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Vera Vignettes, Chapter 1: Introduction

Since August 2022, I have been spending a bulk of my week caregiving for my husband’s aunt, whom I’ve decided to call Vera in these stories. That is her middle name, and it ranked among the top 100 baby names for girls the year she was born: 1928. That makes Vera 94 at the time of this writing. God willing, she will make it to 95 later this year. Although if you ask her, she’d just as soon take a shot to the head and call it a day.

She has come close to asking, as if I would consider it, and every time I let her know it’s a nonstarter. We do joke, though, about mixing arsenic into her bourbon at cocktail hour. That seems more plausible, but I still worry about the autopsy report.

Have I mentioned that Vera has a macabre sense of humor, bone-dry wit, and an acerbic tongue? She could make Joan Rivers cry. In the last seven months, my jokes and daily observations have grown darker and more critical.

Also during that time I have collected a plethora of anecdotes, jokes, lessons, and insights, which I have begun to jot down in a notebook. On a daily basis, I share them with my husband and his four siblings, the closest things Vera has to her own children. Weekly, I talk to my sister, an ostomy nurse, and we swap stories about her patients, our aging parents, and my elderly ward (family by marriage, and now a transcendent bond by choice).

Between the laughter, a-ha moments, problem solving, and commiserating, my sister and I have realized the value of such exchanges and determined that others could benefit from our experiences. There is a reason caregivers have support groups, and nurses have such gallows humor. That shit is hard, sometimes grim, and often isolating. Digging deep to find the laughs and connecting with a community–even one other person who can empathize–mitigates the inevitable stress that accompanies caregiving and nursing in their various forms.

If any of you have cared for aging or dependent loved ones (or even hated family members or patients), you can relate to the mental and emotional–sometimes even physical–exhaustion that result from meeting myriad needs every day. And there are so many needs.

Here are just a few roles I play when I visit Vera:

  • Housecleaner
  • Personal chef
  • Bartender
  • Therapist
  • Pill-box filler
  • Companion
  • Walker
  • Chaffeuse
  • Personal shopper
  • Remote-control locater
  • Lady in waiting
  • Cheerleader
  • Ledge talker offer
  • Human IMDB
  • And oh so much more!

Some days when I’m at her house I want to show her this list and say, “Pick three!” Playing all of these roles is a tall order for one person, or even five people, depending on the week. It takes a village to raise a child…and manage a nonagenarian with short-term memory loss and a bad hip. Little did I know how many people would be required to keep this 5-foot-2, 105-pound hellion alive and comfortably in her own home this late in life. Some days it feels like a lightbulb joke, yet I haven’t landed on the punch line. There is no right answer, just a slew of funny ones.

Without the laughter, we would all lose ourselves in the sadness and frustration.

For those of you who can relate, I hope these stories help provide some comfort and compassion. For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, just wait, and enjoy the ride. Someday you may understand.

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(This article originally appeared on the Thistle and Spire blog, February 7, 2023. Photos by JMA photography.)

Madeline Gregg is currently known for her work as a certified sex educator and owner of the Vampire Shot Glass, an inclusive menstrual cup line marketed to all bodies that menstruate. She breezily talks sex, intimacy and anatomy—and has the education, statistics and proper terminology to back up her thoughts on these issues. Madeline knows her stuff and wants to share it with anyone who is interested in learning more.

This current path was not one she had mapped out, though. In college, Madeline majored in American Sign Language (ASL) and taught young children how to read. Then she had kids of her own, started blogging, and sought out creative ways to generate income outside of motherhood.

In 2020, when the pandemic hit, Madeline pivoted and explored other ways to use her skills as a teacher and longtime interest in taboo subjects to generate an income and help other people. In the span of roughly two years, she established a presence on TikTok, started a podcast, earned a sex educator certification, and launched a menstrual cup line called The Vampire Shot Glass.

One thing that hasn’t changed during the recent years of seismic shifts, though, is her focus on education and inclusion. Those two components have remained consistent throughout Madeline’s personal and work life, echoed throughout her interviews and websites The Nude Attitude and The Vampire Shot Glass.

She recently sat down with us to share her story and some of the juicy bits of knowledge she has picked up along the way, including terms like “the orgasm gap” and a Catholic school class she took called “Integrity Matters.”

How did this current sex-centered career path come about?

I’ve always had an interest in sex. It’s fun! I was one of those friends who would bring it up at inappropriate times, like at brunch, when people weren’t necessarily talking about those things. Those taboo subjects always just fascinated and fueled me. Also, statistics on sex are really interesting. This career landed in my lap, and I just formed what I was going to do with it. I think it was something I was always destined to do.

This seems to have come together primarily during the pandemic. What role did that play in your life?

I think during the pandemic a lot of people were interested in their sexuality. The number of people I’ve heard about coming out during that time is insane. Friends of mine were either having tons of sex or none, and it was making or breaking relationships. I got into TikTok at the end of 2020, when it was already popular, and referred to a menstrual cup as a “vampire shot glass.” People flipped and loved it, so I branded it. I also became a certified sex educator during this process, all in about two years or so.                                                                                                                                                              

Can you explain more about your role as a sex educator?

I am a certified sex educator under the American College of Sexologists International. I’m not a sex therapist—that is a whole degree above me, but we but we do overlap somewhat. I give clients some tools, help them work through issues, maybe give them some homework, but what they do with that information is ultimately up to them. I have a lot of “baby gays” come to me for help as well as couples who want to rekindle their relationships and sex lives.

The certification gives me some authority on the subject, but even more important is the ongoing education that I hold myself to and share with clients. A lot of educators stop learning when their degree stops, but I love reading studies for fun. It’s fascinating! The continued education is more important to me than the title. I’m a born educator, whether it’s teaching children or adults, and I love being the know-it-all in the room. All of a sudden, I had a platform of people listening—and I knew it all and wanted to share everything I knew with others.

What can you tell us about The Vampire Shot Glass and menstrual cups in general for people who may not be familiar with them?

A menstrual cup is a medical-grade silicone shot-glass-looking item that you fold and put up your vagina. You can leave it in for about 6 to 12 hours, depending on your flow. They’re made to fit your body, and not your flow, so they’re not like tampons in that way. Most menstrual cups are pretty much the same in terms of shape and function. The Vampire Shot Glass differs mostly in its marketing. It’s not frilly or predominantly feminine. We acknowledge that nonbinary and gender-fluid people have periods too.

As far as I know, there aren’t a lot of sex educators who own a menstrual cup brand. Highlighting education is something I strive for with Vampire Shot Glass. I also try to make it as gender inclusive as possible. A trans person is front and center with the marketing, which throws a lot of people off, but for the people who need to see it, they really appreciate it. Hopefully that takes away from the gender dysphoria that can happen. So much marketing around menstruation is pink and frilly, like a tampon commercial that tells us we can do anything while menstruating. No, that’s not true. Lay the fuck down if you need to. It’s fine if you want to relax and have chocolate while you’re menstruating.

What can you tell us about a provocative term called “the orgasm gap”?

This is one of my favorite topics, and I am so nerdy when it comes to the orgasm gap and vibrators! I love breaking down the differences and all of the statistics. There are constant studies coming out about it from places like The Kinsey Institute, and one of the first ones came out in 1994. There seems to be a disconnect or miscommunication between people who have vaginas and people with penises, and their level of pleasure. There is so much shame about asking for what we need and acknowledging that what we’re getting may not be enough. 

In a 1994 study, there were significant differences between the number of heterosexual married men having orgasms during intercourse (75%) and heterosexual married women having orgasms during intercourse (28%). Meanwhile, women in short-term relationships were orgasming 43% of the time. Once these women were in relationships with their husbands, their orgasms dropped drastically. What is causing this discrepancy? Is it lack of communication, lack of spontaneity, lack of foreplay?

Most people don’t realize that foreplay should be lasting a lot longer than intercourse and penetration itself. A lot of people confuse ‘foreplay’ with ‘coreplay.’ Foreplay involves anything that does not include your genetalia. Things like vibrators, oral and finger blasting—anything that will make you orgasm—are coreplay, not foreplay.

There are studies to back up this phenomenon that AFAB (assigned female at birth) people need 20 to 40 minutes to warm up their bodies before they’re able to have an orgasm. There’s nothing wrong with you if it takes that long—it’s scientifically proven. If you have science behind you, it can take away so much shame and we realize that people are just different from each other, not dysfunctional or bad. I would love to talk to more millennials about how the orgasm gap is changing with their generation. So many of them are coming out at bisexual or something under the LGBTQ spectrum, which leads me to my next study.

This one was heterosexual versus bisexual versus gay couples, and the results were that 95% of hetero men orgasm every time during intercourse, 80% of bi men do, and 79% of gay men do. For the women, 65% of hetero women orgasm every time during sex versus 69% of bi women and 80% of gay women. I think a lot of it has to do with vibrators because 81% of women cannot orgasm from penetration alone—they need some clitoral stimulation as well. The clitoris is a small, small version of the penis, so why aren’t we touching it during hetero sex?

I find this information all so relevant and interesting, like I’m wearing a tinfoil hat and yelling, “It’s all related!” But these things actually are all connected and they all go back to the topics and numbers I discuss on all of my platforms and with my clients. I feel lucky that something that fascinates me this much truly fascinates a lot of other people as well.

What is next for you?

My podcast is going to be starting back up, but it’s going to be a little different. I’m starting a [new] podcast with one of my partners—I’m polyamorous—and we’ll be talking about polyamory and sex in general. It’ll be nice to have somebody else to bounce these ideas off of with me. My current [The Nude Attitude] website is actually going to be turning into a vibrator review. I get sent so many [toys] and don’t know what to do with them. People need to understand their anatomy before committing to a sex toy because some may not be a good fit, based on their size and dimensions. I think putting some of that technical information up on a website could be very valuable for people.

You can learn more about Madeline and her work:

The Vampire Shot Glass

The Nude Attitude


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Girls on Porn: Making the World and Safer and More Interesting Place to Talk About Sex

(Originally published on the Thistle and Spire website December 5, 2022.)

It comes as no surprise that online pornography is massively popular, second maybe only to cat videos, but it still isn’t a widely discussed topic. Longtime friends Laura Ramadei and Rachel Napolean have been slowly changing that trend with their podcast Girls on Porn, which, not surprisingly, covers all things porn. 

Since 2019, this sex-positive duo has tackled an array of formerly taboo themes—sex toys, BDSM, orgies, and some terms that may be less familiar—on their weekly show. They discuss their own sex experiences and porn preferences (some good, some bad, some ugly) alongside issues around ethical porn, safer sex work, and representation. 

Combining their respective experiences in (non-porn) producing and acting, shared curiosity and openness around titillating topics, and mutual interest in high-quality porn, Laura and Rachel have started a cultural discussion that far surpasses their expectations.

With their trademark candor and humor, Laura and Rachel answered some of our burning questions and offered a peek into their dirty minds.

For our readers who may not be familiar with Girls on Porn, could you provide a quick and dirty origin story of how your partnership and podcast came about? 

Laura: Love a quick and dirty. Basically, Rach and I bonded over porn and all things sex, and it deepened our friendship. And it was a rarity to find another woman who openly and freely watched and talked about porn with some facility and genuine enthusiasm. Rach happened to have a room open up in her apartment, and I took it. Just before I moved in I chuckled about how much we’d be talking about porn. And in that moment had the very clear revelation that….Oh, that’s a podcast. 

Rachel:  I think I gained Laura’s respect when I loudly shared I had pegged someone the previous weekend. One can always sniff out the fellow horn dog in the room! She’s being modest, but Laura is an incredible producer, so when she brought the idea up I was essentially like, “Ok, so when do we buy microphones?” 

In addition to discussing porn in a funny and entertaining way, you also address larger and more serious topics in your podcast. Did you set out to tackle these macro issues, or did it come about more gradually over time?

Laura: We initially set out to make a pretty light-hearted podcast, though we did have the aim of finding just better, more ethically made porn than some of what we were privately watching at the time. I was tired of watching porn that made me question whether the performers were okay. We knew that in seeking out and reviewing material on an ongoing basis that we’d naturally find better, more trustworthy content. But at the time it was almost just exciting for our own purposes of guilt-free masturbation. I don’t think we necessarily anticipated how political some elements of the pod would eventually become, or the fact that we’d basically evolve into sex work advocates.  

Rachel: I think you can’t have one without the other, especially since we ourselves are not sex workers. We realized pretty quickly that if we just joked about porn for every episode we would be skirting a lot of issues within the adult entertainment industry, which wouldn’t represent us as ethical consumers. And there are already so many misconceptions associated with porn and sex work, so we definitely felt a responsibility to help educate and advocate. 

We see Girls on Porn included in Marie Claire’s list of 35 Best Sex Podcasts of All Time. Did you anticipate resonating with such a widespread audience when you started your show?

Laura: I definitely didn’t anticipate that the Marie Claires of the world would have any interest in what we were doing. In hindsight, it’s not a surprise, though, because ultimately most of the population is just dying to let go of sexual shame and to embrace a healthy, adventurous sex life. Hopefully we can help with that. 

Rachel: It’s so affirming! I think when we started out we were like, “Maybe our friends will listen? Surely our friends.” But having it resonate with so many people all over the world has been such a surprise and joy, and is honestly the reason we keep going. Other then, you know, the fun of just hanging out talking to friends about porn. 

What do you think it is about Girls on Porn that clicks with so many people?

Laura: I think we hit a sweet spot between being playful and informative, accessible yet meaningful, sexy and silly. I also think listening to a podcast about porn is just a fun secret to take with you on the subway or on your drive to work. 

Rachel: It’s sort of like being the friend at the middle school sleepover that’s like, “Do you guys know what a boner is?” It’s fun, entertaining, and stigma-free. It’s a safe space to learn about all the things you were too scared to Google or bring up with your friends. There are still so many people who don’t feel comfortable discussing any topic related to sex. And I think our podcast is just one of the many outlets that are hopefully changing that. 

We loved your episode on lingerie (6/15/22) and appreciate the Thistle and Spire shoutout! Why is T&S your favorite lingerie company, and what was your photo shoot experience like?

Laura: I was first introduced to Thistle and Spire through a digital series I worked on called Unicornland. Thistle and Spire sponsored the series and provided several hawt lewks for the shoot, and I don’t think I’ve ever felt cooler than when I was wearing sponsored lingerie for my sex scenes. Soon after that shoot, I was invited to be part of a shoot dedicated to empowerment, that was part underwear party, part feminist cocktail hour. It’s great lingerie, and I love that the brand is increasingly inclusive in the designs and in the marketing. Plus, I look hot in it. So, not mad at that. 

Rachel: Well first of all, women supporting women! I love that it’s New York-based and founded by women, and as a female New Yorker that is extremely important to me. Just like how I care about where I give my money to in the porn space, I care about where I shop! And yes, I’ve never felt sexier than in Thistle and Spire lingerie. The designs are dark, sexy, romantic. A bodysuit with marijuana leaves? Genius. Also, I feel expensive in it. And dangerous. Best combo. 

Do you have anything fun on the horizon?
We have the porn performer Ty Mitchell on an episode on December 8, 2022. Also, our two hundredth
episode will air on January 4, 2023. We’re hoping to put something special together for that, but don’t want
to over promise anything!

We’ll definitely check those out. Where can our audience find Girls on Porn?
Listeners can find GoP anywhere where they normally get podcasts: Spotify, Apple, Overcast, Stitcher, etc. If
anyone is interested in supporting the show directly, folks can go to our Patreon page.

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Mecca Woods Help Make the Stars More Within Reach

Photos by @jma_photography

Do you know a feisty Aries, indecisive Libra, or dreamy Pisces? Did the recent Mercury retrograde get you down? Do you know what any of that even means? Don’t worry, Mecca Woods does—she can bring the zodiac down to earth and help us all make sense of it.

Accessibility is important to Mecca, a New York-based astrologer who wants to help more people understand their horoscopes and birth charts, and ultimately, themselves. She believes that making products and services available to everyone is important, especially in our rapidly changing, post-pandemic world.

Here at Thistle and Spire we can relate, which makes our partnership with Mecca an obvious and exciting one. The stars aligned, but it took a little time.

Now a natural match, these two components weren’t always such an integral part of Mecca’s life. That happened naturally, over time, and with a level of serendipity. What began as a hobby, when Mecca stumbled upon it in 2008, has blossomed into a lifelong calling, vocation, and full-time career path.

“I started out by scouring the internet and libraries and couldn’t get enough!” she says. “My interest steadily grew from there. I was always learning, and frequented Namaste Books on 14th Street.”

A couple years back, it was lingerie expert Cora Harrington who initially got us on Mecca’s radar. Cora is the founder of The Lingerie Addict blog and author of the book In Intimate Detail: How to Choose, Wear, and Love Lingerie.

Full disclosure: Mecca wasn’t initially sold on the idea of donning Thistle and Spire pieces, or any negligee, for that matter. Like it has for many others, lingerie seemed exclusive and designed for only certain body types.

In 2020, when this curious Sagittarius saw a Thistle and Spire model with her body type rocking sexy undergarments, she got excited and realized that they would look great on her own figure.

“I’ve been plus-size most of my life and never thought I’d look so good in something like that,” Mecca says. “I appreciate the work being done with inclusivity and the various types of women being represented at Thistle and Spire.”

Our favorite astrologer aims to help people feel equally seen and empowered with her personalized chart readings and widespread dissemination of information and ideas.

In addition to the one-on-one tailored readings, Mecca:

  • Writes a daily column for Bustle Magazine
  • Has published three books
    • Astrology for Happiness and Success
    • The Cosmic Coloring Book series
    • The Astrology Journal: A Celestial Guide to Recording Your Cosmic Journey
  • Records a bi-monthly podcast Stars on Fire
  • Formerly sat on the board of the International Association of Ethics in Astrology

A pioneer in her ever-expanding field, Mecca is the first Black woman to have a nationally syndicated column.

She strives to make her passion available to anyone who is interested and encourages self-starters or those on a budget to read up on the subject (starting with Astrology for Yourself by Demetra George and Douglas Bloch), download astrology apps like Time Passages and Sanctuary, join online communities, and seek out other like-minded people.

We sat down with Mecca recently and did a deeper dive into her thoughts on and experiences with astrology.

Can you share a practical example of how astrology plays into your own life?

As we move into Scorpio season, I’m reminded that Scorpio is a sign of intimacy and seduction, but also largely about power. It teaches us how to shore up the courage needed to confront our worst fears, to pursue our deepest desires, and to fully own who we are. I was excited to do the photo shoot for Thistle and Spire, because it was a chance to do something different and put myself out there in a new way, but it also dredged up some insecurities. I thought about the deep stretch marks across my belly (courtesy of becoming a mother), the extra weight I’ve put on since the start of the pandemic, and what it feels like to be in a middle-aged body these days. I thought about how these facets of myself would show up on camera, and I felt scared. Having to shore up my courage and own it all despite my fears highlighted a Scorpio moment for me. I had to strip down to my truest self in order to show up and be seen, which turned out to be an empowering experience after all.

What are the non-astrology parts of your life like?

I try to live as much life outside the realm of astrology as possible. Otherwise, I can lose some of the wonder and curiosity. Play time is important and helps me fill my cup—and therefore, help others more. I enjoy going out and doing things like flying a kite and finding ways to rediscover the city. I can have more conversations without interjecting astrology into it and am more protective about that part of my life.

How did the pandemic affect your work or role as an astrologer?

The last two years have been the busiest for me ever. I was doing readings and writing books, which can be taxing. I had so many grieving clients, and not just because of COVID. I felt like I played the role of a grief doula and learned the importance of time management.

Is there a question you get asked the most by clients?

Yes, one thing I am asked a lot is, ‘When will things get better?’ Personally, I hope things get better, but it’s also important to keep in mind that we’re in a period of destabilization. Things are actually supposed to be this way, because the old ways did not work. We’re collectively on a precipice and need to do the work, together, to improve things. We are all being asked to change and we need to embrace that change.

To keep up with Mecca check out and follow Mecca on Instagram at @1meccanism. 

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Guardian Kitty

Coco in her natural habitat

[This was originally sent to the My Favorite Murder podcast as a hometown story.]

This one goes out to the MFM menagerie and the spirit of Elvis.

I have a light-hearted missing pet story I’ve been meaning to share for years, and I hope I’m not unfashionably late to the hometown pet party. Even if I am, you can enjoy this anecdote privately, and read it aloud to the kitties as a cautionary tale, if nothing else.

In 2010, my boyfriend (now husband) and I adopted our first cat together: a 2-month-old torbie we named Coco. Primarily an outdoor cat, she enjoyed gallivanting around the neighborhood, ingratiating herself to our human neighbors, and leaving the occasional rodent offering on our welcome mat.

She also had a penchant for climbing trees, some of them so tall they required an extension ladder for regular retrieval. I bought one the first time she clawed her way to the highest branches of a birch tree in our yard, planning to return the 36-foot-tall ladder to Home Depot afterward. Within a week, Coco required rescuing from our neighbor’s mighty oak, so I decided to keep the equipment, which proved to be a wise investment.

An only child, Coco did not play particularly well with other animals, and she occasionally engaged in vocal late-night kitty paw-to-paw combat with the neighborhood cats. Sometimes she returned home scuffed and scratched up, but seldom with any serious injuries. We assumed that her anti-social behavior was part feline in nature and part early-kittenhood trauma. (As a baby, Coco had been left for dead in a cardboard box with a dozen other kittens, more than half of whom had perished. She’s a survivor!)

She did have one playmate of sorts–an aloof black-and-white fellow I called Phil. Coco and Phil parallel played around our yard and neighborhood, within each other’s orb but with minimal close contact. They were social distancing years before the rest of us were required to do so, which may have been the secret to their successful relationship.

Phil was more skittish than Coco around people–she enjoyed humans, just not other animals–and never ventured too close to the house or my husband and me. We respected his space and kept an eye on him and Coco through a window in the kitchen. Phil would camp out under one of our cars or beside the garage door, a safe distance from most human activity.

If only Coco could descend trees as easily as she could vehicles.

Sometime in the spring, when Coco was nearly two years old, she disappeared overnight, which was odd. Assuming she had climbed yet another tree, I canvassed the immediate neighborhood and checked her favorite spots. She rarely ventured beyond a two-block radius from our house, and I made sure to double-check those boundaries, looking up and listening for any distant mews. She knew to cry out when in distress, especially if she heard someone call her name.

No dice.

This went on for three days, by far the longest Coco had been away from home, and I had retraced my steps and checked her regular stomping grounds a dozen times.

I called my mother, usually a source of compassion and comfort–and a cat-owner herself–to tell her the tale of Coco’s absence. She responded with a matter-of-fact, “Honey, I’m sorry to say this, but I think your cat is dead.”

What the fuck, Mom?!

I refused to accept that without proof–specifically, a Coco cadaver. No body, no way. There was still hope.

So, I went back outside, marched around the block while calling her name and stopping to listen for stranded-kitty cries.

Again, I came up empty handed. So, I sat down at the dining room table and distracted myself with work. A couple hours later, while typing away at my laptop with my back to the window, I heard a faint cry. Abruptly, I stopped typing and whirled around. At the window was Phil’s black and white face peering in, meowing directly at me. I had never seen him so close to the house, and here he was, trying to…what, get my attention? Could it be?

I stared at him for several moments, stunned by the unexpected scene, then said aloud, “Sorry, buddy, but Coco isn’t here. She might actually be dead.”

He didn’t budge. Instead, Phil doubled down on the crying. I couldn’t believe it. What shenanigans was this furry little introvert up to?

With an annoyed sigh, I went to the back door, which opened out to the patio and the window where Phil was perched. I said sternly, “I told you, Coco isn’t home. I’ve been looking for her for three days. Go away.”

Again, this usually cagey cat stared me down, unwavering. Then, when he saw he had my undivided attention, Phil scampered across the patio to the edge of our lawn, stopped, looked back at me, and then continued down the small embankment into our neighbor’s yard.

I shrugged, and then followed him through our bushes, and past someone’s garden, across one street. Every twenty feet or so, Phil stopped, turned his head back and made eye contact with me. I interpreted this as his attempt to ensure I stayed close behind him.

We cut through yet another neighbor’s yard, this one with an empty kiddie swimming pool, and another with garden gnomes. We crossed one more street. With each step, I grew increasingly baffled and amused by the ordeal. I’m following a strange cat through strangers’ yards, I thought. This can’t end well.

Coco, nearly a decade after the tree incident, hanging onto her last life.

Then, as suddenly as he had started, Phil stopped. He sat by the massive trunk of a tree behind a triple-decker apartment building and shot me a glance. I was confused…until I heard a faint cry directly above us. I looked straight up and saw none other than Coco the climber at least 25 feet up, cradled in between two penthouse branches of this tree.

When I looked back down at Phil, I swear he had a smug expression, as if to say, “See, I fucking told you!”

Coco must have ventured just beyond her usual route, one more block beyond my search party radius. For three days, I had stopped short mere yards from this particular tree-climbing adventure gone awry, unaware of how close I had come to finding her on my own.

I busted ass home–along the sidewalk, not the back yard shortcut way I came in–and dragged the ladder and my husband back to ground zero. Coco at the top, and Phil by the trunk, both remained in their respective spots.

I secured the base of the ladder as Coco’s daddy climbed up and fetched our scared and hungry cat. Phil oversaw the operation and seemed to approve. (At this point I was attributing thoughts, emotions, and analyses to him as though he were a fully functional human.)

We got Coco home, where we fed, bathed, and swaddled her in a blanket. Within hours her usual quasi-social and playful demeanor returned. Within days, her extra weight did too.

I called my mother to prove her wrong and insisted that Coco had eight of her nine lives still intact.

Since that fateful day during which Phil was more of a Lassie, I have not seen Coco’s black-and-white guardian kitty ever again.

My mathematically inclined husband calls these situations “interesting coincidences,” and I deem them “magical” and “serendipitous.” Whatever it was, I think back on this auspicious, kitty-saving event fondly and with awe. It was special, and I am grateful.

Phil, wherever you are, thank you for having Coco’s back. We owe you one.

Stay sexy and follow cats when they insist on it. You never know where they might lead you.

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A New Kind of Sex Education with Casey Tanner

(This article first appeared in the June edition of Thistle and Spire’s blog.)

Photography by @jma__photography

Pride Month is here! In honor of the occasion we connected with queer-identified sex therapist Casey Tanner (she/they), learned more about their work, and discovered that they’re as much a fan of Thistle and Spire as we are of them. As expected, we found some overlap and loads of mutual love.

Casey has quite the resume and it continues to grow. Here are a few of their current titles:

  • AASECT Certified Sex Therapist
  • Founder and owner of The Expansive Group: LGBTQ counseling and gender therapy
  • Business consultant helping companies with queer alignment and inclusion
  • Co-host of the Safeword podcast
  • Thought leader and influencer 

Since coming to terms with their sexual identity and realizing their life calling to counsel others in a queer-affirming, sex-positive way—a stark departure from their conservative religious upbringing—Casey hasn’t wasted any time maximizing it to be of service to their community.

For those unfamiliar with your work, how would you explain what a sex therapist does?

Sex therapists are trained in the same way as any other therapist, but with extra training to get their sex therapy certification. I focus specifically on sexual health, function,  intimacy-related concerns and gender. I work with clients 18 and older—individuals, couples, and groups of people seeking my help. We’re not talking about sex 100 percent of the time, but I approach issues through a queer lens. Sex is not siloed off from life, but interconnected with every other facet of it. At the heart of my work is helping people who grew up feeling unseen or who struggle with loneliness—I think we can all relate to that.

How did you find your way to this line of work?

I think we all try to become the adults, perhaps the parents or therapists, we needed when we were younger but didn’t have. For queer folks, what is unique about this experience—compared to race or ethnic identity—is that queer eldership is not built in. Most people aren’t raised by queer parents, and we have to work hard to seek that out.

I was raised in an Evangelical family and was very bought into it. I attended a Christian college and was a church youth leader who taught that being gay was a sin. I was struggling with my mental health because I was so at odds with my authenticity at that time. So, I started talking to a therapist, and had no idea she was a queer therapist. It’s hilarious looking back, because the logo of the practice was a rainbow, but I didn’t know what that meant at the time. Four years in, we started addressing my sexuality, and it saved my life to have happened to be in the hands of someone who could talk about these things and provide such a safe environment. I knew I wanted to be a therapist during that process, but it was when I started working more with queer and trans folks that I realized what I was meant to do with my life. 

In addition to your role as a queer-affirming sex therapist, are there other components of your career that you’d like to discuss?

I’m going through some exciting shifts at the moment! They primarily involve moving away from being a therapist and more toward an author, thought leader, and business owner managing 20 employees and 5 contracted educators. I’m moving more into the headspace of a CEO—keeping the therapist piece, but giving myself permission to step into more of a leadership role.

What takeaways can you share from the shift thus far?

I’m learning a lot during this process, including that my public persona can make others angry. Luckily, I have a great staff that shield me from that. I got some great advice from a more experienced influencer who said that you can’t take in the good parts and leave behind the bad. If you do that, you’re still giving strangers power over how you see yourself. I also took a note from Brené Brown, who says to make a short list people whose opinions you actually care about and focus on that. That has been so helpful.

You have gone from therapist to entrepreneur with a team of 30 people and 180k online followers in a brief period of time. How did that happen so quickly?

We don’t advertise, so I think it was a matter of being in the right place at the right time and the right situation—which feels weird to say, because that situation was COVID. Three years ago, the fact that the Instagram handle @queersextherapy was available says so much about what was missing in the space. There was stuff available for queerness, sexuality, and therapy, but nothing that existed at that intersection. I was the one who happened to fill that niche at that time when there was a deep need for it. When COVID hit, so many people were having existential crises around identity and sex, and a lot more time to think about that. Online is where most of us were going to seek connection. For me, it was a natural outgrowth from those circumstances. I was not setting out to do what I’m doing. If this were a job description of a position I came across three years ago, I never would have applied for it, but it has evolved over time as I have been ready for it.

Since lingerie is our life blood, of course we want to know how its role fits into your work.

In my work, especially with queer and trans clients, we talk a lot about gender  dysphoria and things that ground you in your gender identity. So, lingerie comes up in that conversation—not just in sex, but in everyday life. For example, if I’m working with someone who is a trans woman, they may not be in a position to dress in alignment with their gender identity, but they can wear that one piece of lingerie under their suit. That can be very powerful and used as a mental-health tool for some people. Someone may have to dress in a particular way for their safety, but they can dress differently underneath. Lingerie companies used to market their products as being very much for the observer, and some do even now. But a shift that we’re seeing, which Thistle and Spire really embodies, is that this can be for you, and you can spend money on something that no one else may ever see. And you are worth that much!

What’s next for you?

This is a very exciting time and we put a lot into Pride Month. I wear many hats, and right now I’m working on several projects, including a book proposal about how the sex education most of us received was traumatic, and how recovery from that can occur with the help of a queer-affirming, sex-positive lens. My team is also rebranding for The Expansive Group website and launching another Instagram account in June. We’re opening a Chicago-based brick-and-mortar location, and I’ve been going to LA periodically to film and help companies integrate more learning into high-quality productions.

You can learn more about Casey and their work at The Expansive Group and on the Safeword podcast, which streams on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Amazon Music.

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Empowered Pleasure: Better Sex with CBD and Herbal Healing

(This article was originally published here on the Thistle and Spire website on April 14, 2022.)

With 4/20 just around the corner, we thought this would be the perfect time to introduce you to Ashley Jelks, the owner of our favorite CBD-focused company The High Priestess Herbal Wellness.

Ashley wants to help you make the most of your sex life—and every other part of your life—with her CBD-based products, which include a mélange of other natural herbs and elixirs.

Don’t worry, CBD (cannabidiol) isn’t mind altering, so there’s no uncomfortable gray area around consent. Rather it’s a nonintoxicating cannabinoid found in cannabis (marijuana) and is derived directly from the hemp plant.

Ashley believes so much in the healing properties of this plant that she has created an entire business around it. The High Priestess is the first (and, so far, only) Black-woman-herbalist-owned CBD apothecary of its kind, tapping into a niche market with widespread appeal.

A trained herbalist and engineer, Ashley has developed targeted lines of proprietary smoke blends, tinctures, teas and lubricating oils that address different issues, specifically:


Sleep issues

Menstrual tension

Sensual and sexual arousal and awakening

While all of those things are integral to a happy, healthy life, we’re the most titillated by the intimacy products containing CBD and other herbal boosts that help increase levels of openness, comfort and sexual satisfaction.

Ashley’s diverse background and training in engineering, herbalism, yoga, reiki and teaching created fertile ground for her current entrepreneurial wellness venture. Also, as someone who struggled with her own physical and mental health issues—autoimmune conditions and anxiety—she found that plants and herbal medicine helped her manage, and sometimes improve, these conditions.

She shared her story with us about a lifelong interest in natural medicine and the journey of self-healing and community creation that led her to create her own CBD business.                                                                                                                                                                                                                     

When did you launch The High Priestess Herbal Wellness?

We opened last year, in March 2021, and just celebrated our first anniversary. It was definitely a pandemic project, but was one of those things I had wanted to do for a while. Before the pandemic, I didn’t have the time to carve out the time or a business plan required to start a company. That was the pandemic’s gift to me—the opportunity to sit down and do what needed to be done to make this happen.

Great name. How did you come up with it?

It came to me one night when I was consuming cannabis and reading tarot cards, and I was struggling with names for my new company. I drew the High Priestess tarot card and examined it. Its meaning is about bridging the seen and unseen, the physical and spiritual worlds.

I use cannabis as a tool to tap into my intuition, which is exactly what that card and what this plant are both about. It’s also a fun play on words—high, 4/20, all the good stuff that we associate with cannabis. Right now, we only work with CBD, but at some point, I plan to branch more into THC (the psychoactive part of the cannabis plant) products, so the name will really resonate with those.

You know this is on everyone’s mind—how can your products help improve our sex lives?

Sexual arousal a biological process, but so much is happening in our minds too. Our thoughts and mental processes can enhance or detract from the overall sexual experience. [Referencing the book The CBD Solution] Some women who struggle achieving orgasm find that consuming cannabis before sex can help with that issue.

Our bodies have an endocannabinoid system, which is designed to receive the medicine and benefits in the cannabis plant and our bodies react to it. When combined with other herbs that do particular things, the results can be powerful and targeted to specific needs, both mental and physical.

I wanted to focus on intersecting herbal medicines that have certain effects, and originally, I was going to focus exclusively on a sexual wellness line. This is specifically how I wanted to set myself apart from other CBD companies and not add to an already saturated market. I don’t see many other companies doing this, especially combining herbs for sexual pleasure with topically applied sexual wellness oils.

What was your motivation to create a company like this?

I’m trained in yoga and reiki, and was turned off by the wellness experience because I realized it was super white, thin, cis-gendered and able-bodied. I’m not like a lot of the community of people I practiced with, so I wondered why the representations of this community were so monolithic.

I intersected so many different elements of myself. There’s the engineering part of my brain that likes solving problems and working on different things. There’s the herbalist in me that loves plant medicine, the part of me that uses cannabis in my own healing journey, and the practitioner in me that doesn’t feel like the images representing wellness are accurate and inclusive. I put all of these pieces of myself together and The High Priestess was the meeting point and organic outgrowth of those various things.

Did you have a specific goal or vision in mind when mapping out your business plan?

I want to change the world with plants, and my products can do that in small ways, one step at a time. I’m a woman with anxiety who made a company to help other people who may also struggle with anxiety.

I was trying to fit into a world that didn’t have room for me, and so I just made room for myself and extended that to others. I’ve always felt like I’m a bit of an outsider and I wanted to create community and space for all people to feel welcomed and included. I love that we’re moving in that direction as a society. I often forget to talk about this because it’s interwoven into my entire life experience and at the forefront of what I’m thinking.

Wellness can be a lot of different things. Human beings are dealing with so many different issues, and we all have a lot more in common than we don’t. Where and how can we help people feel more seen and included? That piece is so important to me, and not because it’s a hot buzzword, but because it’s my life.

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What is the Cost?

One of the few Spanish expressions I remember using on my high school trip to Mexico (besides una cerveza, por favor) is ¿cuanto cuesta?

What is the cost? Or literally translated, how much it costs?

Most of us are examining the cost of things these days. Between post-pandemic inflation and a raging war between Russia and Ukraine that has globe-spanning effects, the price of nearly everything has skyrocketed.

It’s evident when I fill up my gas tank, get my hair cut, or buy groceries. Every service and good from oil changes to light bulbs to dark chocolate (probably milk chocolate too) have higher price tags. The items that cost the same seem to come in smaller portion sizes.

The end result is the same: spending more and receiving less.

There is no shortage of memes, social media complaints, editorials, and Medium articles produced over these issues. Few of us are immune from the impact and subsequent grumbling and penny (or dollar) pinching.

So I won’t spill any more virtual ink on this particular issue. These recent global events, however, have gotten me thinking about the cost of other things in our lives beyond day-to-day expenses.

  • Habits
  • Addictions
  • Procrastination
  • Thought patterns
  • Toxic relationships

These less-tangible items can cost us money, but payment more often appears in the form of less-visible currencies.

  • Time
  • Stress
  • Energy
  • Emotions
  • Brain space
  • Physical health

I recently checked in with a friend who now lives a few time zones away. She told me about a perennial conflict she has with her husband, who threatens to split when certain conflict arises between them. He goes there as a first–not a last–resort. The possibility of divorce hangs over their household like the sword of Damocles, taxing their emotional stability and nervous systems.

That issue arose again in recent days, triggered by what she thought was an innocuous exchange that escalated into potential grounds for separation. He has made similar proclamations in the past, but has never followed through. Over time–hours, usually–he cools down, regains his composure, apologizes, and laments the drastic measures casually tossed about during the heated exchange.

It seems as though he doesn’t plan to actually leave, nor actually wants to do so. The looming cloud of divorce may be a matter of theatrics or displaced frustration. That is a silver lining, but an exhausting one.

I listened to this most recent iteration of the same story, unsure of how to proceed or help my friend navigate the emotional minefield that threatens her 5-year marriage while becoming a familiar part of it. Feeling more qualified to inquire and explore rather than dispense relationship advice, I posed this question.

What is this pattern costing you?

It wasn’t a rhetorical question. I certainly didn’t know the answer. She didn’t know either. But we both pondered it, vis-à-vis this particular issue as well as others that have plagued our respective lives. My friend still considers that question as she broaches the issue with her husband.

As if on cue, this very inquiry boomeranged in my own life the next day as I discussed with my sister a pesky issue that triggers an adrenal response for me: poor boundaries among some people close to us both.

I could feel the inflammation reignite as I mulled over the same frustrations I have repeated for years, especially as I held the fortress of my personal boundaries.

My older, wiser sibling gently yet firmly pointed out that my parameters with these unreasonable people, while justified, seem to require an inordinate amount of my energy.

“While you’re often adaptable, some of your boundaries with these specific people are rigid,” she said, doling out a rare dose of tough love. “They may be an inch thick, but they’re 50 feet high. What is that costing you? I worry that it’s draining your vitality, which is a steep price.”

Vitality. Life force. Essence.

I hadn’t thought of these elements as valuables that could be spent, bartered, exchanged, lost, stolen. But they are, and I was allowing unworthy people to drain a precious resource in limited supply. What I needed to preserve and protect instead I squandered because of my determination to hold up the iron-clad wall with sheer force of will.

The solution, of course, isn’t to remove boundaries. Those are in place for a good reason. But I am reassessing them, devising ways to soften or restructure them without forgoing self-protection.

Some coping mechanisms made sense at one point–they may have saved my emotional life during crises–but are no longer serving me in the same ways. An approach that guided me through a survival phase was once a gift and now a burden.

There is an abundance of tools available to all of us, some more helpful than others. No single one is the only correct way, but here are a few I’m trying to decrease the poor-vitality spending habits I’ve developed.

  • Yoga
  • Exercise
  • Meditation
  • Journaling
  • Creative thinking
  • Deep breathing techniques

I feel confident that I’ll strike a healthier balance, find a more appropriate approach, and reclaim some of my joy and energy.

What started this embarkment of growth was the simple question: What is this costing me?

Ask yourself that and see what comes up in your own life. You may be surprised by the answers, and they may point you in a direction toward healing.

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Back in the Writer’s Seat

After a nearly 9-month hiatus from publishing anything on this platform, I’m returning with renewed dedication. I’d like to pretend I was on a Ulysses-like sabbatical, collecting fodder and adventures to share with a patient and attentive audience when I returned to my home…office.

In reality, I have a gestation period of excuses.

Some of them are legitimate. Some are a stretch. All of them have something in common: RESISTANCE. Steven Pressfield is right–that shit will stop at nothing less than total annihilation. Fighting resistance is a daily battle, whether we recognize it or not.

Here is an abbreviated list of my most recent excuses. See if you can relate to any. Some are sneaky AF and are often resistance masquerading as reasons to not do the work (in my case, write).

  • New job
  • New cat
  • Sleep
  • Covid
  • Travel
  • Ted Lasso
  • Depression
  • Home organizing
  • Family obligations

It started with a new job I took last spring. What I thought would be a fun, part-time side gig turned out to be an all-encompassing demand that encroached on every other facet of my life. My daily writing time was supplanted with early morning dramas (beyond my pay scale), late night texts (this could have been an email!), and frequent troubleshooting calls to customer service.

Even my dinners and weekend getaways were sabotaged by unscheduled work-related calls and crises beyond the purview of my job description. So, writing slipped to the bottom of the to-do list each day, often for different reasons.

That part-time, life-consuming side hustle swallowed up six months of my year before I pulled the ripcord, looked for work with a more predictable schedule, and threatened to reclaim a daily writing routine.

And I did…sort of.

During the month of November I attempted an experiment in the vein of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). The goal is to write a 50-thousand-word manuscript in 30 days. I have attempted this several times, only reaching the word count goal once. I don’t think I actually want to write a novel. But I do want to write.

I made a pact with my inner scribe to write one blog post draft per day during the month of November. I promised myself I would go back and edit them all as necessary and publish them when they were each good and ready.

By November 30, I did compose a dozen drafts, all of which have yet to undergo an editing process and join its published brethren. By now the freshness and essence of immediacy have faded. The nature of conversational blogging differs from long-form novel writing in more ways than I suspected.

Time is of the essence with regular posts or daily news, which leaves little room for perfectionism. One reason I’m drawn to this medium is that it challenges my meddling analysis paralysis and encourages the adage “done is better than perfect.”

(That quote is attributed to Sheryl Sandberg, but I can’t believe she was the first ever to have uttered it.)

At some point you may see those months-old drafts polished up and making their debut, but for now I’m sticking with real time and following the advice of many artists and writers far wiser and more successful than I.

Elizabeth Gilbert covers this topic extensively in her TED talk and nonfiction book Big Magic, sharing stories about creative inspiration–from poet Ruth Stone to singer/songwriter Tom Waits to Gilbert’s own experience with fellow writer Ann Patchett.

If dreams deferred dry up, neglected muses can wander off and seek companions elsewhere.

My formerly fresh list of topics and unexplored ideas now look wilted, three months later. I failed to feed, water, and nurture them when they needed, rather than when I felt ready. And I may never feel ready. As a result, several have withered on the blogging vine. Someone else may have caught hold of them and will do the topics greater justice than I ever could, or at least did in recent months.

So, here we are. Again. Another day, another attempt, another topic, another post.

In the midst of work and writing transitions and false starts, I adopted a new cat. My husband (and our friends and neighbors) and I have bid Coco adieu and welcomed Pele into our home. You’ll see updates on her soon.

Oh yah, and I got Covid for Christmas and spent the last week of 2021 quarantining and sleeping like a champ.

The last nine months have been a wild ride! I look forward to sharing more of it with you. Instead of resistance pretending to be life keeping me from writing, I plan to use that raw material for inspiration and keep my arse in the writer’s seat.

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