Interview with Danica Swanson, resident hermit and CEO (Creative Endarkenment Overseer)   3 comments

The Black Stone Hermitage - The Anchoress 2Recently 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 a meager living as a house cleaner, though my days in this business are numbered due to a recent injury.  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 (in bookkeeping) 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.

Ritual for Skaði by Ingrid Kincaid   2 comments

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!

Hermitage Support Strategy Update   6 comments

Henry Meynell Rheam, The Sorceress, 1898

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!

 

Patreon launch for Rethinking the Job Culture   Leave a comment

scriptorium-monk-at-work-1142x1071Recently 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!

Staying Job-Free, So I Can Work: Toward Community Supported Hermitage   8 comments

Wilhelm List, "The Offering"

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.

Prepare yourself.

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.

Delving Into the Dark: A Dark Ambient Playlist for Móðguðr and Hela   3 comments

Art by William Leighton Fisher, used with permission. Text by Danica Swanson.

Art by William Leighton Fisher, used with permission. Text by Danica Swanson.

This Friday, October 30, in Portland, Ingrid Kincaid will be hosting “Delving Into the Dark”, a ritual for Móðguðr and Hela. Ingrid and I met in person a few weeks ago, and I agreed to put together a customised dark ambient music playlist for her to use at this ritual.

My Chthonic Cathedral Project has been expanding quite a bit over the course of the past year into a dark ambient music consultancy. I now consult with yoga teachers, ritual planners, organisers of meditation retreats, etc., to provide custom themed playlists of dark ambient music for events, gatherings, or classes. If you are interested in this service, feel free to contact me via e-mail. I can design a playlist for you centered around a theme (e.g., magickal yoga, grief and mourning – see my list of playlist titles for more examples), a specific emotional state, a devotional practice for a deity or spirit, or a contemplative monastic practice.  I can even design an image to accompany the playlist.

About the service I provided for her, Ingrid writes:

“This will be a sobering yet gentle ritual, and I particularly love the ending of the Skadi “Hel” piece, as it truly sounds and feels the way I experience Hela and Her hall. Welcoming, soothing, dim, and at rest and peace. No judgment, just acceptance.

“I want to say again to you how much I appreciate your gifts and talents. What a great service it is to have someone provide the music for an event. This is a first for me.”

Fortunately, I already had a devotional playlist for Mordgud that I’ve been using ever since I first built a shrine for Her at the Hermitage, so all that was necessary in this case was to add some tracks for Hela.

If you’re in Portland and would like to join us for the ritual, there’s still room! Please register in advance via Ingrid’s website.

Here are the final selections. If you like them, please support the artists and buy their albums, so they can continue to make more of this wonderful music!

Tracks selected by the organiser for introduction and prep time, and after the ritual:

  1. Lamia Vox – Descend
  2. Lisa Gerrard – The Rite
  3. New Risen Throne – At the Shadow of the Gates
  4. Council of Nine – Blood Lit Skies
  5. Herbst9 – Bloodmoon Ritual
  6. Herbst9 – Blood Whisper
  7. Ignis Divine – Entrance to the Gate Down Below
  8. raison d’être – The Eternal Return
  9. Allseits – Hel
  10. Profane Grace – From Shadowlands… Dying…
  11. Hyios – Aquila
  12. Inade – Through the Gates of Death

Tracks selected by the organiser for the actual ritual:

  1. Wardruna – Helvegen
  2. Allseits – Gjöll
  3. Allseits – Modgudr
  4. Skadi – Hel

Other tracks I selected:

  1. Svartsinn – As a Black Stone Monument (New Risen Throne Mix)
  2. Hagalaz’ Runedance – Hel – Goddess of the Underworld
  3. Innfallen – Epilogue (Scattered Remains)
  4. Herbst9 – Bloodwhisper 2 Pass the Gate
  5. Desiderii Marginis – Deadbeat I
  6. raison d’être – Metamorphyses Phase I
  7. Blood Box – Lower Realm
  8. Mulm – Mørke

Underrated Dark Ambient Albums, Volume 2   Leave a comment

An Open Door - Frederick H. EvansI’m delighted to announce that volume 2 of my series on underrated dark ambient albums has been published at the venerable I Die: You Die.  Lots of love and care went into this piece.  I hope you enjoy it!

I have an ongoing list of albums to recommend for volume 3 in this series.  There are a LOT of underrated dark ambient albums out there – enough to fill many articles!  Suggestions?  I’d love to hear them!

Comments from readers:

“…best Dark Ambient list I’ve ever seen…bravo!  It’s sure nice to see a really well curated list that was obviously created by someone with a passion for the genre.”
~ Jay Gambit

Wonderful list! I felt on this one, you really dug deep and brought some lost gems to the surface.”
~ Robert C.Kozletsky

“Nice work, Danica. Made me drag out my dusty, and indeed overlooked, copy of Veil of Secrecy.”
~ Abby Helasdottir

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