Musings on Being Appalachian

I mentioned almost a year ago in West Virginia, Take Me Home about growing up in Florida until the year I turned 13, but always thinking of West Virginia as home. My parents moved to Florida for work before I was born, but they still kept that connection to home. They, like many generations before them, were West Virginian born and bred. Like many others from the state, they left home looking for opportunities. My grandparents did the same, heading out to California for some time when my mom was young, before returning home. I’ve heard it said that West Virginians always come back home, or they at least want to. It’s seemed to be true for much of my family who’ve left.

Though I sometimes feel nostalgic remembering the ocean and the river we lived on, I can’t remember ever really thinking of myself as Floridian. I can’t imagine going back outside of maybe a vacation. The idea of Florida being a place that I used to live almost feels like a distant dream – one of the strange ones that leave you wondering, “what in the world was that about?”. I simply had no connection there. When I remember my childhood, some of my fondest memories were those spent visiting my Papaw’s house in Lincoln County, WV and running amuck with the other kids up and down the hollow and into the mountains surrounding his property. Not sorry, Sunshine State, you don’t hold a candle to these hills.

I feel a deep connection to these mountains. To me, they are sacred. I grew up hearing stories from my family that I now realize are a testament to our Appalachian heritage. It was like a whole other world to me. It’s no wonder I didn’t connect with that other state. Yet, partly because I did grow up hundreds of miles away from home, I sometimes feel like I’m not Appalachian enough. This despite my living here for almost 2 decades now. Imposter syndrome is a nasty little monster that will gnaw at anything you hold dear when it finds a way in. Sometimes I also just find myself comparing who I am to some stereotype of what an Appalachian is “supposed” to be.

Religion and it’s influence is a big part of what I think of. Like most Appalachians, my family is traditionally Christian. I recall visiting the Baptist church my mom grew up in. We didn’t go back because it must have been too painful for her to be there after having lost her own parents years ago. My Mamaw, though a self-identified witch, also grew up Baptist and still held Christian-oriented beliefs alongside her craft. The culture around Appalachia as a whole often centers around Christianity. As for me? If you’re reading this blog, you’ll already know that I’m a polytheist Pagan. Sure, I now have a church aside from nature; but it accepts people of all faiths. I love that it’s so inclusive.

It’s important to remind myself that the religious influence on the culture here is based on a history of colonization that used religion as a weapon. Christianity was the dominating religion across Europe, and thus across the colonized America’s, for so long. Of course the people of West Virginia were just as influenced by that as everyone else. As people in this past century have been finding their own religious and spiritual paths, Appalachia now has a growing and diverse Pagan community. Leaving behind the religion of our more recent ancestors doesn’t make any of us any less Appalachian.

This brings me to Appalachian folk traditions/ magic/ witchcraft, also now commonly called Granny magic. Because of the history of our people, it is true that these traditions have a heavy Christian influence. Does that mean that an Appalachian Pagan can’t practice our own family’s traditions, or reclaim what we’ve lost? I’ve seen some make that claim. It doesn’t make those people right. It just makes them gatekeeping, bigoted assholes. Yeah, I said it. It seems that most have the sense not to share those harmful views, though. My family’s stories and beliefs, despite the Christian influences, are part of me. They’re part of what led me toward Paganism, to my gods and my identity as a witch. Nobody can take that from me. And, besides, a lot of the beliefs and traditions aren’t even specifically religious, anyhow. They work no matter what else you believe in. The women (and gender diverse people) in my family still have dreams and feelings that show us the future or other things we have no logical way to know. Owls are still a symbol of death and deaths often come in three. Blowing smoke in an ear can still cure an earache. Spirits are still real. So on and so forth. For me, these things are part of my Appalachian heritage.

A lot of the old traditions are disappearing among families. There are people publicly sharing their family’s traditions to preserve them, but different families have different ways. I recently spoke to my mom about our family’s old traditions. Aside from what I remember learning from her, she didn’t remember much else. Most of the older folks in my family who would have known more of the old ways are gone, or else their memories are fading. People like me, who ache for our Appalachian folk ways, are left to put the pieces back together in whatever way we can because we either waited too long or were born too late. It is for this reason I am thankful for those who are sharing the Appalachian folk magic from their own family traditions.

What it means to be Appalachian is going to vary among individuals. We’re a diverse bunch with our own backgrounds, but we’ve all got common ground. We share similar histories as a people and a love for these mountains. I am proud to be Appalachian, proud to be West Virginian.

Worshipping the Dark

Polytheists time and time again have written their own perceptions of the “dark” gods and goddesses we follow. Do we really need to add to that? Well, I sure am going to, anyway. So, here it is. Those of us who follow the gods that we do, generally speaking, we know what we’ve gotten into. We know that our gods can be harsh, Tricksters, even downright scary sometimes. It is not uncommon for some of us to be afraid of these deities before we decide to give Them a chance in our lives. The condescending tones of people who don’t even work with our gods is completely unnecessary. I’m not saying that their views are never valid or wanted, just that they don’t often see the full picture.

The thing is, pointing out that someone’s god is known to be “dark” or a “Trickster” with an air of judgment, as if it makes it wrong or foolish to work with or worship Them, is hurtful on multiple levels. It assumes that the person one is speaking with doesn’t have the sense to make their own decisions. It assumes that those who have a relationship with these deities don’t know Them as well as the person who says they would never work with or honor Them. Yeah, as if someone who doesn’t have experience with that deity is going to know better. Unless you have studied non-biased sources and/or worked with the deity in question, how in any deity’s name are you going to act like you know better than someone who has? That is what’s foolery.

Oft-times, these discussions completely miss the fact that “acceptable” deities can be just as harsh, just as much Tricksters, just as scary as the “dark” ones. Take Loki versus Odin for example. Some Norse Pagans act like Loki is some horrific being, all while pouring out praise for Odin. One has to wonder if those same people have actually read anything of the Eddas or retellings beyond the story of Ragnarok to come to that conclusion. There’s so much more to the mythology leading up to that point. It’s not a story of “good vs evil”. It’s complex. It’s about relationships among friends, families, and cultures. It’s about prophecy and the consequences (both good and harmful) of allowing it to lead one’s actions. It’s about the natural cycles of life, the earth, and the cosmos. And, there’s much more to it than I can discuss here. It can’t be denied that Loki does questionable things, but Odin also makes some pretty cruel decisions. Meanwhile, many of Loki’s decisions end up helping others. While I am more wary of Odin than Loki, I know it’s not okay for me to pass judgment on those who do work with/ honor/ worship Odin. I assume they know Him better than I do. I understand that both gods have equally complicated stories.

Flamehair, by B. A. McNeely (Alvinia). Watercolor.

The Odin example can admittedly be somewhat shaky for some. I’ve run into pagans who seem just as scared of Odin as they are of Loki. At least they’re keeping it somewhat fair. I’d even say that’s smart, in a way. Not that I’m defending any sort of condescension from them about either god. Again, those making condescending remarks are usually people who haven’t built a relationship with either deity. Their perceptions of them simply don’t include the experience to stand on. These are also people who often view the gods as less complex than what they are and don’t much consider the context of Their mythologies.

There are also deities who are considered “dark” not as much for any specific acts we modern people may find unethical, but for their associations with things such as death. Death is a frightening thing to many people. It is an ending, a separation from loved ones, and an unknown. Though we may have our beliefs about the afterlife, those beliefs aren’t always the comfort we hope them to be. It is, however, important to remember that death is part of the natural cycle of life. Among many pantheons, even the gods do not escape this fate.

The Morrígan is a goddess associated with both war and death. Thus, she is yet another designated as “dark”. It is important here to note that the modern conception of war is vastly different, much more cruel, than the concept of it that the ancient peoples knew. In addition, The Morrígan’s role in war seems to align more with death, sovereignty, and prophecy than any direct acts of battle itself. Among these things, it is only Her role with death as “Chooser of the Slain” that most would point out as reason to fear Herself. When left with that, it’s surely not more frightening than any other force that may play a hand with fate. Though The Morrígan is known among many of Her followers to be harsh, much of that is due to Her no-nonsense attitude. Being a goddess who has historically dealt with the things She has, it’s no wonder She’s not known for being particularly gentle. This deity isn’t particularly known among Her followers for being unnecessarily cruel, however.

The Morrígan by B. A. McNeely (Alvinia). Graphite pencil.

This brings us to the UPG of it all. Unverified personal gnosis. As I’ve mentioned in past blogs, this can lead to shared UPG that many followers of a deity hold true due to similar experiences with Them. It is common for polytheists to attribute modern associations with our gods. For us, the gods are beings who are capable of changing with the times. They no longer exist solely in the world of our ancestors. They’re being worshipped by modern people with new problems and new things to celebrate. Because we see the world differently than the ancients did, the gods must come to us in ways that we can recognize Them.

Many of the deities that people today often label “dark” have now become associated with social justice issues. It is not uncommon for followers of these deities to be part of marginalized groups or to engage in social justice work as a way to honor their gods. Due to Ireland’s history of colonization by the British and The Morrígan’s association with sovereignty, those who worship Herself may feel called to spread awareness about the harmful effects of colonization and appropriation on colonized cultures worldwide. Loki has become a role model of sorts for those within the LGBTQIA+ community due to common UPG of Him being genderfluid/ transgender and pansexual. (This UPG being based on mentions in Norse lore of Him living for a time as a woman and birthing children.)

These associations with social justice can also tie in with shadow work, which the “dark” gods can be especially helpful with. I’ve previously touched on part of this in a post about shadow work. It is my opinion that social justice work is a form of shadow work on a larger scale. Acknowledging one’s privileges as well as one’s struggles is a part of both, after all. It is also my opinion that, perhaps a reason why so many fear “dark” deities, is because they may not be ready to face some shadows of their own.

I have worked with The Morrígan, Loki, Fenrir, and others long enough to feel that I know Them. I am not going to claim to be an expert on Them, either academically or spiritually. What I do know is what I have learned about Them through reading, educational content, conversing with others, and my own experiences. I am glad that They have been an influence on my life. They have given me things, from harsh lessons to joy and comfort and empowerment, that I am grateful to have received. Sure, my gods can be scary – if you don’t bother to get to know Them. They’re not always gentle – but gentle isn’t always what’s needed.

It’s okay not to work with any given deity if one doesn’t want to. It’s okay to have different beliefs about the gods, or to not believe in Them at all. What’s not okay, is talking down to someone about their gods from a place of fear. It’s not okay to talk in a condescending manner to someone about the gods they believe in, regardless of one’s personal beliefs.

Evil, Really?

Throughout my life, I have heard Christians speak of others as sinners or lost. To outright call those who aren’t Christian “evil”, though? That’s one that I’d only heard within the confines of their churches when I was forced to go as a youth, or by random strangers on the internet. That is, until today. It finally happened. For some context, to be fair, I’m not entirely sure that the person who made the comment was aware that I’m a gods and goddesses worshipping Pagan. This person was talking about how witchcraft and other “alternative” spiritual practices are okay if done by a Christian, rather than one of those other people. This person then went on to say that non-Christians are evil.

I have to say, that hurt. I was furious. To know that certain types of people think like that is one thing. To hear it said aloud, especially by someone I had assumed was more open-minded, is another thing entirely. I approached this person about it, saying that I understood that they were speaking based on misconceptions. I was prepared to educate if they were willing to listen. Instead, I was met with ignorance. “I know you see it as a misconception, but it’s my beliefs.” It’s this person’s beliefs that people who aren’t Christian are evil. That’s… well, it’s all kinds of messed up, to put it plainly.

I understand that, in their eyes, they speak from a place of caring. They truly seem to think that. Some may say that, at worst, it just results in offense or hurt feelings. Yet, these beliefs they hold about others have real consequences.

This conversation occurred after I read about the Panera Bread incident. A woman was recently fired for being Pagan. Soon after, Panera Bread posted a tone-deaf meme to their Twitter account about manifestation. To be called “evil” for my beliefs, whether it was intentional or not, hurt all the more after the very large reminder that Pagans aren’t treated with the respect that all people deserve. It hurt all the more after the reminder that Christians often get away with discrimination, harassment, and violence in the name of their beliefs. Sure, there’s a lawsuit going against Panera, but that doesn’t make the fact that this sort of thing happens any better.

The belief that certain groups of people are “evil”, “sinners”, or in any way “lesser than” is dangerous. It allows those who believe they are in the right, are “good”, or otherwise “better” to think that they have a right to treat others poorly. Sure, that might just mean making jokes or distancing themselves. It doesn’t always stop there. An atheist father was recently doxxed and harrassed by the “good Christians” of his town for exposing Christian teaching in a public school. Hate crimes against the LGBTQ+ community are still all too common. People get fired, denied adoptions, and denied shelter for not being Christian. In the US, this is illegal. But it still happens because Christians get away with it. This isn’t just about harmless beliefs. These ideas promote real harm. If anything can be called “evil”, I would wager that systemically promoting harm to people easily falls under that category.

To be clear, not all Christians are the problem. There are many who practice their religion in a responsible way that’s respectful toward others who don’t share their beliefs. It is crucial to keep this in mind. As a Pagan, I don’t want to make the same mistake of judging all Christians the way some of them judge Pagans, Muslims, or atheists. This isn’t about demonizing an entire religious group because there are too many within it using their beliefs as an excuse to hurt others. We should respect the beliefs of others. The exception to that rule is when those beliefs lead to harm.

All of that said, let’s circle around to another part of the issue with what was said to me. The person who made the comment about non-Christians being “evil” admits to practicing witchcraft. This person admits to using spiritual practices common in Paganism, then says (by inference) that Pagans are “evil” because we’re not Christian. That is all sorts of problematic. This is an issue that goes much deeper than the Christian witches debate that comes up within the Pagan community. This comes up throughout history. After colonizers attempted to erase the cultures of Indigenous people by forcing them to assimilate to Christianity and Euro-centric cultures, they later turned around and started appropriating Indigenous cultures. (As someone who isn’t Indigenous, I don’t feel it’s my place to speak much on this topic, so I highly recommend looking to Indigenous sources for more information.) For someone to say, “these people are wrong/ evil/ lesser than” and then start practicing parts of that people’s culture is perhaps the worst type of hypocrisy. If someone can’t respect a group of people, why should they have any right to share in their traditions?

I’m not sorry to say this: Some beliefs aren’t worth respecting, Christian or otherwise. When they’re causing harm, they deserve to be dragged through the mud.

Seeing the Spectrum in Religion

What comes to mind when one hears the word, “religion”? It depends on one’s own spiritual and cultural background, doesn’t it? For many in the United States, Christianity is the religion. If someone “finds religion” or is said to be religious, they might be assumed to be Christian. Even those speaking from an atheistic or agnostic point of view often seem to make assumptions about religion based on their own experiences with the Christian religion in their culture. It’s difficult to get away from. Still, there are over 4,000 religions in the world. A quick search on the internet shows that only 5 of these are widely considered major religions. They include Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. (Some search results show up to 12 listed.) These are the religions with the highest percentages of practioners in the world. They hold the most political and cultural influences in our modern societies. Other religions, such as those that fall under the neo-Pagan umbrella or practiced by Indigenous peoples, often go ignored in mainstream discussions unless reduced to a fluff piece or for shock value.

re·li·gion/rəˈlijən/

noun

• the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.”ideas about the relationship between science and religion”

• a particular system of faith and worship.plural noun: religions“the world’s great religions”

• a pursuit or interest to which someone ascribes supreme importance.”consumerism is the new religion”

Oxford Languages

The dictionary definition of religion allows plenty of room for the plethora of spiritual beliefs and practices that are recognized by people across the world. Yet, when the subject of religion comes up, assumptions that leave out certain types of religion are oft made by those in the majority. Articles written from an atheistic/ agnostic/ secular viewpoint may speak of a singular god or issues with “the church” without specifying any one religion. Yet, it is clear that the religion being referenced is Christianity, with Judaism and Islam typically being treated as an after thought. When major religions are viewed as negligible in conversation, what hope is there for smaller religious communities to be taken seriously? In a society where discussions about religion center around a specific monotheistic religion versus atheism, a lack of wider understanding on the topic as a whole arises. The idea of religion becomes restricted to a certain set of beliefs and practices as influenced by political powers who have historically used religion in one form as a weapon.

It is folly to make judgments on religion as a whole based on a single religion and it’s history. Not only does it sow division, it also further reinforces the false idea that there is only one valid religion or a singular way of practicing said religion. It not only encourages stigma against those who practice minority religions, it also creates misunderstandings about why people hold certain practices and beliefs. Rather than potential enrichment of life being at the heart of the topic, the misconception spreads that ignorance or abuse of power alone breeds religion. What with the overall histories of major religions and even a small few well-known cults that have made news, it can be difficult to look past the horrors that it can be used for. That said, those particular issues sometimes tend to push other conversations to the wayside.

As mentioned previously, religion encompasses a diverse set of beliefs and practices. Some who follow certain traditions may be hesitant to use the term “religious” as a self descriptor due to the connotations that the label can take on. Some find offense at the idea of their spiritual traditions being considered religions at all for this same reason. Nobody should be forced to use a label they are uncomfortable with, however it is a problem that certain labels are so often incorrectly implied to belong to a single type of modern religion. Just as there are those who prefer the “spiritual, not religious” identifier, there are those who embrace religious labels in their own non-monotheistic traditions. Some polytheist Pagans are reclaiming language that the mainstream cultures typically view as belonging to Christians. While it can’t truly be said that Unitarian Universalism is or is not monotheistic (that depends on the individual in UUism), many of the congregations within the religion still use religious language whether their membership leans more Christian, more humanistic atheist, or more of another faith. Whether one believes in many individual gods, one god, many aspects of a singular god, or no god at all; it is possible to be religious and to engage in worship.

For many, the idea of religion requires some sort of spiritual element rooted in the supernatural. While this is commonly the case, the idea of spirituality has also evolved to take on a more psychological approach. Someone who leans more toward atheism or agnosticism may find spirituality and religion in what science has discovered of the universe surrounding us. They may also find a spiritual connection in humanism, meditation, secular ritual, or any number of other things. These ideas, of course, aren’t limited to a skeptical mind. Likewise, anyone from monotheists to polytheists and animists may find spiritual enrichment from these things in addition to the unverifiable beliefs they may hold. Religion and spirituality is how we find connection within ourselves and with the universe around us. Simplified to the barest core, that’s it.

Yet, it is not enough to simplify the idea of religion to find common grounds. Acknowledging the many different types of belief systems is also crucial if one is to discuss religion in more general terms. After all, there are a great many misconceptions about varying belief systems. It can be othering to members of minority religions when their beliefs are either spoken of incorrectly or entirely ignored. The context of one’s religion matters. To assume, for instance, the idea that Neo-Pagans worship the Earth is both a falsehood and sometimes true. To assume that Christians don’t practice witchcraft or another magical folk tradition is, again, a partial truth blended with ignorance. In both of these examples, it depends on the specific religious denomination/ tradition and the individual practitioner. It doesn’t exactly help to simplify the matter in either case that both Paganism and Christianity each have many different traditions, some of which are syncretic between the two. Paganism takes it a step further, as well, in that it is an umbrella term for many different religions which vary greatly in source material, beliefs, and practices.

To further understand the complexity of religion, one must also recognize that religion is cultural. Religion influences the holidays one celebrates, the media one consumes, the way one expresses themselves, the laws of one’s country, and many other aspects of culture. This is, in part, how syncretic religions form to begin with. The cultural aspect of religion is how someone can be a Jewish atheist, Christian Buddhist, or any other number of examples. When one is part of a specific culture and converts to another religion, it is not always desirable to leave all parts of their cultural origin behind. Whether it’s about connection to one’s heritage, fun/ nostalgic traditions that have become secular, or practices that still hold a deep spiritual meaning; the blending of one religious culture with another is an important part of many traditions. In order to fully understand the context of any religion, one must understand it’s culture. In the case of closed and semi-closed religious traditions, this cannot be done without being part of their cultures.

For people of differing backgrounds, religion can mean different things. It can conjure of images that are positive or negative. It can bring up trauma or comfort. It can be churches, forests, hidden altars, or soup kitchens. Religion isn’t an either/ or thing. It is a kaleidoscope, a spectrum of the many different ways of looking at our existence. Religion in it’s entirety can not be reduced to only one idea without watering down all that it has been, now is, and can be.

Being Enough

There are many times wherein I feel that I am not enough. I find that I am not as well [formally] educated as some of my friends and acquaintances. I don’t have a job that’s as distinguished or well respected as some of them. I didn’t grow into adulthood with the same amount of financial privilege as some. There are too many “should” and “should not” expectations that I put on myself. These are expectations that this society reinforces via it’s broken values, media, and structural/ systemic factors. These are expectations that, up until adulthood, were completely out of my control. Even as an adult, because some of these expectations were not previously met, I was not in the same starting place as those who had more privileges at the get-go. Why then, do I still feel the need to compare myself to them? Just as I don’t have their experiences, they don’t have mine.

My therapist once told me that “should” doesn’t matter. It’s a lesson that I am still working on internalizing. These expectations set by “should” or “should not” result in guilt and loss of self worth. They aren’t useful to us. They are often a hindrance to our happiness and our desired paths in life. If one is held down by feelings of unworthiness, they may not feel as if they deserve to reach for the things they want for themselves. It then becomes a cycle that can be difficult to escape from. What I find more useful is acknowledging what has been, what is, and what can be. This does not mean making judgments on our past or present, but only seeing how it has and currently is affecting our lives.

If someone was not given shoes, they can not be expected to walk across a street covered in broken glass. If someone was given material to make shoes to walk across, they can not be expected to know how to make them without either trial and error or being taught. Whether one makes it without injury, with a few scratches, with deep wounds, or they are unable to cross at all; the circumstances that led to where they end up aren’t a reflection of their worth. Likewise, the past and present are naught but a reflection of one’s circumstances.

Just as I am still learning to accept that “should” is arbitrary, I am still learning to accept that I am enough as I am. The first principle of Unitarian Universalism is as follows: “The inherent worth and dignity of every person.” The worth and dignity of every person. No matter our background, no matter where we currently are in life, each of us is worthy and deserves dignity. If only all people treated others, as well as ourselves, with this principle in mind.

Despite my feelings of not being enough, compared to what was and what could have been, I actually am somewhat proud of myself. It helps to look at how far I’ve come, rather than how far I wish to be. It helps further to remember that circumstances aren’t linear. We don’t simply move from point A to B to C. We may also move from -3 to A to B to 1 to A again to green to something parallel to C. It’s messy and can get confusing. In all reality, it makes no sense to place strict expectations of “should” on individual human achievements. It makes no sense to judge someone’s worth based on unreasonable ideals.

Shadow Work

“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”

Carl Jung

WHAT IS SHADOW WORK?

To understand shadow work, one should first be familiar with the shadow self. This idea was first conceived by 20th century psychologist, Carl Jung. In his field of Jungian psychology, the word ‘shadow’ refers to hidden parts of our being. The shadow self can be the parts that we hide or repress in order to avoid. It can be our fears, shame, flaws and weaknesses, and toxic traits.

Though shadow work has its roots in psychology and is still used in the field today (even if not always referred to as such), it is also an important spiritual practice. Shadow work is the practice in which one acknowledges the shadow self, takes notice of how it affects oneself, and works to accept that part of oneself in a healthy way. It is a way for us to work toward healing ourselves, understanding our authentic selves, and finding our full potential.

How Does The Shadow Self Manifest?

The shadow self can manifest in many ways that are often ultimately harmful to us, as well as to those around us. These may be unconscious to us when they present. They can include feelings of low self esteem, jealousy, anxiety, anger, and fear. The shadow self may cause one to lash out at others, be passive aggressive, lack boundaries, or find difficulty in standing up for oneself. It can lead to a struggle with addiction, as well as other self harming behaviors.

How To Practice Shadow Work?

The basis of shadow work is the acknowledgment of one’s shadow self. There are multiple ways in which one may do this. One way is practicing mindfulness: calmly focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, acknowledging and accepting one’s thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations. Rather than attempting to push away anger, sadness, or any other emotion one may perceive as negative, we can allow ourselves to learn from it. Yes, this can be painful, but it is a necessary step in shadow work.

Other things we can do in shadow work include journaling an honest account of one’s thoughts and feelings, teaching oneself to respond rather than react, questioning why one feels certain emotions or what triggers them, and meditating on aspects of one’s shadow self to better understand it.

One more step that should not be neglected is self compassion and self soothing. Shadow work can bring up feelings of guilt, depression, and anxiety. Although these feelings need to be acknowledged, they need not lead one into a downward spiral. Learning these things is a crucial practice that will aid in getting through the process.

All of this said, due to the nature of shadow work, it is recommended that it be done with a safety plan in place. For some, particularly if they struggle with mental health issues, that may include having a licensed therapist or other trusted person available. It is generally not recommended that one practice shadow work while in a fragile mental state.

Deities and Shadow Work

As a polytheist Pagan, it would be remiss for me to leave out any mention of deity work within this topic. I have found that deities commonly considered “dark” are often highly effective in assisting with shadow work. This is not to say that they do the work for anyone. That is far from the case. As with anything, I believe that the gods expect us to put in the work for ourselves.
My own work with The Morrígan, Loki, and Fenrir (as well as others) has offered me insight that has helped to start me on the path toward acknowledgment and acceptance of my own shadow self. Through meditations on these deities, learning their stories, and UPG experiences, they have shown me that the shadow aspects within themselves as well as myself are not to be feared, but understood. Those who may not view the gods as literally as I do may still benefit from gaining such insight from their stories.

Thoughts on the Homeschool Community

I think, when many people think of homeschooling families, there are some common stereotypes. Much of that gets supported when one looks up websites, blogs, and groups by homeschoolers. There is so much Christian material out there marketed toward homeschools, it seems to speak for itself. Homeschooling parents are often religious, Christian, specifically. If one digs a little bit deeper, one will find that homeschool groups tend to be inundated with conservative, or right-leaning, parents. Even the “crunchy” moms among homeschoolers tend to veer to the right with anti-vaccination views and a distrust of modern science. For those of us who don’t fit into any of those groups, it’s quite off-putting.

For those who have already read my past blog posts, it’s likely clear where I stand on some things. I am a polytheist Pagan and Unitarian Universalist, for crying out loud. Even though I do believe in spiritual and herbal or folk remedies, I also believe that modern medicine has it’s place. I believe in science coexisting with spirituality. I believe that liberal and left-leaning policies would improve my country. Obviously, for someone like me, the stereotypical environment of homeschooling groups is going to be awkward at best.

That said, the homeschool community is more diverse than the stereotype presents. I suspect that in groups where conservative Christians are more vocal, those of us who don’t share those views either remain silent to keep the peace or we just leave to find better fitting ones. Sometimes, the information we get from groups where members run more conservative, even if we don’t, is invaluable. One group I’m in is like this. They share a wealth of information to help parents understand the laws and requirements for homeschooling in West Virginia, but… well, it’s West Virginia. There are a lot of conservative Christians up these hollers and in that group. For help with finding online learning resources, I stick to secular groups.

I find it somewhat funny that, despite the stereotype, most of my friends and acquaintances who homeschool their children are some flavor of Pagan and liberal. These are the people who have encouraged me the most to homeschool my child. These are the people who first helped me to realize that homeschooling is for people like us, too.

All of that said, there are other stereotypes that need addressed. That is to say, the idea that homeschool parents don’t know what’s best for our children, are uneducated, or otherwise don’t do as good of a job as public or private schools. It’s quite offensive. The local Board of Education for my county recently had a meeting wherein they spoke disrespectfully of homeschooling parents, all the while showing that they had little to no knowledge on the laws for homeschooling in West Virginia. Some of the views presented by members of the board were not only generally arrogant, but also classist.

Given the problems with the public educational system, many parents choose to homeschool because we want better for our children. Public school classrooms are far too large; teachers are underpaid, required to teach for standardized tests, and not given enough resources to sufficiently help all students. Children still get left behind, too often simply moved on to the next grade without the knowledge they need. Not only that, but bullying runs rampant in schools and often gets overlooked. In many schools, a decidedly conservative Christian and white supremacist bias is held by teachers and staff, which causes LGBTQIA+ students, non-Christian students, BIPOC students, and others to suffer in a toxic environment and to be undereducated based on these harmful biases.

With homeschooling, parents are free to individualize our children’s educations. Instead of teaching to a strict curriculum or with a single method, we can utilize what actually works best to keep our children engaged in learning. We can better ensure that the education we give our children is inclusive, rather than a white-washed curriculum common to public schools that mostly ignores BIPOC history, LGBTQIA+ issues, and non-Christian viewpoints. We can also better provide the socialization our children need in a safe and healthy environment without peer pressure or bullying.

While there is some truth to the stereotypes about homeschooling, it is only a partial truth that ignores the diversity of families who choose this route. It is often that the negative stereotypes are simply louder than the more positive ones.

Exploring School

This past school year has taught me more about my comfort zone as a parent than I imagined it would. With public schools switching to distance learning, the experience of having my child learn at home was eye opening. I can’t speak for what options other states had, but West Virginia had 3 options for public school students to choose from.

There was the self paced virtual program. That’s what we tried during the first semester. There was no set schedule, no required video conferences, and the student had until the end of their semester to complete all assignments. It started out well. My child did some assignments while I was away at work during the day, then I helped with some after I got home. That slowly tapered, as my child became more overwhelmed as the semester went on and we realized that the teachers (from out of state, mind you) didn’t actually teach anything. They provided the materials and graded the assignments, but that is not enough. I had been going over the materials with my child in the afternoons and my days off in an attempt to teach, often while multitasking with other things that needed done. We both got burned out due to the amount of time it took to go through everything each day.

Thus, when the second semester approached, we switched to the e-learning option with Schoology. This time, my child had teachers from their local school with a strict schedule consisting of conferences and due dates. In the first week, I was hopeful that it would simply be a matter of getting used to. By the end of the second week, I realized that this method was not going to work for my child. They were already so far behind and the Schoology option doesn’t account for students who need more help. My child had quickly lost interest and became unresponsive yet again to their educational demands.

At this point, schools in my state have begun in person instruction again for those who opted in for it. I was beginning to almost consider choosing this option. The biggest thing holding me back from that is the problem of a still active pandemic and knowing how overcrowded classrooms are. It worried me more that I got a notification that our local school has recently had a positive case reported. That aside, our child doesn’t want to return to in person learning, anyway. Before schools were forced to switch to distance learning, my child had already been struggling with going to school. Academically, they were doing as well as ever. Still an Honor student. Emotionally, they constantly complained of being tired or having an upset stomach to avoid going. It had become a battle to get my child to go to school in the mornings. My child had asked me repeatedly to switch to homeschool. With that in mind, I had to come to a new decision: To homeschool or to go back to in person?

I have several friends who homeschool their children and have been encouraging me to do, as well. What held me back is the worry that I wouldn’t have the time, or that it would be too much for me to handle. I’m not a stay at home parent, although I have gone down to working part time. Perhaps I was making excuses out of fear of not being enough. It is thanks to these friends that I realized, maybe I can do this. With my child’s education in my hands, maybe I can find a way to ensure they learn what they need to without the unnecessary struggle. We can find a curriculum that actually works for us.

The decision was made. I am officially becoming a homeschool parent. Worst case scenario, we’ll realize it’s not for us and we do end up switching back to in person schooling. Best case scenario? My child thrives. I am hopeful that we will figure this out. The prospect of being more hands on in finding the best way for my child to learn is exciting. One option that was recommended we start with is “deschooling”, to give my child a break from traditional schoolwork and allow us to figure out the learning style that works best for my child.

In my state, all that’s required to start homeschool is that I send in a Notice of Intent to our county board of education and to teach reading, language arts, math, science, and social studies. Of course, I plan to incorporate art, music, and physical education into my child’s education, as well. Those will be eased into our curriculum as we adjust. My child already uses Duolingo for Spanish, although on an admittedly inconsistant basis for now. After the Notice of Intent is mailed in, homeschoolers in West Virginia are required to have a portfolio review and/or testing done by June 30th. Because we are starting this month, I am a bit nervous about having a review done this year, but am also relieved to have heard that such reviews only take the actual time of being a homeschooler into account. Being reviewed for the few months that we will have had more control over is less scary than the entire year that was spent mostly with public school.

Paganism: Accountability Matters

I recently shared a post to an online Pagan group, meant to get people thinking about their own practices. More specifically, it was a post written by a well known Pagan author that simply asked people to acknowledge historical accuracy and to examine whether certain beliefs they hold are privy to bioessentialism. The sharing of that post went, as should have been expected, a few different ways. I always hope for better from my community and yet continuously find myself disappointed by some. Thankfully, others can be counted on to make me proud again of the community. Because the group is private, I will not go into any details on the comments, but it got me thinking yet again about how toxic the Pagan community can be when left unchecked.

The Pagan community is rife with misinformation. Despite being made up of thousands of different religions, Paganism as a whole still gets painted over with Wiccan beliefs and ethics. All too common is the Wiccan Rede partially invoked and misused as an all-encompassing rule that must be followed. “Harm none”. This can feed into the problem of those who would use “intent” as an excuse to say or do anything they want, rather than holding themselves accountable for any harm they do end up causing. Because, (sarcasm ahead) there are no Pagan religions that are okay with cursing, have deities of war, etc. Nor do any place an importance on accountability. Not only are many Pagans of various religions actually cool with violence (although, as a general rule: most of us only condone it for things such as self defense), but the Wiccan Rede itself is meant to be advice rather than an actual law. It is also certainly not meant to excuse bad behavior. The erasure of the diversity of religions and traditions in favor of a single one invented in the 1950’s is just one example of misinformation that contributes to misinformation in the Pagan community.

Another common contributer is that many Pagans rely on outdated or outright incorrect information as fact. Archeological evidence changes what we know about ancient religions and cultures from time to time. Where information was once missing, new information has been brought to light. Where archeologists have historically held biases in favor of white, Christian men, more are becoming better aware. One such example is the existence of warrior women among the Scandinavian peoples (“Vikings”). Once held as myth due to lack of evidence and the biases of a patriarchal society, we now know that women did travel and fight alongside the men. This misinformation from the past has still contributed to the issue of toxic masculinity and misogyny that runs rampant in certain circles of modern Heathenry and Asatru.

In addition, authors haven’t always been truthful about the origins of the practices they write about. Authors have taken from Indigenous, African-diasporic, and other traditions originating with people of color without knowing the full context of the practices and beliefs they’re writing about; often making false claims that these practices were European or else making adaptations without distinguishing the original practice from the misappropriated one. (Note: While many practices and beliefs are similar across cultures, each will still have it’s own context that is equally important and should not be glossed over or changed by outsiders.) Not only have marginalized cultures been taken from in disrespectful ways, but misinformation pertaining to ancient European pagan religions has also been spread by authors looking to make a profit. A quick example of this is the attribution of the “Maiden, Mother, Crone” archetype to goddesses that it never historically applied to. This particular example, when used literally and harmfully toward others, has the added risk factor of leading to bioessentialism.

Much of this spread of misinformation has contributed to the issues of white supremacy, ableism, transphobia, misappropriation, and other issues within Paganism. It is unfortunate that many cling to ideas that end up causing harm to the wider community, rather than having a willingness to learn. It is a shame to Paganism as a whole, in my opinion, that so many are unwilling to strive for inclusivity and respect for others.

One of the common draws to Pagan religions is that we are free to make our own paths. We don’t have to ascribe to a single doctrine or practice how others tell us we should. “There is no wrong way to practice”. As a general rule, it’s a good one. It does, however, also act as a double edged sword. I have too often seen Pagans and witches abuse this “rule” by acting as if it means they are free from accountability when they do wrong. This can cycle back to Pagans making generalized claims that have no historical or otherwise factual basis, or that cause harm to marginalized people, then becoming upset when they are corrected. There is a clear difference between having a personal practice that involves UPG or otherwise modern beliefs, and having a dishonest practice that contributes to causing harm to the greater community. It is shocking to me that so many can fail to see that difference. The former is a sign of a healthily evolving practice, the latter is not. The misuse of our spiritual freedom as Pagans is a major contributor to many of the internal problems the community faces. We are free to do what we want, we should not be free from the consequences (such as being called out or corrected) when we contribute to misinformation or harmful ideas. There is no shame in being wrong as long as we are willing to learn from it.