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.

AREN interview and tepid Paganism

March 22, 2014

I recently had the honor of being interviewed for the lead story in the Alternative Religions Education Network’s ACTION newsletter. In it I blather on about the highlights of my most active period in the Pagan movement, from the mid-90s to the mid-00s. Christopher Blackwell, the kind and attentive editor, is hoping that others can learn from my experiences in organizing in the national sphere.

But today I finished reading Ancient Wisdom: Earth Traditions in the 21st Century by Vivianne and Christopher Crowley and I am reminded of what has always bothered me about contemporary Paganism: its tepid nature.

Constructing the ritual for the Summit was a wonderful intrafaith adventure, combining Ásatrú, Druid, and Craft elements. But the heart of the ritual just said, “Cairril waxes poetic” in the script. I knew I could summon up something dramatic (it is, after all, my nature), but I told the Goddess, “Only if it’s real. Only if I’m truly Called.”

Well, I got Called. Big time. I channeled the Goddess and went around the circle of 40 or so people and gave an individual blessing to each one. I used water from the communal cauldron (everyone had brought water from their homes to contribute, I can’t remember which tradition this drew on but it was lovely) and signed everyone there. I think I sang most of the time, but for certain people there was a specific message from the Goddess for me to give. The messages didn’t make sense to me but I trusted the recipients would understand. The song was one of the chants that came to me in private ritual space: “I stepped into cauldron waters / I stepped into cauldron waters / I heard Her calling out my name / And I felt my self reborn / And I found my self reborn.” (This is one of my favorite chants, since it switches meter from 7 to 4—thank you, Universe!) You could feel the intense power in the room. We were all blessed by it. Euphoric afterwards. Several people were blown away. But later, I thought, “Why? Why was that so unusual?”

I am a solitary, mostly by choice, so I don’t know how the majority of Pagan rituals go in the wider movement, especially outside the Craft. But when I read Drawing Down the Moon, Margot stated in no uncertain terms that Witches draw down the Moon! It’s what we do. Ecstatic trance. C’mon, people. Get on board here.

I generally eschew group ritual for two reasons: 1) I don’t like sublimating my desires/urges to groupthink and 2) almost every group Pagan ritual I’ve been to has been lame. Bless the Unitarians, but give me snake-handling Pentecostals any day when it comes to conjuring up some power. A local CUUPS rit I attended a couple years ago was rocked when I belted out my chant to Call the Earth. It’s an Earth chant. It’s loud. It calls the Earth. Come ON. Nobody knew what to do with it.

So yeah, I finished up Ancient Wisdom today, and it’s a survey of indigenous traditions from around the world, and the difference between the whole book and the two-page “Here’s your takeaway” conclusion was head-whipping. There I am, burbling along through circumcision, ritual scarification, tattooing, weather witching, curse-lifting, fired longships and the like, and then the last two pages talk about canceling Third World debt and considering our impact on the Earth. What are we, Presbyterians??

I used to be pretty rigid about ritual when I first started out but a kitchen Witch showed me some easy ways to weave my spirituality into my everyday life. So now when I cast a Circle, I may confine it to my temple space or I may include the kitchen and bathroom in case I want a break. No biggie. It’s all of a piece. When I finished boiling my eggs for my Equinox ritual, I poured the remaining water around the foundation of my house to ward off lightning. I like the books of Valerie Worth that are filled with charms like “How to Become Invisible”—I mean, this is the shit, right?

I am struggling through The Apple Branch: A Path to Celtic Ritual by Alexei Kondratiev. He starts with this breathtaking overview of Celtic history but then he turns into this haranguing harpy with serious issues with imperialist powers. He insists that you’re not practicing a proper Celtic path if you’re not speaking a Celtic tongue. Well, that lets out most of us. How many people have the resources to track down teachers and find a community to speak with? Anyway, today I read his outline of a Samhain ritual and I was all, “Where’s the yelling?” We’re talking about the Celts, right? The definition of a passionate people. So where is the juice?

Maybe I’m just not hooked up to the right resources (highly likely). But I’ve been trying over the last year to ease my way back into the national movement and I just can’t find my place. Recently The Wild Hunt did an article on the theme of sacrifice and I just could not get in. The biggest problem is that these people actually believe in Gods and Goddesses. I don’t. I’m an atheist Pagan, a minority within a minority. I am comfortable saying, “There’s more going on than five senses can account for,” but I’m not going to talk about entering into transactions with mythical beings.

I checked into several of the big name Pagan magazines but the one that sticks out in my mind did its most recent issue on herbs. Still?? Isn’t this where I left off ten years ago? Not that herbcraft isn’t Witchcraft, it is definitely within the tradition, but I just pictured all these “Use mugwort to polish your crystal ball” articles.

My problem is I have a backlog of books I was sent when I was head of PEN and we used to do book reviews. No, actually, my problem is I don’t have any good recommendations for resources that will speak to me. I looked through Llewellyn’s catalogue last week but it still looked like it was catering to the beginner Pagan (it’s been nearly 10 years since I’ve looked at their stuff). Maybe that’s where the money is. Maybe once you get into more advanced practices you move beyond what books can tell you. But that can’t be right—other religions have advanced texts, why can’t we?

To my dismay, I have had to look to secular sources for ideas that feed into my evolving Craft. Like books on comparative religions. Interesting, occasionally inspiring, but often intellectual and safe.

I want Pagan sources that give me ideas for how to mainline pure joy, power, grief, tranquility, and song. Push me deeper. Stretch me. Help me become ever more a Witch, with a rich skill set to draw upon to serve my community.

Anyone want to teach me how to ride lightning?

Witchcraft is my Home

October 1, 2012

I originally wrote this in the mid-’90s when I ran the Pagan Educational Network. It’s held up remarkably well over the years.

I have always taken my spirituality seriously. Born into a Catholic family, I studied the New Testament for guidance in understanding life. After a young cousin died when I was fourteen, I developed a devotion to the Virgin Mary while working through my grief.

As I grew older I found myself struggling to fit the mold the Church offered. As an intelligent, passionate, belligerent young woman, I found myself pressured to be meek, passive, and suffering—none of which fit my personality. I studied Marian literature to learn what it meant to be a good woman in the Church. One pamphlet said Mary had appeared in a vision to children and told them that women should not wear short sleeves. Rather than feeling angry or skeptical, I despaired. I knew I could not fit into this mold.

When I was eighteen I spiraled into a serious depression, frequently contemplating suicide. One night I went outside, turned to God in utter despair and pleaded with him to help. “I will never need you more than I need you now,” I cried. I wanted a sign, some inner sense that I was not alone. But as I looked up at the starry sky I saw only empty space. My despair turned to iron-cold numbness. I resigned myself to waiting for the madness to go away on its own.

This event was the most obvious step in a process away from theism and organized religion. It was now possible to question my faith. As I embarked on my college career I met people of all religions—and no religion at all. I continued to question my beliefs, eventually settling on atheism. People’s belief in a “Supreme Being” seemed based on their desire for justice and meaning rather than any sort of evidence. That is the essence of faith, my father had told me long before. But I didn’t want to wait until I was dead for justice. I wanted justice now. I was no longer interested in forcing myself into someone else’s mold of what a good person was. I had my own beliefs, my own values, and my own politics. I wanted to be a kingdom unto myself.

As I matured, my angry, self-righteous atheism mellowed into merely an empty atheism. I had always been a spiritual person. But I knew of no faith which would allow me to retain my autonomy while offering a framework for spiritual development. One night I went to talk with an acquaintance about my dilemma. Jim was brilliant, well-read, and open to spirituality in all its forms. When I self-consciously described my situation, he recommended reading Drawing Down the Moon by Margot Adler. This book is a study of neo-Paganism in the United States. Written by a reporter and intellectual, he suggested it would appeal to my rational side while describing independent, ecstatic spirituality.

I was immediately fascinated by the book. Neo-Paganism (usually called “Paganism” by practitioners) is a collection of diverse religions which are nature-centered and rooted in personal experience. While some Pagan religions provide training structures, the movement as a whole has no hierarchy, no holy book, no one, right, true authority. Pagan religions encourage the individual to develop her own relationship with Divinity, however she views it. And, most intriguing to me, you could be an atheist Pagan!

While several of the faiths were appealing (particularly Druidism), I was clearly drawn to Witchcraft. Witchcraft (sometimes called Wicca, a term I hate) is a federally-recognized religion distinguished from other Pagan faiths by its heavy use of ritual, its emphasis on magic and healing, and its particular worship of the Gods. Its central tenet is “If it harm none, do what you will.” Like most other Americans, I had grown up believing Witches were evil. But I learned that Witchcraft is a peaceful, life-affirming faith which emphasizes personal responsibility and service to the community. Witches practice magic to heal the self, the community, and the Earth. We celebrate all aspects of human experience, whether spiritual, intellectual, emotional, psychological, or sexual. Rather than viewing life as something to transcend, Witches relish being alive and draw strength from the everyday blessings we experience: braiding our daughter’s hair, baking bread, or sharing a hug with someone we love.

Theo/alogy is left to the individual. In my case, I found Divinity in Nature and the life force itself. I had always been fascinated by physics. Now my intellectual awe of the universe was augmented by a spiritual understanding. My Divinity is not an eternal, transcendent entity, only a holistic process of ebb and flow. I call this life force “the Goddess,” as do many of my fellow and sister Pagans. Some Pagans work only with her, sometimes under the name Diana or Astarte. Other Pagans, particularly Witches, honor a divine pair such as Isis and Osiris. Others work with a whole pantheon of gods, such as the Norse pantheon. And still others call on gods and goddesses from many cultures in addition to tree spirits, elves, and fairies. Mystical experiences from all over the world are honored within Paganism. We draw on the faith of our ancestors and the beliefs and practices of surviving indigenous peoples, but update them for our use today.

My understanding of divinity opened doors to a rich, exciting world which challenges me intellectually and spiritually. It does not demand I believe a certain creed or force me into a role I don’t desire or fit. As a Pagan—as a Witch—I can be powerful, passionate, intelligent, fun-loving, compassionate, loving, and dynamic. My spirituality supports my personality, values, and politics. It challenges me to develop continually into a more whole, healthy human being. It offers a community of like-minded individuals. It answers my questions about the meaning of existence, the importance of justice, and the value of change. I have no regrets about leaving my given faith behind. In Pagan Witchcraft, I have found my home.