Everyone loves to trade early Occultist/Pagan stories. The corrupt teachers! The Chthonic beings you summoned just because you could before you could even hold an anthame! Ostracization for petty crimes committed in your youth! In fighting! Coven drama! Sexism! Racism! Getting your car keyed! Illicit sex with elders and barely legals!
Oh it’s just so scandalous and juicy!
And then there’s me.
I’m a Generation X/Y cusp so there were legit Witch shops in the mall and acquiring occult goods such as stones, Ouija boards, Enya and Loreena McKennit cassettes and Tarot cards were indulged by my mom. After, she was in her twenties during the time when Stevie Nicks was just about one of the coolest chicks ever and she dressed in flowy clothes, vaguely periodically claimed to be a White Witch and loved whomever she wanted to love with great impunity. Stevie Nicks had the best solo career out of all of Fleetwood Mac after all.
So I played in this safe little sandbox while dutifully going to church for a few years and then my mother made the mistake of sending me to college. I was determined to go to Douglass College and pinned their brochure that proclaimed it was “Where Women Really Learned to Lead!” to my wall. I managed to get in despite failing precalculus to the point that my teacher said privately to me, “You know how sometimes there’s a wall that can’t be jumped over in academics? No matter how much you study or try? This is your wall in math.” You would think, an all girls school, a feminist curriculum, sexy circles wearing next to nothing in under five minutes, right?
My roommate was a Republican sorority girl type who invited me out with her to party but I was still far too much of a good girl to go and my friends from home (most of whom were still living a tantalizing half hour away) were a bunch of weirdo queers and my dad had just died not even six months ago. When I wouldn’t eat anything but cheerios and told my mom to let me commute from home or shit was going to get really real really fast, I moved back home and started therapy. My freshman year, I was trying to adjust to going to such a huge University system and cling to everything familiar.
By sophomore year, I had adjusted somewhat to school and had a job, the ground felt a bit more stable underneath me. Catholicism wasn’t making sense to me after my dad’s death so like the Hermione Granger I still secretly am, I decided school would be the only way to fix that. Old Testament classes and Women and Western Religion it is, please! By then, Wicca was sort of known. The Craft was out, I had Wiccan acquaintances but it never made a whole lot of sense to me per se or interested me too too much besides the cool powers part. My had mom was reassured very quickly that role playing games wasn’t code for “dark powers” so much as “dork powers” and liked that I ran the game most of the time in my little group. Once she saw the dice and the Mountain Dew and heard the oh so scandalous “roll your willpower and your strength dice pool. You need four 7s to succeed. Mmmm, almost but not quite a success. So, okay . .. ” she knew there wasn’t anything exciting going on.
I was reading a little about Goddess worship in my Women and Western Religion and finding that the Old Testament class was raising more questions than it was answering. I did learn about the concept of Women’s Space* which I initially thought was an antiquated notion. One of my assignments was to go to a religious service that was not part of my home religion. My friend introduced me to her stepmother who had a Dianic Wiccan circle. So, I went to the first circle because it was part of my school assignment and I found I liked the company of my sisters and that God could be a woman which was a foreign concept to me at the time. Lest you think it was all easy-breezy lemon squeezy from that point, trust and believe that my mother flipped her shit about this when I came out of the broom closet to her. The phrase “you’re turning your back on hundreds of years of familial tradition” was uttered though no priest was called. Mrs. Castellano could be cool about gaming and dabbling but she was not trying to hear anything about my spiritual growth that didn’t involve Popes. People were still getting their cars keyed and the pentacle was definitely something to be worn under the shirt but if someone had a general idea of what I was talking about, I could cautiously run a version of “The Christians and the Pagans” and generally no torches were being thrown at me.
I was starting to feel that I needed more than what the safe womb of my circle offered me though. Also, in true college form, there was a boy involved. I was dating my Wasband (whom Mrs. Castellano also most assuredly did not like. My early twenties were very trying for Mrs. Castellano. She was right about the Wasband, the Occultism/Paganism stuck and now that I consider myself culturally Catholic the way some Jews consider themselves culturally Jewish, I think she’d rather the Occult than the Wasband. Do with that what you will) who was also Pagan. He couldn’t come to my circle because he identified as a boy and I wanted to see what the bigger occult world had to offer. It was pre-Diaryland (which was pre-Livejournal) and I was sort of anti-social in my own secretly really shy way so I only went to my University’s Pagan Alliance a few times (I’ve been there way more to speak than to learn, come to think of it). So I went to Grove of the Other Gods, which is an ADF Druid Grove because my friend was going there more than she was going to circle. I joined the dedicants’ program with ADF and became an initiated priestess with my Dianic group. While my personal practice would take me places outside of those groups, the important part was that I got my two spiritual mentors who I still see and talk to regularly over a decade later.
S. is a second wave badass who has done amazing things for feminism and is a total radical. She was always supportive of anything my mom was not in favor of. She was a social worker for many years and worked for the state in the HIV/AIDS education unit and has done a lot for Planned Parenthood, NOW and the ERA. She really helped me deal with a lot of shitty trauma stuff and helped me find my center of power and taught me how to both be organized in ritual work and to fly by the seat of my pants if something didn’t go according to plan. Like the “other mother” she is for me, along with Mrs. Castellano, she really taught me to stand up for myself, believe in myself and my capabilities and she always believed in me and what I could accomplish.
N. is also a radical but more in a “damn the Man” sort of way. She stressed how important it was for me to take the critical thinking skills I learned in school and to use them in everything, including the occult and my spirituality. I started to be able to work with gods and spirits in a way that was (as my grove says) “less metaphorical than I would have preferred”. She also taught me to not be afraid to be aggressive. I learned how to conduct a ritual for about 20ish people with my grove.
Between the two of them, my circle, my grove, my personal work and being around a large group of peers my age, I learned mostly from other people. I never had an official teacher, both N. and S. would probably cringe to hear me call them mentors but they’ve been around a couple decades longer than me. I did make the mistake of shitting where I prayed, as I like to call it but as I’ve said, I was surrounded by a group of my peers. Falling into bed together wasn’t a big leap after spending so many hours together. My shyness can be easily misconstrued as nastiness and I wasn’t completely housebroken yet.
I was so busy learning from other people, I didn’t read that many books. Although now as I’m trying to read more books cover to cover (publishers love bibliographies), I’m learning more people are skimmers than I had initially thought.
All of this well groundedness means I don’t have very many “oh shit there I was” stories. Which makes me weirdly sad as I move more into a place where I should (in theory) know better than to do x or y. With my younger peers, it means I don’t have demon conjuring stories or that time that I asked to be a demi god. With my older friends the conversation goes something more like:
S: In some co-ed Wiccan circles, they still have the High Priestess kneel.
Me: For what?
S: For the Great Rite.
Me: Where there’s sex?
S: Not usually. It’s when the High Priest puts his anthame into the Priestess’ chalice, as a symbol of the Rite.
Me: Really. Huh.
N: And Beltane can be really uncomfortable for some people —
N: Well, you know. Gendered stuff, romantic stuff, the getting down after dark —
Me: Wait. People at a Beltane ritual sometimes pair off and have sex?
N: . . .what did you . . .what did you think happens?
Me: I dunno, my circle makes it our co-ed holiday so there’s kids and boy partners and GoG always gets really twitchy about sexing at Beltane and we’re usually in a public park so nothing exciting happens besides a picnic and a ritual.
N: . . .so you have no idea what I’m talking about.
Me: Nope. Not even a little.
I’m contemplating some Lillydale style hijinx to get into because that can rock the boat without completely tipping it over but mostly I’ve been very sensible about the spirits and gods I deal with and tend to ask for boring, sensible things. I don’t have very many Maidenhood regrets, but I do wish I was a bit wilder with my magical practice. Just think of the stories! “This one time! We totally drank our own menstrual blood and drew down Hera and killed all the unfaithful!” Mmm. Maybe a little less exciting than that.
* For the record, I personally think that anyone who identifies as a woman needs to have access to women’s space. I also completely acknowledge that the trans* movement has changed a lot in the last decade. The idea of trans* used to be that you were moving towards becoming a woman or a man when your biological body didn’t match up to your soul. Now there are many people who identify as neither being a man or a woman but as being genderqueer or trans*. If we were at an event that had segregated events, I personally would want to see there be space for women-identified people only, a space for male-identified people only and a space for genderqueer-identified people only. I can’t speak for everyone in the world and who would want what and when and why, but for myself, in Occult/Pagan spiritual events like Pantheacon or in Feminist gatherings, I’ve found some experiences are more powerful when shared only with the gender of your own choosing. Not everyone feels this way, that’s why most events are co-ed in those settings. Some people, whatever gender they identify as, don’t enjoy single gender gatherings. And that’s okay too! I’d like for everyone to have the opportunity to explore that very personal issue for themselves and to experience it and then decide what’s best for themselves.