A Great Dragon

I watched the horses run freely together along the Atlantic coast in the setting sun as my ride takes me southbound toward Reykjavik two days ago. This is my last day in Iceland. The melodic black metal sounds of Zhrine play in the rental car’s CD player, a band the three of us had just seen perform in Iceland’s annual metal festival, Eistnaflug. A perfect soundtrack to the island’s desolate landscapes and dramatic cloud cover.

I was an idiot to think this trip was about a metal festival. I was an idiot to think this was a trip. It was a journey. A pilgrimage. A clearly undiluted, loud message from the gods that read: Get over it.

I backpacked along the southern route of the Ring Road in Iceland to get to a tiny ass fishing town on the eastern coast with a population of just over a thousand. Kinda like that quaint little Practical Magic town, only minus the pious locals and hot witches. And like Vikings coming ashore to take over the village, so do the Metalheads for four days every year in July. Two-thousand of them. And I walked/hitchhiked/camped 440 miles to be one of them. I was rained on, attacked by seagulls, constantly pestered by flies, and sunburned. I feared one of my rides was going to kill me, my pack weighed heavier each day, I got blisters on top of blisters, and the skin on my hipbones rubbed raw. But these were just surface annoyances. Toothpaste stains on a mirror. The real weight every pilgrim knows is the weight and the battle within. Here I am; surrounded by mountains, sunlit glaciers, the rolling sea, rivers, and fields upon fields of moss, lupine, and lava rock. Either the land of Faery or a supersized diorama for a little boy’s choo-choo train. And I’m bawling my fucking eyes out. I must be the only one in Iceland who does this. Pushing my physical self to its limits and surrendering to trust in the generosity of others, dished my demons out.

Get…over it.

No one can fix you but you. And sometimes it takes the absolute visual definition of natural beauty, the kind that cannot be explained by any language or camera, to make you see the absolute visual definition of darkness. Once I got to my destination, I set up my tent at the festival campground and met my neighbors. I was very fortunate for two reasons: 1.) These particular Icelanders were awesome. They’re very simple in life, utilize their resources, live for laughing, kinda backwoods, and don’t give two shits about differences because they have enough shits on their own plates to worry about yours and 2.) Metalheads are a family. Always. No matter where from, we are an ostracized niche and so we understand one another and will always be there for each other. I had an absolute blast with this group camping by me! Four days of canned Viking beer, black cloth and corpse paint, the most amazing live Icelandic metal music, laughing until I cried, and the ice-cold stillness of a mountainous fjord. What is there left to keep you from living when you’ve already ditched what remained of your identity hundreds of miles ago?

Like Americans to shopping malls, Icelanders are to swimming pools. For every morning hang over, we would zombie walk to the local swimming pool and wash the stench and headaches away from the previous night in showers, two pools, two different temperature hot tubs, a sauna, and a huge kick-ass water slide! One day whilst soaking in the shallow pool, I met a purple haired chick and a bearded man. Come to find out they were from Seattle, too! Furthermore, we shared the same flight back. So obviously I hit them up for a ride and for three days after the festival, we explored the mythical wonders of northern Iceland. We soaked in geothermal pools and explored the haunting lava towers of Dimmuborgir. We drooled in the Motorcycle Museum and laughed at the awful tour guide for the ruins of Erik the Red’s homestead. We sipped coffees in Akureyri, looked within the majestic falls of Godafoss where the gods fell, boarded a Viking long ship, and shared our interests and lives. Who knew something so serendipitous would have been pool soaking a foot away from me? All we have to do is say hello.

Clearly I was getting over it.

They took me all the way to the Keflavik airport where the huge art structure of Valhalla’s rainbow bridge stood erect. As I sat in seat 34D for 7 hours, listening to Gojira on my iPod, I thought of having to immediately jump back into school and work and all of my mundane routines. I thought of the stress, number crunching, and tasks waiting for me in Seattle. And then I smiled, knowing it was all a petty nothing in comparison of who I am and what I can do.

“…But I grow impatient
Cannot stand the wait
And I start to dig
Within me
This tunnel to I
In this region of me
A great dragon is lying
On the wealth of a mighty world
My own world inside
I saw- I saw monsters”
-Gojira
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May’s almost over?!

Oh man. So much for writing on this blog regularly! I swear, life is like the land of Faery; you get enticed by cake and dance, a couple shots of brandy, a little brown-chicken-brown-cow and BAM! Three years have gone by when you swear you’ve only danced an hour, tops!

April was a rough month for me. Full of loved ones who chose to make poor decisions, one after another, and me having to learn one of the hardest lessons in life to learn- having to watch them burn and not being able to do anything about it, other than letting them know I’m here for them if they need me. In fact, I’m still learning this lesson because it is a bitch to accept.

And that’s really all I wish to say about that.

May has proven to be much better! I began the month with my annual attendance at a  kick-ass Beltaine ritual in Ravenna Park in Seattle, run by the fabulous Radical Faeries (if you’ve never heard of the Radical Fae organization, they’re a large group of gender bending pagan awesomeness! You can check out more here: http://www.radfae.org/)! It was a beautiful, sunny day and full of laughter and friends. (shirtless me on the right)

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Since then, I’ve mostly just been plugging away with work and school! I did finally see a band perform here that I’ve been dying to see live for years! Amon Amarth is a viking death metal band and every time they’re in town, I’m outta town. Hella annoying. This year however, I was finally able to see them and decided to post the event on my Meetup.com, Seattle Metalheads site. I also organized it so that those who were planning to attend could meet me at Pike Place Brewery across the street, for a little pre-show grub n’ drinks! Two guys and two gals showed up at the restaurant, and they all had just moved here. One was from Oklahoma, one from Texas, one from Massachusetts,  and one from Brazil. They had come to the brewery for the same reason I had: to find friends in the American metal community, an ever ostracized niche. It proved to be a huge success! Everyone was very respectful of each other’s differences and had such a great time that we even stuck together for the duration of the show. And we still keep in touch and invite each other to shows and events via text.

But even if there wasn’t a rare-for-me viking death metal band playing, or sharing it with my new viking death metal band loving friends, there is something about simply being at a metal show that I cannot explain. When I first arrive and the opening band is just starting, there’s a lot going on. People are coming and going from the bar, they’re searching for open seats (if there are any), they’re still congregating outside, grabbing something from the merch table before it’s gone, and empty spaces are filling up. And throughout all this, a wave of calm silence comes over me. Kinda like when you’re in a bath and you let your head sink below the water surface and your hearing is now confined to the inner walls of your head. This happens to me at …every …show. And when this happens, I am overwhelmed with comfort. Like I’m at a family reunion and there isn’t anywhere else I’d rather be. All of my problems and worries and concerns melt away as a wave of familial love and comfort wash over me. Sounds like a humorous contradiction at a heavy metal concert, I know. Think of it this way: If heavy metal is about anger, trauma, sorrow, and rage; then those who enjoy it must understand these emotions and maybe coping with their own. And when they congregate together, it’s only natural there’ll be an unsaid deep respect and bond between everyone. Kinda like group therapy. Also! I once read a research article where these scientist guys discovered that the “random” patterns of individuals in a mosh pit replicate the exact patterns of a school of fish! How rad is that?! Science.

Speaking of metal, I’m also getting ready to travel to Iceland’s metal festival, Eistnaflug, next month! I haven’t been to a European metal festival for two years and I can’t wait! I’m also looking forward to viewing the new Asatru temple (albeit still under construction), Iceland’s first Norse pagan temple in 1,000 years! Plus the Blue Lagoon of course. Stoked! I’ll hafta write a blog post when I get back. Until then, keep it metal! \m/

“So what do you do?”

It is easy to feel alone. Here we are in an over populated world of constant digital communication, specialized dating sites, forums and websites catering to people (from girls named Rebecca to moviegoers), surrounded by our peers in cities and schools, concert venues and offices. And I think we all know it is yet, still easy to feel completely alone. And due to being a minority religion, maybe it’s more common to feel this way as Pagans. In 2008, the Academic Registration Information System (ARIS) states that there are 342,000 American individuals who identify as Wiccan, and 340,000 who identify as neo-Pagan (http://www.religioustolerance.org/wic_nbr3.htm). Depending on specific sects, the majority of these Wiccans and neo-Pagans are women. When considering those more male-dominated sects (Asatru, Odinism, and Druidry), they’re still out numbered (http://www.academia.edu/7969429/Gender_and_Paganism_in_Census_and_Survey_Data). Now most guys I know are pretty cool hangin’ with anyone and becoming good friends with the Christian father of two down the street, so long as they respect each other. But I have ordered at MOD Pizza before in downtown Seattle, and seen the bearded man behind the toppings bar light up with a huge smile, and reveal his Mjölnir (Thor’s hammer) necklace from behind his shirt, and greet me with a nod. There is an unsaid understanding that is deeply personal and thus, gratifying when you meet someone who shares similar religious beliefs as yourself.

Last summer, I started a Meetup group for Pagan men called, Green Man. It is a chance for Pagan guys to take a break from their hectic lives and meet some new like-minded peeps. We meet up twice a month; once a month in a social environment (like a bar or a café) and once a month outside (like on a trail or a river). I started this Meetup for two reasons: 1.) I remember what it was like only having non-Pagan friends nearby and no one able to relate to you like that, and 2.) When I just exhausted myself summiting a mountain by drinking my CamelBak dry 3mi ago, snagging my new shirt, and feeling my knee lock up only to realize that I still have to go back down; I get to the top and see the beautiful majesty that only Nature has and ever will have. The sight and the silence that follows after tearing apart and sacrificing every last comfort zone you had left to the mountain, to the rushing river, to the woods, to the constant sun, or to the unforgiving sea; is humbling. It’s spiritual. And it is when I feel the closest to being a man before my god. (id est: It is a crazy fucking high and I wanna share that shit)

Yesterday, a really bad wind storm hit and many Seattleites lost their power due to it, including traffic lights found on the same grids. I was on my way to a friend’s house on the 522, stuck in this stop-and-go traffic, when I received a notification on my Meetup app on my cell phone. The members in my Green Man Meetup are mostly guys who identify as Pagan, but a lot of them are not. The latter are either dudes who are curious about the religion and would like to meet others to learn more, or simply are just members to get out and have fun. And so a guy posts on there asking, “what do pagan men do exactly?” Thanks to a small town, Midwestern upbringing, this little-defensive teenager inside of me is always ready for revenge (and Pizza Rolls) and really wanted to reply, “We give each other naked bro-hugs and hump trees, what the hell do you think we do?!” But I knew that the guy was honestly curious and probably worked himself up to ask so publically. As I just learned from this documentary film I watched on Thursday called, The Mask You Live In (which is an awesome film, I totally recommend it!), I’m reminded I need to be more constructive in my communication. So as I’m inching from one lightless traffic light to another and being pelted by rain, I’m swirling that question around in my head. What do Pagan men do? How does it differ from any other man? How does it differ from Pagan women, or from a mixed gender group? The more I attempt to answer this in my head, the more I come up short. So I put the task aside until I returned home from my friend’s house. And when I did just this, I learned very quickly there was a 1000 character limit for posting on there. I rewrote it and rewrote it, discussing different styles of practice, pantheons, hobbies and interests, covens and solitaires, and even mentioning mead making! Deleting it each time.

Finally, I took a deep breath and a sip of my porter.

Pagan men do exactly what non-Pagan men do. The only difference is that we can relate and understand each other better than we can to someone who does not share our beliefs. Yes, there is a higher chance we may have shared interests in music, literature, and art as these are emotion driven, like our religions. But that’s not always the case, and it’s really about feeling free to act however you want to act and to say those things that you would normally leave out when you’re chatting it up with your sister’s boyfriend. Maybe the only real way that separates us from non-Pagans, is how we see things; how we view our world and our surroundings. But how do I really know this? How do I really know what my Atheist buddy feels after he summits a mountain and sees his accomplishment, or his Buddhist girlfriend beside him, for that matter? No, I think we’re just like everyone else. Except we have more candles.

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Altering to the Altar

Several months ago, I was alone in my home on my day off and I heard a murder of crows just outside the door, and then it was suddenly quiet. When I opened the door, I noticed that our “We’re All Mad Here” Cheshire Cat doormat was tossed aside and the three pennies that my witchy roommate had placed under it for good fortune, had been arranged in a nice and even row, one above the other. Weird. I replaced the mat back onto the pennies and shut the door. Not five minutes later, I hear more crow cackling going on just outside the door. Opening it, I notice that the mat had, once again, been tossed aside to reveal three shiny pennies. Except this time the pennies were evenly rearranged in a row side by side. Am I in a fucking fable?! Once again, I replace the mat and shut the door (albeit skeptically looking at the trees as I slowly shut the door). And once again, the party of crows yammerin’ away at the exact spot. This time, the exposed pennies were arranged as three points of an invisible triangle. And then the crows left and that was that. And I poured out my beer.

I told a client who is into Biblical numerology about the story some days later, and she snatched my calculator nearby and proceeded to write all these math equations down on scrap paper and punched the calculator emphatically. Then she’d pause and laugh hysterically, and punch in some more numbers- scratching down the answers on the paper. From my Western mind, she looked like a crazy lady found in some downtown city! (But I have to remind myself: If that same crazy lady was once known as the Oracle of Delphi, would she still be crazy? …Probably, but we’re all mad here, right? And maybe that’s the point.) Suddenly, she stood up straight, threw back her shoulders, and announced the answer to whatever she was trying to figure out. “It was a message! [The crows] were trying to tell you that your upcoming year will be very spiritual and religious for you.” Makes sense. Three pennies in three separate arrangements (done by crows!) is steeped in religious symbolism. And so far, I’d say that’s been pretty accurate, actually!

Now, I was pretty active within my religion already; practicing in public, and in private, in rituals with groups and covens. I also would do the occasional little spellwork, volunteer at the Esoteric Book Conference, and attend social outings and discussion groups that were hosted by friends. But what I had done over the years, that I didn’t even realize, was begin to lose touch with my religion. My relationship with my god, and with Nature. So to remedy this, I did the one thing I’ve never done; I erected an altar (cue the lightning and storm winds and the poor, reluctant ox; dragged to his fate).

I always associated altars with the Church, which was a little too close to home for me. I felt that all my tables, counters, and shelves were little altars and I can practice my craft on them because after all, isn’t our religion found in everything? On everything? And for more than half my life, this worked just fine; I’ve got deities scattered everywhere! But then, those little altars would get random things thrown on ’em. Bills and junk mail, car keys, pocket knife, pens. As though these little altars were ironically symbolic of my life; void of religion, of personality, and stifled with junk mail. I needed a REAL altar. A little place, close to my closeness, that which nothing but sacred and intention rests on. So I found me a little wooden table and placed it right by my bed, under the window in my bedroom. I Dremel’d totem animals onto it. I added items and tools and images of deeply personal love and reasons. I went to my friend’s shop, Gargoyles Statuary in Seattle, and purchased the Green Man face that spoke to me the clearest, and hung it just above the altar. I added a green altar cloth and two empty Gulden Draak bottles, one white and one black, that my best friend and I drank together when we camped in the magical old-growth woods by Mt St Helens. I placed Spring flowers in the bottles and some fake green ivy on the wall above Green Man. Slowly, my new altar became a space (that wasn’t a space) that I’ve never had in my home. When I look upon it, in the calm of the evening or the brightness of the morning, I feel the exact same way as I do when I’m in a clearing in the woods. Some would call this a “nemeton”, a sacred place. Where the trees that surround you are still, and the birds are quiet. And the light above shines down and you feel a strange calm. Like it’s 1:30pm on a Sunday and it’s gonna stay that way no matter how long you stand there. I love that feeling and I only feel it when I’m in a clearing in the thickest of woods. And whether I’m praying, practicing, or just…being there, I now feel that exact same way when I’m at my altar.

There are other ways my life has become more religious and spiritual, in their own right, lately (crows are hella smart!). But this has definitely become one of the more important ones as it helps me to just reset my day and take a moment for me and my religion. I hope that, if anyone who is reading this who does not already have themselves a little nemeton, they can find a place (that isn’t a place) somewhere and breathe.

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