Sometimes It’s Hard to Admit I Need the Wild

I spent this past weekend at PantheaCon in San Jose, CA. It’s been one of the highlights of my year since moving to the Pacific Northwest in 2006, and as always it was a wonderfully executed convention wherein my interaction with others was mainly in five and ten minute conversations in passing. I got to speak on plant and fungus totems (and got some preorders for my upcoming book on the topic) and still feel like an utter dumbass for missing the Llewellyn ancestors panel because I thought it was at 1:30pm instead of 11:00am.

But that mix-up was part of a personal theme for this year’s PCon. February’s been a challenging month for me; after the burst of positive energy that resulted in my event Curious Gallery, I found myself drooping and tired afterward, not at all surprising given that it was a LOT of work, and because I’m enough of an introvert to need some recharge time after big social events. The time that I thought I’d have to recover before PCon, though, was taken up instead by one of the freak snowstorms that Portland gets about every five years or so. It was only a few inches, but given that we have a dearth of plows and sand/cinders, only the highways were getting plowed for the first couple of days, and I was NOT about to go sliding around messy streets with a bunch of people not used to snow driving, chains or no chains. I more or less spent the better part of four days apartment-bound, minus a walk to the grocery store for rations. And once the snow melted, I had to start getting prepared to head south.

Sycamore bark, Alum Rock Park, San Jose, CA. Lupa, 2014.

Sycamore bark, Alum Rock Park, San Jose, CA. Lupa, 2014.

Which means that I haven’t gone hiking all month, and barely did last month due to Curious Gallery prep. Even before we hit the road, I was cranky and travel-anxious and generally out of sorts. Throughout the weekend I kept finding myself running short on energy and social tolerance, and while I very much enjoyed my time at the convention, I felt I wasn’t as present as I’ve been in previous years. I kept finding myself looking forward to getting outside at some point soon.

So because my Saturday schedule at PCon was almost entirely open, I decided to go hiking, and ended up at Alum Rock Park east of San Jose proper. It was an incredibly refreshing break, quiet other than occasional families with loudly excited children, and some amazing views from the South Rim Trail. I was surrounded by Steller’s jays, a lovely reminder of one of my “home” totems back in Oregon, and broad-shouldered sycamore trees, and uplifted ridges covered in scrub, with Penitencia Creek meandering throuugh it all in spite of drought. And then on our way home, my friend who I was traveling with and I stopped off at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge. It was just at dusk, so the birds and jackrabbits were out in force; I traded calls with great horned owls, and we enjoyed a lovely sunset on the water.

So I got my wild time and I felt much better for it. But I admit I felt some guilt. I’ve long been an advocate for green cities, partly as a way to free up more space for wildlife without humans interfering, and partly to make cities more habitable, especially for those who are unable to leave them. Granted, San Jose isn’t exactly overflowing with sustainability (though I’m sure it has more resources than meet the eye, mixed in the confluence of interstates and the airport and such). But I spend most of my time in Portland in a neighborhood with lots of green space and yards. Shouldn’t that tide me over?

South Rim Trail, Alum Rock Park, San Jose, CA. By Lupa, 2014.

South Rim Trail, Alum Rock Park, San Jose, CA. By Lupa, 2014.

It’s good for maintenance, to be sure. But I always need regular trips to wilderness areas, whether forest or desert or coastline. Nothing refreshes me quite like the quiet and soft fascination, and I don’t think it’s just my introversion. Something deep inside me needs those open areas to roam, perhaps even more than most people around me who may enjoy and benefit from it, but don’t necessarily have a deep, soul-sprung craving for wilderness.

I suppose the conundrum I’m left with is: does this need for wilderness negate the concept of green cities? Is a more sustainable metropolis only a temporary solution to a problem that can only be cured with the sort of setting we evolved in–open, untamed, populated by all the wild beings we grew up with? Maybe the sorts of people who reblog pictures of wilderness settings with sayings like Thoreau’s “in Wildness is the preservation of the world” and the anonymous “nature, not cities” are right.

But wait–that’s falling right into the false dilemma fallacy. Surely there’s some middle ground in between “stuck in a depressing, dirty city” and “a perfectly clean idyllic life deep in the wilderness, insulated from all other humans”. My need for wilderness on a regular basis is not proof that city life is wholly unsuitable for me. I can survive in a rural area much better than my urban-born partner could, and there are days I long for a life in a place with deer in the back yard and quiet, star-filled nights. But cities are where my work is, by and large, and they’re generally more friendly to those of us of alternative subcultures. There are benefits to Portland, to be sure.

Mineral spring grotto at Alum Rock Park, San Jose, CA. By Lupa, 2014.

Mineral spring grotto at Alum Rock Park, San Jose, CA. By Lupa, 2014.

When I feel that deep longing for wilderness, it’s not a sign that I need to abandon the city for good. In fact, at the end of my hike or camping trip, I feel energized and ready to return to the busy-ness of my everyday urban life. (Plus the traditional hot shower upon my return home is a definite perk.) I love the quiet of small towns, but right now I need the resources and opportunities and diversity of cities. Furthermore, there are plenty of restorative environments within Portland proper, the largest being Forest Park. There’s no need to abandon urban life; I just sometimes need to tilt the scale more toward “get out into the woods more and don’t work so hard!”

Like most potential answers to a complex problem, my solution is likely to be an ongoing balancing act comprised in part of reflection sessions like this one. And a challenge to a strongly-held conviction is not cause for worry; instead, as always, it’s an invitation to recalibrate that conviction. As my younger self would have said, “Stagnation is death!” (Some of the time, anyway.)

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Like My Writing? Then Give This a Listen!

So on Sunday I was a guest on the Pagan Musings Podcast. The initial topic was animism and my anthology, Engaging the Spirit World. We did start off in that direction—but then we wandered far off-trail into topics ranging from ecopsychology and environmental activism, to humanistic/naturalistic pantheism and other theologies, to my work with skin spirits and animal remains, to how we can best communicate about the things we feel strongly about. It essentially went from “interview” to “rambling, lovely conversation”, and we went for three hours!

Please do feel free to take a listen; I cover some things I haven’t really had the chance to talk about, and my gracious hosts helped this become a wonderful spoken creation, IMO.

Click here to hear the show!

On Green Urban Living

A few years ago I wrote about sustainable urban living. Three and a half years later, it’s still a pretty big ideal of mine. There are countless people, pagan and otherwise, who dream of going to live out in the middle of nowhere, a handful of people per square mile. Some even consider intentional communities, or at least extended families, on farms and fields and forests.

I used to be that way. However, after over a decade of city living, I’ve found I can handle urban life pretty well, and I enjoy it quite a bit. I still like having quick access to a variety of grocery stores, antique shops, and more types of cuisine than I had imagined. Admittedly, I do still occasionally miss the small town life I grew up with. I live in a place that doesn’t have a particularly good view of the sunset, though I can catch a gorgeous sunrise if I wake up early enough–or stay up late enough. I miss seeing stars at night, and deer in the back yard. And for my sanity I need regular trips out into more wilderness areas, in the Gorge and elsewhere.

And yes, cities have gotten a bad reputation among environmentalists and others. Cities are seen as sources of crime, pollution, hectic lifestyles, and the like. And, to be fair, many of them are. Even in Portland, which is a fairly laid-back city, we have our crime and our drugs and our traffic and pollution. But a lot of that is a matter of design. Cities could be re-designed to be more efficient and eco-friendly, to be more aesthetically pleasing and psychologically supportive. It would take a lot of work, from better infrastructure to better social services. The people and the environment both need more resources to achieve “healthy” status than they’re currently getting. I have faith in us, though, as a species. I have hope that we can figure it out before it’s too late, and there are already plenty of efforts to find better alternatives to the unhealthy ways our cities have evolved over the past several decades.

So why bother with all that work? Why don’t we nature-lovers just run out to the middle of nowhere, have our acreage and our farms and our permaculture and our peace and quiet and starry skies and all the other things we can’t have in the city? Well, you’re welcome to do so. And yes, there’s a part of me that would be happy picking up and moving to a more rural area. I can live a quieter life, and it has its benefits. But it would come at a pretty serious cost, and I’m choosing to not take that route. Having that pagan commune or earthy intentional community seems like the greener option, but is it really?

Let’s look at transportation for example. If I remember anything from growing up small-town, it’s that things are more spread apart. The next town over might be a dozen miles away–or more. And there’s no bus service; the closest thing to public transit is the taxi cab, or riding into town with a friend. Not particularly efficient, and not particularly green. So just getting myself from place to place has a strike against it, and that’s not taking into consideration getting other resources like gas, food, and the like trucked in from here, there, and everywhere. The more remotely you live, the more fossil fuels you rely on to get to and from anywhere that isn’t home, and to get even your most basic needs met.

Furthermore, for every acre we humans take up in wilder, more rural areas, that’s another acre that we’re pressuring more sensitive wildlife away from. Sure, deer and coyotes are pretty adaptable, but what about the elk and wolves that were pushed further out, or the cougars and pronghorn antelope? Some species simply will not live close to us, and our presence affects them deeply. Our roads and fences interfere with migration routes that are thousands of years old. Our farms and yards destroy habitats that provide food and shelter, and which grow endangered species of plant and fungus. Our cattle and other livestock out-compete wild grazers and browsers. Our cars and other vehicles create noise and smells and pollution that interfere with the ecology in numerous ways. Our septic tanks leak, and we cannot live lightly on the land.

And we keep spreading out, taking available land or suburbs and golf courses, for turning small towns like the one I grew up in into wannabe metropolises. We turn more and more land to farming and ranching every year. And every person who leaves the city for rural living just increases the strain on the wilderness, hems it in a little bit more. Your “getting away from it all” takes more space and resources from beings that absolutely cannot live in a city. There’s no sign of us reversing that trend, either, with more people fleeing urban areas every year.

But I have to try bucking the trend and modeling a greener way to be an urbanite. I am more committed than ever to the idea and the reality of eco-friendly, sustainable cities. While someday, yes, I’d love to own a house somewhere in Portland, right now I’m content in my apartment. The shared walls mean less energy usage for heating and cooling, and my partner and I take up less space than we would if we lived in a house together. The location my building is in is one that’s been paved over for well over a century, so no new ground has been broken here in my lifetime. I’m right in the middle of a hub of public transportation, which means I can catch a bus to anywhere in the area. And I live in one of the most walkable neighborhoods in the city, which means I can get my groceries and other goodies on foot. I have a little porch on which I garden, and earlier this summer I got a spot at the community garden down the road from me (after three years on the waiting list!)

This is just as good a canvas for painting a green life as a farm. I can’t grow all my own food, but I can support movements for urban farming (like my community garden and more). I do have to deal with more pollution, but I can contribute to efforts to clean up the sources of said pollution and find better alternatives. I sometimes still have trouble with the noise, but so much of that is from traffic, and by promoting public transit I can hopefully help urge people toward cutting down on the number of unnecessary cars on the road. I know very well that even “safe” neighborhoods have crime, and some people are living in parts of the city where their lives are on the line every time they step outside the door. But I can advocate for better services to address poverty, public health, and social injustices that are the basis of high crime rates.

Cities don’t have to be places of pollution and ill health and crime. I see a better future, where humans are more concentrated in healthy urban areas, and the wild beings of the world have more land and space to roam, including places we’re given back to them. I’m committed to helping bring that to life, and it all starts right here, for me, in Portland.

The Return of the Garden! And an Important Lesson

Last year I missed out on gardening. I was busy trying to figure out how to balance my self-employed workload, and a life outside of work. Unfortunately, amid lots of vending events, custom work, and other obligations, I ended up not putting in a garden. I still took care of the few perennials that managed to survive the winter, but it was a pale shade of gardening that barely took any of my attention, and the empty pots were a depressing reminder of my inactivity there.

247649_10151641836983627_1881685848_nI promised myself this year I wouldn’t let that happen again, and while I had to delay planting a little longer than anticipated, early in May I was able to pick up some fresh seeds and starts and a brand new bag of potting soil. It took me a while to prepare the little porch that’s my only outdoor space, cleaning up leaves and dirt and bringing some of the pots up from the garage. But when I was done, there was a lot more space to work in (despite having less than 7′ x 4′ to work with).

Since my space was so limited, I had to plan out what I was going to plant. I wanted to rejuvenate the herb rack, since all I had left was my rosemary, and I wanted a few flowers to brighten up the window boxes along the edges as well. As always, though, most of the space would be dedicated to vegetables, especially tomatoes–my goal this year was to have enough to make homemade pizza sauce without having to go to the farmer’s market.

946386_10151641837343627_1314366_nIt’s rather amazing to me what I managed to fit in, then. I ended up with seven tomato plants, along with a window box each of lettuces and carrots. There are petunias, marigolds, and one red geranium, a few little pots of beans, and the herb rack now has sage, thyme, parsley, basil, and oregano. I was gifted a pair of strawberries, and a mullein that was going to end up on the weed pile in another garden. And my oldest plant, some flavor of succulent in the Sedum genus that was left behind by the previous tenants at my old apartment, was repotted and is already enjoying spreading out more.

I’m enjoying the extra space, too. I have just enough room on the porch that, on a nice day, I can sit out there amid my plants and relax, meditate, read, whatever suits me. I couldn’t do that two years ago since I’d just planted the garden when I had to move, and had to condense a larger garden into this tiny space. Perhaps that was a little bit of why I didn’t plant last year–I’d gotten the idea that the space I had was too cramped and tight.

253251_10151641838228627_890722024_nBut I’ve proven that wrong. I love my little garden, even if it’s the smallest one I’ve had. It’s a peaceful oasis, and it’s yet another small, sacred place, but one that I’ve created. Would I like a larger garden some day? Of course. But living in a small apartment with a small porch has given me the opportunity to practice self-care and nature skills even with limited resources.

And, to be honest, even if all I could have were a few houseplants in a window, I think I would have the same result. What’s important isn’t the size of the garden, but the connection I have to it. Just knowing I have these lovely, green growing things in my “yard”, that I can tend to them and watch them grow and sit among them–that’s enough. Knowing that I’m still working on my sustainability skills, even if there’s nothing more than a few salads in there, is also valuable.

It reminds me of a lesson I hold near and dear to my heart (even if I have to remind myself of it a lot): Bloom where you’re planted. I can make the most of what I have access to now, even if I do plan for bigger things in the future. Otherwise, I might be missing out on an important experience in the moment–and why deprive myself of that just because I may not have everything I could possibly want?

(I’m still hoping for pizza sauce.)

525385_10151641838168627_1517563867_n

Coming Out of the Crazy Closet

This is a post I’ve written and re-written a number of times. It’s probably one of the most difficult posts I’ve composed, simply because I feel so vulnerable about it. But I’m finally at a place where I feel comfortable sharing this here.

I have a mental illness, specifically Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). It’s something I’ve struggled with for most of my life; I can remember its roots in being a particularly sensitive and easily-worried child still in elementary school (and it just got progressively worse from there). But I wasn’t formally diagnosed until a couple of years ago, when I was seeing my therapist for sessions during graduate school. I told her of my suspicions, as I’d read the DSM-IV cover to cover for my diagnosis class, and so we sat down with the book and looked at the criteria for a variety of conditions. GAD was the one that fit the best, and all of the criteria were very familiar to me.

So why am I telling you this here, on my blog that’s supposed to be about shamanism? For one thing, it’s the platform I use the most for writing these days, and I want to have a basic “here’s Lupa on GAD” post that I can refer to when talking about this later on. Talking is good therapy for me, writing being included in “talking”. If being more open about my anxiety helps me to get better, then that’s an additional bonus.

I am a strong supporter of mental illness awareness and advocacy, moreso after having gotten my Master’s in counseling psychology. Even though I understand and empathize with my reasons for having stayed mostly closeted on this matter in the past, I have felt for a while like a hypocrite. I encourage others to be open about their mental conditions if they deem it the right time, and I feel that more open discussion about mental health, to include careful self-disclosure, can help facilitate better resources and less prejudice.

Yet I have hidden my anxiety away like a bad habit. Even having that degree, even having worked as a counselor, even knowing and believing beyond a doubt that mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, my own fear–and the anxiety–kept me quiet. And now I’m breaking that silence. Why?

While I have not yet “officially” used my Master’s degree, having spent the year since graduation being a fully self-employed author and artist (and recovering from the stress of grad school and corporate life before that), there’s still the possibility that some day I may need to get a job as a counselor at an agency. Even though the counseling profession is supposed to work against the stigmatization of those with mental illnesses, there is still a strong taboo against mental health professionals who are mentally ill. Even though such professionals as Marsha Linehan (the developer of Dialectical Behavior Therapy) and Kay Redfield Jamison have publicly discussed their illnesses, the stigma remains–especially if you aren’t a well-established professional yet. So even though I did well in my year-long internship counseling addicts in an inpatient setting, and was open with my supervisor there about my GAD, and we worked together to make sure it wasn’t a liability, I still worry that other supervisors, potential employers, and the like may not be so supportive.

Clients can go either way. Some clients are put off by knowing their therapist isn’t perfectly psychologically hale, especially as mental health professionals are often idealized as “perfect authorities”. But some clients feel more comfortable knowing that the person in the chair across from them might know a bit about what they themselves have been struggling with. I never told any of my clients in my internship about my anxiety, but having GAD did help me to empathize more with them. It also made me more aware of my own boundaries, and where the GAD could weaken my ability to deal with sometimes very challenging clients.

Then there’s the more general stigma. Many people still equate mental illness with everything from homelessness to senseless shootings as in Aurora, CO. Mental illnesses are seen as ticking time bombs. Or they’re dismissed; we are told to “just get over it”. We who have these illnesses are marginalized and stigmatized. It’s easier to ignore us or make fun of us than to help us and try to understand the complexity of our different way of viewing the world. Some people still even conflate alternative spiritual views as a whole with mental illness, and there’s the chance that me being out of the crazy closet will just fuel their misconceptions.

Continuing to hide my anxiety disorder just perpetuates stigmatization. One of the most effective methods of teaching is modeling. If I model the idea that it’s okay to be mentally ill and open about it, if I can just talk about it like an everyday (albeit unwanted) part of my life, then hopefully I can help others to do the same, whether they’re mentally ill or not. I’ve gotten so many emails from people who have told me that my writing here, and in my books and other places, has been a huge help and inspiration to them. By coming out as having GAD, my hope is that I can continue to provide inspiration to others fighting their own battles with mental illnesses.

There’s one other reason I’m bringing my anxiety up here, and that’s shamanism itself (see? It IS relevant here!) There is a misconception that because some indigenous shamans have had mental illnesses as part of their initiations/shamanisms, that this means that you have to have a mental illness to be a shaman, or even that mental illnesses ARE shamanism. I find these to be inaccurate and dangerous conflations.

First, it’s demeaning to indigenous cultures to assume they don’t know the difference between someone with a mental illness, and a shamanic practitioner. While there is some crossover in some cultures between SOME mental illnesses and SOME shamanic and spiritual traditions, it’s specific in degree and nature in each culture and even each community, and to say that they all see them as one and the same is short-sighted and inaccurate.

Second, here in the dominant culture in the United States, it is downright dangerous to equate mental illness with shamanism. “Mental illness” is a broad, broad concept. If we include the various entries in the DSM-IV (some of which are developmental disorders rather than “sicknesses”), we’re talking everything from autism to depression and anxiety disorders to Cluster B personality disorders such as Antisocial and Borderline. If shamanism helps you deal with your mental illness better, whether as a client or a practitioner, great! But there is no cure-all or universal treatment for mental illnesses in general, and I oppose the broad-brush assumption that shamanism is the magic bullet.

And there is one more reason I am talking about my anxiety disorder here on my shamanism blog: I want to emphasize that for me, GAD is NOT a facilitator of my shamanism. I know some shamanic practitioners of varying traditions for whom their mental illnesses are assets, or at least tools. And some of them do help manage their illnesses with their shamanic practices.

But I know for a fact that I am not the only shaman who would give up their mental illness in a heartbeat if they had the chance. Reducing the stigma against mental illness doesn’t mean automatically stopping treatment and accepting things as they are forever more. I’m still trying to get rid of my anxiety disorder. GAD does not make me a stronger person. GAD is my weakness, my Achilles’ Heel. If I did not have my anxiety, if I could shuck it off of me like an overworn, stinking old coat, I would be so much the better for it. I could function better as a person, as a shaman, as a professional of several fields. GAD cripples me at times. It is not my friend.

Do you know what GAD is like for me? It’s daily, almost constant, worrying over things that I know I shouldn’t worry about, but that my limbic system tells me to be on guard against anyway. I’m not talking about being aware of spirits. I’m talking about nights of insomnia fueled by the fear that I’ll get up the next day and all my money will be gone, or that my partner will suddenly leave me for someone else, or that I’ll die of cancer before I ever get the chance to own my own home. It’s overreacting to small setbacks because my brain automatically catastrophizes and focuses on the very-worst-case scenario in perceived self-defense. It’s being irritable and short-tempered because everything just hurts, where emotionally and psychologically I feel like I’ve been flayed and every single stimulus is agony.

It’s being so exhausted from trying to keep my emotions on an even enough keel to be able to function on a day to day basis that I sometimes have to take a mental health day to recover from the fatigue of that daily battle. It’s the constant ache in my trapezius muscles because I carry all that tension and worry in my shoulders. It’s knowing that the chronic acid reflux the anxiety caused could kill me early with esophageal cancer. It’s knowing that I am at a greater risk of heart disease because my anxiety puts such constant heightened stress on my body, to include abnormal levels of adrenaline and other such chemicals.

None of these things make me a better shaman. Okay, yes, you can argue that my experiences have been “character building” and I’m a better shaman and person for having “resiliency” and “empathy” built from dealing with anxiety for decades. But some day I want to be able to say “I used to have GAD, but I finally overcame it, and I’m better for it”. I refuse to let go of that goal to settle for the consolation prize of “might as well just be a shaman since I’m nutty as a fruitbat anyway”. Part of being a shaman is healing others, but part of it is also healing the self, and even if I never do get completely better, I’m not going to stop trying to find my cure, and my path to a life without abnormal levels of anxiety.

So there you have it. I’m out of the crazy closet. And I want to note that I use the term “crazy” not in its derogatory manner, but tongue in cheek, and with a bit of cynical humor. When the anxiety really gets going, I really do feel crazy in that out of control, my-brain’s-been-hijacked way. But I’m so used to talking about “anxiety” in serious, overwrought tones that talking about “the crazy” or “I had too much crazysauce today” or asking my partner “You still love me even though I’m a crazy girl, right?” allows me to acknowledge it with some contextual silliness. Those I use it with know I’m not crazy in the stereotypical sense, but it’s a convenient code for the illness that pervades my life.

So hi, I’m Lupa, and I’m crazy. But I’m working on getting less crazy.

(As with all my posts, comments are screened until I decide they can come out to play. I know most, if not all, of you will be perfectly cool and supportive about all this. On the off chance someone decide to be an asshat, know that your comment will be BALEETED before it has a chance to gasp for its first breath of air.)