Saturday, March 25, 2023

Town Hall Questions: Rev. Melissa Ashton, NOD Candidate 2023

Hello, readers! I am running for Non-Officer Director for the ADF Mother Grove, and I thought you would be interested in my candidate questions. Feel free to reach out, if you'd like to discuss any of these! Blessings of the season be with you and yours.

1.    What vision do you see for the future of ADF, and what efforts do you plan to do to make that happen?

My vision for ADF is tied heavily to the work I am already doing. We need to update many of our documents and source materials to modernize. Improving our “boring parts” makes the interactive parts more engaging. I plan to continue my work with the organizational review committee, and being elected as NOD will allow me to further promote the improvements and innovations we are proposing in a wider scope. We are currently working on the training programs as they are migrated to the learning management system, and this new technology provides a myriad of opportunities for updating to educational best practices for adult learners including multimedia formats and resource materials beyond books and reading lists. Infusing Our Druidry with innovation, technology, and flexibility for ease of growth and building relevance in our modern society must be a priority.

Beyond this work, I have a passion for building relationships not only among ADF members and with the Kindreds, but also in our communities: local, national, and international. Not only with other pagans, but with other religions, and like-minded folks, and I would love to see more of this work done at an organizational level.

2.    If you are elected to your position, what is the first change you want to work toward on behalf of our members?

I don’t have a specific change in mind to be “first.” As mentioned above, the organizational review committee has identified a series of areas that need attention, and I would be happy to work toward implementing any of them. If I were to make a guess as to what would be the most impactful to the membership at large, I would advocate for the document control system. This would afford us a central repository for all policies, official documents, flyers, templates, letterhead, trifold informational pamphlets, etc. These could be accessed readily by all ADF members with version control, tracked changes, and approval records. This might seem like another “boring part” to most people, but it is the boring parts that keep an organization of our size operating smoothly. When the boring parts are out of order, the more engaging parts will often suffer.

3.    Serving on the Mother Grove is a huge commitment of time and energy. How will you fit your potential Mother Grove role into your life? (Note: if your position is not associated with the Mother Grove, you can skip this question.)

I have plenty of time for this. I work dayshift, Mon-Fri, and have quite a bit of career privilege that enables me to take time off and flex my work hours, if necessary. My work-life balance is well-protected, and I have the bandwidth for the commitment. My youngest son is also graduating high school, and the first thing that comes to mind regarding what to do with my time is to give it to ADF.

4.    If elected, do you have a willingness to serve your entire term, or if you are not elected, do you intend to remain as a member?

Haha, this wouldn’t be the first election I’ve lost! I am an ADF member and have no intention of changing that. If elected, I plan to serve my entire term, and if not elected, I plan to continue with the work I do for the org.

5.    Given the position you are running for, what efforts are you planning to do to promote transparency in your work?

I do hope we continue frequent town halls or other avenues for member facetime with the Mother Grove. Maybe periodic update articles submitted to Oak Leaves or the MG Blog when the new website goes live. I think the membership would appreciate more narrative updates regarding what we are doing and how that’s going.

6.    How quickly do you believe it reasonable to answer emails or some other form of messaging (not accounting for family emergencies, ritual prep, scheduled time away, or something else unexpected) on behalf of our membership?

Important or pressing matters should be answered within 12-24 hours. Non-pressing issues should expect a response within 24-72 hours. If we were to consider implementing even more professional habits, I would advocate for all incoming messages to be confirmed as received with an expected turnaround time for a full response to the content.

7.    Given the amount of qualified possible volunteers within our community, what thoughts do you have to more actively engage them?

Community engagement is an important part of growth and stability. I would love to see us revamp the appointment process and allow folks the opportunity to explore options of giving back to the org through their talents and time.

8.    What are your thoughts on promoting outreach within the Pagan community?

I am 100% an advocate for community outreach to the greater community. We should have members on the boards for as many Pagan Pride Days as possible. We should be involved in planning and hosting non-ADF festivals and events, attending other group’s high days and special events like Witches Ball, and even send a delegate to the Parliament of World Religions. Why not excellence?

9.    There have been concerns raised related to sexist/misogynistic language, inappropriate behaviors, and challenges to inclusivity within ADF. What actions have you done within ADF or within other organizations to address these issues?

This is a hard question to answer, because this will look different based on the individual asked. As a cis-gender woman, my intersection with these important areas of concern relies on the social power allotted to me in this role. I am an active member, as best I can be, of the Chenille Canopy—a group for female-identifying ADF members. I do my best to speak up and speak out when I observe behaviors to model that in others. Inclusivity issues are also dependent upon the specific social identifier causing an individual to experience discrimination. As an able-bodied person, for example, I have attended Rev. Chelly Couvrette’s workshops designed to educate and promote accessibility for differently-abled members and guests at our fires. As someone who does not possess an ability concern, it is my role to listen and not to teach. AND, when those who are differently abled provide feedback on their needs, my responsibility is to implement changes to improve their experience and be welcome and included in Our Druidry. There is a LOT to unpack here, and this is a question that needs a panel discussion more than anything.

10. How do you envision ensuring that that ADF members--whether those in a grove or solitary, within the United States or globally--are truly represented and their concerns addressed?

Short answer? I’d love to have a representative of the Solitaries of ADF on the Mother Grove. We have a Council of Senior Druids, and the Chief of the Council has a seat at the table. Why not create a seat for a “Chief” of the Solitaries?

11. What thoughts do you have to promote Mother Grove transparency for ADF members?

Comment periods. No, seriously. I honestly don’t think transparency is the biggest issue. Transparency and communication are essential to organizational effectiveness, and most folks who are unhappy are not unhappy about a lack of transparency. They are unhappy because they feel a decision was made that affected them and they didn’t have a voice in it. If we start sharing more information about items before the Mother Grove and allow for comments prior to take votes and implementing decisions, we would see an increase in member satisfaction with Mother Grove performance. People want to be asked about things that are important to them, and they want their opinions to be heard and considered.

That being said, the easiest way to alleviate concerns of the MG hiding or withholding information is to have open meetings. These would be similar to other governmental or board meetings for churches and large organizations like ours where they allow the folk to attend the meeting and comment/ask questions during the meeting proper. The biggest change to the process other than an open venue would be an assigned time keeper and a “parking lot” for items brought forward that are not already on the agenda. Once we begin working through the parking lot, and the folk see the MG is hearing and addressing their concerns, there will be a perception of “right relationship” that currently does not exist.

12. How have you already served ADF, and how do you envision those experiences will be helpful for the entire organization?

I have been a member since 2008, serving on a variety of subgroups, committees, and on the Mother Grove itself as Members Advocate for three terms. I am a Senior Priest and an Initiate. I am a study program reviewer and mentor. I am a Master Bard and the Clergy Advisor for the Order of Demeter and the Eleusinian Mysteries. I am the Secretary of the Clergy Council and a member of the Organizational Review Committee. I serve Mountain Ancestors Grove in Colorado and sit on the board of Fort Collins Pagan Pride. I have previously served on the board for PFLAG Boulder County, as well. I earned my Masters in Non-Profit Management with service to ADF as my focus, and I am looking forward to using this knowledge to aid in development and organizational leadership at the board level.

I have been involved with a wide variety of diverse groups and programs, and each one has helped me to grow toward the Druid I am becoming. I know how to write technical documents and manage spreadsheets. I know how to lead rituals and workings for experienced and novice participants alike. I know how to officiate weddings, funerals, and other rites of passage. I understand the differences between belonging to the Heartland of ADF where there are dense populations of pagans and belonging to the land where your grove is made of trees and no humans sharing your beliefs are anywhere to be found. I know the struggles of single mothers who want to observe the high day with a group but know their special needs child will be disruptive in a meditative od trance session so will only attend services that are family friendly and how it feels to miss out on some of those meaningful experiences. Above all, I know what it feels like to need to be heard and to have someone truly listen to you. That is what I want to bring to ADF.

Saturday, February 4, 2023

Home and Hearth: The Sounds of Home

During this time of cold and snow, we celebrate those things that bring us respite, that bring us comfort when there is so much outside that would make us uncomfortable. As I think all of you know, I had surgery last week, and with ample time on my hands to reflect, I found my thoughts returning over and over to the gratitude I feel deep in my bones for the comfort and peace of home. 

Home and HearthFire is what we at Mountain Ancestors call this feast day, because it is easy to take for granted all that our homes and hearths offer us, unceasingly, on a daily basis. 

It’s easy for me to forget how peaceful it is to sit and exchange gasses with my houseplants with a good book in hand and a cup of tea at my side when I haven’t made the time to do so in weeks. It’s easy to lose the wonder of modern miracles such as running water, automated heat, humming electric light, and machines of all sorts that do chores previously taking up hours of our time: the modern comforts of home. Comfort has been a refuge for me, a prized and fleeting gift between the pains and frustrations of recovery. But, it’s easy to get lost filling those at-home hours with media like Facebook, Netflix, Audiobooks, and Podcasts. The hard part for a people such as us in a society such as ours, one that values productivity and consumerism over quiet contemplation, is finding comfort of mind when our bodies force us to stop. 

Needless to say, I have spent a lot of time with Brighid and Eir over the past few weeks, seeking healing and offering gratitude for receiving it. Brighid was the first goddess I “met” as a new pagan, and she and I have grown together over time, our relationship taking a myriad of shapes and sizes. She is there for me every time I light a sacred flame, every time there is a need for healing or protection, and every time there is a desire for change. All of these workings are best done, for me, when I am in a place safe enough to surrender myself to the work, which is what makes her embodiment of the hearth so important to my personal shrine work.

I am grateful to my spiritual practice, to the time spent practicing and building relationships with the Kindreds that is my foundation and muscle-memory for engaging in behaviors that bring peace to my spirit. Those practices help me find peace of mind and open my eyes to the respite from the world that exists around me in my home. That’s what the Home and Hearth teach us: to find rest and quiet and comfort in the things we already have, the things that are always there waiting for us when we return from traveling through our loud and busy world. We need only look and listen.

As a one-time bard, sound also holds significance for me. The sounds of home are equally important to my sense of safety and comfort: a brewing pot of coffee, the automatic ice maker filling and emptying and filling again, even the white noise of the central heat whispering through the air ducts. These are the sounds of home. 

My favorite sound is the sound of falling snow, though we don’t attribute sound to snow. When the snow begins to fall, from the vantage of physics, sound waves lose their ability to travel freely through the air. Snowfall dampens sound waves and brings a silence far deeper than can be experienced in its absence. That silence can be difficult for us. Our minds are constantly processing the cacophony of life, even if it’s just the white noise of gadgets and appliances. But standing outside in the back yard while snow is falling, there is nothing to hear but your own blood rushing through your veins, your breath filling and evacuating your lungs, your heart beating rhythmically in your chest. If you listen beyond these sounds--the sounds of the life within you that our world drowns in modernity, you will hear the sound of nothing. What a gift! 

“Nothing” requires nothing of you. It doesn’t care what you’re wearing, what job you have, how much overtime you’ve worked this week, how much you weigh, how much money is (or is not) in your bank account. Nothing doesn’t care one bit. Nothing beseeches you to be still and silent and drink in even more nothingness. It implores you to just be. In the spirit of embracing this nothingness, this place where we may find silence and peace and acceptance and yes, comfort, I call to us all to remember it is always there. When we find this moment and recognize it as the core of our home and hearth and heart, we can fall back on it and conjure it up at any time to bring us peace and strength through any “something” life throws at us. 

May the gifts of comfort and nothingness bless our hearts and hearths, and may we rest in gratitude for that which is already ours. 

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

A Winter Solstice Blessing

As the wheel turns round toward the darkest part of the year, 
As the Mother sleeps and all is cold,
We are reminded that it is the darkness framing the light that allows us to notice its brightness.
Waning light descending into night
Hear the words we offer to you
During this time of transformation.

Carry our worries and hardships of the past year with you into the darkness,
And free us from the past that we may move freely into the new year unburdened.
Waxing light ascending into the heavens once more, 
Having been grounded and freed from those burdens of the past, 
Be cleansed as you leave the bosom of the Earth,
Made whole and holy once more,
Renewing each of us as your healing rays rain down upon us
In streams of Awen for transformation, inspiration, and creativity.

Returning Light, may you be a beacon of hope, of promise, and of good luck in the year to come.
Solstice blessings!

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Prayer to The Denizens of the Cosmos

I watched "Good Night Oppy" with Rev. William the other day, and I was utterly inspired. After spending hours combing through photos from the James Webb Telescope, this documentary opened my heart even more to the forces of Order and Chaos that swirl about in space. So many of the images seem to have hands, fingers, faces. I cannot help but feel in my heart that the Divine--a word we use to describe that which is far bigger, more eternal, and yet affecting us here in the middle realm--is tangibly real. During #PrayerADay, I wanted to say a prayer to those beings, far beyond our comprehension and millions of lightyears away, to let them know I see them and know they are there. 

Denizens of the Cosmos,
We seek for you still. 
We sought for you when we charted
the movement of the stars. 
We sought you when we configured watch glasses to allow us to see further into the night sky. 
We sought you with telescopes, satellites, and rockets launched into space,
And we seek you still. 
One thing is certain, 
We seek and will keep seeking,
Because we know in our heart-of-hearts that 
We are not alone. 

Photo Credit: NASA James Webb Telescope
Pillars of Creation (NIRCam and MIRI Composite Image)

Thursday, November 17, 2022

2022 Prayer a Day Challenge

 For 2022, I am participating the November #PrayerADay challenge. For the entire month of November, I have committed to write a prayer a day that aligns with my vocation as a priest and my path as a pagan. 

One of my prayers this month was to the Spirit of Inspiration (see text below). This prayer is meaningful to me as an example of my internal call to those powers that grant us inspired words for prayers, writing, speaking, and creating more formal works such as poetry and song in praise of the Kindreds. 

May these words bring inspiration to your works and your hearts!

Image of the rosy dawn on the front range rocky mountains:

We call to those who bring us inspiration. 
As we seek to create, to bring into life new works of art, of song, of speech, of kitchen craft, 
We make offerings to you.
Inspire our minds with plans for our works.
Plant the seeds of songs and poems in our hearts.
Grant us ideas for writing, for speaking, for building.
Guide our senses to new tastes and scents,
And open our hearts to share what we have created
That we may share this joy with those around us. 
Hail to thee, bringers of Inspiration!
Hail to thee, guiders of intellect!
Hail to thee, whose strength and dexterity blesses our hands.
Beings of Creativity, we honor you.

Sunday, October 16, 2022

Praying to Hel

I recently had the privilege of attending a local Heathen Kindred's Helsblot. We gathered for feasting and fellowship beforehand, sharing recipes from those we have loved. The Gothi (Heathen Priest) reminded us of the importance of relationship with the Goddess of the Underworld, since despite her relevance to each of us who will not die in battle, she still remains a figure of contention among Heathen folk. I can understand the desire to want distance from her father, Loki, another hotly contentious member of the pantheon; however, as much as we strive not to be held accountable for the "sins" of our own fathers, I find it interesting that folks shun her for events in which she took no part. The Gothi reminded us that when Baldr was slain, Hela was already in Helheim. She played no part in his death. She was even willing to allow him to return if all living things would weep for him. Despite her best efforts, her father ruined it and refused to weep for Baldr in the guise of an old woman.

I have long had a relationship with Hela, and I find no ill feelings in that space save what I bring with me. Death and grief are difficult for human brains and heart attached to our loved ones with such ferocity and depth, and yet she remains still and unwavering in the face of our most unbridled outbursts of anguish. 

Today, I offer you this prayer to Hel that you may see her through eyes that have looked into her face and found nothing but acceptance and truth, even if cold. May she bring stillness to hearts in mourning during this time when the Ancestors are most near.

The Children of Askr and Embla call out to The Mother of Bones, 
To the Lady of Tears, the Goddess of Rot and Decay. 
Lady Hela, Goddess of the Underworld, we honor you. 

As our loved ones pass from this realm, we lay our burdens at your feet, 
Our grief, our sorrow, our pain, and our anger— 
All fitting offerings—for you know well the love from which they are borne. 

We offer you our honor and respect 
As the caregiver and provider of our beloved ancestors. 
The Legions of the Dead will always be free from hunger and thirst at your table. 

We bring our fears of the unknown and look into your eyes, 
Eyes of both life and of death, 
To find our courage and the strength to face what is yet to come. 

Goddess of Death and Keeper of Souls, 
We ask that our suffering be limited when our threads reach their end. 
If there must be pain, may your death-blow be swift. 
If a swift death is not possible, may we be surrounded by those we love to ease our passing. 
And if we must leave this realm alone, may our death be one worthy of memory. 

When we take our steps across the Gjallar Bridge to meet you, 
We shall bow our heads in reverence at your hospitable welcome after a life well-lived. 
Hail to thee, Lady Hel!

Sunday, September 4, 2022

Hanging Portraits of the Dead

When I first began the work of building an Ancestor practice back in 2008, the idea of connecting to some of my dead was...unappealing. There are folks in my life who caused me great pain when they were alive, and the veil between us brought me a sense of comfort, of safety. Part of the work of the ADF Dedicant Path is to connect to all three Kindreds, and without this important breakthrough, I knew I would be unable to complete it. 

Fast forward to today, I now have a strong Ancestor practice; in fact, it is probably the most consistent and deeply intimate part of my personal shrine work--and it is much easier to engage with because of our Ancestor Box practice. 

Developed by Three Cranes Grove, ADF, the Ancestors Box is a place where mementos, photos, obituaries, small items that they once owned, etc., are stored for eleven months of the year. The moon service prior to Ancestors Night, or Samhain, holds significance as the evening the box is opened. For the duration of a moon cycle, we take out our mementos, photos, obituaries and trinkets to commune with those who have gone before us, to tell their stories, and to remember their names that they may live on. Then, on the moon rite after Ancestors Night, the box is closed. 

Leapfrogging through time with the Ancestors this way provides opportunities to engage with their stories in a healthy way. There are boundaries to engaging in this work, a clear end point, and the knowledge that we are the ones in "control" of the interactions. While not all Ancestors will require this level of planning and coordination, when it is necessary, the work becomes manageable and even fruitful. There may be certain Ancestors we never work with because of what they broke when they were yet alive, and those are personal decisions we each have to make. We now follow this tradition here at Mountain Ancestors Grove, ADF.

Since I began my Ancestor work in 2008, I have muddled through my grief, my frustration, my anger, my resentment, my disappointment, and the death of the hope I carried that things between me and some of my relatives be made right: I had to accept that none of them were ever going to say, "I'm sorry." Just, oof.

I've had many more of my relatives pass away since then, as well, and I've continued to add them to the box and do the annual work of engaging in their memories, our relationships, and my healing through it all. At our home, we have the main Ancestor Shrine for our family's dead as well as an Ancestors Wall on the main shrine where we place the photos of members of the community who have passed. Up until today, the wall behind our family shrine has held only one photo of my dead: that of my father. Managing my grief process and reconciliation after his death was HARD. Much existed between us that was left unsaid, since he took his life through intentional overdose. Having his picture up was a mark of the work we did together after his passing, and I am grateful to him for many life lessons that have made me a better person. 

I have been resistant to hanging other photos, even though I have so many more relatives to place on our family tree of the dead. My husband already has everyone up, including folks with whom living relationships were difficult, and despite the slight pang of guilt I felt with additional photo (internal guilt, he's been great about it), I have never been motivated to add more photos to my side of the wall. 

A few weeks ago, my mother's biological mother, Ursula von Stephen, passed away at the age of 89. I found out through Facebook, and my mother and her family were left off the obituary. They've never been a part of my life, so I harbor no ill will toward them for the oversight. It is one more reflection of the vast chasm between us despite our shared blood. Interestingly, Ursula's passing sparked within me a desire to preserve our part her story. Reading the obituary shows that her connection to us will not live on without intentionality. My aunt posted some lovely photos, and I printed one for the wall. Her name, and her connection to those who come after me, will live on though us.

However, this presented me with a conundrum: I have other relatives that should already be on the wall! Their names began floating before me: Shirley Lou Caniff, my grandmother. Edward H Caniff, Sr, my grandfather. Deborah Ellen Burchfield, my mother-in-law. Paul Milton Burchfield, my father-in-law. These are my BELOVED dead, folks whose influence and love marked me in too many positive ways to count. Was I really entertaining putting up my estranged grandmother before I added them to the wall?

Well, yes, of course I was. We were estranged, which meant it was safe to put her up. My dad was up there, because I did the work to bring myself healing. My estranged grandmother doesn't require work, because I have long been at peace with our arrangement. My paternal grandparents and my in-laws--now that stings. Their loss still wells up within me, and keeping my grief locked away in the Ancestors Box for eleven months a year was enabling me to nurse my grief rather than allowing true healing to descend (read that again if that resonated with you). I have spent so much of my time focusing on how to work through the death of folks with whom I was not in right relationship that I took for granted how much work is still required when there are peace and love between us. 

For me, and I suspect for all of us, we have a tendency to assume we only need to engage with intentionality when we have a wound that must be healed. When someone who has wronged us passes away, we are the sole party left in the relationship who is capable of bringing the peace that comes with true closure. After crossing the River of Forgetfulness, the Ancestors do not hurl insults or angry threats at us. All of that negative talk lies within us and lives on in the memories we carry of our time together when they were alive. When the memories of those who have hurt us are invited to the table, we are the ones who bring fear, uncertainty, anxiety, and the shadows of all we have been through with us. So, we do the work to guard our hearts and heal our spirits. And, those whom we loved dearly who depart with our blessings for safe passage to the Otherworld deserve our intentionality, too. 

Today, my husband helped me hang their portraits, and I wept. It was a brief spurt of tears as their faces staring back at me reminded me of what I have lost in them. Now, I begin to complete the work of filling in the cracks in my heart left behind by their passing with gold. May their memories always be a blessing.