Jonah on craftsmanship, plants as allies, and the power of candles to hold space

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How you identify yourself in the world?

I identify as a queer, non-binary femme, anti-Zionist Jew, disabled, chronically ill, rural person. I identify as a white anti-racist person, struggling against white supremacy and working for decolonization. I identify as a healer and a magical intuitive person. I am a herbalist, a medicinal plant grower, a ritual candlemaker, a beekeeper, a witch, and a radical anti-capitalist small business owner.

How are you doing in the day to day?

I’m doing pretty well right now. After a long period of being really impacted by my geographical and social isolation, I’m in a moment where I’m dropping into being with myself and where I am, and actually feeling that I’m not alone, even though there are not people here besides me most of the time.

Is there anything material that happened from which you can trace that shift?

One of the things I’ve been working towards since I’ve been here is feeling into the deep and wide web of connectivity and community I live inside of. There are so many amazing plants and animals here. I’m here with the land, with the weather and the wind, with the stars and the sky, and with the water. I’m broadening how I experience community in a daily way through my own presence, my own ritual, rhythms, attention, acknowledgement, and magic.

I have been able to shift out of being so focused on what is wrong with me and what is missing in my life here and just be. This past year, I’ve been able to reign in my projects a bit to focus on what I most long for and what meets my needs. Getting clearer about my physical, emotional, and spiritual capacity and my material, emotional, and spiritual needs has freed up all kinds of energy that has allowed me to be more in my power and have more to offer my relationships and my communities. I long for transformative love and partnership in my life and collaborative creative partnerships in business and magic. I’m now able to be really clear about those longings and extend toward them, instead of being sad or defeated that I don’t have them all yet.

Can I ask you to take a step back and describe what ‘here’ is?

I live on a 52-acre agricultural property south of Cloverdale, which is Makahmo Southern Pomo territory, in the northern tip of Sonoma County, California. My home space is a rented single wide mobile home and a 12×20 redwood shed space I did a pretty major renovation on to create the home of my candle-making business, Narrow Bridge Candles, and of my herbal business, Plants as Allies. I tend about half an acre and have a greenhouse and 40-50 different medicinal plants growing on a range of scales.

Bringing up Narrow Bridge Candles and Plants as Allies feels like a great segue to the main question I want to ask you which is, what do you see as your role and work in this political moment?

I’ve been putting my body, my heart, and my spirit in a place where I can be in deeper contact with my power and offerings in a way I’ve not been able to do in a city space. Wild and rural spaces are frequently unsafe or inaccessible in a variety of ways to queer and trans people, people of color, and people with disabilities. I’ve been working to create and tend wild and rural space here that is safer and more accessible for people at the intersections of all of these identities. I’ve poured my heart, soul, energy, and money into building something that is welcoming, beautiful, soothing, safe, and as accessible as possible, which has been supportive to my life and a lot of people.

When I first lived in the Bay Area, I remember people commonly describing it as a radical, queer, or movement “bubble.” I had that reframed for me — rather than it being a bubble, it is a stronghold, where people are holding down a depth of radical politics and a high level of organization and history around movement work. When I first moved out here, I thought of my home as an escape from the city for me and the folks visiting me. I now understand this as a place for me to grow and deepen into my power and my offerings, and a place for other folks, many of whom are doing important work and living in difficult conditions, to have a little bit of space and be in a place where they can have a bodily experience outside of the pressure cooker that cities and movement spaces can be.

A reminder that rest is not just a break or an escape from the important stuff, but is important in and of itself. So I guess I feel my home is a tiny stronghold — a place where beauty and femme-ness and rest and access are deeply valued, practiced and held up.

What happens in this space? What’s happening right now?

Right now I am braiding Havdallah candles. Havdallah is a Jewish ritual, the transition between Shabbat and the rest of the week. Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest, begins Friday night at sundown and ends Saturday night at sundown. In Havdallah observance, this candle gets lit on Saturday night at sundown. I’ve dipped these long thin pieces of wick in beeswax and now they are ready for plaiting into large candles.

Can you tell me more broadly what happens here?

I’m passionate about growing medicinal plants and about having a healing, non-exploitative, decolonial relationship with land. I still feel like I’m just beginning to learn how to do all of those things. I studied herbal medicine with Karyn Sanders and Sarah Holmes at the Blue Otter School of Herbal Medicine up in Siskiyou County. The focus of my study has been on the spiritual and energetic properties of plants — understanding plants as not just passive things to be consumed, but as things with their own spirit, energy, even voice and personality.

I care deeply about making medicine in a way that respects wild medicinal plant communities which are an important part of our environment and our ecosystems, in and of themselves. A lot of foraging and wildcrafting culture orients to things growing and producing something useful to humans — as if it’s just there for the taking and “going to waste” unless humans pick and consume it.  They actually have value in and of themselves.  Medicinal plants live in communities in delicate and dynamic relationships with birds and insects, water, weather, soil, spirit and energetics of a space. These communities are threatened by pollution, urban and suburban sprawl, development in general, climate chaos, and to a smaller degree, irresponsible herbal harvesting practices. A lot of wildcrafting is more oriented towards taking and selling than to the sustainability of plant communities.

I do very little “wildcrafting” — partly because I am a settler on this land and if I don’t have relationships with the indigenous peoples of the land, I don’t feel I have permission to harvest. And if I am not deeply familiar with that place and that ecosystem over a many years period of time, I can’t really see the impact of my harvesting or asses if the ecosystem can support my taking. I’m more interested in caring for wild plant communities and growing what I can. And trading medicine with other folks who are growing things I can’t grow!

jonah wateringWas there anything in your life or experience that led you to be on this path with plants?

I have a picture of myself as a small child watering little rows of vegetables. My mom is a big gardener — she loves flowers. I grew up with a lot of really powerful plants in the garden. I knew their names, and loved and appreciated them, and picked them and brought them to my friends and teachers, but didn’t necessarily orient to them as medicinal or as holding me in any way. And I think they were really holding me. It took me a long time to be aware of that.

What about candle making?

In my life here, I’m occasionally struck with the thought, wait, I’m a… candlemaker? Is that an actual job people have in 2017? If I think about the things that satisfy me, give me pleasure, and soothe my nervous system, they are mostly sensory. Touching everything, smelling and tasting, taking in the sight of things that are vibrantly beautiful. And also tiny, satisfying tasks that I can do perfectly, like putting stickers and labels on things and pouring liquid from one vessel to another. This list is pretty much my job description.

IMG_1939My work as a ritual candlemaker means living in deep relationship with the element of fire, honoring its contained expression in balance and right relationship, and sharing that magic, awe, and honor with my communities in material form. Candles have this incredible capacity to hold space. I think my role is holding space too. I originally started making ritual candles as a way to be more actively engaged with the ritual items I was using in my life. I wasn’t satisfied to buy ritual items and not know more about where they came from. In 2010 I created Narrow Bridge Candles which is a Jewish ritual candlemaking project in support of the full 2005 call from Palestinian Civil Society for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) of Israel. Narrow Bridge Candles is a political and a spiritual project. It plays a role in extricating Jewish ritual, cultural, spiritual and religious practices from Zionism and provides ritual candles that are not made in Israel, allowing people who want to buy Jewish ritual candles to honor the boycott. Narrow Bridge Candles is able to donate more money to BDS organizations and domestic racial justice and decolonization struggles every year.

Are there challenges to stay connected to the deeper political and spiritual meanings of your work when it is your job and livelihood?

Yes. I attended the National Member Meeting of Jewish Voice for Peace as a vendor this year. I talked with almost 100 people who thanked me for my candles and told me that they loved them. Some of them cried and told me how meaningful my work has been for them in making space for them to re-connect with Jewish spiritual practice in a way that’s politically resonant with their convictions, principles, and beliefs.

It was a big deal to meet the people who buy the candles from me. It was markedly different than what my daily life sometimes feels like — that I’m just sort of plodding along making all the candles and sending them out to people and people send me money. I know theoretically what I’m making is valued beyond money, and that there are people all over the world who are using the candles to mark their sacred days, transitions, and life events, to hold space in political, cultural, and spiritual ritual space. And I’m not there. Especially when I’m tired and working really hard and not feeling connected to all of the life around me, it’s hard for me to remember that’s happening.

IMG_0123 (1)We are living in late stage capitalism. I, and I dare say so many of us, have deeply internalized capitalism in all kind of ways that I am working to heal from as a witch, as a disabled person, as a craftsperson, and as a radical. Running a small business doesn’t mean I’m a capitalist, but it does mean I’m holding some serious tensions. Sometimes I feel like I am a machine producing a product in exchange for money and I feel alienated from my own labor, my own hands, my own body. More and more I am aware of how deeply skilled my work is, and I’m learning how to value myself as a craftsperson. I can feel inside of myself, in my lineage, and my embodiment, a time and a place in which craftspeople and their creations were deeply valued. In which something made by someone’s skilled hands was a treasure. I’m learning how to live in this magical space, to know this is true and make this true with my own disabled femme genius craftsperson magic.

I’m gonna get dreamy as fuck for a minute and ask you to do the same. Tell me what you think your work and role would be in the world you want to live in.

It’s an important thing to be visioning. The framework I have is a village or small community in which there are people who grow food, people who grow medicine, people who make the things that people need and use. I’d be excited to be a community herbalist and candlemaker and have a place to live and work and people to share meals with and to play an active role in supporting the health of a community living in balance and right relationship with the earth, and with other communities of people, plants, and animals.

Given that we’re living in the time and place and world we’re living in, I know we’ve got a ways to go. I’d love to hear about the things or people that inspire you, and what you do for self care.

The plants and animals I share this space with are a big part of what inspires me. Central to the Blue Otter teachings is that a deep understanding of my own energetics is required for me to learn from and connect with the energetic and spiritual properties of plants, and to connect deeply with clients in a clinical herbalist capacity. How deeply I am willing to go in my own self work with my own healing, self knowledge, and transformation is the limiting factor on how deep I’m able to go with clients. I haven’t been able to be connected with my own energetics, vitality, or pacing in a city space. A big part of my being here has been about learning — not just getting out of the city to escape the city, but choosing intentionally to be in a space with low electromagnetic fields, low pollution and toxicity, and low social stimulation. Living where and in the way that I do has allowed me to learn how to regulate my own nervous system, how to live inside of my own rhythms and pacing, and feel my own power and what I want to give this beautiful planet.

Boy Boy portrait
a portrait of Boy Boy

Taking care of myself right now means getting enough sleep and rest, and being in a solid routine, eating meals that have vegetable and protein, and water in my body and my body  in water frequently. I take herbs, I do plant meditations, and I have some somatic bodywork and therapy that helps me continue to learn about my own energetic and emotional patterns. Being with my kitty is a big part of my self care. He has totally saved me, I couldn’t be here without other people, without him. Being around Boy Boy, who seems to have such an incredible capacity for love and connection, has also been so opening and instructive. I’ve never had this kind of relationship with an non-human companion. I love him so, so much.

Something I’m thinking about right now is just that energy is real. Energetics are hugely formative in everyone’s life and in the cultures we live inside of. There’s a lot happening under the surface that influences what is possible, what is happening, what is tolerated. For a lot of people, under the surface is unseen and therefore it doesn’t exist. Everyone is impacted by energetics, and some of us can feel and attune to it, and for me a big part of radical transformative magic is making those “hidden” currents visible and felt.

There’s a lot of need for magic around shifting conditions. It’s not about denying the material; I’m not saying magical thinking or a positive attitude will be enough to overcome tyranny and fascism and oppression. We have to be in real, honest connection with the material conditions we’re inside, fighting and protecting those of us who are most vulnerable to the violence and oppression of our time, and be deeply transforming all of those relationships in trying to make the world that we want in material, magical, and energetic realms. This dreamy liberated world after the revolution is not some future destination. It is a path that we make with our work, our magic, our relationships, our hearts, and our spirits, and our bodies. How we move and be inside of that path is essential. That’s what I’m learning to embody and extend toward these days.

Place your 2017/5778 Hanukkah Order through November while supplies last! Narrow Bridge Candles are available on a sliding scale and they are worth it. Learn more about Jonah’s herbalism work at Plants as Allies. You can also find Jonah on instagram. This interview is part of a series for The World We Want to Live in.

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