All posts in this series:
Part I: Getting (and Losing) That Old Time Religion
Part II: Coming Home
Part III: The Fool's Journey
Part IV: The Underworld
Part V: Seven of Cups
Part VI: A Letter and a Kiss
Part VII: Morticia Loves Gomez
Part VIII: Nora
Part IX: Felicia Hardy and the Tower of Babel
Part X: When Babel Fell
Part XI: Community 2.0
Part XII: This Forgiveness Stuff
This past weekend, Peter and I visited our old friends, Kirk and Amy, at Laurelin Farm, host to so many meetings of the Church of the Sacred Earth. Though my experiences with Felicia Hardy alienated me from that community for a long while, the story does not end there. Walking the land at Laurelin this weekend gave me some reminders about what Pagans (or any people, really) are capable of when we are gathered together in love.
As I said, I felt disillusioned by our community over how it responded to the schism within our coven and our house.
My coven was, at that time, a member of the Church of the Sacred Earth, a group of perhaps twenty to thirty regular members and attenders who gathered three or four times a year for camping and ritual retreats. There were campfires and workshops and Pagan sing-a-longs--sometimes good and sometimes lousy--and it was in this group that I got to revisit my old covenmates, and spend time in the stone circle we'd built together up in the woods at Laurelin.
Beyond that group, there was the nameless community that had coalesced around an annual invitation-only retreat held in upstate New York. This is the gathering which, at this point, has been going on long enough that kids who were raised attending it are beginning to bring children of their own; its mailing list is now around five or six hundred Pagans and family members, and it has been described as a kind of Pagan Brigadoon: a magical village that appears for only one weekend each year. There is a lot of love and connection in that group, as relationships have built up slowly over the course of decades.
Felicia and Tony left our house, but they did not leave our communities. In fact, it seemed as if, in those first few years, they made a point of digging themselves in there as deeply as they could, despite the fact that they shortly moved out of the New England region entirely. At least in the first few years after the break, I believe that the knowledge that their presence made us deeply uncomfortable was the main point of their active participation in our community. And it was painful in ways that the rest of our community largely didn't want to see or acknowledge.
Nobody likes conflict, of course. And the conflict with Felicia and Tony hadn't ended when she moved out; it had just gone underground. But we were the only ones who were willing to recognize that it was even going on.
We came up with a saying at our house, around this time: "When you play with the pit bull, and the pit bull bites you, you don't want to play with the pit bull no more." It was made pretty clear to us that, since our personal pit bull wasn't going anywhere, we were expected to get down on the floor and play with her. And we just didn't want to.
So we stopped going to community events for a while, because we could not negotiate a way to feel safely engaged with the group. We missed our friends, but when we were with them, we always wound up feeling bad.
Let me tell you about my friend Chuck.
One of the things that Peter and I have often discussed is the way that some people seem just naturally good at growing communities around them. Sometimes they are notable for their warmth, or their charisma, or their creativity. They may not be perfect people, but they are people who just, somehow, make it more likely that communities will form in their vicinity. Peter and I call them "seed crystals"--they're like the string put into the pot of sugar solution, along which rock candy crystalizes. They're often the hubs of small, local communities, and when they are good at linking with and respecting other seed crystal folks, they encourage the growth of warm, caring, and connected communities.
I've known a lot of seed crystals, seeds of community, in my time. I'm pretty sure that Peter and I are seeds. Kirk is one; my friend Beth is one. Laura Wildman is one in a big way.
And Chuck was one, too.
How to explain about Chuck... Not tall and not short; trim of build, hairy everywhere but on his head, cheerfully lewd, inappropriately funny, and possessed of a love of music matched only by his inability to sing anything in a single key, Chuck is just one of those people who gathers others to him. He's been the warm, laughing center of one of the longest running covens and magical lodges I know about. (Such groups are notoriously short-lived and volatile.) And his friendship was the bridge that brought his group, Ouroborous Isis Gnosis, into the ranks of the Church of the Sacred Earth, and then brought the Church of the Sacred Earth within the fold of the nameless gathering. So: not just a seed for community. Chuck was also a web-weaver, who brought people who would like one another together. It is a rare and important gift.
Chuck is also a superb ritualist, and a natural leader and teacher. And when I finally returned to attempt, gingerly, to reconnect to community after having stood apart from them for a time, it was natural that Chuck would take it on himself to check in with me about it.
There's no doubt that Chuck meant well.
But when, in the first conversation the two of us had privately after Felicia moved out, he smiled benignly and asked me, "What have you learned from this experience?" I wanted to smack him across the face (smug bastard).
"What have you learned from this experience?" Ah, yes. The question of the New Age to kids in Darfur, the question that reminds us that we "choose our own realities." It's all karma, baby. You know you asked for this/earned this in a previous life...
To be fair, I really don't think that's what Chuck was trying to convey. I think he knew he was one of the wisdom figures in our little Pagan community--what Quakers would term a "weighty" member--and he was probably just trying to live up to his reputation.
One of the worst things in the world, I've finally figured out, is to know that you have a reputation for wisdom or insight, and then try to uphold it. This is one of the many reasons I stopped being a therapist--the temptation to try to live up to my reputation for being oh-so-wise was overwhelming, some times. And when any of us start buying into our own press kits, drinking our own Kool Aid, we're in big trouble. So I have a little empathy for Chuck.
Ten years later.
At the time, I didn't believe I would ever trust him--or any Pagan outside my immediate family and coven--again.
Then he had his heart attack.
I remember the day vividly. We had gathered, not at Laurelin, but at Laura's, for a weekend of camping and rituals and workshops. Alexei discoursed on some Celtic theme; I gave Maureen a long-promised Reiki attunement. There was music; there was sparring with foam rubber swords. It was fiercely hot. I got sunburned. Felicia and Tony were there with members of a brand new coven, but enough other people I liked were also in attendance that it was not hard to avoid them. I had a pretty good time, got tired, and came home with that familiar post-festival fatigue and satisfaction.
I don't remember the phone call, but Peter does. He remembers me answering the phone, getting very serious, and then breaking off the call long enough to tell him that it was Catherine on the phone, and that Chuck was in the hospital. Peter says he had a candle lit on the altar before I finished the call.
My husband also remembers that, when I hung up the phone, I looked up at Peter and and said, "I guess we weren't done with him, after all."
There's nothing like almost losing someone to remind you that you love them.
Chuck did not do well. An unlikely candidate for a heart attack, he had always been physically fit and trim. But a second heart attack followed the first, and his heart became more and more damaged. Released from the hospital, he made the dietary changes he was told to, lost weight, and followed his physical therapy like it was his new religion. But even following his doctors' advice scrupulously, rather than becoming stronger, he became weaker.
His heart was broken, and he needed another. He became far too weak to travel. We did not see him anymore. Only on the lists was he still a presence--still irreverent, still optimistic, still insistent.
He would defy doctors' order, sometimes, and go up or down a flight of stairs. It hurt him to be as dependent on Catherine as he was. Always vigorous and strong the way a young tree is strong, Catherine just picked up more and more of the weight. It was totally clear--Chuck would not die on her watch, if human love and human strength would prevent it.
This business of waiting on a transplant list--knowing you must not be too sick when the possibility of the transplant arrives, that at any day you may be called into a surgery that is itself life threatening. You know that the heart you may receive comes to you only from a death. You know that the heart that comes to you can come to no other. What do you hope for? Pray for? Surely, it must have been like holding their breaths for the months and months of that waiting.
Then the miracle: the brand new heart that saved Chuck's life. He had his second chance.
Chuck began to sign his emails, Chuck 2.0.
But still, we almost never saw him. He had a succesful transplant, but not a recovery. Chuck's body tried to reject the heart he had been given. He battled that rejection with drugs that made his own immunity so weak he could go nowhere, save clad in a surgical mask.
I remember the first annual gathering of the nameless community after his transplant.
Each year, we gather for a weekend retreat in the Catskills. Each year, we cast a circle around our community--at the end of our time together. Like the Quaker meetings that say that the service begins as soon as the worship has ended, our community asserts that our circle lasts all year long--and is closed and then renewed when we meet again the following year.
So each year, once the tents are pitched and the babies are settled in to their bunks, the first order of business is the "closing" ritual. That's followed by the welcoming circle, when we sit in a big circle and go round the room, sharing our names, reminding one another of our coven or grove associations, and perhaps also sharing a word or two to recognize the big changes that we've been through during the year.
That first year, Chuck 2.0 could not be present in body; his immune system was just too weak. But his coveners had brought a tape recorded greeting, and--this is so Chuck--a whimsical stand in for himself: a life-sized photo of his head, mounted on a popsicle stick, and held up in front of the face of the covener who pressed play on the machine.
When Chuck's voice greeted us, apologizing for his absence, and thanking us for our spells and our prayers, I cried. (I'm crying now, as I remember.)
And the later year when Chuck himself returned to us, my gratitude was so much deeper than my anger had ever been. In fact, Chuck led us in a workshop on body image and illness, held skyclad in the meditation room. And that was the first time I participated in a ritual with Felicia and Tony after the schism: naked, in a small room, our own hearts opened along with Chuck's.
I don't mean to deceive you. Felicia and I are not comfortable with one another. I doubt that we will be in this lifetime. But, at least partly through the understandings that came to me in the wake of Chuck's illness, I can wish that we were.
What is forgiveness? If it is the amnesia that my community seemed to be demanding of me, then perhaps Felicia has forgiven me; I have not, by that measure, forgiven her. When I share a space with her--skyclad or fully clothed--my pulse races, my palms sweat, and I feel the fear of betrayal in my body.
But if I sit patiently, and allow my pulse rate to return to something closer to normal, it gets better. These last few years, Felicia and I have been able to hold civil, even interesting conversations about our work with one another. She teaches writing; so do I. Student writers have so much in common, no matter what the grade level or setting. It is something, and it is even something new which we can share.
We never discuss the events that led to her departure from our lives.
I can't help that my body remembers. But it does, and I don't in any way want to return to being her covenmate, her housemate, or an intimate friend.
I do wish, however, that we could speak to one another more naturally. I wish that we could talk freely and honestly about old times--not to set the record straight or make amends or change anything about the past. I just wish it were possible to be ourselves with one another. So far, that has not been possible, but I would be glad if that could change.
Is that forgiveness? I don't know.
I do know that, as a Pagan, I saw no real imperative to forgiveness. "There is no Pagan doctrine of forgiveness," I used to say. And whether that is true or not, it is the case that seeing forgiveness as a good in and of itself was something that had to wait for the peace testimony to seize me by the spinal column, the day I began to be a Quaker.
But there was something else I had been learning, even before that day. So--let me lay my cynicism and anger and defensiveness aside, and finally answer Chuck's question, asked so many years ago:
What have I learned from this experience?
I have learned that love is never wrong. I have learned that the day I stood within Felicia's heart, and saw it as a green and growing forest, was the truest seeing I will probably ever have of her.
I have learned that, yes, people are assholes. They will hurt you, betray you, snub you, and break your heart. All of them. All communities--all the gatherings of humans you will ever find, or shape, or stumble upon in a long lifetime. People suck. They're gonna let you down.
Love them anyway.
Love them anyway.
Love them anyway.
And that is the way that you mend your broken heart. Welcome to Community, 2.0.