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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Encounter with a Baptist

November 2, 2014

This post will be offensive to some Christians. Take it or leave it. I am reminded of my friend Angie, who argues vociferously with people of different faiths when their beliefs result in objectionable actions, even though she’s on the board of the Parliament of World Religions, one of the world’s best interfaith organizations. We can critique each other’s faiths without hating each other.

Last week I went to an event sponsored by the Center for Inquiry that featured a Baptist youth pastor. I wasn’t able to stay for the whole time but a couple things stuck out.

He read from an online list of Things Baptists Believe and one of them is that all humans are born sinners. And the only way they get to Heaven is through accepting Jesus as their personal lord and savior—good works don’t count.

This is whacked. I think it was Joseph Campbell who pointed out this example that settled the former issue for me: He said that if two people are standing on the edge of a cliff and one starts to fall, the other will instinctively reach out and try to save the first. It’s an instinct, not a rational decision. That, to me, indicates we are fundamentally good.

However! It doesn’t take much to change our behavior. Riane Eisler writes at length about how competition over scarce resources leads to patriarchy, hierarchy, and war. She argues that humans were originally cooperative and community-minded until we abused the environment and began to compete. I don’t know that it’s that simple (was there ever a Golden Matriarchal Age?) but the general idea seems to hold up.

The whole idea of good works not counting was of course a key element of the Protestant Reformation and feelings run deep on that issue. Personally, I think it’s insane. What kind of god would create a race of beings only to make it impossible for the vast majority of them to come to him after death? A sick and twisted god, that’s what. And I have no idea why someone would choose to worship him. You can’t say “God is love” and square that with “Everyone who believes something different from Baptists is going to Hell.”

As much as atheists slam the Bible (and let’s face it, there’s a lot to slam), I don’t blame The Book. I hold people responsible. It’s been my experience that people have their own points of view based on nature and nurture, and then they look to religion to buttress those opinions. Relatively few people belong to a religion that encourages them to be radically different. Most people choose to stay inside their comfort zone. It’s my belief that narrow-minded bigots will find evidence in the Bible to reinforce their point of view, just as the most compassionate Christians will. It’s not the book that’s the problem, it’s the people relying on it as justification for pre-existing beliefs.

Before I left I asked him about women’s roles within the church. He said women are just as good as men (how enlightened!) and can take on every role except—wait for it—head pastor. Of course.

According to him, there is a core set of beliefs that make you a Baptist. If you don’t believe them, you’re not a Baptist. But there are grey areas where you can be subject to “persuasion.” Since Baptist churches are relatively autonomous, they can have different views on a variety of issues and still remain Baptists.

So I asked him what his personal view of women was. He said he hadn’t done enough study of it but he could be brought to the view that women should be allowed to be head pastors. But that’s as far as it goes. He wouldn’t be able to persuade anyone else to his point of view and he ultimately wouldn’t be considered a Baptist.

What’s the point of that? Why belong to a church which actively discriminates and oppresses, especially when you disagree with that position? I suspect it’s because he doesn’t feel strongly enough about the issue to let it jeopardize his role in the church. He might feel differently if his wife wanted to be head pastor. That might make it more immediate and worth fighting for. But I have to wonder about the morality of the situation.

On a side note, that part of the discussion made me realize that there are more priestesses than priests in Paganism and we may be the only religion on the planet where that’s the case. It’s not that men are forbidden from becoming priests. There are more women than men in Paganism in general and the emphasis on the Goddess draws many women into leadership positions. Add to that the related women’s spirituality movement and you’ve got an awful lot of women Drawing Down the Moon. It would be completely bizarre to me to be part of a ritual where there is only a priest. That’s how far I’ve come from my Catholic upbringing. I love the affirmation women have within the movement and the encouragement all women receive to become their best selves. And of course, Pagan men are some of the best men on the planet, in part because many of them revere the Goddess. They are comfortable with their masculinity because they have explored the Divine Feminine. They are open, funny, tender, strong, loving, and not afraid to wear sarongs. 😉

The thing that made me sad about the Baptist thang was the realization that one of my brothers believes pretty much everything the Baptist said. Many years ago my brother and I engaged in a long email conversation about religion because he said he wanted to understand me better. It ended rather abruptly when he finally confessed his real purpose was to convert me back to Christianity. I was furious. It still pisses me off. It’s such a denial of my basic human rights.

When he was going into the hospital to get a brain tumor operated on, I asked him what time the surgery was going to be so I could light a candle. No prayers, no incantations, no magic, just a candle. And he told me he didn’t want it. He didn’t want me involved at all. I told one of my sisters (who was Catholic) and she was so enraged that she immediately emailed him and asked him for the time of the surgery so she could light a candle. He told her.

Sometimes I think about what will happen when he or his wife dies, or if I ever get married. Would I be allowed to go to his funeral? Would he come to my wedding? Even though I’ve explained in every way I can that I don’t worship Satan (I don’t even believe in Satan—he’s a Christian construct, not Pagan, and I don’t believe in Christianity), because I’m not a Christian, I am—what—a leper? Contagious? Disgusting? Evil? Certainly not worthy of his respect and love.

Now, my brother happens to be one of the most upright people I know, but his religion prevents him from expressing his love in any other way than the patronizing “I will show you Christ’s love and that will make you love him” way. Ugh! It hurts me to think I may be excluded from his life, or he will exclude himself from mine, because his supposedly superior religion prevents him from simply living with difference.

To me, the sign of a useful religion is whether it pushes you to be a better person. And by “better,” I don’t mean “please follow these arbitrary rules.” I mean becoming more compassionate, more honorable, more respectful, more accepting of difference. When people are committed to pushing their boundaries and becoming their best selves, we not only get the personal benefit of one-on-one interaction, we also get the social benefit of a more civil society. It’s in the interest of the state to encourage respect and embrace difference. I’m not suggesting the state should endorse religion—far from it—but I do think there are core principles that apply in both secular and religious contexts.

Friday night was the anniversary of my initiation into the Craft. Every year I read the instructions I wrote way back in 1991 and they still hold true. They are a reminder to me to “hold pure, then, your greatest ideal—strive ever towards it.” I don’t usually get there, but the journey is worth it. And as much as I disagree with some of the points the Baptist made, I thoroughly uphold his right to believe them. I don’t think they’re particularly useful beliefs, but I support religious freedom. Just because it mystifies me doesn’t mean it should be suppressed.

When I used to do public education about Paganism, I likened it to a potluck. There are all these dishes on the table, each representing a different belief or practice, and we go around, looking closely, asking questions, poking and prodding. If we see a dish that looks interesting, we take a little bit. If we like it, we go back and take a lot of it. And if we see something we don’t like, we leave it where it is. We don’t dash it to the floor in a fit of righteous pique. We leave it there because others might like it. Works for them, doesn’t work for me. No biggie. We focus instead on enjoying the party. 🙂

Constant craving

June 29, 2014

I want to get married so badly it hurts. No, more than that, I want to be married. I had my chance, long ago, but I lost it when he changed his mind. I’ve written before about how I wish I’d had my chance, even if it had ended badly.

Of course I fantasize about my wedding day. I know how I want my bachelorette party to go, exactly what my wedding dress will look and feel like, the jewelry I’ll wear, my entrance music, what key songs need to be played at the reception, and on and on. I suspect I won’t feel much on my wedding day because my anxiety level will be so high, so it wouldn’t surprise me if my spouse and I handfasted sometime before the wedding and held the Great Rite on our own in the sight of the Gods so we can do some real energy work.

But what I crave is far more than the hyper quality of young love. I want the seasoned quality of a long-standing love—the kind of love you feel when you’re angry or even bored. The kind of love that offers renewal.

In Irish tradition, there is a well surrounded by nine hazel trees. The hazels, signifying wisdom, fall into the water where they are eaten by salmon (also a symbol of wisdom). Visitors to the Well of Segais eat the salmon, which gives wisdom and inspiration. “I am the hare which leaps for thee beneath the Moon.”

One of the proudest moments of my life was when I was standing behind the altar in Beck Chapel, watching a bride come down the aisle. I was there to priestess a wedding between two people who were Pagan but who didn’t feel safe coming out to their families. They’d written the whole coded ritual themselves. I stood in that place behind the altar, a place I’d been denied growing up as a Catholic, and thought about my spiritual ancestors who would have been burned at the stake for such blasphemy. I felt a great healing in my soul and in theirs that we had finally come full circle.

The ceremony was memorable for other reasons as well. In the beautiful vows they’d written, the couple defined marriage as representing “the endless promise of renewal.” I’ve never forgotten that. When the anger comes, when the tedium sets in, when the irritation is just humming there beneath the surface, marriage gives us a reason to stop, breathe into the emotion, feel it fully, and then reach beneath it. Find the Well beneath and dive deep.

One December 9th my love and I had a terrible disagreement. I won’t say “fight” because I was the only one who raised my voice. We were at an impasse in our relationship and he said the only option he saw was to “break apart.” Break apart, not break up. So apt. But he agreed to sleep on it.

I did not sleep. I stared at the ceiling for the next seven hours, turning over what he’d told me. He wanted me to change. He needed different things from me. I was too demanding, too high-maintenance. And as I considered the picture of my self which he had sketched, I realized I wanted it, too. And I didn’t just want it because he asked it of me. I wanted it for me. I wanted to be that woman with many interests and many relationships who could meet him as an equal instead of as a drain. My biggest question mark was whether or not I could do it. Could I change that much?

As I pondered intensely, I calmed down enough to examine my feelings. And I found that the surface love I felt for him was like the clarion call of trumpets—loud and sure but somewhat shrill. But for the first time, I became aware of a deeper love, one I’d never suspected. It was low and filled with bass, all cello and bowed bass and Scottish worn-down mountains instead of the jarring peaks of Colorado. As I sank into the sensation, I became aware that love for him permeated every atom of my being. There was no part of me that did not love him. And, terrifyingly, I was only experiencing the tip of the iceberg. This love was an entire symphony and I was only just now hearing the beginnings of the bass line.

When he woke up I told him I was sorry for raising my voice (he never raised his voiced at me; he considered us a team and any disagreement should be faced as a couple, not as adversaries). I told him I was ready. I would change. Not because he wanted it, but because I did. I would do the work. And I did.

Over the next several months I became more of the person I wanted to be. It changed my relationship with him. While he never said he loved me again, I could tell him I loved him and not be attached to the outcome. I became a more well-rounded person and got more of my needs met outside of the relationship instead of demanding that he fill them all. I found the Well of Segais. I drank from it regularly. And everything I did was informed by this bass line of love for him, and the more encompassing love I had for my self.

I knew I didn’t want the uneven nature of the relationship to go on indefinitely but I was fine with it for the time being. And eventually he decided that he didn’t want to change the way that I had. But for those months I had a glimpse of marriage, the endless promise of renewal.

I want to say “I’m sorry” and have it mean something. If I say it now, it’s because I’ve almost run into someone with my grocery cart at Marsh. I want to say it because I’ve inadvertently hurt the person I love the most and I want to make things right again. I want to doubt. I want to say “I trust you” and mean it with every cell. I want to feel my body relax into my spouse’s as we spoon. With my love, even that dreadful night of December 9th, we always kept contact while we slept, even if it was just our feet wrapped together. I want that animal comfort. I want to hog the sheets. I want to make love with every iota of soul I can dredge up. I want to fear losing my teammate. I want to be pissy. I want to argue over whether Scarlett O’Hara is a ninny or a chthonic force of nature. I want to be frustrated that we can never agree on what to eat besides pizza. I want to cry that we will never have children. I want to be a shield for his or her back, a pillow for his or her tears. I want to dig deeper, try harder, and have it mean something. I want to start again. And then again. And again.

Over the years I’ve heard many people speak enviously of the life I’ve built for myself, with its unbelievable freedom. What they don’t see is the loneliness. I’m so lonely I don’t even feel it most of the time. I’ve moved on to a place where loneliness is so ingrained that I just find ways to fill the time. Tap dancing towards the grave. These people with their spouses and their children and their friends and their colleagues and their maxxed-out lives and their built-in intimacy—I feel so alienated from them. They have no clue what it’s like to be me. They can’t conceive of it. I think of my sister and how she watches Netflix on her laptop while her 17-year-old daughter sets next to her and watches Netflix on her Kindle. That’s the kind of intimacy coupled people take for granted. And I am so jealous I want to screech down the phone at her and demand that I get this life, that I get this meaning, that I get this shot at creating something of value that will last.

It is so hard to be a better person when you don’t have a mirror. When you’re coupled, there’s always some edge you’re bumping up against. You’re insensitive, you’re rude, you’re unthinking—and The Other says, “Ow.” That gives you the opportunity to say you’re sorry and make amends and, most importantly, change yourself for the better. When you’re alone as I am alone, you don’t have anyone asking you for anything, so you just get stuck. You don’t even realize how your life is shrinking until it’s too late. In ritual I dig deep and find my truest self, but it’s very difficult to manifest that in an environment where the most taxing situation is presenting a new website design. I live with integrity but am I improving as a person? Am I growing? Or am I ossifying?

Love makes you supple. It intensifies everything and later mellows everything. It makes the stakes that much higher. And I love a challenge. I want the opportunity to be more than who I am. I want to be pushed to the limits of my self and then go beyond, like The Fool who walks off the cliff only to find that he can fly. I want to taste that symphony again, and even if I can’t maintain my connection to it every moment in my heart, I want my intellectual understanding of it to inform my everyday choices. I want to be married. I want more.

Shame: Roman Catholic vs Witch

June 1, 2014

In therapy we are doing EMDR on shame. I started out a few sessions ago doing inner child work, which led quickly to a sense of disapproving adults. I see myself about five years old in a dark red space, curled in on myself, my body hot with emotion, my brain draining with horror at some shameful thing I’ve done.

One memory of shame is when I was celebrating my tenth birthday party. Because it was a family party, it meant lots of presents I wasn’t particularly thrilled with. But they were, after all, presents. I devoured them, ripping through the paper eagerly, barely looking at one before going on to the next.

My dad yanked my into the kitchen and gave me a dressing down. “You didn’t even say ‘thank you’!”

Oh, the shame! I wanted the proverbial hole in the floor to open up so I could be cast into the fiery pits. I knew I was in the wrong, and I knew everyone had seen it. There was no escape. I was a bad person. And to make it worse, I had to go back in and finish unwrapping presents, this time in a more subdued manner, being scrupulously polite. Awful. Scarred me for life.

The difference between making a mistake and feeling shame is that when you’ve made a mistake, you can say, “Oh, I’m sorry,” and move on. But when you feel shame, it’s intrinsically connected to the thought, “I’m a bad person.” It’s one of the worst feelings there is.

I have always wanted to be a good person. I took my cues from what my parents and teachers and the Church said, not what they did. I was always striving to perfect myself. And as I examine shame in my life, it doesn’t take long for me to shift from disapproving father to disapproving God.

I was raised Roman Catholic and had a special devotion to Mary. When I was 14 or 15 a famous statue of her was making its way around the country, hosted in churches and in women’s homes. I went with my mother to her friend’s house to pray the rosary. I was the youngest person in the room by far! I was setting on the floor, gazing up into Mary’s face, intoning the familiar prayers. She was in the usual pose: standing, her arms slightly out from her sides, palms forward, her head tilted down. Meek and mild. And as I stared at her face, I saw a gentle smile start on her lips. I sank deeper into trance. Then the smile melted and her face took on such an aspect of sorrow that my heart swelled with pain. I knew she was taking on the sins of the world, suffering so that we wouldn’t have to.

I was very taken by the martyr concept, particularly Mary and Jesus. I felt I had been touched by God to take on the sorrows of others and transmit them to the Lord. I would take on the world’s pain. I would feel intense sorrow, but I would bear it.

In the Roman Catholic tradition, they re-enact the trial of Jesus on Good Friday. The priest plays Jesus, of course, and the congregation plays the mob. This always ripped me apart. When the authorities try to free Jesus, we kept responding, “Give us Barabas! We want Barabas!” I felt a traitor to God, that I would call for Barabas when Jesus was the one I should be saving. It was excruciating. It was sick. It forced the congregation into the worst kind of behavior, pounding into our heads what miserable sinners we were. Shame on us.

Every act I did wrong was another nail in Jesus’ palm. Every sin was a spear thrust through his side. I could not live without inflicting pain on the Son of God. I could not be human without causing cruelty. I could go to confession and be absolved, but that was after the fact. And I would only do wrong again.

When we approached these memories and feelings with my present self, firmly rooted in Witchcraft, the whole situation changed. High Priestess takes my inner child in her arms and croons, “Oh, honey.” I am filled with compassion for my inner child’s suffering. And I explain that we all do things we are ashamed of, but that if we feel our feelings and make amends where we can, we can heal ourselves and move on.

There is no sin in Witchcraft. There are evil deeds, but there isn’t this obsession with sin and Hell that Catholics have. In contrast, we do the best we can with what we have. It’s a much more chill religion, more compassionate. We seek balance, not perfection.

In the Catholic worldview, all you do is fail, ask forgiveness, fail, ask forgiveness, and fail again. It’s exhausting. In the Craft, you just live. Every human emotion is holy. We seek balance above all things. It’s not about success or failure; it’s about acting honorably and cleaning up your messes when you make them. Because you will make them. But they are not the sum total of your being. Nor is it because you are intrinsically bad. Messes make you human. Not damned.

When I feel shame now, I pray on it. But it’s not complicated by wounding deities. I don’t ask a sky god for forgiveness. I ask Brighid to give me the courage to make things right and Rhiannon to give me the grace to come back into balance with myself and others.

These goddesses are not abstract divinities outside myself. They are strands in Gaia, the sacred biosphere, of which I am a part. They are aspects of the collective unconscious, which feeds me. They are aspects of my self. So I invoke the power of the sacred Whole, which is also the activation of my most authentic self. All of which restores my soul. I make amends from my place of deepest integrity, I feel my feelings—recognizing that shame is just as holy as joy or grief, and I correct my inner trajectory if I am straying from my path.

And as I sing in Barber’s Sure on This Shining Night:
All is healed
All is health
High summer holds the earth
Hearts all whole.

Spring walk 2014

April 27, 2014

Woke up early after a harrowing nightmare as usual and found myself with time on my hands. I’m tired of reading, didn’t feel like watching a movie, and lo and behold the sun was shining even though it was supposed to be cloudy today. So I decided to go for a walk.

Special Nike walking shoes firm and snug on my feet, earbuds plugged into my iPod on one end and my brain on the other, I set off for the field across from Collins where I sometimes walk the track. But the sun was so yellow and the sky so blue that I decided I wanted more rich Gaia than I was getting trekking on the asphalt.

I headed off into the arboretum and that’s where I found my bliss. So many different beautiful species of plant. The flowers are bright striking color slashes against the new green and stinky mulch. There are so many flowering trees on campus it feels like a fairyland.

I love new leaves. They’re so delicate and soft and tender that I wish I were a goat. I just want to reach out with my prehensile lips and suck the leaves into my strong goaty teeth and ingest all that beauty and power so I can tap into it whenever I need it.

The birds were out in force and the streams were burbling happily along. And as fat and sludgey as my body feels, it held up at an athletic pace as I breathed in deeply through my nose and exhaled into the sweet spring air. I can feel my body coming out of hibernation, out of that tight, frozen grip I get into when I’m just so, so cold over the winter. The walk in the sun and the breeze loosens up the space between my bones and I feel more alert, more relaxed, more ready for living.

I came home and just sat in the backyard in the sun, listening to iTunes spin through Depeche Mode, Social Distortion, Frank Sinatra, Thievery Corporation, Rasputina, Bach, Eartha Kitt, Little Cow, Russian nuns, and more and more and more. I mostly just drank in the sun through this porous sensory envelope we call skin but sometimes opened my eyes to see what the wildlife were up to.

This is new to me—I’ve been tentatively moving into my yard more and more each year, staking my claim to the land. My trees. My slopes and hollows. My sweetspires. From the beginning, I wanted to create a place where wildlife would feel welcome. The suet keeps just about everybody happy and the bunnies are glad enough to ravage my shrubbery. That’s why bunnies are so cute—otherwise we’d kill them in a murderous rage.

There are a pair of doves that have taken up residence somewhere near my house. Today I watched one settle down beneath my ninebark bush and just chill. I was so still for so long that the robins came pecking within five feet of me, just going about their business. A squirrel limped in, favoring a hurt front paw, heading for the safety of the darkness beneath my back porch.

Long ago when I became a Witch, I chose to see the biosphere as sacred. Great Gaia living and dying in glory all through the eons. And I’m a part of that. I feel her energy pulsing through me always, but it’s more intense when my bare feet are pressed against her precious soil and I feel her gently pressing back. Equal exchange of force. Beautiful.

The main tenet of my faith is “Tiocfaidh an Samhradh”: Gaelic for “Summer will come.” No matter how cold the dark night of winter, Summer will come and spread her wings. I will revive. I will live again. And Spring is the start of that promise manifesting. We all stretch our limbs and remember all that is good in our lives.

Take a deep breath. Savor the flavor. Drink in Gaia’s sweet power. Bright Blessings.