Restin’ Them Bones

Go and get my bones,
Bring ’em to the Deep South,
Somewhere they can thaw out,
Here in the the Deep South…

A black and white photo of the grave of an unknown soldier in Friendship Cemetery, Columbus, MS, restin place of both Union and Confederate soldiers from the Battle of Shiloh. The grave marker itself stands upright, has a very slightly elevated point in the middle, and appears to have been white or light colored originally, but is now covered in a layer of grime. An equal-armed cross adorns the top and the word "unknown" is written in large block letter along a curved line in the middle of the marker. A large, gnarled tree root buts up against and then grows up the bottom right corner of the stone. Other grave markers can be seen, blurred in the background.

The grave of an unknown soldier in Friendship Cemetery, Columbus, MS, restin place of both Union and Confederate soldiers from the Battle of Shiloh.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve never been a stranger to death. Or rather, Death™ has never been a stranger to me. My father passed away when I was 6 months old, his father following 6 months later. After that, it was a seemingly endless parade of funerals and funeral processions through the country roads of the North Mississippi and broader Mid-South until I tuned 19. At that point, I was seemingly granted a reprieve until 23 when my first close high school classmate left us unexpectedly. At this point, I feel like my dealings with Death and death have been at fairly ordinary intervals, but when you stare her in the face more often than not as a child, it leaves an irrevocable mark. This mark has led to my relationships with ancestor veneration, methods of divination, certain deities, and my practice in general.

Recently, my uncle passed away. It was somewhat unexpected and definitely hit me hard. The more I thought about it, the worse I felt cause it had been a while since I’d seen him. Then I realized that my younger cousin has never really faced the death of a close loved one, let alone a parent. Her older brother was ~12 when our grandmother passed away, but she was only 5. I know she’s been to other funerals, but that’s not the same. They’ve been amazingly strong, but I know hoe deep-seated that pain can be and how quickly it can come rushing to the surface with the force a tsunami without a moment’s notice.

This funeral was different for me in many ways, too. This is one of, though not THE first time I’ve attended a family funeral as my adult self. For my very rural family, sometimes this presents the issue of “explaining” me to their friends and neighbors as I walk in with blue hair, stretched ears, and a face full of metal. Now Daddy’s side could care less what anyone else thinks for the most part, but Momma’s is the opposite. Thankfully, as weird and wrong as that sounds, this was Daddy’s side, but it doesn’t change the way death always seems to mark me as an outsider since I’ve become an adult. Of course a funeral that isn’t mine isn’t about me, so it just leads to long-term suppression of those emotions that tend to erupt down the road in unpredictable ways.

The drive to rural North Mississippi alone gave me a lot of time to reflect on my own thoughts about death and afterlife. This was compounded by the times I had to zone out because the message that may or may not have been comforting to every other person in the room was doin nothin but grating my nerves. I found myself pondering the Greco-Roman nature of the rural funeral parlor, the motifs a mix of Christian and pagan elements, wondering if I was the only one to notice. It certainly allowed a much needed escape while pinned between in-law-esque family members that would likely string me up were they to ever learn of my religious practice or beliefs. I guess it’s worth noting here that I’m not actually related to these particular folks, but I know em well enough to know their thoughts on the matter. But these Greco-Roman pediments led down an ADHD trail of my own musings about what comes next. In that same vein, I always worry what family who pass will think of me as they view me from their Otherworld, but I swear if I didn’t feel a bit of comfort from my uncle, a Southern Baptist preacher, as if I felt him laid a hand on my shoulder and tell me he understands when envisioning adding him to my ancestor shrine space.

I firmly believe in an afterlife, but what that looks like, I frankly have no idea. For me, it feels natural at this point to think that I’ll spend some time with Donn after passin on before movin on to Tír na nÓg (or some other realm of existence) at some point. But do I think that same reality applies to everyone? I don’t know. Comin from an evangelical Christian background, a background that told me that everyone goes one of 2 places despite whatever religious convictions they held in life, I find it ridiculous to reassert that same belief system that forces everyone in to a cookie-cutter conception of an afterlife. So where does that leave me? Honestly, at an impassible juncture as of now. Ultimately, I’m not sure it matters; what happens after death is what happens, regardless of what I might like it to be. Maybe we each go where we believed we’d go in life. Maybe we can visit other peoples’ afterlives. Maybe we all go to the same place. Maybe there’s not anything after this. At some point, it becomes counterproductive for me to continue to dwell on the future in that capacity when there’s so much to be done in the here and now. And that’s where it’s left me.

But drivin those small town roads, a caravan of vehicles farther in each direction than the eye could see as we crested those Mississippi Pine Country hills, made me realize how much “home” is here for me. The casseroles, the funeral chicken, the good memories, all call to me in a time of death and remind me that Death will always be a constant companion, even if we lose touch for a little while. Despite what anyone else has to say about it, my home is here in the rituals, the landscapes, and the people of the South. Regardless of where I draw my breath, it always will be. I’d be just fine with an afterlife on the old family property, watchin the next generations learn and grow, protectin them, guidin them, and remindin them of those feelins of home. This is where I want to be, where I belong, and where I’ll hopefully one day rest my bones. Anything else is just gravy.

My Polytheism

6 people stand in this image, 2 to the left and 4 in the center and right. All are fressed in solid black. The person on the far left is  femme, has glasses and is holding a  sign, bit the text isn't visible. The person next tonthe right is in a hijab. Both of these people are looking toward the other 4 people. The next person is femme, has medium-dark skin, is wearing several small buttons, and is smiling widely at a person farther right. The next person is a light-skinned PoC with long hair andnis looking down. She is wearing sunglasses. the nest person is a light skinned white masculine person with his hair pulled up in a bun. He is wearing a rainbow bracelt, white arm band, sunglasses, abs is speaking into a microphone. The last person is Asian, is looking at the person to  the left, and is standkng with his hand on his hip.

Organizers speak at the #MassClassExit staged by #UTDiversityMatters at the University of Tennessee -Knoxville in spring 2016.

I’ve done a lot of thinking about my own religious practice lately. I’ll start by sayin that I’ve been in what I often hear referred to as a “fallow time,” or so I thought. See, I’ve been in a place in my life where I haven’t had much time to devote to religious practice. I just graduated with a BFA in Photography and BA in Religious Studies after a 12 year uphill battle. I was also simultaneously working 3 jobs and heading up a group of student leaders trying to save our LGBTQIA+ Center from a university and state legislature that are hellbent on forcing us back into the closet. Sure, I think it about religion regularly and a while back came to the conclusion that my life and decisions are constantly influenced by my religion (that’s another topic I’ve been meanin to talk about since right before Gods & Radicals really seemed to blow up. But that’s for another day) but I rarely had much time to do anything about it. But now that I’m taking a year off to prep for grad school, I should have more time for my religious practice, right? Well, that’s what I thought, too.

But I’ve come to a realization. As my life is so influenced by my view of my gods, what they would find pleasing, and what they expect from me, I noticed what had been in front of me all along. Just as my practice has and will change when shifting regions, it had changed without me even noticing. I was living my Polytheism. My activism, organizing, and protesting was inspired by and an honor to Na Mórrígna. My work with fellow Queer people was honoring Manannán mac Lir, forging new and liminal spaces and working with people transitioning in various ways. My attempts to create a safe space, a home away from home or in lieu of home as so many of us described it, honors Brighid. Working, existing, and forging new spaces in the South, upholding the almighty Southern hospitality honor my ancestors, both recent and ancient. My work in emergency veterinary medicine, my source of income and first passion, honors Flidais. My healing and nursing honor Airmid and Miach. My care of the suffering, even if it means ending their suffering, honors Donn, too. My studying and academic aspirations honor Ogma. Filling in the gaps and making everything work honors Lugh, the master of all trades.

A black mortarboard sits on a wooden desk. The mortarboard has been painted to say

A collage of graduation accoutrement

All of these ideas act on my simultaneously and I act them out in return. They are a part of me. I am a part of them. While I have every intention of resuming regular offerings and prayers, celebrating holidays with big meals, and all the other things I’ve done in the past, I also realize that it doesn’t have to look like that. My Polytheism is just that: MINE. It is a lived tradition. It is an evolving tradition. One that I hope to grow and pass down, to share with others, but one that that is ultimately mine.

That said, I’ve already started setting up shrines in my new space and I couldn’t feel more at home.

Local Cultus and the Winds of Change

I’ve been doin a lot of thinkin about local cultus lately. In fact, some of it even came up in my undergraduate thesis I submitted just a few weeks ago. But much of it is in relation to what I’m now realizing is a major shift in my life. As of August, I will officially be a graduate of the University of Tennessee with a BFA in studio art and a BA in Religious Studies, plus a minor in American Studies (I technically already graduated when I walked in May, but that’s another story). As this happens, more changes will happen. As with most college students, I’ll be moving soon after graduation, but I’m not your average college student. 

I was born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee, a proud graduate of Memphis City Schools in 2004. I then moved from the Mississippi Delta to Appalachia, attending the state’s flagship school on the other end of Tennessee in Knoxville, nestled in the valley just west of the highest peaks in the Eastern US. This was a culture shock in every way imaginable and it left a major mark on me. What I didn’t know then was that college would be a time of immense struggle, also in every sense of the word, and I wouldn’t graduate until 2016. 

Though I’d begun explorin Paganism in high school, college was the first time I hadn’t lived under the almost literal Panopticon set up by my parents, finally bein able to freely explore and practice without lookin over my shoulder. We’ll skip the boring details and play by play, but it dawned on me the other day as I thought about moving back to Memphis that this will be the first time I’ll be practicing Polytheism for any length of time outside Appalachia. As that occurred to me, I also thought about what Allie, a local and friend of mine, said to me once when I commented about Appalchian identity: “You’re one of us now.” That simple phrase has stuck with me for a few years now because I recognize its truth; Appalachia has had a lifelong influence on me that I didn’t even see happenin. As much as I’m a Memphis boy and always will be, I’ve spent 40% of my life and all of my adult life in Knoxville. How could I not have seen the impact it had on me? 

In turn, this made me mull over how much influence my time here has influenced my view of Na Dé. I so often feel Flidais in the mountain breeze, see Lugh in the storms comin in off the Cumberland Plateau, or seen Na Mórrígna in the faces of campus minority students fighting for our very right to exist at this hostile HWI in a violent, white supremacist state that gave rise to the first iteration of the KKK. Will a move change the way I experience the gods? Will it sever a link? Was it Appalachia that drew me to them? I see how my friend Mary conceptualizes New Orleans in her Hellenic practice, how perfectly fitting it seems, and try to imagine Gaelic Polytheism there; I can’t seem to. Will new gods call me as I move? 

But as I think more, I also know that the hearth of the fires stoked here often lie in  bricks and kindlin laid in West Tennessee, in a city that has struggled to exist since 1819. I then can see the ways I’ve maintained connections to the Bluff City, even in the ways I’ve left offerings, i.e. floating paper boats with fruit for Manannán Mac Lir down the Tennessee River because it connects to the Mississippi, flows past my hometown, and then into the Gulf of Mexico before bleeding into the Atlantic and touching the Gaelic lands. I see the random patches of tree in the middle of urban sprawl that team with The Cattle of Flidais. I remember my home, also the home to the National Civil Rights Museum built inside the Lorraine Motel after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. These things shaped the earliest me, even if Appalachia did some reimagining and refining. 

In all likelihood, my practice will change, just as I will. That doesn’t mean I won’t remember and honor Appalachia, always carrying a piece of her with me and leaving a piece of myself behind. After all, I’ve been gone from Memphis for 12 years now, but I still feel connected there. It’s still home in a way I’m not sure anywhere else ever will be. Will I stay there? Not if things go as planned. My path will hopefully take me to Atlanta, an almost seemingly perfect mix of East and West Tennessees, but only time will tell. I’m both excited and terrified by the road that lays ahead, but I know I’m also gonna face it head on with Na Dé Ocus Andé around me, but in the mean time, take a moment to breathe.