Sex and sometimes love

December 4, 2016

I haven’t had sex since 2002. And I don’t miss it.

Gods above alone know how I could have survived so much sexual abuse, assault, and harassment and yet ended up with a sex-positive view. I love sex. I love intimacy. I was fortunate to have, on the whole, good lovers. But then, something went Terribly Awry. This story is not an invitation for you to invite me to have sex with you. Please pay attention.

My last lover was impatient and our relationship was completely fucked up. I knew we shouldn’t be together after our first night but he wore me down with arguments until he finally found my Achilles’ Heel: “Think how old you are now. How many more chances are you going to get?” Good basis for a relationship, eh?

The last time we slept together he might as well have been masturbating for all the difference it made that I was there. I knew he didn’t like my more creative style so I swallowed my disappointment and just endured. Gods. Wretched. It’s hard to know if I was just responding to patriarchal conditioning and submitting to my man or if I genuinely felt the poor guy should get a break. But it sucked for me. And he broke up with me shortly thereafter.

I spiraled into a depression. No surprise there. But the fucked-up-edness of our relationship didn’t stop when he broke up with me. He still rang me three or four times a day. I went to his condo several times a week to take his dog for long walks and cry into his ruff. And I’ll admit, once I suspected my ex was seeing someone new, I went through his drawers until I found the condoms I’d bought for him when we were together and took them all away. Childish, but devilishly satisfying. Why should I pay for his sex?

Did I mention things were fucked up? I would drag myself to my computer in the mornings to check for work email, sobbing, then crawl back to my bed and watch Lord of the Rings on my laptop, sobbing. As 11am approached my anxiety would shoot through the roof and my heart would pound and my chest contract and my hands sweat and my mind run as I desperately tried to think of how I could entertain him. And sure enough, at 11 on the dot he would ring and say lackadaisically, “So what’s going on?” Then I would try to delight him with trivia or gossip and play the sexy fetch. I was terrified he’d find me boring. I performed. Terrified. Until the phone call ended and I would collapse back on my bed sobbing. This would be repeated at 4 and 6 and sometimes 9. Every day. And if he was road-tripping, he would ring me at the start and expect me to talk him all the way home from Fort Wayne. So I did.

At the same time I was executing A Plan I’d devised in the week after we broke up. I am excellent with plans. I am a Capricorn. I live for plans. And this fabulous plan was that I’d take 3 months to get my head together, 3 months to build a wider circle of friends, and then I would try blind dating. At this point I could tell a hilarious story about the only blind date I’ve ever been on, but let’s stay focused on how screwed up I was. Surely if I got a new therapist I could be well in 3 months, right? And another 3 months is plenty of time to make friends in! And no, I don’t “date” in the traditional sense, I only have relationships, but just because it’s a really bad idea doesn’t mean it won’t build character! C’mon! Execute plan!

So I found a new therapist but my behavior didn’t change. My depression got worse. My anxiety got worse. Every time I expressed concern that I didn’t seem to be getting better she’d have some Buddhist maxim for me. I’m not a Buddhist. How were these things relevant? They weren’t. But I couldn’t see that. I thought that if I just tried harder, I would understand more, that I would feel better.

The first 3 months flew by. Then I hit Match.com to meet prospective friends. I didn’t put a picture up because I’m instantly recognizable and I didn’t want that vulnerability. So even though I said in my profile I was ONLY looking for friends, almost all the men who contacted me badgered me for a photo and when can we meet when when how’s now what’s your problem why not NOW? Tedious men.

I met up with about seven people ultimately from different walks of life, some male and some female. I seemed to hit it off with several but I was being very calculating in how I presented myself. I still spent most of my time sobbing but when I connected with these people I was oh so diverting. Funny, smart, sarcastic, deep, shallow, whatever the occasion demanded. But I wasn’t real. And I think they saw through that. So one by one I lost them.

As the months went by I became increasingly mentally ill. This is still with 3-4 phone calls a day from the ex, by the way. I was screaming a lot. Throwing things, hitting things. Not cutting, surprisingly. But seriously ill. I told my therapist I no longer felt like I had a self and she told me how great it was, that I was having a Buddhist enlightenment experience. Looking back, I know I was going insane. But in the moment all I wanted to do was try harder to be what she wanted.

Lots of things happened. Bad things. I fell.

There was a morning where somehow I ended up on the floor in a fetal position, babbling away, perhaps in gibberish. I say this now because I lived through it. At the time there was only unconsciousness. At some point a pinprick of light appeared along with the words, “This is not rational” across my black internal mindscape. It went away immediately. An indeterminate amount of time passed, me babbling away in total mental darkness, and the light and words came again. This happened repeatedly until the light held on long enough for me to realize where I was and what was going on. And that light was right, this was definitely not rational.

I lost my mind. Not in a metaphorical way. Not in an exaggerated way. I went insane. All conception of “I,” of “me,” of “Cairril” was lost. It was not an abyss. If there’s an abyss, there’s a you to observe the abyss. There was no me. There was nothing. And that’s not all that was happening. It was, however, the worst.

I fear only two things in life: rape and insanity. And while technically I’ve never been raped I had now gone insane. I can’t explain the terror. The vulnerability. The realization that at any moment you can lose all that makes you you. You think you can control it. You’re reading these words, you’re perhaps thinking, “Well, if that happened to me, I’d [fill in the blank].” I tell you that you don’t know what you’re talking about. This is so far beyond most people’s experience that they can’t comprehend what it even means.

My great-aunt Mary was made a ward of the state and put into an insane asylum in the early 1920s after a fever caused brain damage. I never knew she existed until one day when I was about 15 my parents said, “We’re going to see Aunt Mary.” I’m like, “Who’s Aunt Mary?” They just said she was in a nursing home and would probably be speaking in German. When we got there I saw a little old lady hunched over in a chair babbling in some kind of language, but it sure as hell wasn’t English. We left. And we didn’t talk about it. She died about a year later and we went to her funeral. And we didn’t talk about it. It was like it never happened.

Aunt Mary’s father, my great-grandfather, went insane on his 60th birthday the year after Mary was put away. The family tried to care for him but soon he, too, became a ward of the state. Mary spent 60 years in asylums. Great-grandpa Ruth spent his last 13 years in the Longcliff Asylum for the Insane in Logansport. And no one talked about him. My mom, his granddaughter, didn’t know anything about this until her sister told me in the 1990s. He’d been disappeared.

And as if that wasn’t enough tragedy for that family, Mary’s brother, my great-uncle Leo, loved a girl in Wisconsin. He proposed. She turned him down. So he drove his 1938 Mercury coupe down a back rode and shot himself in the heart. It was front-page news in Wisconsin and in Indiana. The family tried to deny the story because of the shame involved but all the evidence pointed to suicide. So he got disappeared, too.

I learned this stuff from my Aunt Dolores, who didn’t speak in hushed tones behind her hand. She just talked about it the same way she talked about playing Canasta. She wasn’t afraid of it. But my parents were. My mother had been told by her mother, “Don’t ever tell anyone about Aunt Mary or you’ll never get married.” That was totally a product of society, not a character flaw of my grandma’s. It was a terrible scandal to have mental illness in the family. We live with that prejudice still.

That morning on the floor made me realize that no, this was not a Buddhist enlightenment experience, this was insanity. And something must be done. Insurance was actually helpful for once and they got me into a couple places to be evaluated. At Bloomington Hospital the bored doctor asked, “Do you want to stay?” I said, “Should I? You’re the doctor!” He just said, “Well, if you’re a danger to yourself or others…. No? All right, sign here.” When I pulled my car out of my parking spot and headed down the garage ramp I pressed the gas to the floor, my eyes glued to the concrete wall in front of me. At the last minute I remembered that I was going to be evaluated by a different hospital, so I slammed on the brakes.

At Meadows Hospital they didn’t want me to leave at the end of the evaluation. They were practically strapping me to a stretcher (not really, but that’s what I was afraid of). By this point I had stepped outside my brain and Great-grandpa Ruth had walked in and was doing the talking to them. I was having his flashbacks. At one point someone stepped in and, without a word, snapped my picture. I started screaming. I have the photo Longcliff took of August Ruth when he was admitted. And he looks like a crazy man. So here I was in an asylum having my own experience of being photographed and simultaneously having his experience of being photographed.

I was psychotic. Also suicidal, but that was so common with me it seemed normal. But my brain no longer functioned the way it was supposed to. I remember when the nurse was going through my stuff to pull out anything potentially harmful. I’d ask him, “Why are you taking that out?” and he’d tell me why. Before the first word was out of his mouth I’d forget it so I’d repeat the question. Over and over. I just couldn’t hold onto the English language anymore. Bless him, he was perfectly patient. But it was terrifying to be unable to communicate. It was terrifying to keep slipping out and having Great-grandpa slip in. It was terrifying to think they’d drug me up or give me electroshock treatments or, Gods above, wall me away so my family could pretend like I didn’t exist. I was terrified of being disappeared. I still am.

This is a long story. A lot happened. The happy-happy-joy-joy part is I got diagnosed and was put on meds that actually stabilized me. I continued to have psychotic episodes for three years after Meadows but slowly clawed my way back to sanity with the help of good doctors and therapists. But let me tell you, the whole experience put me off the idea of having relationships.

Remember sex? Where we started? This is my point: in my mind, being in an intimate relationship and having sex became connected with psychosis in my mind. To even start a friendship is to risk madness. And in the maelstrom before I went into Meadows, on some deep level of my self I swore I would never go through that again. I’d kill myself first. So to go on a date or even to start a friendship means I’m taking both my sanity and my life into my hands.

Is it any wonder I don’t miss it?

 

At the same time:

I believe in intimacy. I believe in sex. I believe that such things can make you a better person. They can make you stretch, make you grow. They are fun. Like when your lover puts their cold feet on your warm ones and laughs hysterically as you shriek and pound on their chest.

How wonderful is it to be held when you feel happy? When you feel grief? When you feel lonely? I don’t get held anymore. I get hello and goodbye hugs sometimes, and with my sister there’s the communication of “I love you so much I don’t want to let you go” but for the most part my life has become a touch-free zone. It’s hard for me to believe that most of my life was spent as a puppy cuddling up with other puppies. I love touch. But now it’s dangerous.

No one tickles the inside of my elbow anymore to make the side of my tongue itch (it’s true!). No one pets my back. No one breaths my name in my ear.

I was raised a good Catholic girl and was not going to have sex until I got married. After I stopped believing in God I still wanted to wait to have sex until I was in love. But time passed. And passed. And passed. And while I was having relationships, I was not having love. So I got tired of waiting. My first sexual experience was with my best male friend. I highly recommend it. No pressure. Total comfort. Easy conversation. Tenderness and compassion and laughter. A different way of saying, “I love you.” It was a wonderful introduction.

I have been very fortunate to have had lovers who were on the whole kind, passionate, sensitive, respectful, and fun. People with the breadth of styles so at times you just throw the other against the wall and at other times you take all night. (Ah, the joys of sex with young men—stamina!)

And with my almost-husband, I was able to explore the power and magic of spiritual sexuality. Some of the most profound experiences of my life happened while making love with him. Our bed was sacred space. I didn’t have to invoke the Goddess, I was the Goddess. I was pure love taken form. So was he. And we gave and took equally, generating a golden helix between our hearts. Pulsing with the deep, deep love that fuels the universe. Love that infused every atom of our beings and bound us more deeply than any external cord. Our bodies were love. Our spirits were love. And there was no separation anywhere.

I haven’t had sex since 2002. And I miss it.


Immanent Goddess ritual

November 4, 2016

This is the ritual I priestessed at Daun Fields’ wonderful and welcoming Sunrise Hive. It came out of my frustration with Pagans’ so frequently looking outside themselves for the sacred, and how many of us women still hate our bodies. Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon talked about the Church of All Worlds, where they greet each other with, “Thou art God” or “Thou art Goddess.” Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance was my third Pagan book and she talked about immanence at length. It’s an empowering practice and it unifies the self with all of Gaia.

***

Intros: Introduce yourself and your matron goddess, describing some of her main attributes.

Something that is “immanent” is “indwelling, inherent.” Something that is “transcendent” (which is the type of deity most of us were raised with) is “over, above, beyond grasp.”

Starhawk, in Dreaming the Dark, defines immanence as “the awareness of the world and everything in it as alive, dynamic, interdependent, interacting, and infused with moving energies: a living being, a weaving dance.”

The split between immanence and transcendence, and the split between body and mind, can be traced back to the ancient Greeks. Around 360 BCE Plato wrote Phaedo, a Socratic dialogue. In it we find such gems as:

  • The soul of the philosopher greatly despises the body, and avoids it. It thinks best alone by itself by avoiding so far as it can, all association or contact with the body.
  • So long as we have a body, and the soul is contaminated by such an evil, we shall never attain completely what we desire, that is, the truth.
  • Purification consists in separating, so far as possible, the soul from the body

Clement, Origen, and other early Christian church fathers saw the body as evil because of its needs for food and sex. The body became linked to Eve and Adam’s Fall. St Paul and other early Church writers link women with the body and disgusting sin. Gnostics saw the flesh as evil, animated only by a divine spark within. In the Middle Ages we see body-hatred manifested through fasting, flagellation, hairshirts, and sleep deprivation. Perhaps one of the greatest breakthroughs Goddess women make is when they reach radical acceptance of their woman bodies.

Even as Pagans, we tend to see the sacred “out there” (trees, sea, fire) or “in here” (trance, meditation, spark). What about everything in between?

Our Goddess is not a transcendent mountain god like the Abrahamic god. Our Goddess is immanent. She is all-pervasive. She is you.

The Goddess is you. You are Goddess. Your flesh. Your bones. Your voice. Your eyes. Your coughing fits. Your hayfever. Your pee. All that is natural is the Goddess. All that is natural is holy. The Goddess isn’t in these things, she is these things.

***Break for questions ***

Invite the Quarters:

East: Breathe loudly in and out

South: Rub palms together fast

West: Slide your hands over your arms like water

North: Stomp!

Cast the Circle:

Visualize a sphere of white light springing up from us and encompassing this whole floor of the building, the space above, the Earth below.

Close your eyes and travel to your matron Goddess. [My technique is to lie down on a cloud and descend gently and slowly over the edge of a cliff, changing colors from yellow to orange to red to green to blue to violet so you end up on the ground surrounded by violet light.] See your surroundings, look at your Goddess’ clothing, coloring, her aspects, etc. Make it as clear as you can by engaging sight, sound, smell, hearing, taste, touch.

See how your matron Goddess’ attributes are your attributes, too.

Then see her come nearer, facing you. She changes shape until she is exactly the same size as you. She turns her back to you so she’s standing right in front of you. You step forward as she steps back. You are one.

Feel suffused with her energy. Feel how her qualities resonate with your qualities. Then see how you embody those qualities, how they are as much your attributes as hers. You are one.

All rise and stand in a circle, holding hands. Taking turns, state your name and one of your Goddess attributes. The rest of us then respond, “[Name,] give us [attribute].” (For instance, I say, “I am Cairril, and I bring courage.” Everyone responds, “Cairril, give us courage.”)

Go around the Circle. It’s okay to duplicate attributes. Smile at each other and feel the power of our immanent Goddess selves. When you’re done, squeeze the hand of the person next to you. When everyone is finished, bring your held hands to the center of the Circle. Start toning on a low note and as you raise the pitch higher, raise your arms up until you are at the top of your range and stretching up. Then take a break! (Remember, your pee is sacred. Those feet that take you to the drinking fountain are sacred.)

Come back to the Circle and pick up a small food item. Ground yourself by sending shoots into the Earth from your root chakra. Feel your body weight against the floor and feel the Earth supporting you. Feel the holy energy exchanged between your sacred self and the sacred Earth.

I am going to say a five senses prayer. With each sense invoked, utilize it with your food item. If it’s “sight,” really look at your food and revel in how it’s sacred, but also how your sight itself is sacred. It is all Goddess. Thou art Goddess. I am Goddess.

Five Senses Prayer:

I praise the Gods who infused in my head
Soul and reason both
And who imbued me with my senses
Air and earth, water and fire.
One is for seeing.
Two is for touching.
Three is for hearing.
Four is for smelling.
Five is for tasting.

Eat mindfully, taking in all your sensory input. Let the food ground you. Then you can relax!

Sharing circle: what was your experience like? What messages did you receive? How have your perceptions changed?

Housel! Journal, chit-chat. Open the Circle.

***

It is my hope that women in particular will find this ritual helpful in coming to radical acceptance of their bodies as sacred. But for all who participate or adapt this ritual, I hope it opens you up to how sacred and powerful you are. Thou art God. Thou art Goddess.


My first spell

October 14, 2016

Almost 27 years ago when I was first introduced to Paganism, I was reluctant to practice magic. Magic seemed like wishful thinking and constructed “coincidences” to me. (The most famous definition of Pagan magic is Doreen Valiente’s “the art of changing consciousness at will,” but I prefer Oberon Zell’s “probability enhancement.”)

I decided to give it a (skeptical) try. I chose to work magic to attract more money into my life. I was living on my own and trying to raise enough money to pay for a year at college. I had some scholarships and loans but didn’t have enough to cover expenses. For effective magic, you need to feel an attachment to the outcome. Money was something I was definitely emotionally attached to!

I chose spells from a variety of traditions, both folk and contemporary. For instance, I wrapped a silver dollar in orange paper (orange is the color of attraction). This is an example of folk magic, where you “show the way” for the outcome you desire.

For a more contemporary approach, I did candle magic. I used several lit candles of different colors, each representing something different. One represented me, a green one represented money, gold represented riches and abundance, etc. Over the course of seven nights during the waxing moon I moved the green and gold candles closer to the one representing me. Eventually they burned together in one waxy lump.

I also tried an ancient form of magic: dance and trance. In my candlelit room, I danced in front of my altar for an hour at a time, repeating chants like “As the leaves fall from the trees, bring the money unto me.”

As much as I tried to maintain my rational skepticism, I couldn’t help but notice that I was changing consciousness, that I was raising power, and that I could clearly visualize an outcome where I had enough money and riches without harming anyone (an old Pagan guideline is “harm none”).

Far beyond what I was experiencing with magic were the results! Within two weeks of doing the various spells, I received the money that I needed to go back to school. First I received a new work-study job that paid more and was related to my major. Then I received another grant. A previously awarded scholarship amount was increased for an unexplained reason. My parents, with whom I had a complicated relationship, came through with a no-interest, no-strings-attached loan.

One of the oldest rules about magic is “be careful what you wish for.” In the same time period that I received all this good news, my parents came to visit me. They brought two large bags filled with cakes, candies, brownies, dessert mixes, and other sweets. They’d never done anything like that before and haven’t since. Even more odd, they’d brought a box of chocolates that my sister had bought for me. My sister had never bought anything for me before, much less my favorite candy!

I was puzzled by all this sugary largesse until I thought back to what I’d been asking for: money and *riches.* As every Pagan knows, you can place your requests however you like, but the universe will provide in ways it thinks are best! I received my wish—with the side effect of a larger waistline!


Ninja Pagan marriage ceremony

December 19, 2015

This is the script of the first Pagan handfasting/marriage I priestessed back in the ’90s. The bride and groom were Pagan but were not out to their families. They wrote the ceremony to meet their spiritual needs without giving anything away and they told everyone I was a minister rather than a priestess. I like to think this kind of subterfuge is no longer necessary but I’m not that naive. Anyway, I think they did an absolutely lovely job. It’s actually one of the proudest moments of my life, standing at the altar in Beck Chapel, in a role that I would’ve gotten burned at the stake for in years past.

15 minutes of seating music. (Organist plays Bach Preludes and Trio Sonatas)

Cairril Adaire (CA) and D (groom) enter from behind the altar. D puts rings on the altar.

Attendants enter in pairs. (Organist plays overture to Handel’s Water Music Suite.)

C (bride) enters. C walks down the aisle with father, hugging him at the pew before walking on to the altar in the front. (Water Music Overture should still be playing.)

CA: Friends and family, we have come here this evening to witness a new beginning to C and D’s life together. This wedding should  remind us that, like the seasons, life moves in cycles.

While the first flowers of spring are gorgeous to behold, compellingly sweet to the senses, we know that it takes several seasons, much tender care, and the weathering of many storms for the fruit of those flowers to grow and ripen. Similarly, it takes time for love to mature and reach completion.

To be in a loving relationship does not guarantee an eternal summer. To make a sincere and honest commitment does not promise an end to all struggle. What a good relationship does is offer the never ending opportunity for renewal. It recognizes the abiding, shared hope that after every winter, spring will come again.

In marriage, we make a commitment to weather patiently the cold and bitter times, to protect and tend the original seed until it bursts into bloom again.

We are here to celebrate beginnings, and to acknowledge that love, as anything else that we wish to grow and prosper, requires care and nurture.

D, if you would ask C to be your wife, speak to her and those assembled of your love, that she, and they, may know what is in your heart.

D: C, the love I feel for you shows itself in all I do. In perfect love and perfect trust, I open myself to you. No longer just the product of my own experiences, I now allow the image of who I am to shape who I become. From this day, what one of us does will affect both of us. We are still two independent beings, with our own wills, our own dreams, our own interests, but in the larger scheme of things, I bind my destiny to yours with three promises: I love you, I trust you, and I honor your freedom. Everything else may change, but love, trust, and freedom will remain.

CA: C, if you would ask D to be your husband, speak to him and those assembled of your love, that he, and they, may know what is in your heart.

C: D, I promise to be your wife, which is many things, like friend and companion, but is certainly not all things. I promise to remember that while marriage is perfect, the people in it are not and to be as patient with you as you are patient with me. And I promise that I will abide with you and be your love to the end of our days together, whatever life may bring us until then.

Unity candle: C gets a taper from the altar and lights it on the candelabra. D follows suit. When both have lit tapers, they light the unity candle together. Both place their lit tapers back on the altar. (Organist plays Corelli)

D (pick up ring): With this ring, I offer myself to you as husband, with all my faults, and all my strengths. Will you accept me as your partner in all the future may bring?

C: I will. (D places ring on C’s finger.)

C (pick up ring): With this ring, I offer myself to you as wife, with all my faults, and all my strengths. Will you accept me as your partner in all the future may bring?

D: I will. (C places ring on D’s finger.)

CA: Before all who are assembled here, C and D have freely pledged themselves to one another. May the powers of creation grant their minds the clarity of wisdom, their souls the strength of will, their hearts the depth of feeling, and the bodies the wellspring of health to walk life’s path together as husband and wife.

The veil: D lifts C’s veil and gives her a big sloppy-wet moose kiss.

CA: Go forth in peace, carrying the joy of this day in your hearts.

Recessional. (Organist plays selection from Handel’s Water Music Suite.)


Witchcraft: One woman’s journey

December 13, 2015

I always wanted to be good. I paid attention to the adults around me and all the cultural cues and tried to be a good girl. In my Catholic home that meant things like not eating for an hour before Communion and going to confession (truly contrite) and singing out loud and strong as one of the faithful. I accepted all the norms around me and strove to be the best I could be. I wasn’t particularly introspective about my faith until I was a teenager.

We had a cousin that all the adults whispered about. When she got pregnant at 16 she stayed with us for a while. And later, when her marriage was breaking up, her three children came to us for a summer. Erika was four years old. I was 14.

She had the olive skin of her father and huge dark eyes and she sang You Are My Sunshine over and over and over until I wanted to rip my brain out of my ears. My boyfriend and I took her on my paper route, pretending she was our little girl, frolicking around in front of us as we lazily made our way down the street. Erika was bright and cute and lively and cuddly.

A year later I was pitching at a softball game and the catcher couldn’t catch, which infuriated me. I patterned myself after my brother Steve, and as he had a red-hot temper on the basketball court, I had one on the baseball field. Absolutely ballistic. I was vaguely aware of my mom and sisters coming to the game late but I was so focused on the idiot catcher that I took no notice of them. We lost the game but went to Dairy Queen afterwards anyway, where I got a caramel sundae.

After I got home I was fuming alone in my room, still tasting the caramel, when my mom came in and sat me down. I don’t know how she told me. I just remember the mental picture she created while that sticky ice cream taste rolled around in my mouth.

Erika had been with her brothers and dad in a store and, in a freak accident, a display of doors had fallen on her. Broke her neck in seven places. My little girl was dead.

As I sobbed my guts out my mom said, “You feel things more deeply than other people do. That’s a great gift from God but it makes things like this harder.” I registered that that was the first time I felt like my mother had ever really seen me. But the grief was paramount.

One of my earliest memories is of my Great-Grandma Radloff’s funeral. My parents, both Capricorns, took the Extremely Rational view that death could happen at any time and if it did, they wanted us kids to know how to behave. We were a Catholic family. We had a lot of relatives. Which meant lots of funerals.

Erika’s was of course different from all the rest. They’d asked me to sing but I could barely handle being in the chapel. For reasons I will never understand, they had an open casket. She was green. My little girl’s skin was green.

During the funeral her father hunched over and as the priest paused for a breath little Nicky, Erika’s three-year-old brother, asked clear as a bell, “Daddy, why are you crying?” The whole thing was beyond heart-wrenching.

I grew up through that experience. And I found my faith. I spent more and more time at church and developed a special relationship with the Virgin Mary. I prayed to her when I was crippled by cramps (who better to understand cramps than Mary? certainly Jesus couldn’t relate!). I would go to the red-tinted chapel after rehearsals and light a candle and just set in her presence. I carried around a battered copy of the New Testament and studied it in detail, highlighting favorite passages. In Sunday School I listened more closely for what I should do to be a good Catholic girl.

But there was a problem. Mary was “meek and mild.” I didn’t have a meek or mild bone in my body. I was bold and brave and brassy and obnoxious. I knew from The Authority Figures that this wasn’t “ladylike” but I didn’t know how else to be. I kept trying to be what they wanted, kept praying, kept working the rosary, but then I’d get ticked off about something and—boom!—ballistic. In your face.

I struggled through my high school years, wrestling with this problem of submission to God’s will. I actually made a formal submission once. Went to this huge statue of Jesus on US 31 and prayed about my relationships with boys and lay flat out, face down, arms spread out, and said, “Thy will be done.” It made me serious. But I couldn’t tame the beast within. I had too much Irish, that fire that makes me me. But that didn’t fly in the Catholic church.

A breaking point came when I was reading a Marian pamphlet in the church lobby—something about Lourdes or some other visitation—and it said that Mary had appeared and said women should cover their arms. Sleeves no shorter than three-quarter length. These days I wonder why Mary was so specific about sleeve lengths when she could have been giving stock market tips, but at the time I was overcome with a deep sense of loss. I wore short sleeves. I would always wear short sleeves. I would never be like Mary. I would never be good. I grieved. That was when I was 17. That was the beginning of the continental drift.

By the time I was 18 I was in the midst of a complete mental breakdown. Lordy, how I prayed then! Obsessively praying the rosary, thumbing through the Bible, praying on my knees, listening listening listening for some clue to help me find my way through the complete and utter chaos that was my mind.

It was the summer after my senior year when things were at their worst. I was hallucinating. I was self-mutilating constantly. I was convinced that I only existed when people looked at me—as soon as they looked away, I ceased to exist. I was suicidal. All. The. Time. And there was one night when I went outside and stood on the driveway and stared up into the starry sky and cried out, “God, help me!” I dug deep inside of me, to the most vital essence of my soul, and said in words that are true to this day, “I will never need you more than I need you now.” And I looked into that deep, dark sky brilliant with stars and felt and heard—nothing. It was just a sky. There wasn’t the sense that God was listening and withholding for some reason, some test of faith. There just wasn’t anything there. Just—sky. Stars. Night.

It was then that I knew I was truly alone.

When I went off to college I did try to regain my faith at St Paul’s Catholic Center, leading songs and being a reader, but it was no use. I met my first atheist freshman year and to my surprise he wasn’t a trucker. (Somehow it was firmly rooted in my head that all atheists were truckers and all truckers were atheists.) We had spirited debates, me drawing on my Bible knowledge, my boyfriend quoting the Torah, and Monty firing back with no fear of God or hellfire or punishment or consequences at all. It was stunning to me.

By the end of that first year of school I was a confirmed atheist. It came after one day in church when we were reciting the creed and I started, “I believe in God (the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and Earth—I still know it)” but then I stopped. Because I didn’t believe in God. I didn’t believe in any of the things in the creed. What was, was. It was a material world and I existed through my five senses. And I was angry. Boy, was I angry. The more I looked back at the religion I’d imbibed so deeply, the more enraged I got. What a complete crock of shit. And I had fallen for it. There was no God, no Heaven, no Hell, no soul, no afterlife. There was just this one life and then nothing. Done. Everybody saying otherwise was completely batshit. Willingly delusional in exchange for a sense of safety and some meaning for their suffering. And of course, a rationalization for their prejudices.

That lasted about three years. Then I discovered, once the anger started to fade from my system, that I was having—gasp—spiritual yearnings. Not for any particular belief system or even a single belief. I just slowly became aware that I was a spiritual being in addition to a material one and I had needs that weren’t being met. I was baffled. How could I be a spiritual atheist?

I took my problem to a friend and he, like the Delphic oracle, bade me visit the legendary Jim Jeske. Jim was a member of Zoo Crew, the group of friends I hung out with in college, but he was older than I and was intimidatingly intelligent. He knew everything. And he was hilarious as hell. And he was so, so kind to me. He accepted my broken self just as I was and, in little ways, let me know that he was rooting for me. So I made a date with Jeske.

He was living across the street from The House of Hell on the corner of Harold and Alice where many other Zoo Crewers lived, just a half-block from my apartment. It was a nice night when we sat out on his front porch, staring ahead at nothing and me just trying to casually explain my strange situation. Being Jeske, he was thoroughly accepting and met me where I was and said, “Read Drawing Down the Moon.” There were people like I in the world, it appeared. People who were spiritual and atheist. Somehow there was a balance.

For my generation, Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon was the gateway drug to Paganism. Margot (who later became a friend) was an NPR reporter doing a story on Paganism and she got so sucked in she became a Witch. Her book was an exploration of the wild varieties of Paganism being explored in the US, from the Church of All Worlds to Dianic goddess worship to Druidry to Ásatru to the Craft and beyond. As I read I felt a whole new world opening up. These were deeply spiritual people and they had no pope, no priest, no holy book—they followed the calling of their souls wherever that led. And yes, there were atheist Pagans.

I was immediately drawn to Druidism and Witchcraft, in part I believe because they were more structured and ritual-based than the other paths, closer to the spirituality I’d grown up with. I studied some of Margot’s source books and became clear that the Craft was calling me most strongly. This was when the Monroe County Public Library had an outstanding collection of books on Paganism (which was fortunate—I worked at McDonald’s and had zero money) and I devoured everything I could get. Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance was so inspiring I broke into an office at work and xeroxed the whole thing. I went on a backpacking trip to Europe and while in England picked up Wicca: The Old Religion in the New Age by Vivianne Crowley. I read that in one setting once I got home and I knew that this was something I wanted to explore.

Still, I was cautious. I didn’t want to exchange one straitjacket for another. So I started easy, Autumn Equinox of 1989, calling on Egyptian gods and goddesses because I’d fallen in love with them at the British Museum.

It felt—weird. Awkward. I was making things up and I knew it. I was self-conscious. But no matter how clumsy my rituals, my actual spiritual experience was straight crack cocaine. I couldn’t get enough. I was finally alive again.

I studied and practiced for a little over a year and at Samhain 1990 I self-initiated. I re-commit every year and it cracks me up to look back at my original oath. I was very clear that I Was Not Committing To Anything. I Was Rational. There’s a lot of scientific jargon in those early writings. Because what I’d decided was that I was going to make a conscious choice to see the biosphere as sacred. That doesn’t mean the biosphere is sacred. It just means that I choose to see it that way. From that flows a whole set of ethics—no, a whole way of being.

I experimented with ritual, getting ideas from books but jettisoning anything that didn’t work for me. This is quintessential Paganism. When I’m explaining Paganism to those who don’t know anything about it I compare it to a huge buffet table. On this table are all the spiritual beliefs and practices that humanity has ever created or believed. And Pagans get all squealy with delight and get a huge plate and take bits and pieces of anything that strikes their fancy. And the critical part is that, if we try something and don’t like it, we shrug and leave it for others. We don’t throw the dish on the floor and jump up and down screaming, “Heresy!!” If Pagans have any credo, it’s “Do what works for you.” Witches in particular have the Rede which states, “If it harms none, do what you will.” Ultimate freedom and ultimate responsibility.

Over the years I left many pantheons behind and settled on working primarily with Celtic goddesses. My main goddesses are Arianrhod, Brighid, Rhiannon, and Cerridwen, though I work with many others. I am a priestess of Brighid.

I no longer struggle with my faith. I don’t have an external creed that I have to somehow squeeze myself into. My faith always pushes me to be a more excellent human but it’s not about rewards and punishment. I just breathe it. I live it. I say prayers formally and I live prayers informally. I embody the Craft as I see it. Because I chose this path, and because I continue to choose it every morning, it is a living, breathing expression of my—dare I say it?—soul.

There is no God. There is no afterlife. There is no intrinsic meaning in the universe. But that doesn’t mean my heart is empty. On the contrary, it frees me to construct a living organism that is the Craft made manifest, uniquely, through me. My Craft is not the same as anyone else’s, even if we use some of the same words or call on the same goddesses and guides. My path is uniquely mine. I listen for Spirit’s call, the call of the biosphere that is more than five senses, and I respond with what gifts and skills I have at hand. And if someday I change my mind and choose not to believe in a sacred biosphere anymore, that doesn’t mean I leave the Craft behind. Being a Witch means “to bend”—to be organic, in motion, flowing. Beliefs, chosen or no, come and go. The techniques and forms may change. But the path, lit by my unique light, winds on.

I am a Witch. I am home.


The character of water

December 10, 2014

At the end of Season I, episode 3 of Xena (“Dreamwalker”), Xena and Gabrielle are at the side of a small lake. They have a conversation which has always struck me deeply:

Xena: See how calm the surface of the water is? That was me once. And then…(she throws a stone into the lake) the water ripples and churns. That’s what I became.

Gabrielle: But if we sit here long enough, it will go back to being still again; go back to being calm.

Xena: But the stone is still under there. It’s now part of the lake. It might look as it did before, but it’s forever changed.

I take it as it was given in the show—Xena realizes her dark past is a part of who she is. It began when she picked up the sword and embarked on a life of violence and murder. And now she lives with it. Her challenge is not to be controlled by her past, but to assimilate the stone and accept the changed self.

Messages of this kind always strike me because of my own past, where I have not always acted as I wished, and where I have been subject to the nightmare of mental illness. Many stones have been thrown into me. My journey now is to become calm, and make the internal adjustments that bring peace.


Miscellaneous Pagan prayers

November 23, 2014

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