What “Happily Ever After” Really Means

Lunar Letter

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ear Miracles,

You know the phrase “And they lived happily ever after”?

Has there ever been a phrase that has generated more doubt, cynicism, hopelessness – and yet through it all, more hope and desire – than this one? I think not.

When we hear the words happily ever after we typically meet them with an eye-roll, an exasperated shrug, an annoyed “pfft! Yeah, right.” The promise of happily ever after has been betrayed too many times for anyone in the modern world to really buy into it. If that isn’t the first reaction, then it is something closer to this: happily ever after sounds great, and maybe it can even really happen…but only for other people, and certainly not for me.

Every time we witnessed as children our parents fight, our teachers check out, and our friends be unfair – or as we witnessed much, much worse happen to our bodies, to our homes, neighborhoods and communities – the message was driven home: happily ever after is for suckers. The world seems so unhappy, and no adult certainly seems happy: who wants to be a sucker? Wake up and get real. And then, as we entered into adulthood and experienced the pressures of life for ourselves: making money, making love, making a home, a career, a name, a difference, we felt it again: happily ever after is a cruel lie made crueler by the fact that deep down it is what we most want or what some small piece of us believes is still possible. More than more money, sex, health or love – under all of those is our hope, our silent yearning and our absolute disbelief in the possibility of happily ever after .

happily ever after is an idea that reveals just how divided within ourselves we really are. Exactly for this reason, this phrase and its native ground in the fairy tale are useful tools, for they point to where the real work is for us, ultimately to the possibility of discovering a genuine and lasting wholeness.

I think a great illustration of this division is the popular conceit right now that you can choose to have a happy life or an interesting life but that you cannot have both. The notion is that a happy life is a stable, normal life, so for us in America it would look something like a stable marriage, 1.5 kids, and a white picket fence, a diversified stock portfolio – so they say. An interesting life, on the other hand, involves grand adventures, travel to exotic places, love affairs that end as passionately as they begin, great art and food and music. But you won’t have someone to come home to at the end of the day or if you are coming home to someone there will be lots of existential conflict and difficulty.

Those who encourage a worldview split between happiness and passionate interest claim that you cannot choose, cannot have both. When we look at the sources from which happily ever after springs, however, we discover that the idea is much richer than it sounds at first blush, and we might even find that a happy life and an interesting life are closer together we think.

Much like their best-known ending phrase, the fairy tales we grew up with as children had a reputation of being very sweet and just as unlikely. But much has been written and said to help us remember that this is not the native truth about fairy tales, that these stories are often much edgier, scarier, and bloodier than their more recent cleaned-up versions suggest. Or, to put it in a different way: the pressures of life, what we once called the necessities, are not overlooked in fairy tales but on the contrary are the fulcrum around which such stories turn.

Fairy tales do not seek to dispatch with difficulties; rather, they teach us how we might engage them more directly and more fruitfully. It is easy to hear in the phrase “and they lived happily ever after” or in many of the other effortless resolutions we find at the end of a fairy story, the attitude of hearkening back to some once upon a time, a golden age, as perfect as it is unreal. But that sensibility is alien in the stories themselves.  The tales are about the hardships we face in life, told and created by the people who live up close and personal to those same hardships, who often knew fear, hunger, danger, and powerlessness much more intimately than we do today.

So it is not honest to say that the idea of happily ever after is simply pie in the sky emerging from a more innocent time, place, and people. Perhaps then it was a phrase of escapism – in real life, stories did not end well and many hardships were not overcome.  But in our stories at least we could give our heroes and heroines the happy ending they deserve.

But what is escapism if not the movement from an idea that is real and knowable to an idea that is at once more real and contains more mystery? This is what J.R.R. Tolkien meant when he wrote that every airplane wishes to escape into being a bird and every cathedral secretly desires to become a grove of trees. So here too the argument that happily ever after is merely spun sugar escapism falls flat. The idea of happily ever after carries weight and pain exactly because we know that it or something like it really does exist and is possible.

Another argument is that because fairy and folk stories came from lower classes, happily ever after was inspired by economic mobility and the much easier lives of the wealthy nobility. Yet even a cursory glance at fairy tales reveals to us kings who lose their kingdoms, queens who cannot have babies, and royal children who are kidnapped, betrayed, and even killed.  Hard necessity is an equal opportunity player in fairy tales and folk stories.

So then we are left with another fresh possibility. Perhaps the real meaning of the phrase “and they lived happily ever after” is not what we think it is. Is it possible that living happily ever after is not to live in absence of suffering, pain, loss, difficulty, and death?  Could it be that happiness is living with all of those experiences (as well as job, love, desire, hope, and beauty) in a certain way?

In this way what we witness in these old stories is not a utopia or an unrealizable ideal, but in fact the possibility of a living happiness. This living happiness becomes a promise only if we are willing to rise up and meet the challenge: how to find life gladdened, enlivened, enriched, empowered and enchanted, not because bad things never happen to good people, or times are never chaotic or devastating, but exactly and precisely because they do and they can be.

Now when I use the phrase “and they lived happily ever after” in the stories I tell, I pose it as a dare: when they least expected it, when it seemed most improbable, they discovered the source of a living happiness…will we?

magic, miracles: receive my lunar letters

ARRIVING on full moons each month.

There is Always Hope

Lunar Letter

Dear Miracles,

There is always hope! Soulful seekers know this to be true and they live it every day. Even when it seems nothing can be done, even when it seems all is lost, a powerful ray of hope can still be found.

“Uh-huh,” we all might say, “Right. I wish this were true, but you haven’t seen my life or walked in my shoes. You’re being unrealistic and a total pollyana. It’s better, or far easier, to be a pessimist, to cut our losses and run.”

I’ve had those thoughts before and I know that some of you have too. But we don’t stop there, do we? Not at all.  Because of her hope, our soulful seeker is in fact more realistic than the realistic tough guy, and therefore also more resilient and tougher as well. Why? Because she knows something else. She knows a little secret that gives her hope.

In this Lunar Letter, I am going let you in on that secret. I am going to let the cat out of the bag.

Standing at the many crossroads of life – and there are so many! – the soulful seeker knows a little something about Soul and its particular and unique sources of power and potency. What is the power of the Soul? It is the real ability to transform bad situations into good ones, to turn a loss into a victory, to allow a scar to become an ornament and to find blessings in the broken places – in our lives, our stories, our relationships and the wide, wide, world.  If we can explore this actual ability deeply enough, and live it as far as we can, new hitherto unexpected and unimagined pathways open to us.

The truly miraculous thing about the Soul is that its powers are entirely within our grasp. They are powers native to every human being. What are these powers? X-Ray vision, invulnerability, web slinging? Not hardly. A special talent or “genius” that sets us apart, makes us unique, makes us special? No.

The powers of the Soul are not found within the pages of a comic book or tale of witches and wizards. You need not be bit by radioactive spiders or spend time in a colorful leotard in order to acquire them. These powers have been with us since, as CS Lewis writes, time out of mind – long before you or I were here in the world, and they will remain long after we have departed. They are the powers native to our very humanity that transform life-sucking and heart-breaking situations into life-bestowing gifts.  And as most true and genuine things are, these powers are easily overlooked for flash and dash of other less effective ones.

Again we ask, what are these abilities?  They are none other than: courage, justice, wisdom, moderation, faith, hope, and love. These words have lost their fashion in our time, but they refer to real capacities of heart and mind. We don’t like to speak of them as virtues, and so they lay fallow and unknown. But they need not be. These are your internal powers, abilities which, if cultivated and cared for, will help you in tangible ways transform bad life situations into better and more life-bestowing ones.

Surprised? See for yourself. Look all around the world’s traditions, cast your net far and wide, and you will find that the most sacro-magical and liminal of medicines, aim in actual fact for the restoration and cultivation of these internal powers of the Soul, powers traditionally known as the Virtues.

In older and more comprehensive ways of understanding, to be in touch with the power of the universe is to be in  touch with the power of the soul, for the soul of a living creature and the soul of the world are one.  To be in touch with one’s deepest most desired medicine is to touch these sources, and have available whatever virtues are needed for any given situation. So when we speak of finding our medicine, we are really speaking of coming into deeper relationship with our inner resources, or powers of Soul, with the Virtues.

Contacting the deep sources of inspiration, experiencing cosmic wonder, living in the mystical, miraculous and magical, attuning to the presence of the sacred, are the water and sun for the Virtues. The way we identify and apply these medicines to our own souls, to way we live through our daily life, is through remembering and practicing the sacred arts.

Every sacred art has an aim:

  • The sacred art of Right Relationship teaches us the medicine of Love.
  • The sacred art of Prayer and Blessing allows us to find the medicine of Faith.
  • The sacred art of Ceremony and Ritual teaches Moderation.
  • The sacred art of Lineage and Legacy teaches Justice.
  • The sacred art of Divination and Dreams teaches Hope.
  • The sacred art of Alchemy and Magic teaches Courage.
  • The sacred art of Cleansing and Purification teaches Wisdom.

The sacred arts act as guide and ally when we find ourselves in crisis, at the crossroads, unsure of what direction to take, while their aim is directed towards the powers, the medicines, of the virtues that we carry within ourselves. This is why there is such a strong focus on memory in the sacred arts – we remember ourselves back together – back into a state of wholeness, we literally re-collect the pieces of soul, psyche, and spirit that get scattered hither and yon by the winds of life.

So what does a soulful seeker do at the crossroads? She knows she needs to summon all of her inner resources, all powers of Soul. In the language of myth, she will then make a descent into the underworld in search of medicine that will help her transform bad situations into good ones. The soulful seeker does not feint right or left, she does not choose one easy path or one slightly less easy path, instead she goes down. Down into the realm of shadow, down into the unknown, down into the underworld where the terrain is often jagged, broken, and parched; and where real medicine, holy and whole-making, awaits.

In love and blessing~

magic, miracles: receive my lunar letters

ARRIVING on full moons each month.

Many Branches–Something Witchy this way comes with Sarah Anne Lawless

Learning and Community

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ear Miracles, Many of those in my audience already know our latest guest in the Many Branches series–Sarah Anne Lawless. She is an occult author, witch, herbalist, and artist living in the Pacific Northwest. Her blog is well known in the Pagan community and beyond. Her knack for crafting a brilliant flying ointment is one that I can personally attest to, and her devotion to her Gods is inspiring. Please give her a warm welcome!

In her own words: A professional artist, writer, and herbalist, Sarah’s works have been published in various books, magazines, and online in The CauldronHex MagazineWitches & PagansWitchvox, Serpent Songs, and Hoofprints in the Wildwood. She is a carver, painter, and illustrator working in the mediums of bone, wood, ink, and paint creating original artwork, talismans, and ritual tools. Sarah is an animist, initiated witch, and wortcunner with a love of otherworldly beauty, folklore, mythology, poisonous plants, wildcrafting, wild places, and bones.

Find Sarah on the web at:

Facebook: Bane Folk
Twitter: @banefolk

In the occult and magical community, you are known for making excellent spiritual products, your writing, and fine artwork, but you are also one of the few voices out there talking about working with animals and zoological talismans in an ethical and sustainable manner. This subject is a bit controversial but one that I think the magical community needs more familiarity with. What led you to begin working with animals and animal parts in a ritual setting?

For me, it started with collecting feathers and escalated from there and I’ve found that others who consider themselves bone collectors often say the same thing. Taking home a feather you found on a forest walk isn’t really so far off from taking home a sea-washed bone or a small skull picked clean by scavengers. Once people find out you’re a bone collector they will suddenly start calling you about bones, feathers, or dead animals they found and ask what to do with them. Then people will start showing up on your doorstep with boxes of bones and any friends that hunt for food will start giving you bird feet, wings, and sometimes even organs that they don’t want to waste. Often people don’t want to use or give me the animals they find, they just want to know how to bury it safely and give it a respectful send off to the spirit world. A bone collector can find themselves taking on the role of an animal funeral director.

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I think the reason why many find my use of animal parts in magic controversial is because, through the use of zoological remains is still common in modern rootwork and the magical traditions of Central and South America, it is not common in modern witchcraft despite all the documented historical links and traditions. Many people are so far removed from nature, husbandry, and dirty hands-on folk magic that they find the use of zoological remains to be appalling and unethical without trying to first understand the context and history. Many assume that bone collectors such as myself are actually killing animals to use their parts in magic when this is very much not the case. You can find hearts, tongues, and feet at the butcher and you can find bones, skulls, teeth, claws, and hides from taxidermists, tanners, farmers, or hunters who don’t like to waste any part of an animal that’s been hunted or raised for food.

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Another reason I think this practice is controversial is that many people assume you are using a dead animal’s parts solely for cursing and other black magic when again this is simply not the reality. Indigenous cultures who’ve held onto their animistic beliefs and traditions use animal parts in a sacred manner – they are used to better connect with animal spirits and the whole of nature itself. Feathers are often used to fly prayers to the spirits so they may hear them. Teeth and claws are used for protection against harm and to give one strength. Organs are more often used for healing and offerings than anything else – anyone with a grandmother who still buries dead fish in the garden for the fertility of the plants may best understand this. In rural areas of North America, you can still find farmers hanging deer antlers or bull horns over their barn door. They may have forgotten why, but once upon a time, it was the belief that doing so would protect your livestock and also ensure their health and fertility.

Modern butchery and hunting practices are wasteful and unethical for treating animals as soulless resources. By doing this work and using animal remains in a sacred manner in our spiritual traditions, we make those animals sacred. By showing them respect even in death, we make their lives have the same value as our own.

You are well known for crafting various flying ointments, often using ancient recipes. Why flying ointments and when did your love affair with them begin?

I first took notice when nightshades I had not planted started to grow in my garden plots and containers. Instead of weeding them, I researched them and became fascinated. This led me to grow other varieties like henbane, belladonna, datura, and Brugmansia. I had a lot of fresh plant material on hand and at the same time, I realized that no one I could find was making and using flying ointments today. Considering that flying ointments were one of the very few genuine direct links to the ancestral magical practices of preChristian Europeans, it puzzled me greatly that modern witches and pagans weren’t using them. Later I discovered this was largely due to fear of the plants as governments had been churning out frightening propaganda against them for centuries and our modern governments continue to spread the fear through misinformation. Tales of wild hallucinations and near death experiences come mainly from youths not seeking a spiritual experience, but who simply wanted to get high and who used these plants without research, proper preparation, and with no regard for dosage. They were using these sacred plants at a toxic level instead of in the much safer ways our ancestors would have and have consequently given these plants a much-maligned reputation.

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I mainly work with plants in the Solanaceae (or nightshade) family. Though many would believe we no longer use them today, the constituents of these plants, such as atropine, are actually considered “core” medicines on the World Health Organizations “Essential Drug List.” Aside from the nightshades’ long history with witchcraft, they are also some of the oldest and most potent medicines used by humanity. How could an herbalist fascinated with ethnobotany not fall in love with plants that were both powerful spiritual allies and incredibly potent medicines? Though my original intent was to use the Solanaceae and artemisias for spiritual purposes, the more I worked with these plants, the more I found people came to me for their medicinal uses as well.

And so, after A LOT of research and careful testing, I started to make ointments with the plants I grew along with dried European mandrake roots. I found them to be very useful in aiding in dream work, spirit work, and trance work along with being excellent topical pain killers for relieving migraines, sore backs, and other muscle and joint pain. I started making them for shamanic and pagan groups who wanted to use them for rituals and ceremonies and I started bringing them to my own rituals and teaching workshops on these plants. With all my experience, I learned that much of the fear and propaganda surrounding nightshades and flying ointments is simply not true and that those of us who have learned their history and proper preparations should pass on our knowledge so it is not lost to future generations as it has been to generations past.

A lot of folks in the magical community struggle with what to call themselves. You have referred to yourself as an animist, witch, and spirit worker. What do those words mean to you and what is your advice for someone who has not figured out what the right title is for their work and beliefs?

When I call myself an animist, I am referring to my religious philosophy just as others would call themselves a polytheist or a monotheist. I do not worship gods, but instead see all things, all of nature, as being imbued with spirit, anima, life force. Interacting with and honoring the local animals, plants, rivers, lakes, mountains, forests, and larger land features are what matters most to me in my spirituality – the local spirits, great and small. Within animism, there is also room for ancestor reverence and so I also honor those who have come before me, both my own blood ancestors as well as those who lived upon this land long before I was born. Animism is believed to be one of the oldest forms of spirituality in human history and still permeates surviving forms of folk magic, folk religion, and common superstitions.

When I call myself a witch I am referring to the practice of witchcraft, not a religious path. It is the folk magic I do, the early modern witchcraft lore I study, and the rituals I put into practice.

When I use the term spirit worker, it is to reference my work with spirits, both are in this world and the other worlds of folklore. It is my dream work, trance work, and the rituals I perform to interact with spirits – usually plants, animals, or ancestors.

I don’t personally believe in putting too much stock in labels and finding the right one as everyone has their own definition of a term, some using the archaic meaning and some using a modern derivative. It is far too easy to waste a lot of time trying to find a label that fits all we believe and do when we could instead spend that time actively practicing and developing our own beliefs to suit our individual spiritual needs. I think it is a better use of our time instead of trying to fit into a role someone else has defined and be constantly fretting over it.

I wrote a whole article tackling this subject last winter as it comes up over and over again in spiritual communities: “Ducking Pigeonholing.”

Your art is gorgeous, tell us a bit about how you got started and what your current favorite artistic project is?

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Thank you! I got started in art at a young age. I was always drawing and painting. I took art classes in every year of school because it was something I always enjoyed. I had a lot of support from my family who kept me well supplied with paper, ink, and paints. I even used to illustrate stories I wrote and bound them into little homemade books. Today I’m lucky enough to be in a position to get paid for my art and to illustrate the writings of others as well as my own. Falling more under the umbrella of a folk artist, I’ve been able to explore just about any medium I’m interested in – woodcarving, bone carving, pyrography, textiles, calligraphy, and jewelry to name several.

Right now I have a bit of an obvious obsession with drawing plants and skulls. I hope to do more pieces with plants and animals native to my beloved Pacific Northwest in the near future.

If you could give one piece of wisdom to my readers today, what would it be?

Don’t be afraid to chase your dreams and passions so you can live your life in joy and wonder, but at the same time be honest with yourself about how you’re going to pull it off in a practical manner.

magic, miracles: receive my lunar letters

ARRIVING on full moons each month.