Health and Craft – the personal bit

Hello, dear fearless readers of this blog. I realise I haven’t updated here since May. It’s been a complicated summer, as I’m job hunting again. (Which thus far has involved two trips out of state for interviews, plus all the ordinary stuff like resumes and cover letters and so on. If you know people hiring librarians passionate about connecting people with information they care about in either the Upper Midwest or New England, feel free to drop me a note. )

The other part is something I talked about back in March, which is health issues. And reminded by a letter of introduction from someone potentially interested in group work with me, I thought I’d take a moment to lay out some of my thoughts about the intersection of health and Craft work. This part deals with the personal bit, and my internal observations, part 2 will deal with how I think this impacts group work more broadly.

Quick personal update:
Now, the short version of my health stuff is that I’m doing a lot better. (My test results at the beginning of July were back in the normal range on all sides, and I’ve got much closer to my normal level of energy and concentration.) That said, the road back has been different than I’d expected. Not better or worse. Different.And that’s made a difference in my religious practice.

Add to this that there’s a reasonably decent chance that to get a job in my field, I’ll end up having to move. (I love Minnesota and the upper Midwest, but New England also holds a lot of my heart, and I have a number of friends and family there, and the job prospects are somewhat better.)

Both of these have meant some complications for group work. I have one very wonderful student-if-we-get-to-move-forward, and I’ve had a couple of other emails of interest in the last few months. I’m doing my best to be up front and honest with them that right now, it seems like a mostly-hiatus until I figure out the job stuff makes sense.

Basically, I’m happy to do some initial exploration with people who are interested the group, but not start substantial training. Plus I need some time to rebuild my reserves before trying to run group ritual regularly again, since I’m needing to devote a lot of attention and focus to the job hunt plus related tasks (like figuring out how I’d pack and move quickly if I got a job in another area and weeding out old clothes/books I no longer need to own/other such tasks that would be good to have done no matter what happens.)

So, on to the background:

Now, as regular readers might remember, it’s not like this chronic medical issue thing is new to me. I’ve had an asthma diagnosis since I was about 19, and migraines since I was 15. These days, I manage both of them without prescriptions (other than a rescue inhaler for the asthma that I rarely need): I’ve made a lot of lifestyle changes to make that possible.

Both improved during my early Craft training: unbalanced energy (in the ritual/magical sense) was one among several of my triggers, so removing that obviously helped reduce the frequency of migraines. Likewise, while I’m a longtime musician (woodwinds, singing, and harp), with good training in various breathing approaches, my Craft training gave me a way to apply them in some specific ways that helped with asthma. (And working with an herbalist and becoming *very* aware of early triggers helped a lot otherwise.)

However, there are still some limitations:

  • Lack of sleep remains my most reliable migraine trigger: this means that rituals/classes/events that run late have always been a problem for me. (Especially since I’d need to be at work at 7 or 7:30: it’s hard to be at something until 10pm, drive home, have a bath, and still get 8 hours of sleep when that’s true!)
  • At this point, camping festivals are a lot more work for me than the enjoyment I get out of them. Basically, I can camp, or I can enjoy the festival. One-day outdoor events aren’t as bad, but still have complications.
  • Visiting people at their home is also sometimes complicated: I’m most allergic to dogs and to dust, so how someone deals with cleaning their home (and what pets they have) can make a big difference in when and where I can see them and how much time I can comfortably spend there.

And, of course, as with all chronic conditions, there are ups and downs. Sometimes I can deal with something just fine. And sometimes, usually due to a combination of factors, I can’t.

For example, I rarely have asthma issues anymore, but if we’re in the middle of fall (my worst seasonal allergies), and I’m running tired, and I’m at the home of someone with carpets and dogs (as opposed to wood floors and no pets), I’m more likely to have problems, or to need lots of extra recovery time (which I don’t have to spare right now.)

The new things in the equation:

The more recent conditions are both things I’m taking medication for. I’m extraordinarily fortunate that we figured out the treatment (and found me something that’s clearly working) as fast as we did: six months is amazingly rapid in terms of time from diagnosis to reasonable function for most cases.

That said, a few things have become really clear to me in the last couple of months:

  • I’m back to about 90-95% of my ‘normal’.
  • Unfortunately, that last 5% seems to have a lot to do with the speed with which I can get things done.
  • So most things (whether that’s household tasks or writing something) are taking me 2-3 times longer than I think they should.
  • It’s particularly complicated for things involving a combination of creative thought and precision communication – part of the reason I wanted to take a break from group ritual for a while. My ability to write at length and feel like it’s decent has only come back really well in the last few weeks.
  • My overall energy levels are much better, but I still have sudden dips that I don’t know how to predict well yet. Every day I learn a little more, but I’m still getting surprised on a regular basis.
  • I need to remember that dealing with relatively minor but tedious side effects takes time and energy too.
  • There are a lot of things about how my body works that are continuing to change: I’m seeing changes in hunger and metabolism, in sleep, in hormonal cycles, in how warm or cold I feel, and when and how I do my best focused work, to name just a few.

All of these things mean that I want to ease back slowly into specific kinds of ritual work – and especially group ritual work where I’d be the only initiate in the tradition in the group (and therefore responsible for doing a lot of the specific energy work, although there are also pieces that others could start doing relatively quickly if needed.)

Effects on ritual work:

General level of energy: One of the most basic: if I’m constantly exhausted from the very basic functions of the day (getting up, making sure I eat reasonably, do the things I need to do – work, work on finding a job, whatever), then there may not be a lot of me left over for other tasks. This is the Out Of Spoons problem. (If you’re unfamiliar with the Spoon Theory explanation of dealing with chronic illness, I recommend reading it.)

There are obviously ways to have a meaningful spiritual life while energy and time aren’t very available (and in fact, I just sent in an article on that for the 2012 Witches’ Companion almanac.) On the other hand, I have ritual itches that aren’t always scratched by those things.

Amount of time tasks take: Remember how I talked about things taking me longer? That’s just as true for ritual prep as it is for doing my dishes or writing an email.

Right now, I’m tending to work through what I want to do on one day, spend a day or two tidying and getting things together, then do the ritual work. Previously, I would have been much more comfortable coming up with the plan and doing it within a day (or maybe two.)

Ability to focus: There was a while in December when my focus was so bad I couldn’t read light fiction for 5 minutes at a time. (That would have been much scarier if I’d had the energy to be scared, I suspect.) Fortunately, that got better. However, the process of getting down into a trance state and being able to use it for various purposes have changed somewhat for me.

I’m currently working through basic exercises on a regular basis to see what’s changed for me, and how things are working now.

Executive function: One of the things that went totally away for me, for a disturbingly long time (it only started to come back  in late May) was what’s commonly called ‘executive function’ – the ability to make choices between options, to make decisions about what order to do things in, and so on.

Some choices remained fairly easy for me. (What book to read next). But a lot of choices got very hard for me, and I’d sit there looking blankly at my list of options for a long time before being able to move forward on anything. If I got distracted in the middle of a task, it took me forever (like half an hour) to get back on task. Needless to say, I have hugely more understanding for my friends with ADD and ADHD these days. Even when it started getting easier to make decision and stay on track, it was still tremendously tiring for me.

In ritual and Craft practice terms, it does present some challenges for creating and following through in ritual – and more complications when working with other people. In particular, I don’t want to fall back on the easy thing when really something else might be much better, if I could get past the decision tree problem.

Meditation and trancework: One interesting note on meditation and trance work in particular: while I tried a few times in the past six months, I kept getting a very clear message that it was not the thing I needed to be doing. It wasn’t painful or bad: just a persistent door closed in my face.

In the past month, I’ve done a couple of deliberately short and gentle forays into trance work again, and while those are not my best trance moments ever, they’ve been much more functional.

Ability to raise and focus ritual energy: Which is one of the core jobs of the high priestess in ritual, and certainly necessary for my own personal work. As you might guess from my previous comments on general energy levels, this one fluctuates (sometimes unpredictability) and is harder than it used to be.

That said, habit counts for a whole lot: when I have the energy to kick in the practices and techniques that I’ve learned and done regularly in group work, those practices carry a lot of the effort with them. Think of it like getting a shuttle into orbit: large cost to get it off the ground, but once you get everything moving, the tendency of things already moving to stay in motion helps out a lot. That said, I’m not currently at a place where I’d want to trust that in a ritual with high or very specific expectations (initiations, for example) just yet.

Commitments to deity, to coven energy: These are things I’ve mostly had to set aside (other than the most basic form of attention and devotion) for a while: I just haven’t had the spare energy to send out. The deity part has been fine: the coven energy piece is a lot more complicated. (And again, it’s a place where having another active initiate would have made things much easier.)

I think my solution to the coven one is that – once I feel my reserves are up to it and I can afford a day or two of recovery time without discombulating the job search – to reinforce a number of those commitments and connections again very deliberately. (Not quite recreating them, but tracing over them, so to speak.) That includes the coven’s communal astral space, but also some other commitments and connections.

Tradition: There have been some substantial changes in the group I hived from (and where I’m still very fond of people) in the last couple of months. I regret very much that my energy levels and amount of focus meant I was less able to be present and offer my thoughts (as one of the three third degrees in the tradition) than I really wanted to be.

I’ve been making up for it a bit in the last month – partly to catch up with people I just plain like (and to hear some of what they’re thinking about things now), but also because if I do end up moving for job reasons, I wanted to make sure I’d seen relatively recently if I have to do a quick move.

Attention to detail and ability to shift plans on the fly: Here we come to the reason I’m being really cautious about group ritual: I recognise that my ability to spot details (especially in areas where I have to work a bit more for it) and to adjust logistics and plans on the fly are still very shaky compared to my norms.

Now, granted, my norms in this area are pretty high – it’s part of why I love library work, for example. However, leading ritual for others, or formally taking them on as a student (with the energetic commitments that entails) mean I want to be really sure I’m able to notice any potential areas of concern when they’re still small. While I’m getting back to that point, I’m not quite there yet.

How I present myself: While I feel mostly like ‘me’ in that core way, I’ve had a number of internal shifts over the past few months. I’ve accepted the fact that the combination of health issues means that thinking of myself in at least some contexts significantly limited is a big shift for me. (As opposed to just having two well-managed conditions, where as long as I didn’t hit the sore spots, we were mostly fine.) Likewise, leaving a job and school community I’d loved for 10 years is a complicated thing emotionally, in the best of circumstances, which this wasn’t. (As there are a number of things I wish had happened differently in various ways, both things I did and things I had no choice in.)

But I’m aware that all of these things affect how people interact with me. I talk regularly with friends who have a good baseline on me, and I listen to what they say. I’m slowly working through some ritual work around the transitional bits. But I also want to make sure that anyone who meets me right now knows that some of how I’m doing things and how I must come across is a transitional state in some ways.

(Ok: Life is always a transitional state, but some times in life are more transitional than others.)

In particular, I’m still figuring out the best way to be clear that what ritual I can offer right now is not the full spectrum of possible intensities I’d normally prefer to work along. On a scale of 1-10, with most rituals being around the 5 mark – moving and changing, but designed to do so in small and manageable doses  – I’m averaging a 2-4. My normal range would spend a lot of time in the 5-6 range, with a very 8s, and the occasional 9 or 10 of initiations and other pivotal ritual moments for an individual or the group.

Integration takes time: The level of internal change and impact on my daily life from the last six months is probably *more* than any of my initiations, and more than either my marriage or divorce. (In large part because those things – while they had their challenges and really hard moments – mostly didn’t fundamentally change how I felt my brain worked in ways that were core to my self-identification.)

There’s really no solution for this one beyond time, self-awareness, and finding situations that stretch my new sense of myself in ways that help me grow into the spaces. I’m doing a combination of conversations with friends, journalling, other projects, and a bit of body modality work (Feldenkrais, in my case) that lets my brain try new things out that might work better in a structured context.

And in group terms – I’m not quite to the point where that’s integrated enough that I feel comfortable being responsible for leading someone deliberately into that state of needed-integration, and showing them ways back out: something core to initiatory work. I have a feeling I will be in a month, or two, or three. But not quite yet.

Onwards…

And now, if you don’t mind, it’s time for me to aim at bed, so I can get plenty of sleep, so I can get up in the morning, take my meds, wait a bit, have breakfast, and get some job applications out before meeting a friend for something like coffee. Part 2 of this – how I look at health issues in terms of group work (both my health issues and other people’s, and what kind of information I want to know about it when), will, I hope, happen tomorrow.

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