A few weeks ago, I received a lovely postcard with an appreciative personal note from one of my house cleaning clients. She wrote that “a single mom’s most precious resource is rest,” and thanked me for the work I’ve been doing in cleaning her home every two weeks for the past several years, as it has given her some much-needed rest and leisure time.
I thought: By cleaning houses, I am creating space for others to enjoy leisure. I love that. I mean, that seems obvious enough, right? Yet I have somehow failed to appreciate the full significance of this until now.
As I pondered this, it dawned on me anew that running a solo house cleaning business as my “day job” while I write and lay the groundwork for the future Hermitage is perfectly aligned with my path of monastic service. I’ve written before about house cleaning as an appropriate job for a Pagan nun; monastics in many religions do manual labor. Yet there are some deeper forces in play here, too.
My client’s kind words catalyzed a flash of insight. I think I now finally understand one of the deepest metaphysical reasons why doors have effortlessly been opening for me to keep on doing house cleaning work, while all of the doors I’ve been knocking on in my search for an office job have remained closed to me despite many years of diligent study, effort, networking, and struggling to get a ‘foot in the door’ with employers. It’s my version of the kind of life purpose James Hillman describes in his book The Soul’s Code:
I create space for leisure and sacred endarkenment.
This is what I am here to bring forth in the world. There’s a sense of destiny in it – a sense that “This is what I must do.” This is my service work. I do it for the gods and spirits, for my community, and for myself. House cleaning work provides regular opportunities to do this – which is, I think, why Those I serve approve. In fact, making space for leisure and sacred endarkenment are the two intertwined themes that are threaded throughout all of my endeavors – work and play, paid and unpaid, religious and mundane. By physically getting down to the earth on my hands and knees to clear out dust and clutter, I am embracing the dark – i.e., practicing one among many forms of what I call sacred endarkenment. (I’ll have a lot more to say about sacred endarkenment in future writings.) In terms of devotion, I consider my house cleaning work to be an offering to Níðhöggr, a being Who eats and removes rot from the roots of the World Tree. And at the end of the work day, I have made a tangible difference: my clients have more space and time for leisure.
I serve this way through my house cleaning business, through my contemplative and devotional religious practice, through my writing, and through my Rethinking the Job Culture project. I do this even when I’m not thinking about it consciously. I live this. I embody these themes, literally and metaphorically. Accordingly, I am drawn away from things that interfere with leisure and sacred endarkenment, and toward things that further them.
No wonder I’ve had so gods-damned much trouble finding a conventional job for the past six or seven years (in addition to systemic factors, which surely play a part as well). I feel like I’ve been walking around with some kind of metaphysical “stamp” on my forehead that subconsciously broadcasts a message to employers: “No. Sorry. This one, she’s not for you. She’s marked. Her skills are needed elsewhere, to serve different purposes.” I mean, how many employers do you know whose mission involves creating space for leisure? And how many do you know that would know or even care what “sacred endarkenment” might be, for that matter?
I’ve sensed intuitively for quite some time that something like this was going on underneath the surface of my life, although I couldn’t explain it to myself or anyone else in ways that made sense. I was often accused of just being lazy and not wanting to work. I knew I wanted to work; I knew I was a writer…but I also knew that the work I needed to do most wouldn’t be done through a wage labor job.
I think my difficulties in finding an office job are just the most recent manifestation of this enduring undercurrent in my life.
A few months back, I wrote that for years, everything I’ve tried to improve my financial situation and earn more money has backfired somehow. I’ve had trouble even meeting my own financial needs, let alone laying the groundwork for the future home of the Hermitage. And in March, I saw a doctor after experiencing debilitating foot pain and numbness. I was diagnosed with tarsal tunnel syndrome. I feared I might have to give up any kind of work that required me to be on my feet.
So I kept on looking for office jobs, even in the face of my long-standing awareness that getting an office job wasn’t the right path for me, and would never be the right path for me. Since we don’t yet have unconditional basic income, and I have no savings or spouse or trust fund to fall back on, I figured I didn’t really have any viable choice but to job-hunt. I certainly don’t believe financial struggles are what the gods “want” for me. Yet here I am, with no end in sight to the financial struggles – despite years of prayers, petitions, job-hunting efforts, networking, study, responsible spending and saving habits, cutting my expenses as much as possible, and money-conjuring magic.
Ah, but wait a minute. There’s more to the story than that. Strictly speaking, it isn’t true that EVERYTHING I’ve done to improve my financial situation has backfired. I do, after all, have some wonderful supporters on Patreon right this very minute, and several other people who have told me they would pledge their support if their own situations permitted it. And my frugality and lack of debt has certainly prevented my financial situation from worsening.
Still, I’ve often wondered: might Someone be interfering with me getting a job? After all, it was only six months ago that I was told, in the clearest communication I’ve ever received from Those I serve:
“You must resist the conscription of your time into the service of capital. You must resist getting a full-time job so you can do your WORK.”
And there have been all kinds of uncanny things interfering whenever I try to get jobs – web application forms crashing three times in a row just as I clicked send, job requisitions being pulled immediately after I sent in my application, and so on. So I started to get suspicious that there was more going on than bad luck, a terrible economy, or a competitive job market. And what about the timing of my tarsal tunnel syndrome diagnosis? It arrived just as I was intensifying another round of job searching, after all. Was that also a not-coincidence – an effort from Those I serve to steer me in another direction? Or was it simply a medical diagnosis, with no further significance beyond that?
Finally, confused and not knowing where to turn next, I asked a fellow polytheist: “If you were me, and you suspected that your gods and spirits might be interfering with your ability to get a job, but you really needed to bring in more money, what would you do?”
Her suggestion: “Ask Them if They’re interfering. And if the answer is yes, ask Them why.”
Good advice, I thought. So I did. (Seems obvious enough, right? So why didn’t it occur to me to try that? I have no idea!)
The answer I received, as best as I can translate it, is something like this:
“You are an anchoress-in-training – a nun on a path of service to the divine and the land. The way you support yourself must be aligned with this service.”
I interpreted this answer as vagueness – in other words, “maybe We are interfering, maybe not.” But now that I better understand my life purpose as one of creating space for leisure and sacred endarkenment, that answer makes more sense. Why? Because there are few, if any, wage labor jobs in which I can do that. So perhaps They aren’t directly interfering with me getting a job, but not-getting-jobs is happening indirectly because They are guiding me toward things that further those goals, and away from things that interfere with them.
But They haven’t guided me away from house cleaning, and in fact They seem to be opening paths for me to do more of it. (More on this below.) And my foot pain from tarsal tunnel syndrome is now gone! It has improved greatly through my unfailing use of corrective shoe insoles, special foot exercises, application of Datura ointment, and Earthing – regular contact of the soles of my bare feet with the Earth.
I conclude that the financial lack I’m experiencing is not the gods’ intent. It’s a side effect of the interaction between these two things:
1) living in a culture where wage labor is pretty much the only viable way to survive for most of us, and
2) having a life purpose that is in active opposition to compulsory wage labor for survival.
This is a huge realization for me. Huge!
I mean, I always had a kernel of awareness, deep down inside, that this was a driving force in my life…and yet I’ve still struggled with the implications of this truth, in one form or another, for all of my adult life. I knew when I was very young that I was a writer, and that the seeds of what I needed to write were already living inside me, and that what I needed and wanted most was time and space to read, think, and develop my craft. There was a rebellious spirit living inside me that didn’t want me to ever take a 9-to-5 job that interfered with my writing. I have called this spirit my inner two-year-old, or my “Feral Imp.” I figured out quickly that the game in our culture was rigged, and not in favor of people like me who were called to do creative and spiritual work on their own terms. But not until now did this enormous piece of the larger puzzle finally fall into place.
I’ve now given up job-hunting so I can do my work. I’ve surrendered to the tides.
When I think of all the energy I’ve expended on job-hunting in recent years – energy that will now be freed up to serve other purposes than “the conscription of my time into the service of capital” – I can’t help but be excited. I spent 1.5 years studying web development, for example, and then failed to get a job in the field, despite my best efforts. That was a huge blow at the time. But now all that freed-up energy can be applied toward ramping up my business, writing, and working on projects for the Hermitage.
The very same day I surrendered and gave up my job hunt, I received a good omen.
While cleaning my client’s home that day – an artfully arranged and spiritually peaceful home that I feel privileged to spend time in – I stepped outside briefly to take out the recycling, and “just happened” to run into the neighbor, who saw what I was doing, and said excitedly: “You do house cleaning for my neighbor? Great! My cleaner is on the way out, and I’ll be needing a new one soon. Are you available?”
I’ve never before crossed paths with this neighbor in three years of working in that client’s home. And she happened to be right there at the same moment I was, and happened to be looking for a new house cleaner, the very same day I surrendered. This was not a coincidence. To an outsider, it might look like mere happenstance; and from that perspective, it would be. But for me, this experience had an additional dimension of meaning. I “heard” it as an affirmation that there would be more house cleaning clients for me if I committed to expanding my business, whether or not this particular client panned out.
That’s a door opening if I’ve ever seen one. And here’s the key: it required no effort.
Well, let me clarify that. It required me to show up in the right place at the right time, make a good impression when addressed, and follow through on the lead. But it didn’t require effort in the sense of struggle. I didn’t have the sense that I was swimming upstream against the tide, the way I always had with job hunting. This client came to me; I didn’t even have to advertise!
That day, I decided to re-vamp and expand my business. I recognized that it was time for me to stop knocking on doors that were closed to me (applying for office jobs), and start walking through the ones that were opening for me (accepting new house cleaning clients). Best of all, I am now expanding my business with full recognition that house cleaning is one of few ways of earning income that are perfectly aligned with the mission of my monastic path of service: creating space for leisure and sacred endarkenment. That makes the work more meaningful to me than it was before.
I’ll admit there were times – especially in the early days of my business – where I wallowed in self-pity often, because I started my house cleaning business largely due to financial desperation, and because people treated me differently than they did when I worked in an office. Our culture doesn’t give much respect to people who do manual labor. In any case, I had been delivered a one-two punch by 1) the aftermath of a devastating divorce, and 2) my inability to get hired elsewhere in the wake of the Great Recession of 2008. So I sometimes thought to myself: “Oh, come on now, cut it out with all this metaphysical talk. You’re some kind of meaning-junkie, making a virtue out of necessity.”
But I have found meaning in the house cleaning work I do. For the sake of finding meaning, I’ve learned, it doesn’t really matter whether the doors to conventional wage labor remain closed by my own choice, or by forces outside of my control. House cleaning is honest and unpretentious work, for one thing, which is more than I can say for many office jobs. And since my clients have all been found through the arts and esoteric communities, I have often thought of cleaning their homes as an indirect way of supporting the arts. Which it is! But I’ve now found another layer of meaning: it’s actually an integral part of my monastic path.
I believe my experience is an example of the way the world can work when we learn to get out of our own way and fully surrender to our callings. There is support available, through mysterious means of not-coincidences and omens, for those who can find the courage to let go of the reins of control and allow the gods and spirits to guide their paths. But you cannot dictate in advance how, or from what sources, this support will arrive. You must find the courage to do what you are called to do in the world, listen for inner guidance, and follow the promptings you receive, even when they sound crazy. Which they almost certainly will, to people who are not you. And sometimes they’ll sound crazy even to you! But you must follow them anyway, if this kind of path is yours to walk.
I am reminded of a quote I love from yoga teacher Vanda Scaravelli:
“You have to allow things to happen and to learn how to stop preventing things from happening. For example, you don’t do anything special to feel gravity: you let gravity affect you. And if you don’t have a clue what that means, then you become curious about what it might mean and look forward to a time when the words might resonate with you.”
You have to learn to allow things to happen. And stop preventing things from happening. That is what I mean by “surrendering to the tides.” It doesn’t mean just passively accepting whatever comes my way; it means actively using my powers of discernment to detect what “wants” to happen, getting myself aligned with that, and allowing it. I will simply find ways to do the work I’m called to, and allow that to lead me where it will. And I will stop job-hunting. That fruitless effort has wasted a great deal of my time.
“There is a way of doing the yoga poses that we call ‘asanas’ without the slightest effort,” says Vanda. Yes. And I know there is a way that I can do my work without engaging in effortful struggle, too – but that seemingly paradoxical path of “not-doing” or “un-doing” can only be found through being true to the callings that live in my heart and bones and flesh, and by trusting my intuition and Those I serve to lead me in the right direction for this co-creative process to unfold.
Scaravelli’s yoga-based wisdom has helped me to remember that one of the ways this path is given, or revealed to me, is in response to a deepening of my connection with the Earth. It is found through cultivating conditions – including leisure and sacred endarkenment – that allow the intelligence that lives in my body to fully awaken, through grounding in the Earth. This path can’t be found through imposing a formal, culturally approved plan to “earn a living” on top of pre-existing patterns of holding tension in my body. My path toward working with a sense of ease, rather than a sense of struggle, involves abandoning the effort to “earn a living” through wage labor, doing the work I am called to do instead, and allowing support to come to me in response. I must listen attentively for what lies underneath the surface and “wants” to come forth and be made manifest through me. Then I must do it.
That’s very difficult in a culture that makes no provisions for this way of living and working, and in fact leads us away from it. It involves learning to receive without shame when support comes to me, even if I’m not meeting cultural standards for “productivity.” It also means learning to say “no” a lot, because every day I face pressures to abandon my callings, the most pressing of which is being poor. (Not to mention the unrelenting shame our cruel culture heaps on people who don’t have paid jobs, or who don’t get paid enough to meet their survival needs, and therefore need financial support from others. This shame is one of the ways people are coerced in directions that lead away from following their inner callings. But that’s a topic I’ll delve into in much greater depth elsewhere.)
So there’s a paradoxical truth here too: namely, that there are things that must be actively resisted – such as shame about receiving, and cultural pressures to “get a job, any job” – in order to walk the path of working through trusting the wisdom of “not-doing.” I also find that resisting unpaid and unreciprocated emotional labor as much as possible is very useful in keeping me focused on the right path. (Thank you once again, dear feminist foremothers, for introducing me to this concept…and thank you to the folks at MetaFilter for the monster thread that catalyzed even deeper realization of the importance of this for me.)
In surrendering to the tides instead of fighting them, I must trust that I am also laying the groundwork for the future home of the Hermitage, even if I can’t see how yet.
I have many things to be grateful for in my current situation, and these feelings of gratitude live right alongside the money fears in a kind of ongoing creative tension. I’m grateful that I’ve even managed to come to the realizations I’m writing about here – all my life I have “known” the truth of this, in a sense, but not until now have I had sufficient skill, insight, experience, and time to put it into words this clearly.
And in that spirit of gratitude: there are many things I appreciate about being a self-employed, solo house cleaner with an established business, rather than an employee in an office job. I’ve written about this before, but here are a few things I didn’t cover in earlier posts:
* I can choose the clients I work for.
Since I’m asthmatic and allergic to fragrances and animal dander, this ability to choose clients is very important. In office jobs, my health limitations are often a liability. Through my business, though, I have been able to turn the knowledge I’ve gained about how to clean homes for allergic people into an asset that attracts the right clientele for the type of services I provide.
* I have an established reputation in my community for good service.
Never underestimate the power of a good reputation. My clients know that I am reliable, trustworthy, and do quality work. They tell others about it, and this is how I have grown my business. After I found my first client, I have never had to advertise. Word of mouth and a good reputation have done it all. I love this so much! It’s the best way to build a loyal clientele.
* I can dress as I please when I’m at work.
In this line of work, there’s no need to spend money on uniforms or a business wardrobe. I wear a t-shirt with jeans and Doc Martens. I love having that freedom.
* I don’t need to own a car.
I am fortunate to live in a location (downtown Portland) that permits me to run a house cleaning business without driving. I travel to all my clients on public transit, and haul my supplies in a wheeled backpack. Since I hate driving, and don’t want the expense and responsibility of owning a car, I see this as a boon, not a burden. It also ensures that physical exercise is built into my work day.
* House cleaning is a great job for someone who savors solitude.
I usually clean when my clients aren’t home, which is wonderful for this introverted soul. I can listen to dark ambient music or Swedish language learning recordings on my headphones while I work, and even slip into a light meditative state. This pays off handsomely later, when I get home and sit down to write. On really good days, house cleaning helps me cultivate patience, and even becomes a part of my contemplative practice! What office job can offer that?
* My business is literally founded on trust.
“My business is founded on trust” isn’t just a slogan for me. I got my start in this business because someone in my community liked what I wrote on my website, met me in person, and trusted me enough to give me a chance. She then recommended me to others, and they recommended me to others, and eventually I had a clientele…all of whom have entrusted me with keys to their homes. Quite a far cry from job applications that require applicants to jump through hoops such as drug testing.
* I am doing ecologically responsible work.
This is true not just because I use only biodegradable cleaning supplies, or because I travel to clients’ homes on public transit instead of driving, though that’s part of it. It’s also true because being self-employed keeps me out of jobs that are ecologically irresponsible but must be done anyway for the sake of economic survival. (Even doing nothing at all would be far more ecologically responsible than many of the jobs on offer, which is a point I am also writing about in my book On The Leisure Track.)
I could go on, but I’ll stop there for now.
Charles Eisenstein, one of my favorite writers, speaks beautifully about the power that you can step into when you enter into service to something that wants to happen, and allow yourself to be guided by your inner compass. In a recent interview, he said:
“…if it’s something that wants to happen…and you enter into service to that thing…then miracles start happening. Things fall into place. The right person shows up at the right time with the right resource; synchronicities converge; and you find yourself at the center of a creative process that is far beyond you. The money comes in when it’s needed; you don’t have to worry about that part. All you have to do is devote yourself. That is the secret to expanded creativity.”
This is what I believe, too. Wholeheartedly so. And I believe I am now being given more opportunities for things to fall into place, and for the money to come in when it’s needed to support me and the future Hermitage. Why wasn’t enough money coming in before, despite the fact that my original vision of the Hermitage occurred in 2011? Well, some of it was…but a major portion of my focus was also being diverted toward looking for a job (a.k.a. “conscription of my time into the service of capital”), and I think that was interfering with the path that is right for me. (And of course there are really important systemic and political reasons why money is scarce for people in the USA, too – I haven’t lost sight of that! I am writing about those reasons elsewhere, most notably through my Rethinking the Job Culture project. Here, though, I am keeping my focus on the metaphysical reasons that apply to my situation specifically).
In order for this right path to open to me fully, I had to first find the courage to leave behind the hunt for a job. That’s a particularly difficult task when I’m under such intense pressure to find one from so many corners, and many people think I’m “crazy” for abandoning the job hunt. Our entire culture seems to believe that the proper way to money is through jobs. And for many people, it is! But for whatever reason, I am not one of those people. I must find my support in other ways, and through other sources…such as self-employment, for starters. And while I need money to survive, it’s also true that support comes in many other forms, and I have a lot of those other forms of support right now. I have a strong sense that I am headed in the right direction one way or another. So I’m going to trust that. That self-trust is my only guide to navigating the uncharted path in front of me.
I am now walking through doors that are opening along my path, even as I type this. I am re-vamping my eco-friendly house cleaning business, and putting more of who I am into my promotional materials by emphasizing the earthy hearth-witch magic I do. My existing clients are all involved in the arts or esoteric communities anyway, and they all know I am Pagan. And why shouldn’t they? I live in Portland! “Have broom, will travel…to banish dust and clutter!” is my new tag line.
I think one of the reasons my clients like me is that, consciously or not, they sense the difference I make in their homes in subtle ways as well as in obvious ones. I clean with intent to improve the flow of subtle energies. I might do a mini spot cleanse using herbs or salt, for example, or a cedar smudge, or use a homemade aromatherapy spritzer (made with purified water and conifer-based essential oils such as pine and fir) to freshen stale air. And I make all my cleaning mixes in small batches by hand, using only biodegradable ingredients – baking soda, distilled white vinegar, tea tree oil, pure essential oils, and botanicals.
I also bring prayer and devotion into my house cleaning work. Whenever I clean a client’s home, I always pause to say a short prayer of thanks and blessing at the end of my service day, just before I leave and lock the door behind me. Usually it’s something like “May this home be blessed with peace, love, good health, and prosperity.”
At the end of the day, when I return to my beloved Hermitage with pay that I’ve earned, one of the first things I do is kneel before the altar on which The Black Stone sits, place my pay on the altar, and thank the gods and spirits for today’s opportunity to earn money for the Hermitage and serve my community.
Then, after I rest and replenish, I write, meditate, pray, make offerings, and work on other creative projects for the Hermitage.
I think this life I live is about as close to a Pagan nun life as it’s possible to get without more formalized religious support.
I don’t yet know where my next client or source of support is going to come from, but I trust that it will happen, as long as I continue to do my part and listen for guidance. And I am grateful to everyone whose support and belief in me has made this humble and meaningful way of life possible for me so far. Thank you.
My other freelance business venture – which will also be included under the Black Stone Home Service moniker – will involve accepting new clients for the proofreading and copy editing work I’ve been doing. I’m very excited about this, and will be making a more formal announcement about it in the not-too-distant future. My very first semi-official job – even before I worked in restaurants – was given to me at the tender age of 13, when my seventh-grade English teacher hired me for a few hours a week to help him correct other students’ spelling exams. And then I got my first proofreading job at a news office at age 19! How I wish I had been able to fully appreciate, at that time, how incredibly fortunate I was to have paid jobs like that when I was so young.
So it looks like I’ve come full circle. As an adolescent, I was hired to clean out neighbors’ garages and organize their closets. I was also hired to find and correct errors in people’s writing. And now, as I’ve been cut adrift from wage labor jobs in middle age, I am building a solo business in which I do both of those things once again!
I’m sure it will surprise no one who knows me that I specialize in editing and proofreading promotional copy for dark ambient musicians. My hope is that I will be able to grow the copy editing and proofreading side of Black Stone Home Service in the coming years, such that I will be able to transition into it as I age and become less physically capable of doing house cleaning for a living.
I am thrilled to be giving up job-hunting and committing myself to full-time self-employment now. Conventional employment arrangements are insecure at best (and are structured in ways that strongly favor employers), and our social safety net in the USA is woefully inadequate. With self-employment, and diversification of income streams, I have more stability. If I should lose a client or two, or if some of my Patreon supporters decide to opt out, I won’t be left completely out in the cold.
Finally, in closing, a bit of inspiration:
“Grounding is the operative word. When we clean, we connect with the ground, we take ourselves literally down to its level. The same process happens when we are gardening, when we plunge our hands into the soil of the earth. We are getting in touch with our base, our origin, our ultimate home. We are saved from the flights of fancy of the ego; we are put back in touch with the base chakra, the grounding earth beneath our feet.”
~ Jane Alexander, Spirit of the Home: How to Make Your Home a Sanctuary
“Life is composed of primarily mundane moments…If we don’t learn to love these moments, we live a life of frustration and avoidance, always seeking ways to escape the mundane. Washing the dishes with patience and attention is a perfect opportunity to develop a love affair with simply existing. You might say it is the perfect mindfulness practice.”
~ David Cain, “Mindfulness Lives In The Sink“
As things stand today, there is no organized monastic tradition in Paganism or Heathenry, and polytheists interested in monastic life seem to be few and far between. There is only one legally recognized Pagan polytheist convent in the USA (The Maetreum of Cybele), although there are a handful of folks making inroads in similar directions. Nonetheless, I often describe myself as a Pagan nun, even though I currently have no viable options for formal organizational support along this religious path.
I identify as a polytheist, animist, and witch who is called toward religious hermitage and a life of extended contemplative solitude, creativity, worship, and service. When I am in private, I often wear something resembling a nun’s habit – including head coverings – for religious reasons. I think of myself as a Sister, a “woman religious,” and an anchoress-in-training, even if I don’t yet present myself that way in public.
Even if Pagan and Heathen polytheist monasteries become a reality one day, though – and I do believe they will – it may be that I will visit, but never actually live in one. Why? Because I have learned that I thrive in solitude.
For me, healthy solitude – “a solitude that is not loneliness” – is more than just a lifestyle preference or a tendency toward introversion, although both of those apply to me. Solitude is what enables me to give the gifts I have to the world. It’s what permits me to reach deep inside myself, clarify my religious visions, and offer the best of what I can do to the gods, spirits, and communities I serve. Without regular, uninterrupted, contemplative solitude, I wither and wilt. I shrink and contort into a mere shadow of the person I am meant to be.
I find great richness and fulfillment in the gifts of solitude. Hidden reserves of energy and attention are freed up. In solitude, I take silent, profound joy in the simplest of pleasures – arranging the table for tea, for example, or polishing the mirrors. I become more deeply respectful of the immense power of self-restraint in speech and action. I can better perceive the sacred in the “mundane,” and better understand that these are not separate. I can dig into my inner wellsprings, better perceive the promptings of the gods and spirits, and find reservoirs of strength and self-acceptance that don’t depend on what I look like, how much money I have, or my relationship status. And Virginia Woolf certainly knew what she was talking about when she recommended a room of one’s own for women who wanted to write on their own terms.
It would be an understatement to say that healthy solitude is undervalued in American culture. Those who seek solitude tend to be viewed with thinly veiled suspicion. Are they just selfish navel-gazers? How can they just go off into their caves or mountaintop retreats and meditate when there is so much urgent ecological and social justice work to be done? And of course most of us – especially women, who do a disproportionate share of emotional labor – can’t just slow down our lives to make space and time for solitude because we decide to. We are expected to make ourselves available to tend to the needs of our partners, families, and loved ones first and foremost. American culture simply does not make room for women who crave solitude.
As a feminist, recluse, and creative writer raised in a culture that makes few provisions for people like me – and seems hell-bent on stealing my time for purposes that force me to contort myself into molds that don’t fit – I’ve spent a great deal of effort defending my solitude against intrusions. Finally, in my late forties, I’ve come to realize that the only way I will be able to fulfill my religious calling of monastic service, and write what is in me to write, is to preserve my solitude as much as possible.
I am well-positioned to live a solitary contemplative life for a variety of reasons, one of which is that I am not a parent. I was raised in a time and place in which reliable birth control was readily available to me when I was younger. (Thank you, feminist foremothers!) Remaining child-free by choice is one of the ways I’ve been able to preserve enough time, energy, and solitude to develop my craft as a writer.
I’ve also come to realize, after a great deal of introspection, prayer, and soul-searching, that it’s unlikely that I will ever be truly happy or operate at my best in a “normal” romantic relationship. This past week, in fact, I broke up with my partner of three months, because this truth about who I am has become clearer than ever before. I simply do not have it in me any longer to give what a committed romantic relationship requires without sacrificing something deeply important to my religious and creative work. So I have now become celibate by choice.
Though I’m sad that this decision hurt someone I care about, I also can’t help but feel excited about this new development in a way that I never imagined I could. It feels like an affirmation of who I am rather than a sacrifice. It will enable me to give more of what I have to give in religious and community service.
I hesitate to say that I’m celibate for religious reasons, though, as this could be misleading. Celibacy isn’t necessarily required for Pagan monastics, and in fact a case can be made that romantic and sexual relationships may be an important component of a Pagan monastic path. I have no doubt that it can work that way for some. But I also know that having a mortal lover and romantic partner is not the right path for me at this time.
(For what it’s worth, I have sometimes said that, while I am not a godspouse, I am so passionately in love with my vision of The Black Stone Hermitage that it’s as if I have a lover on another plane. I would go to the ends of the Earth to bring this vision to fruition, if it were necessary and in my power to do so. And for someone who is a dyed-in-the-wool homebody and hates to travel, that’s saying a lot.)
Accusations of “selfishness” have followed me throughout my life in various ways, as they often do for women who resist conventionally approved life scripts and insist on carving out space to live on their own terms. However, I seek solitude not as selfishness, but in affirmation of the need for self-care. There is little room in this culture for women to care for their own needs generously. When I make room for true self-care, free of guilt and shame, I often find that a genuine caring for the welfare of others wells up in me, unbidden. A recognition arises that, in having been so blessed with time and space for self-care, I have also been entrusted with a responsibility to use my gifts and talents to serve the world that has made this self-care possible for me. After all, hermits are sustained and supported by their networks, human and non-human. And my solitude certainly does not reduce my interest in friendship and community. Quite the opposite, in fact. Some of my friendships have deepened and strengthened – in part because, having cared for my own needs, I am in turn able to give more to my friendships.
In order to perceive this deeply reciprocal gift relationship and the way it drives my work, though, I had to first untangle and sort through a lot of cultural baggage. Writing, for example, is often dismissed as a frivolous and self-indulgent pursuit, rather than a form of religious service and social justice work. But for me, writing is a calling, and is one of the ways I serve the gods and spirits. It’s a form of activism. I want my writing – and all my work, for that matter – to help build a world in which ‘earning a living’ is a thing of the past, ecologically responsible ways of life are practiced, and emotional labor is recognized, appreciated, and properly valued.
I think of the studio unit where the Hermitage currently lives as my anchorhold – a small enclosure inhabited by a person dedicated to a life of religious solitude and prayer. I cherish this space, and decorate it lovingly. My anchorhold provides opportunities for me to engage in many forms of monastic service beyond my writing: I host visitors for tea, worship and offerings, meditation, incubation sessions, music consultancy services, brainstorming sessions, and contemplative practices.
One day I hope to find a long-term home for the Hermitage and establish it through a permaculture community land trust or similar legal vehicle so that when I die, I can bequeath the space to others for religious and ecologically responsible purposes. My hope is to create a space that will help provide for future generations of polytheists who feel called to solitary monastic paths of service, devotion, and contemplation. I do this work as much for those who will come after me as for Those I serve right now.
Sometimes, when I crawl under the covers of my comfy bed alone on cool nights, I become acutely aware of how much joy lives in my heart and bones and flesh. I don’t mean that I never feel sorrow or loss or feminist rage or whatever. I feel all those things, and very deeply, I might add. Yet nonetheless, I’ve somehow managed to build a life that I find spiritually, intellectually, and emotionally fulfilling in ways I never expected I would. Joy bubbles up from deep in my cells, as if my life has been blessed with a giant, endless breath of fresh, oxygen-rich forest air. I inhale this breath of fresh life-giving air deeply, at leisure, and find myself filled with gratitude and appreciation so profound that it erupts into irrepressible laughter.
‘Tis a far cry indeed from the days when I was severely depressed, thinking about suicide often, and grieving the loss of my 14-year marriage and my former life. In those days, I remember that I clung to some ill-advised friendships, just to feel a sense of belonging and attempt to assuage the emptiness I felt.
If present-day me had tried to tell me-who-was-grieving-her-marriage that I would feel this joyful one day, she would never have believed it. Never. Not even for a millisecond.
And yet, here I am, living a more joyful and contented life than I’ve ever before known.
It’s difficult even for me to believe I’ve found this level of contentment in solitude, and I’m the one who’s experiencing it!
There’s also a feminist component to this joy. In taking such unapologetic pleasure in solitude as a woman, I’m shamelessly defying the patriarchal (and near-ubiquitous) cultural expectation that women should make themselves readily available for others in ways that disregard their own needs.
My rebellious inner fifteen-year-old is quite pleased.
Recently I was interviewed by Sarah Sadie, a former Madison, WI Poet Laureate and a student of Cherry Hill Seminary, for a class on Pagan leadership. With her permission, I am publishing the full-length interview here. (The photos were taken by my partner.)
Q: Coming across your work and the ideas you present online has helped move me further down my own path in the past few months. There are many points of intersection between us: polytheism (northern flavored), feminism, endarkenment, dance and music, writing, and the push-pull of needing to find streams of income while resisting the predominant job culture we are immersed in.
As a fellow traveler, I’m curious what your life path has been that has brought you to this point? Who were the people who inspired you along the way and helped you find your path?
A: The turning point for my path into Northern-centered polytheism, in particular, came when I discovered Heathenry in 2004. I had identified as a Pagan for about ten years at that point, and had been doing a lot of reading and learning about radical-left and anti-capitalist politics, queer feminism, deep ecology, permaculture, and indigenous peoples’ sovereignty and decolonizing movements. As part of that autodidactic process of re-evaluation, I started asking questions about my own ancestral spiritual heritage. My ancestry is half Swedish and half German. I thought: “Although I was born and raised in the USA, my ancestors must have once been indigenous somewhere, and there must have been some kind of land-based spiritual practice that arose from those places…”
Through that process of inquiry, I began reading Norse mythology, started researching my ancestry, started learning about the runes, and found myself embracing a devotional relationship with Skaði, the Jötunn and huntress of the Northern lands, Whom I have served faithfully for over ten years now.
I am especially grateful to Andréa Nebel of Hagalaz’ Runedance (also known as Nebelhexë) for her album Volven. The album – which is clearly a devotional work, and which I also found in 2004 – was the first I found that catalyzed a genuine connection to the Northern deities for me. Her song “Wake Skadi,” in particular, inspired me to take up devotional dance from the first listen. I had found a lot of what I’ll call a “macho Viking” vibe in Heathenry, and I found Andréa’s work to be quite a refreshing contrast.
The other two albums that helped shape my early forays into Heathenry were also from German musicians: Nordland by Apoptose (a.k.a. Rüdiger), and Eliwagar by Skadi (a.k.a. Alexander Leßwing). The latter is my favorite dark ambient album of all time, and still sounds fresh to me ten years after its release. (Ed. note: A redux version can now be heard in full on Bandcamp!)
I bought a copy of the original 2000 release of Nordland on CD, and found myself completely entranced by the sublime, mystical music and the album art featuring megaliths and a focus on the spiritual ways of the Northern lands.
To this day, both CDs are prominently displayed in my Hermitage, and richly appreciated.
I must also mention the industrial, gothic, and dark ambient music subcultures, in which I’ve been happily ensconced since the early 1990s. Though the main draw for me was always the music, goth-industrial culture was where I found social acceptance as a reclusive, bookish, artistic, pensive, feminist, spiritually inclined nerd. And when I found gothic bellydance (now called dark fusion dance) in 2006, I became completely obsessed!
Other major inspirations along my path have been:
* Abby Helasdottir’s Shadowlight website
* The Jötunbok: Working With the Giants of the Northern Tradition by Raven Kaldera
* Swedish musicians Ulf Söderberg and Pär Boström
* Dark fusion dancer Ma’isah of Elysium
* A Course in Demonic Creativity by Matt Cardin – a brilliant (and free!) e-book
* Charles Eisenstein’s writings, especially Sacred Economics
* Francis Weller’s wisdom on grief (see The Geography of Sorrow for one example)
* Un-Jobbing: The Adult Liberation Handbook by Michael Fogler
* The posts and comments on MetaFilter – a great online community that I’ve followed for more than ten years. I’m especially grateful for the emotional labor thread of July 2015, which is my favorite thing ever on the Internet, no exaggeration – and I’ve been online since 1993. (Ed. note: There is also an annotated, and nicely organized, condensed version of the thread.)
I could go on and on with this list, but I’ll stop there in the interest of space.
Q: I’m interested (since this interview is for a class in leadership, after all) in your thoughts around community and leadership. Does the pagan community (as if that is a singular entity!) need leaders? What does leadership look like? Do you consider yourself a leader? How do you define community for yourself, how do you find it, and where do you find leaders?
A: To my mind, leadership in Paganism is most fundamentally about influence and reach, so leaders can be found in many unexpected places. One certainly needn’t be a High Priestess, Archdruid, published author, workshop instructor, or elder to exercise influence. Having a sizable blog audience or social media following is one form of leadership, for example, and this is true whether or not it involves any formal organizational responsibilities, and whether or not such influence is actively desired, sought out, and/or cultivated.
By this definition, I’d say I serve as a leader – “serve as” being the operative phrase there. I describe myself as resident hermit and CEO – Creative Endarkenment Overseer – of The Black Stone Hermitage, which is a leadership and service role, though a rather unexpected, unsung, and tongue-in-cheek one. Others have described me as a kind of Pagan anchoress. It’s not a role that puts me in the spotlight, which suits me just fine, as I’m a cave-dweller at heart who savors the silence and the shadows. I’m deeply introverted, yet I feel a strong – even irresistible – call to a monastic path of service. I host visitors regularly at my Hermitage, which is one way of honoring my calling to contemplative life and spiritual reclusion while serving the gods and my community. I do venture out once in awhile to serve, though. I built a shrine room for Skaði and held space for others to honor Her at the first Many Gods West conference in 2015.
It’s not through Paganism that I’m best known for my influence, however, but through the work I’ve done as founder of Creating Livable Alternatives to Wage Slavery (CLAWS) and original designer of the website at whywork.org. I founded CLAWS in 1998, and over the years I’ve received many appreciative letters about that project and its successor, Rethinking the Job Culture, which I founded in 2010.
I appreciate, respect, and crave good leadership and explicit structure in Paganism – especially after having experienced the limitations of radically inclusive groups that operate by what feminist Jo Freeman rightly calls “the tyranny of structurelessness.” Freeman argues convincingly that there is no such thing as a truly structureless group, and that even groups that disavow explicit structures nonetheless structure themselves, albeit informally and covertly.
I’d rather have structures clearly spelled out, for a whole host of reasons – one of which is to give recognition for excellence where it’s been earned, especially with respect to uncompensated emotional labor. Good leaders aren’t flawless, of course, but they do vast amounts of work – usually unpaid – and catch most of the grief and criticism, too, sometimes just by happenstance of being the most visible or well-known voice of their traditions. And most leaders take on countless behind-the-scenes tasks such as cleaning up after the big event is over, attending sensitively and diplomatically to the needs of people under stress, or keeping track of all the details necessary to organize meetups, to take just a few examples. As a feminist, I would like to see those people – and those forms of emotional labor – honored and appreciated, appropriately and visibly!
I think Paganism – and our culture in general – stands to benefit from feminist efforts to raise awareness about the value of emotional labor. One of the reasons I’ve appreciated the hermit life is that I’ve experienced it as a way of reducing the burden of uncompensated, unreciprocated emotional labor – disproportionately borne by women – in our culture. The Black Stone Hermitage is a vessel I use to help me extend this benefit to others, by providing a space that is consciously designed to dial down this burden.
At the Hermitage, I’ve got built-in limits to growth, not only because of the size of the physical space I occupy or my desire for solitude, but also stemming from the nature of the work I do. I almost always work with one person at a time, which permits me to keep my focus person-centered and contemplative. Should the deities I serve make it known that it would best serve Them, it’s possible that the Hermitage will eventually be shaped into more of a collective effort, which might then call for greater structure and additional leadership roles. But as far as I can tell, the responsibility for shaping the future of the Hermitage is, and will remain, mine and mine alone.
Nonetheless, the life I live would be untenable without extensive community support. I find that the heart of community is in relationship – and it is relationship that sustains me, in all kinds of ways. As I have often said, my haven of sacred solitude is made possible only by a web of thriving community relationships: family, friends, readers, visitors, Patreon supporters, deities, spirits, farmers who feed me, and so on.
Q: Going on my gut, I was interested in endarkenment before I knew there was such a word. How did you discover this concept and what does it mean to you? I have seen some very unflattering definitions which equate endarkenment with religious fundamentalism—this seems fear-based and misguided to me. What is your take, and do you feel you have to win converts to the idea, or help steer the conversation?
A: Sacred endarkenment, to me, is a concept and a way of being that provides a necessary counterbalance to our culture’s over-emphasis on enlightenment, transcendence, “rising above,” and so on. I’ve often been reminded daily in my practice that the gods and spirits dwell in the soil, mosses, and rot beneath our feet just as much as they dwell in the clouds and stars above us, and we forget this to our peril. Despite popular belief, darkness doesn’t necessarily mean evil or negativity – in fact, dark places can be sources of great richness, alchemy, and incubation. I now describe the Hermitage as “a contemplative polytheist sanctuary creating atmospheres of sacred endarkenment” in honor of this truth.
I first encountered the term endarkenment in an essay by Michael Ventura, and although he used it in an unflattering way, I latched on to the word itself – I loved it immediately, and felt a strong instinctive urge to claim it as a source of empowerment and wisdom. I was raised in a New Age family, and had experienced first-hand the failures of empathy and errors in perception that could result from a heavy emphasis on “positive thinking” and other forms of saccharine sweetness in spiritual work. In a way, you could say my New Age upbringing primed me for a darker, more chthonic path. Dogma can be just as oppressive when it’s presented as “love and light” as it can be when it shows up in less culturally sanctioned ways.
As a culture, most of us have learned to hold ourselves at a certain distance from what we call the “negative” – pain, struggle, suffering, conflict, grief, mourning, despair, anger, and rage, for starters. Yet there is bittersweet medicine to be found in the “negative” when it is courageously faced and honestly addressed, especially when witnessed by one’s community. This is the medicine of sacred endarkenment, and the skills needed to find and integrate whatever must be faced, accepted, and released are a form of emotional labor.
Later on, I discovered several feminist writings on endarkenment by Gloria Orenstein (Reweaving the World), Molly Remer (Endarkenment), Camille Maurine (Meditation Secrets for Women), and Lauren Raine (Endarkenment: The Dark Goddess in Art and Myth), all of which helped me claim and affirm my own path.
Alchemically speaking, there’s no doubt in my mind that the gate that revealed the path of sacred endarkenment to me was opened through my experience with grief. In 2007, my marriage ended in an excruciatingly painful way. I lost not only a 14-year relationship I cherished and relied upon, but my home, my health insurance, my savings, and an entire circle of friends. The grief process that followed this uprooting just wrecked me. It was like nothing else I’d ever experienced, or even imagined I could feel, and the worst part was that, due to my circumstances at the time, I was forced to wade through it largely alone. For the better part of a year, a “good” day was one in which I could get through an entire hour without thinking about suicide. And for several years after that, I felt like a mere shadow of my real self, as I painstakingly rebuilt my life, bit by bit, from the ground up. Catherine MacCoun, in her book On Becoming An Alchemist: A Guide For the Modern Magician, describes this as calcination (“the substance is burned until nothing remains but ashes”), and it happens at the initiative of the spirit.
Throughout that grief process, what I needed most deeply, but never found, was a safe place to take my grief – a place where it could be ritually received, accepted, and witnessed on its own terms.
We have so few places in our culture where it is acceptable to grieve this way. This is especially true if we’re not grieving a death, but something like a divorce, or something more ongoing and intermittent such as Earth grief. There is enormous need for grief ritual lurking under the surface of our daily lives, and sadly, this need usually goes unmet. When people do not have space to grieve, it is not only they who suffer, but their communities.
One of the reasons I started the Black Stone Hermitage was to provide this kind of space for others who are grieving, in the hopes that they might somehow be spared the worst of what I went through. I wanted to provide a place of respite – a leisurely place, where visitors aren’t expected to be “on,” paste on a happy face in the name of “staying positive,” or otherwise hold it together.
Paths of sacred endarkenment teach us that genuine positivity emerges as a felt bodily experience, and that the way for this experience opens through allowing grief and other “negative” emotions the opportunity to move through the body unimpeded. This movement can happen through yoga, dance, or shedding tears, among many other ways. Our bodies register and remember pain and grief we’ve experienced, and if we give them the chance and trust our embodied wisdom, we can process and release this pain and grief, and thus move toward deeper integration of our losses.
I create atmospheres of sacred endarkenment and write about the concept not to win converts, but because it moves me, and because this is one of the most effective ways for me to be of service. I’m confident that others who are drawn to darker paths will discern the truth and appropriateness of the concept for themselves. Far from religious fundamentalism, my role is not to convince anyone, but to walk my creative path of service with discernment and integrity. In order to do that – in order to fully embody the role of Creative Endarkenment Overseer, with which I have been entrusted – I am asked to relinquish control of the process, and trust the gods and spirits to guide me. Camille Maurine and Lauren Roche have written that:
“Creating is not about control, but about sensing what wants to happen and participating with that movement…Your creativity is a flow that cannot be forced – but it can be tended. When you are in the creative streaming of your own life, you sense that “yes, this feels right,” even or especially when it is challenging.”
(Meditation Secrets For Women, p. 254)
Tending to that creative flow is one of the best ways for me to connect with the divine and receive guidance along my path.
That said, I am happy whenever my work reaches people who find value in it, and I would certainly like to see more respect given to those on darker paths. I hope that the work I do, however small-scale it may be, will make a contribution to that effort.
Q: If I understand rightly, you named your home the Hermitage, and within that space you have both a Temple and a Psychomanteum. The idea of making space, and making place, appeals to me. One form of leadership is holding space, after all. Is there a difference between those two ideas for you, space versus place? What do these different spaces or places that you have created mean to you, and what are your hopes for them for the larger community?
A: Yes, my 550-square-foot live/work studio serves double duty as both my personal living space and the space for the Black Stone Hermitage. I mentioned above that I am sometimes called a Pagan anchoress, since the spiritual service work I do – creating atmospheres of sacred endarkenment – is so deeply driven by the space in which I conduct this work. Places come to hold emotional and spiritual resonance through visual, auditory, spatial, architectural, and olfactory cues. At the Hermitage, I combine these elements creatively to create atmospheres that alter awareness in ways that facilitate incubation, meditation, leisure, devotional dance, grief processes, inner silence, and other needs that too often go unfulfilled in a culture that is obsessed with productivity, control, and achievement. Without regular opportunities to slow down and spend time in spaces of silence, reflection, and meditation, it’s hard to maintain a deep contemplative and devotional practice.
Inside the small place I call the Hermitage, I maintain an even smaller space that I’ve named the Black Tent Temple. Of necessity this is a very tiny and confined space, but it serves its purposes quite well. Contained within the boundaries of this space – which are marked with sheer black curtains that I draw shut whenever the space is occupied – is a psychomanteum. A psychomanteum is a darkened, enclosed chamber, with a chair and a mirror placed opposite the chair, that is designed to facilitate contact with spiritual forces. It is inspired by the work of Raymond Moody, and it’s sometimes called a portal, lair, spirit room, spiritual incubation chamber, or oracle of the dead.
There has been quite a bit of interest from the larger community in the Black Tent Temple as a concept that can be adapted to work in many different places. The first Black Tent Temple I know about, outside my Hermitage, was built with my awareness and blessing by Priestess Gerrie Ordaz at a Pagan event in August 2015. I encouraged her to take the idea and run with it. Several others have contacted me or commented on my blog posts to express their enthusiasm as well. As I mentioned earlier, women have so few spaces in our culture to find sacred endarkenment and relief from the demand for unreciprocated, unpaid, unappreciated emotional labor, so I’m unsurprised that most of the interest I’ve seen so far has been from women. I do take pains to make it clear, however, that the Black Tent Temple welcomes people of all gender identities, and from anywhere on the gender continuum.
I’d love to have a place for the Hermitage that provides a subterranean place to build the Black Tent Temple (as that was my original vision), and offers a way to maintain a clearer separation between my living areas and the spaces I make available for the use of visitors. But for now, all of the spaces must coexist and overlap. When I originally received this vision in 2011, and asked for guidance on how to implement it from Those I serve, the reply I received went something like this:
“Build it right here, and start right now. To the best of your ability, embrace the limitations of this space, and design the Hermitage where you already live. Document the process, too – write about it, and get those writings out there however you can. Don’t wait for the ideal subterranean location; just do the work you’ve been assigned. Trust that when the time is right, a more appropriate place will be found for you to do this work.”
So that’s exactly what I did.
Q: The arts are clearly very important to your life and to your work, particularly music and dance. Can you talk a little bit about what role(s) music and dance play for you both in your spiritual practice and more broadly?
A: I mentioned above the broad influence of gothic/industrial culture on my life. Dark ambient music, in particular, is central to my life and work, as anyone who knows me will tell you. I’ve been a die-hard fan of the genre (which is a subgenre of industrial) since the early 1990s. I write about dark ambient regularly through recommendations I make on social media and my Bandcamp profile, on Pinterest, and through articles I’ve contributed for music zines. I also have a book manuscript in the works, for which I am interviewing musicians, label owners, and longtime fans. Dark ambient music – which has been called “music you can’t dance to,” which I find quite amusing – inspires my dance projects, facilitates my meditations, accompanies my rituals and offerings to the gods and spirits, and deepens my creative flow as a writer. As you might imagine, my specialty is using dark ambient music to create spaces of sacred endarkenment. In recent years I’ve developed a music consultancy project called Chthonic Cathedral, through which I offer my services to ritual planners, meditation groups, yoga teachers, and others to provide customized playlists of dark ambient music to suit their needs. (Images I designed for this project, with mix titles, can be found on Pinterest.)
I also find inspiration in musician Pauline Oliveros’ concept of “deep listening.” To me, deep listening means learning how to hear not just with the ears, but with the whole body, and in connection with the deities, spirits, and the ground of one’s being. For me, dark ambient music both facilitates and richly rewards this deep listening.
I’ve been a dancer since my adolescent years. Dance – and especially dark fusion dance, which Tina Frühauf has described as “decolonizing bellydance” – is a form of prayer and service for me, and an embodied way of knowing. Currently I have two ongoing dance projects: Shrine of Skaði, which is focused on devotional and ritual dances inspired by the Jötunn who is closest to my heart, and Drinking the Tears of the Earth, which is focused on lamentation dances – performed to dark ambient music, of course – as embodied expressions of Earth grief.
Shrine of Skaði is only active in the darkening days of fall and winter, when the tides of energy lend themselves best to shadow work and themes of descent. Drinking the Tears of the Earth is a year-round project.
Q: Reading your blog, and the comments of others who have interacted with you, I’m struck by the seamlessness of your life and spirituality. You really live your faith. It seems that you thoughtfully curate your own life in order to serve both the gods and the community of people around you. Can you talk a little bit about how you go about this, and what appeals to you about such a dedicated life? Who are your models?
A: Originally I had interpreted my vision of the Hermitage as a kind of nunnery, albeit one that didn’t resemble any monastic order I’d ever heard about. I’ve learned a lot from Pagans and Heathens who write online about monastic life. I knew I wanted to find a sustainable way to live that deeply integrated my daily activities (including dance and dark ambient music) and my contemplative polytheism, but the only examples of this sort of integration I had found were in monastic communities run by Christians and Buddhists.
Yet I also knew, right from the outset, that an approach to religion based in sacred endarkenment would be a fundamentally different kind of venture from any monastic path I had encountered. I sometimes describe myself as “a contemplative polytheist anti-capitalist queer feminist witch on a path of monastic service.” When people think of what kind of work a monk or nun might do at a monastery, though, they don’t typically imagine anti-capitalism, feminism, witchcraft, or anything associated with the dark. Yet these are inseparable for me. So where did that leave me and my callings, I wondered?
And although Paganism doesn’t have any kind of organized contemplative monastic tradition yet, it’s a fast-growing religious movement, and I believe that one day we will. There are a handful of folks doing what they can to create the infrastructure to support such a tradition – in the US, the Maetreum of Cybele in New York and the First Kingdom Church of Asphodel in Massachusetts come to mind, and I recently met the founder of the Nigheanan Brighde, an order of Brighidine flametenders in Washington – but we still have a long way to go.
I started The Black Stone Hermitage after searching and failing to find anyone else who was doing anything similar. At the moment there aren’t many polytheist contemplatives out there at all, let alone ones who center their practice on paths of sacred endarkenment or use dark ambient music as a facilitator. Yet I was meditating, dancing, and doing yoga and ritual almost exclusively to dark ambient music, and consistently finding that this music served purposes far deeper than entertainment: it facilitated mind-altering inner journeys to realms I could not reach through any other method I’d tried, and helped me connect with deities and spirits more reliably than I’d previously thought possible.
I’m convinced that dark ambient music has a lot of untapped potential to serve spiritual purposes. I’ve also seen quite a bit of evidence that it has a crossover appeal that I haven’t seen with industrial music in general. I think this is particularly true for people who are into meditation, yoga, and various other contemplative pursuits, whether or not they describe themselves as Pagan. But most of those folks don’t even know the dark ambient genre exists, so I hope the work I do at the Hermitage will help make them more aware of it. Judging by the reactions I’ve seen in response to this music during rituals and yoga classes, I think it’s accurate to consider this a form of service to the gods and the human community alike!
Q: Maybe because of or emerging out of this seamless meeting of faith and life, you are well-known for encouraging resistance to and questioning of job culture and the idea of “earning a living.” Money is a topic that divides the pagan community. Some people see money as the root of evil (almost literally in some cases) and others see money as another form of energy to be worked with. I’d like to hear more about where your ideas are at this point around this topic, and what your experience has been.
A: For me, money is primarily a means to an end. It is certainly capable of serving sacred purposes, but the usurious money system we have now, based in interest-bearing debt, makes that extremely difficult for most of us. For the vast majority of people, the money system we have creates an experience of scarcity, and requires wage labor for subsistence.
As Charles Eisenstein writes:
“Why do we want to create more jobs? It is so people have money to live. For that purpose, they might as well dig holes in the ground and fill them up again, as Keynes famously quipped…Wouldn’t it be better to pay people to do nothing at all, and free up their creative energy to meet the urgent needs of the world?”
(Sacred Economics, pp. 273-274)
Indeed! And as a quote of mine (prominently featured on my Patreon page) reads:
“I am a conscientious objector to enforced wage labor. I firmly believe that requiring people to ‘earn a living’ through wage labor is a violation of the spirit and a form of structural violence, no matter how widely condoned and culturally sanctioned it may be.”
I am fortunate to have already acquired most of the skills and supplies I need to bring my full vision of the Hermitage to fruition. What I don’t have, but need most, is extended time away from the need to do wage labor for subsistence. In a culture that requires every able-bodied adult to “earn a living” (I always put that phrase in quotes to emphasize its absurdity), very few of us ever find enough freedom from wage labor to make a full-time monastic or artistic life possible. Over the long term, I hope to decolonize my time and provide for my needs without wage labor as much as possible, and to help make this possible for others as well. One question I use to guide this process is taken from the writings of Ethan Miller: How can we progressively create the conditions in which we no longer need jobs for subsistence?
Right now, as I write this, I earn my living as a house cleaner. I’ve started a Patreon page to support my Rethinking the Job Culture project, and have been encouraged by visitors to start one for The Black Stone Hermitage also. I am working on it! It takes time to build a support base through Patreon, however, so for the time being, my creative and service work remains relegated to the margins of my life.
For now, I am in search of a day job that will permit me more free time and energy to write and carry out my service work. It has always saddened me that the vast majority of artists, and others called to lives of community service, have few other options but to seek wage labor for subsistence. I can’t help but think about all the art, music, dance, and spiritual service we are collectively missing out on. This is one of the reasons I’ve been a staunch supporter of a Universal Basic Income for 20 years. It’s exciting to see UBI gaining ground these days – it can’t possibly come soon enough for me!
Q: Finally, what is next for you?
A: For starters, I have two book manuscripts in the works that I hope to finish writing within the next few years. The first is called On The Leisure Track: Rethinking the Job Culture. The first chapter can be read on my Rethinking the Job Culture blog, and I’m planning to submit the final manuscript to Gods & Radicals, as they have already expressed strong interest. The second is Endarkenment: The Esoteric in Dark Ambient Music and Culture. I work on the manuscripts whenever I can, but they’re proceeding at a glacial pace because of the aforementioned need to “earn a living,” which leaves me with precious little time and energy for writing.
I also have plans in the works to make a series of photos and videos featuring the work I do at the Hermitage, centered on the theme of sacred endarkenment, in order to reach folks who can’t visit in person.
For the longer term, I am seeking a more appropriate space for the Hermitage, so that I can expand my service offerings in ways that honor my deeper callings. When I say “deeper callings,” I mean it literally, as well as figuratively! Currently, since the Hermitage “lives” in a studio unit on the seventh floor of a building, I am unable to take advantage of the unique acoustic and geomantic properties of subterranean structures to facilitate my work. The Hermitage has been arranged as evocatively as possible within the constraints of my situation, but if I am to embrace the deepest of these callings to service, I will need to find a subterranean space – probably a basement – for the Hermitage.
Other “stretch goals” for the future of the Hermitage include working with my official tea consultant David Galli, in consultation with a guided meditation specialist, to improve the tea meditation offerings…and if I am really fortunate, to one day build a full shrine room or sanctuary garden for Skaði, featuring a statue of Her. (I’ve been so inspired by the statuary and cave shrines at The Grotto!)
And finally, thank you for the thought-provoking, inspiring questions! Best wishes with your own work.
Recently I attended a lovely and moving public ritual for Skaði by Ingrid Kincaid, The Rune Woman, held in Portland, OR. About twenty of us were there to pay Her tribute. The beautiful altar featured two enormous raw femur bones, along with evergreen bows, firewood, a bow and arrows, fresh blood, vodka, and more. Attendees all wore head coverings in winter white, blood red, and evergreen colors. I wore the white burnout velvet shawl I got in 2006 when I started my Shrine of Skaði ritual dance project. It was the first piece of bellydance costume gear I ever owned, and to this day I use it only for devotional dances for Her.
I also brought along a wooden plaque for the altar made by Deb’s Den (shown in this photo of my previous shrine for Her), and a small bit of deer hide which had been donated by hunter and fellow devotee Nicholas Haney for Skaði’s shrine room at Many Gods West which I built last summer.
Through my Chthonic Cathedral project, I consulted with Ingrid to provide a dark ambient musical playlist for this ritual. Her selections were some of my all-time favorites:
Wake Skadi by Hagalaz’ Runedance
Nordvinterögon by Ulf Söderberg
Morgonmåne by Ulf Söderberg
Vargskymning by Ulf Söderberg
Some bits that spoke deeply to me from the text of the ritual:
“In winter it is truly evident that life can only exist because of death.”
“Skaði, the taste and smell of blood are your sacraments, bright red against the white of snow. You truly understand what it means to take life in order to live.”
“I call upon you, Skaði, to remind me that I must find focus in order to take aim and hit the target.”
What a blessing it was to be able to attend my first public ritual for Her, and to have the unprecedented opportunity to consult with the organizer to provide the music for it. What a powerful form of service it was for me, especially after ten years of serving Her through my home-based practice. I am so grateful for this collaboration and for the magic we made. Thank you to Ingrid, to my friends Ilana and Fjothr who attended at my invitation, and to all who honor Her as She so richly deserves.
Hail, beloved mighty Huntress of the North!
Henry Meynell Rheam, The Sorceress, 1898
In recent posts, I’ve discussed staying job-free so that I might have sufficient free time to devote most of my time and energy to my writing, and to other Work for the gods, spirits, and my community. I’ve planned to support this work through a multiple-sources-of-income strategy. Toward that end, I recently launched a new Patreon account, and have been investigating other potential income sources (e.g., paid proofreading clients, taking on more short-term gigs, negotiating a publisher advance for my book manuscript, and taking in a roommate.)
Over the past two months, however, several things have changed, and as a result it’s become clear that my strategy will need to be adjusted accordingly.
First, it turns out the roommate situation I had discussed with Lo of the rotwork blog will not be happening. I certainly enjoyed hosting Lo at the Hermitage, however, and greatly appreciate the words of praise on their blog about what I do here:
“…how amazing the Hermitage, as a concept, and a physical place, really is. It’s hard to really get it from reading about it online; truthfully, I had to be there to appreciate all of what she’s trying to accomplish and how well she’s doing it given the limitations of apartment living.
“The Black Stone Hermitage consists of many different spaces: a good many beautiful shrines, the Black Tent Temple, a Psychomanteum, an altar for meditation, and even the equipment to provide ritualized tea service.
“Every square inch of the place was painstakingly planned and curated to cultivate an atmosphere of darkness, introspection, and hibernation, from the smallest accouterment to the largest piece of furniture. She lives, breathes, and exudes monasticism; she lives her service to the Gods. And the Hermitage is a rare place that has been built to serve both Them and us – though it is also her home, it is a space for our community to visit and utilize. They’re going to get something powerful there that they can’t anywhere else right now, I guarantee that.”
Second, it’s become clear that, for the foreseeable future, my Patreon account will be a secondary source of support rather than a main source. Thus, I am now back in the job market. My hope is to find a job that will allow me to work part-time hours eventually, and perhaps allow for remote work also, to save on commute time. I’ve had no luck getting into web development so far, so I’m looking at web content editor jobs, and also at bookkeeping/accounting clerk work, since I have a post-bac certificate (the equivalent of a Bachelor’s degree) in accounting. If I can’t stay job-free, maybe I can at least minimize the commute and the hours such that I will have more time available for the work I do at the Hermitage. I will certainly need to scale back my community service offerings once I have a job, but that can’t be helped. If I can’t pay rent, eventually I won’t have a Hermitage to do this Work in at all!
Third, a bit of excellent news: there is someone new in my life! As in, I have fallen madly in love, and am now in a relationship with a fellow queer feminist nerd. Apparently the gods and spirits decided They wanted me to be a partnered monastic rather than a single one. It’s certainly an unexpected development, given that I have been single for a long time and wasn’t even looking to date. In any case, I think this development bodes well for the future of my writing career and the Hermitage in general, especially given my partner’s many complementary skills: photography, writing, digital audio, DJ sets, IT (tech support), music, homesteading/camping…and that’s just a start.
Fourth, I’ve decided not to submit a proposal for Many Gods West this year. Much as I would love to attend, I’ve received no guidance whatsoever from Those I serve about my idea to build a Black Tent Temple there. The deadline for proposals is March 1st, and it’s not looking likely that I will be able to make that deadline even if I did receive divine guidance at this late date. So I’m taking this as a sign that I should plan to attend as a guest rather than as a presenter this year. (Assuming I can afford to attend at all, that is. The entry fee is higher this year, and my income is lower, and I will have another huge and punitive self-employment tax bill to pay in April, plus some other out-of-the-ordinary expenses. So it’s looking iffy.)
And lastly, my next post here will feature a tracklist and photos from a recent ritual I attended for Skadi – the very first public ritual I’ve heard about that was organized just for Her. I provided the dark ambient music for the ritual through my Chthonic Cathedral music consultancy project, and it turned out beautifully. Stay tuned – update coming soon!
Recently I wrote about the need for me to find ways to stay job-free so I can do my Work. Since I am now functioning under what is essentially a divine mandate to write books and lay the groundwork for the future home of the Hermitage, and since job-hunting and my house cleaning business have been consuming most of my writing time for years now, something’s got to change in my life if I am going to carry out Their wishes.
Toward that end, I’m excited to announce that I’ve just launched a Patreon account under D. JoAnne Swanson – the pen name I use for my other main project, Rethinking the Job Culture. I’ve set it up entirely on a gift model. Great news, too: I am in communication with a publisher who is interested in On The Leisure Track, my half-finished book manuscript for that project. It’s a personal narrative about decolonizing time, the process of unlearning the internalized capitalist work ethic, and learning to embrace gift culture. With your support, I will be able to finish writing it, and then continue on with my work on Endarkenment: The Esoteric in Dark Ambient Music and Culture after I’ve delivered the first finished manuscript to the publisher.
The revised and improved version of my essay “Is Nothing Sacred? On ‘Doing Nothing’ and Leisure as Resistance,” which is a condensed version of one of the chapters from On The Leisure Track, is also in the works. And that’s just a start! Patrons will have access to all writings I release before they are available to the public.
If you’re interested in my writing, I encourage you to give the page a read whether or not you follow my other project, and whether or not you’re interested in becoming a patron. It features some musings about the role of play and leisure in my work, plus links to many of my recent published writings, and a video of me speaking in my typical nerdy style about the work I do.
I’ve also included links to a few of the people whose work has inspired mine, such as Francis Weller (author of The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief), Charles Eisenstein (author of Sacred Economics and The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible), Matt Cardin (author of A Course in Demonic Creativity), and Alley Valkyrie, whose brilliant piece “Poverty, Worth, and the Hovering Ghost of Calvin” is a must-read.
Signal boosts for this post would be greatly appreciated, as there isn’t a good mechanism for discovering creators directly through the Patreon platform yet. The only way folks will find out about my Patreon page is through my own efforts, and the efforts of those who follow my work. Thank you so much!
Wilhelm List, “The Offering”
For three years now, I’ve been working as a self-employed house cleaner to support the financial needs of the Hermitage. There are many things I enjoy about the work: I can set my own hours, listen to music on headphones while I work, and get some exercise while working, for starters. And since I run my solo business without a car (I travel back and forth to clients’ homes on public transit, hauling my supplies in a wheeled backpack) and use only eco-friendly cleaning supplies such as white vinegar and baking soda, it’s also well aligned with my simple-living values. I never have to sit in rush-hour traffic, and I can read or enjoy music while someone else handles the driving, which I greatly appreciate. I don’t perceive being car-free as a sacrifice; for me it is a pleasure. Good thing, too, because after my divorce, what was once voluntary simplicity has become INvoluntary simplicity, as I couldn’t afford to drive now even if I wanted to. I’m very fortunate to live in a city where it’s possible to run a house cleaning business without a car.
I’ve certainly enjoyed house cleaning a lot more than any office job I’ve ever had, particularly because it greatly reduces the amount of uncompensated emotional labor I’m expected to perform, and because I have great clients who appreciate what I do and are all connected to the arts and esoteric communities. This work has also allowed me to avoid the synthetic fragrances and animal dander that are allergy and asthma triggers for me. This, too, is a boon, since fragrances are difficult to avoid in office jobs, and I am increasingly noticing that employees are allowed to bring dogs to their offices.
In many ways house cleaning seems to be an appropriate job for an anchoress-in-training on a monastic path of service. I have never had any doubt that I am serving the gods and spirits just as much through scrubbing toilets as I am by building shrines for Them. It’s very hard work physically and I always come home exhausted, and running a business consumes a great deal of my time…but it still suits me better than a full-time office job, and on good days it even becomes a sort of meditative practice through which writing ideas come to me unbidden, mid-scrub. (I love those days!)
However, over the past few years I’ve come to realize that I need to figure out another, more sustainable way to pay the bills, because I am physically unable to clean houses for the number of hours I’d need to work to make ends meet for the Hermitage over the long term. In 2014 I started studying web development through a respected online code school, with the intention of finding an entry-level job in the field in Portland. I worked my butt off and completed the course of study in 2015, and for many months I’ve attended hiring fairs, networking events, and done all kinds of job-hunting the conventional way, as well as through my own social network. But I have not been hired…and furthermore, this month it’s finally become clear to me that I may, in fact, never again be hired for a conventional job. Being female and over 40, along with having something that amounts to an invisible disability (allergies to animal dander and perfumes) and a work history dominated by freelance writing and house cleaning, is certainly not working in my favor.
Looking back, I realize that I’ve spent the bulk of the past eight years – the entire time since my divorce – either studying for or applying for paid jobs that never materialized, while doing various kinds of unpaid volunteer work that I hoped might lead to paid work (none ever did), and also running my house cleaning business. All of that “hope labor” consumed a great deal of my time – time that I would have much rather spent on writing, and on expanding and deepening my community service offerings at the Hermitage. I have a lengthy list of projects assigned to me by Those I serve, and I have an ever-growing list of people in my local community who appreciate what I do and want me to do more of it. The work I do at the Hermitage was even called “Portland’s best kept secret” after a recent ritual for which I provided a customized dark ambient playlist; I’ll be providing another one for a ritual in January.
Over the course of the next few years I would like to:
* Finish writing two non-fiction books – one on leisure as resistance and unlearning the internalized capitalist work ethic (the first chapter can be read in full), and another on the esoteric in dark ambient music and culture
* Write, edit, and proofread many articles, including the next in my series on underrated dark ambient albums for I Die: You Die
* Continue with the Black Tent Temple Project, providing spaces of incubation, withdrawal, and endarkenment to grieving people and others in need
* Continue and expand my Chthonic Cathedral project, providing customized dark ambient music playlists for rituals, yoga classes, meditation groups, social gatherings, and events
* Expand Drinking the Tears of the Earth, my grief ritual dance project
* Continue with Shrine of Skaði, my devotional dance project
* Continue serving the polytheist community and the gods and spirits through building shrines and other work at Many Gods West
* Continue learning and practicing geomancy, in preparation for offering readings for the community
* Continue studying Swedish, in preparation for a future pilgrimage to Sweden
* Maintain the Hermitage as an “official” Crone Island outpost: a space where beleaguered crones can go for tea service and a respite from uncompensated emotional labor (for more info, see this MetaFilter thread to which I contributed; I recommend reading the whole thing, but if you’re short on time, there’s a great summary available too!)
* Continue the search for an appropriate place – with a basement or other subterranean space, of course – to relocate the Hermitage for the long term. (Community land trust? Some kind of co-op? Religious non-profit? Time will tell…)
* Work with a great tea consultant (yes, the Hermitage has an official tea consultant – David Galli, who is otherwise known as Head Cheerleader of the Portland Tea Enthusiasts’ Alliance) to improve the tea offerings and service at the Hermitage
* Go through my archives of over 30 years of finished but unpublished writing – journals, correspondence, essays, short fiction – and edit the best of these pieces, so they can be published
* Design and build new websites for the Hermitage and Rethinking the Job Culture
…and that’s on top of my regular schedule of prayer, meditation, and offerings.
A few weeks ago, just after the most recent job fair I attended failed to result in a job offer for me, AND I was simultaneously served with a notice from the DHS that as a self-employed ABAWD (able-bodied adult without dependents) under 50, my SNAP benefits would be cut off if I failed to comply with new, cumbersome requirements that will consume even more of my time, AND I was given notice that I would lose the Hermitage and be forced to leave Portland if I couldn’t pay more rent in March…
…I woke up with the strongest and most unmistakable message I’ve ever received from Those I serve.
It felt so urgent that I scrambled out of bed to get it written down before I had even had my tea. The minute I finished writing it, I got chills.
Here it is, just as I transcribed it:
You must resist the conscription of your time into the service of capital.
You must resist the colonization of your time.
You must resist getting a full-time job so you can do your WORK.
You have books to write. You are the only person that can deliver them. You must trust that the world needs to read these books just as much as you need to write them.
The books will open your route to a more permanent home for The Black Stone Hermitage.
The books are Beings. They had a long gestation period. Now they are almost ready to be birthed.
You will soon be in labor.
Wow. Loud and clear, wouldn’t you say?
…and now, all of a sudden, many good things are in the works, after years of struggling and barely scraping by. I suspect that Someone flipped the switch the moment I gave up job hunting the “normal” way and accepted that, despite my skills and advanced education, my age, sex, and health needs are strikes against me in the job market, and I may be forever unemployable…so I am therefore going to have to figure out some other way to manage my financial life and open the way for the Hermitage to expand its offerings. And besides, apparently They want me to be writing books, among other things. But writers earn very little money. So I’ve got to figure out how to support myself and the Hermitage without a conventional full-time job, so that I can do my Work.
Enter the multiple streams of income plan.
I’ve now got a promising lead for a short-term paid web gig, I will soon be launching a Patreon account to support my writing, I’ve got a respected publisher interested in my half-finished book manuscript for my Rethinking the Job Culture project, I’m planning to offer my proofreading services to paying clients, and – after I petitioned Skaði to find me a way to stay in Portland if She wanted me to continue serving Her through the work I do here – it’s looking like I will be sharing the Hermitage with a roommate in February, someone who is a fellow writer and polytheist (!!) whose living style sounds very compatible with mine.
So if all continues to go well, and things work out with the roommate situation (I have a pretty good feeling about it), I may be able to stay in Portland and continue to live in the Hermitage after all. I still have some big financial challenges to confront in 2016: punitive self-employment taxes due in April, dental and orthodontic work I need but can’t yet afford, and the possibility that Many Gods West will be out of reach for me this year financially unless Those I serve intervene to make it possible. (Skaði did so last year when I built a shrine room for Her at MGW; this year I’ve been planning to build a Black Tent Temple space at MGW, and I even have two other polytheists interested in co-facilitating the project, but I haven’t yet received any clear guidance from Those I serve about it. We will see what happens in the coming months, however. I trust that if They want me at MGW, They will make it possible somehow.) And once I have a more steady income, I plan to start an IDA to help me save for a down payment on a house for the Hermitage.
Funny how much better my life seems to flow when I stop resisting the tide. As a friend has said, when the gods don’t want you to be doing something, They WILL win eventually, no matter what They have to put you through to get Their point across. It’s a lesson I keep learning, again and again, in different ways.
Then, yesterday, through a series of beautiful synchronicities associated with taking up active work on my Rethinking the Job Culture project again, I found a podcast featuring an interview with Ethan Hughes, a man who lives on an experimental homestead in Missouri that is operated completely according to permaculture and gift principles.
It’s very rare for me to listen to podcasts, as I much prefer to take in information via the written word, but somehow I knew I had to listen to this one. The hour was well spent, and the wealth of inspiration I’ve taken from it will fuel my writing for years to come.
Back in the days when I was married and my ex and I bought rural land in BC, Canada (and later near Eugene, OR) to start an intentional community, we were aiming for something similar to what these folks are doing, albeit in a more technologically connected way. This podcast helped me understand, at a much deeper level, why we failed in our attempt. (I don’t talk about those years of my life much, because it’s difficult for me…but in my files I have some writings about them; perhaps someday I will edit and release those writings.)
This is truly a beautiful interview – one of the best I’ve ever heard – and it brought me to tears several times.
If I ever marry again – and I should add that I’ve turned my romantic life completely over to the gods and spirits I serve, for better or for worse – I want it to be to someone who thinks very much like Ethan Hughes.
So, with a giant leap of faith and a deepened level of trust in the gods to provide for my needs, I am now taking my first big steps toward making Community Supported Hermitage a reality.
Coming soon: my Patreon account launch, a new essay on my Rethinking the Job Culture blog, an expansion of my Pinterest boards to reflect more of my artistic vision for the Hermitage, and – if all goes well, and I find sufficient patronage for my writing – more frequent updates on both of my blogs, and regular progress on my book manuscripts.