Death: A Pagan Perspective

My mother-in-law passed away quite suddenly last week, and in the wake of her death I have been pondering the nature of mortality. Two sides of the same coin, the meaning of life and the meaning of death are both difficult to ascertain. Both are questions that may take a lifetime to grasp, and we may never be fully satisfied with whatever answer we cobble together. It is in times like these that we look to our values and beliefs to point us towards clarity.

Death is perhaps the surest thing in the world. Each of us and every living thing we know will eventually meet its end. But death cannot truly be considered an end, because nothing–not time, space, or the particles of energy in the universe–ever truly perishes. Our bodies do not disappear upon the moment of death never to be seen again, and neither do ourselves.

You are not only a body but a memory existing in the minds of everyone you’ve ever touched. You are not only one person, but a collection of persons depending on who is thinking about you. Your mother might have one idea about how you are, while you show another side to your spouse, and the mailman has another recollection about your demeanor. Even your dog or cat calls a different image to mind when he sees you in his memory. Each of us will surely be remembered; you cannot live in this world without touching others with every move you make. Since we continue to exist in the minds of others long after our bodies are deceased, we know that death is only a transition out of the corporeal plane.

Whether or not our consciousness survives the transition is the subject of every religion on the globe, and what you hold to be true about your ability to think or remember after death is a very personal belief. Many religions believe that the consciousness remains after the physical body perishes, and is transmuted to heaven or hell. Others believe that the consciousness is reborn into another physical body through reincarnation. Still others believe that once the electrical impulses in the brain cease to fire, our consciousness ceases to exist. There is no way of knowing whether any of these are true. However, we can be sure that whether we are aware of it or not, people are thinking of us after we die. Once the memories have faded, the things we have taught others and the impressions we have made live on.

There are as many beliefs about the afterlife as there are religions, and pagan religions are no exception. Paganism does not hold one universal belief regarding the location of the consciousness of the deceased, but most pagan religions agree in their view of death as transformative. To put it simply, death is not an end, but a change. It is not inherently negative or positive, but merely an item in a universal (and expected, and predictable) sequence of events.

As we see in the wheel of the year, darkness overtakes light after Mabon. The earth grows cold and the trees seem to die. At Samhain, the God (the masculine element; the Sun) is slain and enters the underworld. But by Yule, or winter solstice, the God is reborn. The days grow long once more. By Ostara, night and day are in balance again. Light overtakes darkness by Beltane, and the earth is rich with blossoms and fruit. The earth remembers what it can be, and the Goddess becomes pregnant with life once more. From an ending springs new beginnings, and from darkness comes light.

This interpretation of death as cyclical is evident in the tarot card for Death. Though Death reaps what has been sown, new life springs in the fields. We could argue that the sun is both setting and rising behind Death: as one cycle ends, another begins. This transformation affects both those who pass and all who they have touched as the world adjusts to the absence of the dead person’s physical being. While the sun sets on one person’s life, the living reorganize their lives and their minds and begin again without that person. The living reap the memories the dead have planted once they are gone, and in this way we can continue to bring joy when we leave this world, no matter where our consciousness ends up.

Are Newborns Really That Difficult?

My son is five months old now, but I clearly remember googling the title of this post many times while I was pregnant. Truth be told, it was a question I’d been pondering for years as I considered whether or not I wanted to have children. For most of my life, I was convinced it was a plunge I didn’t want to take.

There was plenty of motivation for me to remain childless. For one thing, my upbringing in a single-parent household meant I’d grown up way too fast. At six years old, I was making grocery lists and balancing the checkbook. I felt as though I’d already raised my little sister, so why would I want to go through that again? It was time for me to be selfish. Then I spent half of my twenties under the thumb of an abusive, alcoholic boyfriend, and despite the way I allowed myself to be treated I knew for damn sure I wasn’t going to bring a child into that household. I was vaguely aware that the clock was ticking, but I was more concerned with survival at the time. The question of procreation remained dormant until I finally kicked that relationship to the curb.

At 27, after a year of soul-searching and self-healing, I got my life back on track, found a good man, and got engaged, and the perennial question cropped up again: did I, before my biological clock ran out, want to conceive and bear a child? Once I got married and had a stable home, the last excuse standing in my way was my own lack of belief in my ability to do so. Surely it would be too difficult, I thought. Kids made everything harder, right? Everyone said so; all of the memes on social media groaned about lack of sleep and messy houses and society’s tendency to shame parents no matter what choices they made. Parenting left you tired, and weak, and frazzled. Every time a teenager got pregnant, people muttered under their breath, “Look at her throwing her life away.” Well, what made getting pregnant as an adult any different? All of my negative beliefs around child-rearing left me paralyzed with indecision until I finally convinced myself to get knocked up by remembering that some of the dumbest people I knew had kids, so it couldn’t be that hard. As it turned out, the universe was ready to let me have a go at being a mom: I got pregnant on the second try.

Once I’d gotten myself in the family way, I took out an insurance policy in the form of public health classes and counseling to make sure I had all my ducks in a row before my own tiny meteorite made impact. The very fact that I did those things proved I would be a good parent, but I couldn’t see that at the time. I’d struggled with anxiety through my entire life, and being pregnant was a condition defined by uncertainty. On top of the usual stress that comes with creating life, I was a high-risk patient due to an abnormally shaped uterus, so I was terrified for just about every minute of my gestation. When I wasn’t riddled by the typical fears every pregnant woman experiences, like “Should I eat lunch meat?” or “Will I get stretch marks?”, I was beset with dire predictions from doctors about preterm labor and birth defects. To top it off, underlying the entire nine months was a deep suspicion that maybe I wasn’t cut out to be a mother. I suppose, after all, it was only natural to be so petrified: I was on the verge of the most life-changing experience I would ever have, and I had no idea what to expect. And so, in my spare time between bowls of ice cream, I googled things like, “Are newborns really that difficult?”

To answer your question, dear reader, Yes, yes they are. They are more difficult than that even. They are the most difficult creatures on the face of the planet, and it is a miracle the human race has survived this long. I knew babies were helpless, but I’d never been around them, and the thing no one told me was that they can’t do anything by themselves. Yes, they are obviously immobile and need to be fed and changed, but it’s so much more than that. In the beginning, they cry for everything, and it’s anybody’s guess as to why. There’s no distinction between being hungry, or sleepy, or full of gas: they just cry, without pattern, rhyme, or reason. You could play what’s-wrong-with-the-newborn bingo with the same card every day and still be surprised at the end of the week by which squares you crossed off. There’s no sense of time or pattern, and just because they were hungry at noon yesterday doesn’t mean they will be hungry at noon today. Some babies are born not understanding how to eat, and once they get it figured out you can expect to feed them every five minutes or every three hours (I swear this is inversely proportionate to how much sleep you’ve had). If they are uncomfortable, they can’t burp or even fart on their own, and so you must resort to patting, bouncing, or pumping their legs (if you magically figure out that that is what’s bothering him). The thing that surprised me most was that babies don’t even know how to sleep on their own. I thought that this, the most basic of functions, would come naturally to someone who had practiced in the womb, but no! You have to nurse or rock or, in our case, pace the house for hours and hours to put them to sleep. You are on the losing side in a war of attrition, and each day your stores get lower and lower, your reserves become depleted, and you feel as though this will never end.

After a few weeks of the above, my husband and I would stare bleakly into each other’s eyes and whisper, “This can’t go on forever. It has to get better eventually, or no one would have kids.” And it did, little by little, and by leaps and bounds between months three and four. (Listen up, first-time parents: the fourth trimester really is a thing.) Now, the worst behind us, my husband and I congratulate each other like war-weathered soldiers after a campaign that, despite much loss of life, was ultimately successful. Our baby is still a particularly difficult baby, but he is enjoyable to be around most of the time. His smiles and coos light up our lives more than we ever could have imagined. When he found his hands, learned to roll over, or discovered he could splash in the tub, there was an irreplaceable look of wonderment on his face that I look forward to with each new thing he learns.

If I could speak to my past pregnant self in those moments of self doubt when I looked for an answer about what being a mom was really like, I would say, “It’s the hardest thing you will ever do, but you are so much stronger than you know. You can handle it.” After all, that’s all I really wanted Google–or anyone–to tell me.

Beef Stew

Today when I awoke there was a chill in the air and by this afternoon it was raining hard. Luckily I’d planned ahead and cut up carrots and onions for stew last night. With a full-time job, a husband who works nights, and a colicky four-month-old, if I don’t plan ahead I end up eating cereal or fast food for dinner. That’s hardly the well-balanced fuel a breastfeeding mom needs.

I browned the meat and onions before work this morning and threw it all in the slow cooker with some beef broth, white wine, tomato paste, garlic, salt, and pepper, and put the pot in the fridge until lunchtime. At lunch I added the carrots and potatoes and set it to cook. By the time the baby fell asleep tonight, I had dinner ready to go. Sprinkle on some parsley, tear off some prepackaged rolls and voila, comfort in a bowl.

The magick of beef stew is in the tradition. When you make a pot of beef stew, you are following a ritual that has been passed down through the centuries. It is one of the oldest recipes known to mankind. Millions of people have eaten beef stew across every culture for as long as man or woman has walked the earth. Surely the first homo sapiens boiled a hunk of meat too tough to eat into a pot with some water until it was tender. Medieval wives tossed in freshly harvested root vegetables to feed their families. Even the witches of Salem spent cold nights curled up by the fire, bowl of beef and gravy in hand.

Beef stew is decidedly aligned to the earth. When you lift spoon to hand, you are ingesting the life force of the cow that walked upon it and the roots that grew in its soil. Like all earth magick, beef stew grounds you: it fills you up and connects you to your roots. It nourishes and holds you in its calming embrace.

It is good to prepare beef stew when you would perform any other earth ritual: when you are seeking comfort, strength, and grounding; assistance with childbirth or healing; upon the changing of the seasons; to seek wisdom about aging or growing into a new phase in your life; to nurture creativity; or to connect with the Goddess. You can also present a bowl to your favorite Capricorn, Taurus, or Virgo (the earth signs) to make amends or get in their good graces.

Today, I made beef stew to cast a spell on my home to envision it as a warm and cozy retreat over the impending winter. Before long, it will be so cold and inhospitable outside that extended exposure would cause death. I imagined my home as a cave in the earth like those used by the first men and women, and filled it with the aroma of meat and broth and vegetables to remember how many, many winters my ancestors have survived before me.