mom. I joke sometimes to fellow fans of the Marvel Captain America movies that my parents knew Steve Rogers; the music of my childhood, the music my parents played, was Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, the glory of the big band era.

On my shrine right now, I have a photograph of my grandmother. She’s wearing a pearl necklace and earrings and a black feather boa. I remember that this shot was taken at her hairdresser’s, or the beauty parlor, as we called it then. (She had a standing appointment every Wednesday.) The jewelry was lent for the photo; what looks like a black dress trimmed with feathers was a swatch of black fabric thrown over her breast and a boa, carefully arranged. She was around eighty years old at the time.

Next to that is a photograph from my older sister’s first wedding, around 1973. Mom stands tall and dignified beside a shorter woman wearing a lace chapel cap: The groom’s grandmother, a first-generation Polish immigrant whose English was still poor. Everyone called her “Boosha”. I remember talking to her a bit at the reception and liking her although she was hard to understand. I’m not sure anyone didn’t like Boosha.

In the same frame, there is a Polaroid of my Aunt Margaret. She is sitting, as she always did, on a small wooden chair, and leaning forward to pet our dog, Pippin, who is leaning against her legs with his head nearly in his lap. Born with one hip out of the socket, Aunt Margaret plodded through life with a steel brace on one leg and a cane in her hand. This did not prevent her from marrying, divorcing, holding down a job, living on her own, and travelling. I have other photographs where she and Mom and Pop (my grandfather) are in New York; she told me proudly that she had seen Robert Preston on Broadway in The Music Man. There’s a photo I treasure from a nightclub they visited: I realized one day, looking closely at the line of chorus girls onstage, that they were all men. My grandparents and my great-aunt went to a drag club.

On the table before the photographs there are two wallets and a small black book. The black wallet belonged to my father and contains his driver’s license and my mother’s, along with other cards that were in it at the time of his death. The monogrammed aqua blue wallet was Mom’s. Amongst her cards there is a newspaper clipping giving the date of Opening Day for our local baseball team.

The prayer book is a very old-fashioned Roman Catholic book of private devotions, with dreadful artwork. I am pretty sure it belonged to my grandfather, who was German. On top of it sits a tiny crystal skull.

Like a lot of polytheists, I consider ancestor worship to be a proper part of my religion. I honor the dead: My own family, known and unknown; those who are spiritual or creative ancestors for me, such as the sancti of the Ekklesia, some Christian saints, and famous writers and musicians; and on some occasions, the dead in general, or a specific category of them. I honor soldiers who died in war, even though there is no one close to me who died that way; I honor transgender folks who were murdered, in reparation for the manner of their deaths.

In all honesty, I have never had any kind of contact with my family dead, unless you count dreaming of them. In my dreams I sometimes still live with my dad in my childhood home, or with Aunt Margaret, who lived around the corner from us and ate dinner with us every night, or I travel with Mom the way we used to when I was a kid. But I’ve never experienced any kind of presence, and I’m not sure I need to. I have a general sense that they care, but they were Methodists in life and a bit confused by being prayed at.

I have, in the past, had contact with someone who was a very ancient ancestress of mine and possibly also myself in a former life, if that makes sense. I have not sought her out for some time, and I’m not sure what the status of my relationship with her is. I have not felt any drive to communicate with her, nor any lack in not doing so. I think that while I will always honor the dead, and the spirits, as well, my most important cultus is going to be for the gods.

But those photographs are staying on or near my shrine, whatever form it takes, along with a wallet containing two expired driver’s licenses, and another containing a newspaper clipping that’s thirty years out of date, and a prayer book for a religion I never practiced. And a tiny crystal skull.

Here’s the story… of a lovely family…

It’s coming up on a year since I committed myself to Antinoan devotion and the practices of the Ekklesia Antinoou. I’m certain I observed the Serapeia in early April 2014, and in looking at my journal, it appears I paid some attention to the Megala Antinoeia in late March while somewhat half-heartedly observing Holy Week and the Paschal Triduum with the Episcopal Church. I’d like to remark that I haven’t been so consistent with a religious practice since I studied the New Hermetics with Jason Augustus Newcomb in 2005-2006 and worked my way through the whole six-month course (which took me nine months, but it turned out that was about average).

When I started regular cultus to Antinous, I decided I would observe the calendar of the Ekklesia and celebrate its festivals the best that I could. In particular, I resolved not to go chasing after deities, but to honor Antinous daily and other deities on their feasts and see what kind of relationships came up. This method has worked well for me; it’s been sane and stable in a way that I needed. The same principles apply to non-deities as well, to spirits and ancestors of various kinds.

Hence I didn’t pay much attention to the Tetrad++ until the Trans* Ancestor Elevation last November. Saying the prayers to them which PSVL composed not only brought them onto my radar, but put me on their radar, too. People often speaking of deities tapping them; while Antinous has welcomed me, the Tetrad++ are the first who have really tapped me, who for whatever reason have identified me as one of their own.

Something similar has been happening in the past week with the family of Herodes Attikos. We are in the midst of a string of commemorations of Herodes, his wife, his children, and his many foster-children. My initial reaction was, as I put it poetically, there are an awful lot of teenaged boys in my religion, what is up with that? But the more I look at Herodes and his family, the more interesting they become to me. Because they are very far from being, say, a typical Roman household, a second-century C.E. version of Father Knows Best where everyone obeys the stern but wise paterfamilias who is never ever wrong. In fact, the household of Herodes Attikos and his wife Appia Annia Regilla was more of a cross between the Brady Bunch and Brangelina, but as a drama rather than a sitcom–kids by birth, kids by adoption, and far too many early deaths that caused the household to dwindle. Herodes is known to have grieved deeply over his wife and children, perhaps more than was considered seemly for a man (even as Hadrian’s mourning for Antinous was considered excessive), and he carried out that grief by honoring them in their deaths as in life.

What I’m thinking about, however, is less Herodes’ tragic losses of those dear to him, and more the vision of a household that includes boys and girls, children by birth and children by adoption, children of several different cultural backgrounds and (we would say) races, with a father who was an educator and a philosopher, and incidentally about as rich as Bill Gates and at least as philanthropic. It sounds chaotic and creative and glorious, frankly. It’s a reminder that families have never been and need never be the suburban American model of two parents, two jobs, two cars, and two point five children (plus cats or dogs or other pets, plus or minus the people who get paid for house-keeping and child care but aren’t considered family). Herodes and his family can be a challenge to think differently about what family means and what it might look like in pagan and polytheist communities and an inspiration to live creatively in diverse households that worship Antinous and all the gods.

The title is always the hardest part

I was on my way to the supermarket a little while ago, walking through my neighborhood with an empty knapsack on my back and thinking about what to buy for my observance tomorrow of Hadrian and Antinous’ initiations at Eleusis. I saw an older man feeding the parking meter in front of my favorite neighborhood restaurant and was reminded of my late father-in-law, who died seven or eight years ago. Then it occurred to me that this was at least the third time in the last week or two that I had seen a man who reminded me of my father-in-law… and I realized I was being tapped.

Galina Krasskova’s new book on ancestor veneration is sitting on my bathroom sink, awaiting my attention. (That’s where a lot of books I’m reading wind up, along with my Kindle.) I’ve been thinking for months about deepening my practice in relation to the ancestors and wrestling with the question of how to deal with my mother. She’s been dead for twenty-eight years, but our relationship has not gotten any less fraught in that time. Now I’ve been reminded repeatedly of another ancestor, a close one, just as I’m looking further into working with them.

Despite my recent divorce, I have no doubts that my ex-husband’s father is one of my ancestors, too, and no theological problems with the idea that, devout Anglican though he was, he might want my attention. I visited him in his last illness; a fall and a blow to the head brought him down after an eighteen-month battle with pancreatic cancer. I buttoned up my cassock from foot to throat and sang at his funeral. Some people were surprised, I think, that my then-husband would play the organ and I would sing for that funeral, but it was our way of dealing with the grief. I held firm until we were singing a Russian Orthodox kontakion toward the end of the service, and I *felt* my father-in-law’s transition from this world to the other. I dissolved into choking tears as I felt the gates close between him and us. But I had done my job: I had sung for the dead.

I can think of no one I’d rather have help me with some of the stuff I’m dealing with right now than my father-in-law. Like my grandmother and my great aunt, whom I already honor, he was an exceedingly competent individual. He was an educator and an administrator, a man with a true gift for management. After retiring from the county’s public school, he became the headmaster of the small private school attached to the church where his son was the organist, of which he had been a member for decades. As headmaster, he was organized, affable, authoritative, able to delegate tasks wisely, able to make his workplace a happy and functional one. If he was sometimes an overbearing parent, he was an ideal boss, and he must have been a much-loved teacher. He could hardly visit a restaurant without a former student, now adult, coming up to him.

I know I have photos of my father-in-law lying around. I think I need to buy some coffee and find those filters and the cone I kept when I moved, in case I entertained any coffee-drinkers. Both my father and my father-in-law took it with milk, no sugar.