Sweet Smoke

Incense sticks in pagoda

Incense prayer sticks in Thien Hau Pagoda Hochi Minh Vietnam, via Buddha Weekly. Click here to read about recent studies on the positive influence of incense on mental health.

Another thing that I have just rediscovered is how much I love incense. The first memory I have of incense is in early high school, going to my first proper vintage shop, somewhere around Jacksonville, NC. It was the late 90s, and I was obsessed with the late 60s – music, clothing, culture, politics, I read everything that I could get my hands on. I dressed primarily in vintage duds, though everything I owned came from the thrift store in my town, and cost pennies compared to the stuff in this fancy vintage shop. But what my local thrift store didn’t have was ambiance – and this place was swimming in it.

I remember that there were lava lamps, and beaded curtains, and even one of those chairs that looks like a giant hand. The whole store felt like it fell off the stage of the Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour. Even though everything was priced far beyond my reach, they had some very nice things – tiny mod dresses, genuine go go boots, a threadbare original Chicago t-shirt. But most important for this story, they were burning Nag Champa, and a lot of it. The air was thick with smoke. I was with my dad, and as soon as we walked into the store, he gagged a little. Meanwhile, I swooned with happiness. I don’t remember buying my first box of Nag Champa, but it couldn’t have been long after that. I burned a stick of it as often as I could, though my mom would usually complain that it bothered her sinuses.

When I burn incense, I want several sticks burning in every room. I want the smoke to hang in the air, to permeate my clothes, to fill my lungs with its heavy sweetness. My dream of incense is of Buddhist temples, with hundreds upon thousands of fragrant sticks, all burning at once, 24-hours a day. I want my life to be littered with beeswax candles made by monks, and giant, sappy sticks of incense, with singing bowls and velvet curtains, embroidered in gold. I want quiet afternoons, dappled sun dancing over my cats’ sleepy faces as they lounge on the porch, inspecting the crows who scold them from the yard. I want the mountains in the distance, the magic words always at the tip of my tongue.

I love incense, and yet I don’t burn it the way I want to. Or I haven’t been burning it the way I want to, anyway. It’s another one of those things that I just gradually put aside so as not to offend, just like my cinnamon toothpaste. It’s always too much for people. There’s always the excuse of sensitive sinuses, or an aversion to scent, or just plain disliking the idea of incense. And yes, I adore going overboard. But so fucking what? Why don’t I get to have what I want to have? And now that I am alone, just myself and three cats, we have our nighttime ritual – three sticks of incense, two candles, and a nice, long, one lady three cat cuddle fest.

Aside from my insane work schedule, life is pretty awesome right now.

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Cinnamon Girl

I really like cinnamon toothpaste. Cinnamon and clove, cinnamon and fennel, double cinnamon, whatever – I just feel like my mouth is cleaner after I use cinnamon toothpaste. I’m also very particular about my toothpaste, but you’d never know it. For some reason, when I’m in a relationship, toothpaste is the first line of defense to fall.

Well, that’s not exactly true. It’s not like there’s ever even a skirmish over it. Basically, as soon as someone writes their name in my dance card, and I just naturally assume that they will hate cinnamon toothpaste, and go out and buy a decent, respectable mint toothpaste that very day. Mind you, I keep some things sacred – I prefer a paste to a gel, wintergreen to peppermint, no weird colors, lots of scrubby texture and/or special whitening power promised on the box. Yes, I am a toothpaste snob. But, as I’ve realized this week, I naturally assume that my tastes in pastes will neither be appreciated, nor tolerated, by someone who wants to brush their teeth at my sink now and then.

Isn’t that sad? Not only do I willingly give up a thing that I typically find considerable joy in – I give it up without asking, and with no idea of whether I’m right or not. I automatically assume that my choices are invalid, and that I should make way IN MY OWN HOME for the obviously superior (and completely imagined) tastes of my visitors. My head is reeling at this. It’s one thing to be amenable to others, another to be a good hostess, another to take the desires of those we love into account. It’s something completely different to assume right out of the gate that you are absolutely in the wrong and must change a fundamental portion of your hygiene routine (something that wasn’t broken) to suit someone else’s tastes.

Ugh. So. I didn’t realize all of this last weekend – not yet. I just woke up with a mad desire to go and get new toothpaste, even though I still have half a tube left of some pretty decent mainstream mint. The urge to get new toothpaste grew over the course of the day, until I couldn’t really concentrate on whatever else I was supposed to be doing. So I dropped everything, went to the co-op, and bought the exact thing that I’d been dreaming of – cinnamon and clove toothpaste, with activated charcoal and bentonite clay. It’s black! It’s so fun to use, and it really does work. My teeth feel very clean, and my gums feel less irritated than they typically do. If you’re interested, check out My Magic Mud (no, that’s not paid placement). Along with the toothpaste, I bought a new mouthwash, cinnamon and neem. A tiny swig goes a long way, and caps off the whole tooth brushing experience quiet well.

There’s no real end to this story. My breath is warm and spicy, like my heart, like me. It has inspired me to look at other belongings I own, and products I use, and consider why I use them, and who that serves. How else have I been capitulating? Who else have I been bowing down to, needlessly?

Being Macha

I’ve had this image in my head all day, and just have to get it down. Like many of the most important things in my life, it’s ephemeral, at best. I keep snatching at it, trying to tug it down from the clouds and into firmer being, to make itself fully known. Maybe if I write about it, something will make more sense.

First off, it’s not just one thing, but a strange, moving mixture of things. There’s the warrior, the crow, the crone. There’s night, and anger. But a righteous anger. A feminine anger, held in check but also fostered by ancient knowledge. There’s a wall in my throat and another in my right abdomen. Also, in a dream: an open door, a bloody arm, a plan (but what?).

I realized today that though Elen might be the goddess I seek to embody, Morrigan is the goddess who seeks to wield me now. And there’s no harm in having multiple guides, of being multifaceted. Even peace seekers require warrior hearts. As long as I see their truths, and mine, and make clear my intentions before treading the path, all will be well. But I am caught inside my own walled city. To survive this, I must lay siege to whatever seeks to hold me, to take myself back. Part of me will have to die for the rest to flourish.

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“Macha” by Thalia Took, available as a prints on her Deviant Art site. Click here to read more about Macha, an aspect of the Morrigan, on her gallery page. While you’re there, definitely check out Thalia’s amazing art of other world goddesses.

Me, Myself, I

Working on an idea, but I’m only 10% of the way there. So we’ll put down what we can, then work with it as new thoughts come.

The idea is this: I do not know me.

This isn’t to say that I have amnesia, or that I’ve been living under an assumed identity, without free will. I have had my run of this place since 1981. And if you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you’ll know that I am by no means basic, thoughtless, devoid of personality. Even so, there is a large part of me that just wants to fit in, to be liked. So when I do happen upon someone who likes me, I tend to let them call the shots, so long as it doesn’t hurt me. I just don’t feel that arguments over trivial matters are warranted – and when it comes down to it, much of life is trivial.

But all of this need to be agreeable in all things has led to a problem. Much like Jane Austen’s character Jane Bennet, in Pride and Prejudice, I so often capitulate to the whims of others that I find it hard to define what my natural likes and dislikes might be. Now that I’m single, and on my own 24/7, I am starting to listen more to my inner voice. It’s scary how often my initial thought on any given subject is “But what would X think?” or “How will I ever find anyone to love me if I do Y thing?”

It’s scary, but also funny, because the REAL me has an overabundance of balls, and tends to be screaming from the back bays that X can go fuck himself, and anyone who doesn’t think I’m amazing for doing Y can join him. I’ve just spent my entire life putting that person, the loud, brazen, angry weirdo, in the closet. So much of my life I spend being quiet and meek, good humored, sensible, a peacemaker. But the real me is something else.

The other night, an old acquaintance from college came into town, and asked me out for a drinks. He was staying at a fancy English-themed hotel, the kind of place that has afternoon tea. We were there well into the evening, so I had scotch instead of a nice darjeeling. After he went up to bed, I stopped by the ladies room, then left the hotel. I walked out with a tiny trashcan in my purse (yeah, I carry a big purse). About two blocks away, I rethought my trend towards kleptomania and brought the trashcan back. It was an intelligent decision. Who wants to go to jail for stealing a $10 trashcan? But I’m still disappointed in myself for not having the guts to keep walking. Not because I really give a shit about the trashcan, mind you, but because stealing it was something that I wanted to do, and for ONCE in so very long, I didn’t care if it impacted anyone else. I wanted it, so I did it. And then I realized that it was selfish and shortsighted and someone would get in trouble for not spotting the theft (yadda, yadda), and I walked back to the hotel and replaced the stupid trashcan.

Anyway, this is all to say that I can only want what I want for about two blocks when I’m drunk. Had I been sober, I wouldn’t have even tried. I wouldn’t have tried to want. I would have wondered what someone else wanted. The bartender, perhaps. The bathroom attendant. The front desk person. The cab driver I hadn’t yet met. Any number of people that I never see, but who still hold power over my life – my parents, my grandparents, my aunts and uncles. The only way for me to get anything done for myself in my life is to actively flip an emotional switch to “off” and cut anyone I love out of my daily existence.

So, I guess I did figure something out, after all.

Anyway, I’m just exhausted and scared. I am 35, and still don’t feel like I have control over my life. Not because of the fates, but because of everyone around me. Because of you. And it’s not your fault, obviously. I just need to find a way to figure out which voice is really mine, and which one is the imaginary voice of the world that I need to reject.

Sunday Meditation

I am single again, after 11 years. What does one do?

Well, to begin with, you toss all of the ex’s belongings in a box (carefully, as they are mostly books, and we adore books here). After that, you decide there’s no more reason to have any free hours, so accept any and all offers for extra shifts. You now have no time to consider heartbreak, as you will be way too tired. Despite the extra work hours, though, it is important to not neglect daily conversations with the online therapist. Therapy is doubly important when attempting to recover from the sadness and confusion of being dumped, and also hoping to not make any of the mistakes of the last two relationships ever again.

Next up, we consider the rest of life. What are we doing with ourselves? Is one happy and/or fulfilled now? How long has it been since one was happy and/or fulfilled? What can one do to be happy and/or fulfilled? Figure out the best extra-curriculars, where they can be found, and how to incorporate them into your life. Spanish lessons? Yoga? Kirtan? Flamenco? Long walks? Textile art? Starting a new writing project?

Don’t forget to call up any and all close friends. Everyone needs to know what’s going on with you, even if you’re a solitary witch and don’t much like talking about your problems with anyone other than the online therapist. Be honest. Tell them you can’t talk now, but want them to know you love them and you want them to feel included. Some of your friends will offer advice and love and make you feel like a superstar. Others are like you, and will be relieved to not have to talk to you too much about gooey life bullshit, while still being able to offer you moral support from afar. Members from both teams will offer you chances to get out, try new things, and buddy up in new ways that will boost your ego and keep you from eating your weight in Talenti.

Make a plan! Make two! Make a ton of plans to do all of the things that strike your fancy. Life is not over. It’s actually about to get a lot more fun, because you know what you can do when you’re not dating a prospective life partner? I’m just going to leave you hanging on this one. I’m sure you can guess some alternatives.

Travel. Travel is sexy. (Plus, travel is the only thing you really adore, so why not do more of it?)

Reassess your underwear collection. If you’ve let it slide over the past few years, drop some serious cash into an underwear drawer renovation. You deserve every inch of it, and how amazing it makes you feel. I mean the drawer renovation, you perv.

Don’t throw yourself out there immediately. There is time. But don’t remain on the shelf, either. There’s no use punishing yourself any longer than you’ve already been punished. Remember what you’ve seen thus far – your breakups have historically been a reflection on the people who didn’t love themselves enough to have anything left over for you. Don’t follow in their footsteps. You are full of love – be greedy with it for awhile, and spend it on yourself.

Have an amazing life, beloved.

PS. This is dedicated to my squad of badass bitches. I’m a lucky, lucky girl to have a world full of amazing friends. ❤

Day 20: Hontanas to Fromista

In October and November of 2015, I walked the Camino Francés, one of the traditional pilgrimage routes to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela. It was a deeply emotional journey, with far-reaching implications for my life, and I’m slowly but surely capturing the memories and musings here on my blog. Read the entire series at Anna’s Camino.

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It’s a strange thing, waking up alone after so many mornings spent in close company. I didn’t know what to do with myself that morning in Hontanas. Of course, I knew the basics – get up, get dressed, get packed, get the hell out of the albergue before they kick you out at 8am – but I was so used to the little morning intricacies that come from walking with other people. Waking up alone in Burgos hadn’t affected me quite so much as this, probably because there’s such a stark difference between waking up alone in a quiet hotel room, and waking up alone in an albergue full of people. While everyone else bustled along on their normal morning routines, I felt like I was only going through the motions of mine. It didn’t feel real. How do you leave an albergue without friends in tow? I wasn’t sure. In the end, I dragged my heels and waited around for the albergue to empty out. Even though I walked away alone, I didn’t feel quite so lonely with other pilgrims in my general area.

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Leaving Hontanas, I followed a loop in the Camino that led out into the hills, and gave a gorgeous vantage point to enjoy the morning. The day was clear, and I soaked up the tiny details – the crunch of soil under my boots, the dew that still clung to wildflowers along the way. After awhile, I could see that the track I was following ran somewhat parallel to the main road, and would eventually be joining back up with it. Many of the pilgrims from the albergue were hiking alongside the road. Even from rather far away, I could make out the German pilgrim, Jakob, at the back of the pack. I could tell from the hitch in his gait that he was experiencing some pain, either in his hip or his lower back. It was a feeling with which I was deeply accustomed, after throwing out my back a few years earlier. I’d been in almost constant pain for about five years before a mix of chiropractors, physical therapists, and a great personal trainer helped me overcome it. As I watched the German limping away in the distance, I felt a flash of annoyance at his situation, and picked up my pace to catch up with him across the field.

My behavior at that junction was completely out of character, much like plopping down at the table with strangers the night before. I don’t know exactly what happened. Even though we knew each other slightly from dinner the previous evening, I’d spent most of the meal chatting with Nestor and Dena, and only briefly engaged in any conversation with Jakob. I had no attachment to him, and could very easily have watched him limp away and have gone about my day. As I’m writing this, I keep thinking that maybe, looking across the field, I subconsciously recognized him from Burgos, and there was some sort of kinship already brewing on that account. At the time, though, there was only one basic emotion occurring – irritation. For no good reason, I was completely annoyed at this stranger for not taking better care of himself, and I felt an overwhelming need to be bossy and make him do better. Definitely not my proudest mental moment on the Camino!

I caught up with him within a kilometer or two, and didn’t bother to waste time. I merely matched his pace, quizzed him on what hurt, and asked where he was carrying most of the weight in his pack. It felt like someone had taken over my body for a moment – my normal self watched in shock as this new, pushy version of me informed Jakob he was doing it all wrong, told him what he needed to do to stop hurting himself, and promised to teach him some stretches to help keep from seriously injuring himself once we got to the next coffee break. Then I picked my pace back up and walked on, simultaneously horrified at my behavior and strangely confident that I’d done exactly the right thing. It was very weird. What’s weirder is that soon after, Jakob and I all stopped at the same cafe, where he immediately sat down to rearrange his pack weight. We had coffee, chatted politely, I showed him stretches, and he was gracious enough not to tell me off for being a know-it-all. After our break, I again walked on alone. Even though I had no reason to think that I’d forged a lasting relationship in a few moments over coffee, still I relaxed into the knowledge that I’d found a kindred spirit, and was no longer walking completely alone.

The first time this occurred to me in force was just a little up the road, at the ruins of St. Antonio de Abad, a beautiful old monastery. I had been eager to examine the building, but as I got closer, I saw that it was shuttered up tight. However, there was a van parked beside what had been the main gate to the compound, and a little old man sold crude, handcrafted wooden pendants out of the back of the vehicle. As I approached, I felt misapprehension, but the knowledge of my German friend on the road behind me gave me comfort. One or two pilgrims passed by as I examined the woodcrafter’s wares, and I eventually bought a wooden bird to take home.

The day stretched on. We had now entered Palencia. Though I chatted with other pilgrims as we walked, no one’s pace quite matched my own, and I remained mostly solo. I still had it in mind to push on and catch up with Natalie, and to do so, I tried cutting back on my usually numerous coffee breaks, stopping only when I felt it was most necessary. By the time I reached Itero de la Vega in the early afternoon, I could barely put one foot in front of the other. No coffee meant no tortilla, and no tortilla meant that I was famished! Everything in my body screamed for me to stop right here and call it a day.

There weren’t many places to stop and grab a bite, but Bar Tachu was on the main drag and seemed to still have a few people inside, so I entered. It had a rock-and-roll vibe to it, and I imagined that a Friday night at Bar Tachu had to be the experience, indeed. The first thing that I saw upon entering was Jakob, ordering a burger at the bar. I didn’t know how he and walking buddy had managed to pass me, but at some point in the day we had leapfrogged. They looked a lot better than I felt, and I felt another stab of guilt-not-guilt at being bossy that morning. They invited me to come and sit with them, and we all took off our shoes and ate bar grub at the rock-and-roll bar in the middle of nowhere. It was wonderful.

While we ate, the three of us discussed how much time was left in the day, and where we each thought we could make it to before it was time to quit for the afternoon. The general consensus was that it would be prudent to aim for Castrojeriz. We ended up leaving Bar Tachu together, and walking on together until Boadilla del Camino, about 8km away. We talked and laughed most of the way. Jakob’s friend wanted to go to a particular albergue somewhere between Itero de la Vega and Boadilla del Camino, but when we got there, it turned out to already be closed for the season. By the time we reached Boadilla del Camino, it was getting on into the afternoon, and the clouds were looming overhead. The friend announced that he was definitely stopping here for the night, so we shuffled into the first cafe to take off our packs and have one last coffee together while we all made up our minds about lodging for the night.

It was around 3pm, and the sky was gray. It was raining – heavy enough to be annoying, but light enough to not put a major wrench in the day. My feet hurt, but I still had energy. More than that, I still had the drive to catch up with Natalie. The three of us sat at our table, surrounded by food, drinks, and guidebooks. What was the next step? After consulting my maps, I made the call to keep walking. If I could keep up the pace, I could easily be in Fromista by late afternoon – it was only 6 more kilometers. Jakob’s friend decided to stay the night in the municipal albergue, and had figured out how to get there from here. I expected Jakob to also stay behind in Boadilla del Camino, but had a strange moment of pleasant un-surprise when he announced that he was going to walk on to Fromista with me. That might not make sense, exactly, but if you’ve ever picked up the phone without looking at caller ID, and still known exactly who it was, you might know the feeling I’m talking about. It’s more of a feeling of having absolutely no idea something is going to happen, followed by a feeling of absolute certainty that was obviously always going to happen. Maybe I’ll be able to more accurately describe it in some later draft. At the time, I was relieved not to have to walk on alone in the waning light, and pleased that it seemed like I’d found a solid companion.

The rest of the afternoon’s walk was spent swapping stories about our respective cities – New Orleans and Munich, and how, though they were extremely different, they still had some shocking similarities. We talked about Mardi Gras and Oktoberfest, and our favorite local foods, and showed each other pictures of our partners. Jakob was over-the-moon in love with his girlfriend, which made me more comfortable with him, since I also had a boyfriend back home, and wasn’t interested in any of tension and awkwardness I’d seen several times thus far on the Camino. It was becoming clear to me that some people go off on pilgrimage with their eye more on hooking up than on finding themselves, and I didn’t have the mental room for any misunderstandings with men. It was a major relief to not have to fend off advances, or explain my intentions to anyone that I met on the road.

We arrived in Fromista very late in the day, around 5pm or so. It was hours later than I’d typically walked before, and every inch of my body cried defeat. We consulted Jakob’s yellow Camino guide and my Wise Pilgrim app for a suitable albergue, and agreed on Albergue Estrella Del Camino, which turned out to be my least favorite spot to sleep on the entire Camino. It was the least hospitable albergue, by far. We had beds and showers, so that was nice, but we were the only pilgrims in the place, and largely ignored. The only nearby food option was a tiny market, where we bought a mishmash of food and wine to share, and went back to the albergue to eat in the common room.

Before bed, I called my parents to tell them about my travels, and chatted with my dad about the fact that we’d be visiting a Templar castle in a few days. That night, we were the only people in the dorm, and we chose beds like strangers choose seats on a train – leaving a few spots open in between, for privacy’s sake. If only the hospitalera had cared to have us, the experience would have felt luxurious. As it was, we were both happy to leave in the morning.

 

The Life

Here is the plan:

  1. Get out of New Orleans. To do this, I need to pay off enough of my credit card debt to get my credit score to “Good,” plus save up a nice little nest egg to cover moving expenses, a rent deposit, and probably a car, as well. Which means I need to…
  2. Work my ass off until then. Pick up extra shifts. Eat rice and beans. Sell whatever’s not nailed down. As soon as I’m feeling a little more financially secure, I can…
  3. Pick a place to move. Criteria include a city that offers flamenco classes, regular kirtan opportunities, horseback riding, close proximity for good hiking (mountains and snow preferred), and of course, Marriott jobs.

And that’s it. Easy peasy. I do not aspire to find a husband, have children, buy a house, or become famous. I just want to live a life where I can have job I enjoy, go out and immerse myself in nature on a regular basis, spend more time with horses, and connect with myself and others through song and dance. Maybe in my off-hours, I can write again. It all seems so simple; I wish it wasn’t taking me so damn long to get there.