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
I wish I could convey the essence of a small Pagan gathering, like the one the Church of the Sacred Earth hosted the Samhain of that year. Combining the best features of an elementary school sleepover, a college dormitory bull session, and a Thanksgiving dinner in a large, boisterous family, weekend-long retreats like that are one of my favorite aspects of Pagan life.
Picture, please, a woodstove popping vigorously in one corner of a ramshackle farmhouse. Music plays in the background--maybe a a track from the Libana album, A Circle is Cast--and there is a babble of happy, animated voices coming from every room. Over the kitchen table, heads are bent over a sketchbook filled with drawings taken from dreams. On the living room rug, five or six different Tarot decks are spread out across the floor, and their virtues and flaws are being eagerly discussed. On the stairs, in the hallway, and in a little knot by the kitchen sink, Shamanism is compared with Druidry, issues of two or three Pagan zines are passed from hand to hand, and a new chant is sung in soft, sweet voices. Suddenly the door opens in a draft of cold air, and the Tarot decks and artwork are laid down for yet another round of welcoming hugs and introductions.
There were somewhere between fifteen and thirty of us crowding the little farmhouse, and though there were lots of new faces, everyone knew someone already, and everyone knew stories about people they were meeting for the first time. The atmosphere was lively, contented, and curious. Pagans are, as a group, very, very good at establishing a warm and intimate sense of community, and, in some ways, that weekend retreat marked the zenith of that sense of connection and love among us.
So many people that I loved were there. My covenmates, Kirk and Doug, of course. Harold and Lindy, whose home we were in, and the many members of their coven and study group, flourishing in spite of how remote and rural their community was. Peter had driven all the way up from his home in Western Massachusetts, and Brian had come from his home near Boston.
I was there to act as the priestess; for the first time, I was going to draw down in a ritual for a larger group than my own small coven. Brian was going to draw down the spirit of the Caribou, his totem animal, Kirk was going to draw down the Horned God, and I was going to draw down the Goddess as the Lady of Summer, preparing to leave the land until the return of spring.
When we finally spread out our wall-to-wall sleeping bags across the floor--I rolled mine out at the landing at the top of the stairs, literally the last shred of floor space not covered in linoleum or other sleepers--I felt fully and deeply enfolded by a community I loved, and absolutely determined to serve them well in ritual the next day.
Drawing down the Moon (or Sun, as the corresponding ritual for men is known) is a practice I have never ceased to wrestle with, and my feelings and understandings have evolved a good deal over time. This, however, is how I understood matters then.
Lindy, the only woman I had ever worked with on this aspect of Wiccan practice, set the bar high: I don't know that I have ever seen a priestess carry the spirit of the Goddess in ritual as powerfully as Lindy did. She was someone who naturally tranced very deeply; it was sometimes necessary to assign a watcher for her, to make certain she did not accidentally stray too close to the bonfire, for example, or to bring her food if her blood sugar fell dramatically after a ritual. She also not infrequently experienced trance amnesia--she might not remember at all what happened from the point of the invocation on. There was a numen and a gravitas to her ritual work that were easy to admire. My aim was to approach the quality of her work, not through direct imitation, but through working to acheive as deep a level of trance in ritual* as I possibly could.
I knew sleep deprivation tended to deepen trance for me--luckily, as I don't think I got more than two or three hours sleep, at most, that night. Emotional stress could do so (and Afagddu had neatly taken care of that for me) as could ritual cues like incense, candlelight, woodsmoke, or the sound of drums. And hunger helped, too--it did not distract me, but opened me up. Therefore, I had resolved to fast the day of the ritual.
Perhaps if I'd mentioned that to Lindy the night before, she would not have begun Saturday by cooking batch after batch of homemade pumpkin doughnuts.
We gathered in Lindy's kitchen in a big ring of mismatched chairs, and held the annual church business meeting there as Lindy fried up and passed around huge platters of doughnuts. (I lost count after six dozen.) And, though business meetings are nobody's idea of a good time, that one was unusually friendly and efficient. We finished around noon, and had the next three or four hours before we would start over to Thea House, a small Catholic retreat center nearby which had agreed to rent us their cabins and fields for the night.
The day had some of the same atmosphere as Thanksgiving Day before the turkey is ready or all of the guests have arrived. It felt like the part of a holiday that's all about waiting, like "the night before some festival/To an impatient child that hath new robes/And may not wear them." It was a curiously empty day, but also crammed full with expectancy.
We spent the day in a variety of ways. I seem to remember Peter and Lindy in solemn conference, discussing the nature of the gods. Kirk and I discovered that, not only had no one brought any ritual wine, but there was nowhere nearby that sold alcohol at all. Harold told us the story of the dry doe, whose life he had taken to provide the venison we would share in sacrament at our ritual that night, and the available drummers passed the time rehearsing drum beats to use that evening.
At one point, Lindy showed me the mountain of firewood she and Harold would be needing to get through the icy northern winter. At another, Harold took a group of us down the road, to his family's house, where (over his objections) they ran a sort of roadside zoo, which included a partially tame mountain lion Harold had helped to raise from a cub. With his encouragement, I reached through the bars of her cage. Reasoning that the worst that would happen might be the loss of some fingers, I brought my hand close for her to smell... and then petted the side of her head. She nuzzled her jaw against my hand, just as a kitten might, and I could hardly breathe for the wonder of it.
There was time for Peter and me to walk together that afternoon, arm in arm down the path that led into the deep woods behind Harold and Lindy's home. Lindy had told me a story of an encounter she had with a stag (the god Herne?) in those woods during a blizzard the previous winter; Peter and I discussed Herne and our ideas about him, about the gods in general, and what we thought They might want from us. "To grow," Peter suggested, "so that we will be more interesting company." We agreed that it was almost certainly, for Them as for us, all about the relationships... And when I got cold, Peter, so much taller than I am, wrapped his long, green cloak over and around my shoulders, too, as we continued walking.
When we returned, the chaos of packing up had begun.
All those sleeping bags, paper shopping bags filled with potluck food--casseroles and loaves of bread and cakes and cheese and butter--all those Tarot decks and drums and cloaks and robes and wands, athames, antler or crescent moon crowns, silver jewelry and bottles of essential oils... all those things now needed to be bundled up and transferred to the next fleet of cars, ready to move farther down the road to the site of that night's ritual. Our line of aging cars made its way across the flat, black, darkening farmlands around us to where a little cluster of houses set among a few trees marked our destination: Thea House.
The rest of the crew set to work: cooking, setting up the altar and ritual space, pulling out ritual tools, setting up makeshift beds for the night, and so on. But Lindy and I were a small island of quiet in the midst of all the bustle. There was one--and only one--bath at the retreat center, and it was not usually available to guests, but reserved for the nuns who kept the site. Lindy, however, had negotiated for us to use it, and she ran me a bath, and filled it with herbs and oils to help me prepare for the ritual.
She had also provided me with a robe to wear for the ritual. I don't even remember what I had originally planned to wear--some second-hand dress with a long hem and no particular style, I'm sure. However, unlike me, Lindy had a wonderful collection of ritual garb and jewelry; as a member of the SCA, Lindy had a definate sense of style. When she brought out the robe she had chosen, I had no words for what she was offering me. Not only was the robe beautiful, but it was one I had seen her creating over the course of many months. Made of an earthy brown wool, it was lavishly embroidered with Celtic knotwork and leaping stags. It had been, Lindy explained, her masterwork, and she had planned to be buried in it one day... but she wanted me to wear it. She wanted me to have it.
Needless to say, I have it still.
One oddity: Lindy stands about a full head shorter than I do. And, especially back then, our figures were very different--hers quite round both above and below a narrow waist, and mine essentially without a waist, and nowhere near as round in the hip. It did not seem possible that Lindy's robe would fit my body. But when I dropped it over my head, much to my surprise, if not Lindy's, it fitted me. Perfectly.
We could hear drums warming up outside. I took Lindy by the hand and asked her please, if she wouldn't do me one more favor?
I was really afraid of screwing up my role. I was afraid of making some mis-step, of not achieving trance, of... I'm not even sure what. But I really, really did not want to have the whole weight of priestessing that ritual on my shoulders. I asked Lindy to also draw down. Could she, quietly, privately, on standby as it were? Sort of a priestess or a goddess on call?
I think it probably warmed her to be asked. Though not a perfect person, Lindy could be absolutely gracious when asked for help. As I walked out to the finished barn where the ritual was to be held, she was drawing the symbol on her brow which marked her own preparation for ritual. I was reassured; she had agreed to "spot" my ritual work.
The ritual we had planned consisted of three parts, almost like the three acts of a play. First, after Kirk and I drew down, the Goddess and the God would bless the "wine" in a symbolic Great Rite. Then Brian would draw the spirit of the Caribou into his body, and a symbolic hunt would occur, in the form of a dance--drums in the background, Herne stalking His other self round and round the circle. When the Caribou had been "killed," the Goddess would say goodbye to the people assembled for the ritual, one by one, and then escort the spirit of the Caribou to the Underworld (otherwise known as just outside the barn) where Brian and I would return to our ordinary selves** and reenter the ritual to share in the sacred feast, the venison and grape-juice wine. Everyone would have a chance to interact with Herne as well as with the Goddess, and, after some time spent in song and storytelling, we would bring down the circle, thank the Gods, and go back into the main house for a big potluck feast.
I am not, like Lindy, someone who experiences trance amnesia during ritual. However, I have learned that my memory can become dreamlike and choppy for time in ritual. Some things I remember with great vividness, I remember the wine blessing--and it really didn't seem like grape juice when we were done. I remember the Caribou's dance--quiet drumbeats, the sound of bare feet against the floor, and an almost unbearable quiet tension. I remember the moment when the Caribou decided to yield to the God and the solemnity of it: a life given to feed life.
And I remember the faces of the celebrants, in a ring, as I moved from person to person to person, and the Lady gave words of condolence or encouragement or greeting to each person in turn, but even the day after the ritual, I remembered little or nothing of what She said.
And of course I remember the kiss.
The kiss... that changed everything for me. Because when I got to Peter, She spoke to him briefly (did She call him Herne's son? I think She did) and then kissed him. Right on the mouth. And moved on.
Let's talk about that kiss, shall we?
Observant readers will no doubt already know what I did not, at that point: that I was falling in love with Peter Bishop. You may wonder why I didn't know it myself. Remember, reader, you have the advantage, not merely of my skillful forshadowing as I have written this tale, but of knowing already that I am married to him today. What I knew was that I had a perfect and happy life, married to my high school sweetheart. Being in love with anyone else did not make sense, given that context. And it's always harder to know things that don't seem to make sense.
Nor did the kiss change that. On some level, I was disconcerted by it. But I was in ritual, and so I kept on rolling, until it was time for the Lady to leave the stage, and exit to where Brian (another more experienced ritualist than I) was waiting to help me "devoke" the Goddess--to ask Her to leave, so that I could return, as Cat, for the last part of the ritual. In other words, I had my hands full at that moment, and did not have the luxury of unpacking it.
But I've had lots and lots of time to think about it since, and, in hindsight, even as someone who is happily and securely married to the recipient of that kiss, I have a real problem with it.
It's just so convenient, isn't it? I "didn't know" I wanted Peter. It "wasn't me" who kissed him. The potential for abuse of that kind of thinking is overwhelming, and just swapping the genders of the participants is enough to make that clear. Imagine, please, a married male priest, and (let's make this as clear-cut as we can, shall we?) an unmarried and perhaps much younger female ritual goer. The God (or the priest and the God, or the priest pretending to be the God, in the worst thinkable scenario) plants a juicy one right on the sweet young thing's lips. What's she supposed to do? He's a God, right? If unwelcome, what recourse does she have?
Just how different was this incident from the one I'd just been through with Afagddu, anyway?
Peter says I am too harsh in how I describe the ethical problem here. He says that I frame the issue in terms of an abuse of power to justify the action, but I've never sought to justify my actions here; I've never claimed that the presence of a Goddess or the ritual context made it OK that I kissed him--that, instead, I've vigorously championed the idea that we are responsible for the Gods we choose to worship, and, by extension, for the acts They do with or within us in our rituals.
Yes. But. Was there, perhaps, a kind of self-justification involved in this incident? Was I able to act on a wish I was unwilling to admit to myself at all, only because I'd set up a context where I could believe that "the Goddess made me do it"? Just how much did the water served that night taste of my pipes?*** It has always struck me as an important question. And I... don't...know... the answer.
If nothing else, I think I look pretty dishonest in that moment. So there it is: the case for the prosecution.
Here's the case for the defense.
Not only didn't I know--and I really, really did not know--that I was falling in love with this guy (yes, I was that dumb) but the kiss I experienced was not the kiss that he experienced. The kiss that I remembered was not the kiss that Peter got.
In our culture, it's not completely outrageous to kiss a friend or a family member. Generally, such kisses are on the cheek. This was, as I said, a kiss on the mouth. But the kiss that I witnessed or gave (take your pick, ladies and gentlemen) was, despite being a kiss on the lips, a kiss that would not have greatly startled my mother. A close friend would have blinked a bit, wondered if I'd been watching too many French movies, and forgotten all about it. It was, in a word, a friendly kiss. One second of kiss--maybe less.
That was not, however, the kiss that Peter got and my friends got to watch, which was long... and juicy... and (I blush to acknowledge) involved more than lips alone. His kiss was not a "friendly" kiss.
The ritual ended, the feast began. Best of all, the evening cleanup began, and just as with a good family Thanksgiving, the best part--the singing over dishwashing, put the cap on the whole night.
It was after breakfast the next morning that Peter asked if he could talk with me privately, and we made our way to the barn where the previous night's ritual had been held.
I remember the feeling of lassitude I had, after two nights in a row of minimal sleep, and I remember that, despite the pre-ritual bath I'd had the night before, I felt horribly sticky and sweaty and in need of a shower. I had no idea what Peter might want to talk to me about, but, given the easy intimacy we'd enjoyed in our conversations so far, I was happy to hear him out. We sprawled out on a set of floor pillows, me with a tired grin on my face.
When he began to talk though, I was taken aback.
"I know I said I'd like to come up and work with your coven sometimes," he began. "But I've changed my mind."
I blinked--I sat up. I took in the seriousness of his expression--and blinked some more. "Oh--uh." I could not figure out what was going on here. "Why? Is something wrong? Did I say or do something that offended you?"
"No..." he focused hard on the wall behind my head. "It's just--I don't want to be in a situation where there's uh--gender polarity with you again."
I was still not getting it, and a glance at my face told Peter he had to be clearer. Quietly, in tones of slight embarassment, he explained that he thought he was falling in love with me--clearly a bad idea.
Peter was falling in love with me? Peter was falling in love? With me?
No. No way! Couldn't be!
Wow. Peter was falling in love with me! I felt--well! Surprised! But really, really pleased.
I told him that I felt flattered. I think we talked about our friendship... Peter may have told me his philosophy of dating: "With the married ones, I don't even ask." We talked a little more, inconsequential things, mostly. And then he asked me never to kiss him again.
Oh. Oh, well... Okay.
Could I hug him goodbye? Yes. That was all right. So I did--a nice, no sexual-subtext, friendly hug, and we went off to pack up our bags and bundles, toss them into our separate vehicles, and head off into our normal daily lives.
Hours passed. Brian and Roxanne, riding with me, were keeping up a facinating discussion of Unitarian Universalist politics around Paganism, and of fallacies in Pagan discussions of the ancient world--topics that would normally have me rivetted. But, driving past flat field after flat field of upstate New York countryside, I could hardly take in a word they were saying.
I just kept replaying that goodbye hug, those astonishing words. "I think I'm falling in love with you."
It took me most of the ride home to recognize that I was falling in love with him, too. And all of a week before I broke my resolution to keep that knowledge to myself, and fired off the first in what would become a long, long exchange of love letters between us.
The kiss started it all, and it may have been me, or partly me, or not. I can make out a good case for that having been obliviousness. But that first letter... I knew what I was doing. I knew that no good could possibly come out of it for my marriage. And I did it anyway, and began the process of unraveling my married life.
*I no longer believe that depth of trance ensures validity of sacred possession. At that time, it was my belief that I would have the best chance of providing a clear channel for the Goddess to speak through me if I released as many inhibitions as I could and tranced as deeply as possible. Since that time, I have seen that depth of trance does not neccesarily imply anything about the ability of a priest or priestess to avoid contaminating the messages of the gods with their own subconsious wishes and expectations, and I have heard the story of more than one abuse of power incident to this practice. Partly as a result of my own experiences described in this post, I've become very wary about the traditional Wiccan practice of drawing down the Moon; I vastly prefer the Quaker practice of testing and sharing purely verbal messages in vocal ministry, in part because the responsiblity both for hearing the voice of the divine and for discerning spirits in meeting lies with the whole group, and not one fallible priest or priestess.
I'm not condemning the practice of drawing down the Moon overall, and I wouldn't absolutely rule out the possiblity of ever engaging in it again myself. But I do have deep concerns about it--not so much in terms of the nature of the Spirits carried--a fear I suspect some Christians would entertain--as because of fears about my own ability to maintain a high enough level of discernment and ethics to engage appropriately in this practice. I dread the liklihood of "miscarrying" the deity, to coin a phrase, and I strongly dislike the lack of checks and balances upon me, when I act as the sole priestess within a group... and I do suspect that I'm not the only HPs to find this aspect of the practice difficult and distressing.
**This was the first and only time I ever asked the Goddess to leave on cue, because I learned better that very night. It's not that Rosie minded, at all; asked to leave, She did. But where, in other rituals, before or since, I had allowed that communion to fade it its own time, and had felt some level of sadness or lonliness when it was over, having Her leave--WOOOSH!--in a rush that way, felt awful. I got the shakes afterwards, and I was very grateful that Doug, who had worked with Lindy many times over the years, noticed how cold I was and brought me someone's thrown-off cloak to wrap myself up in. Drawing down is warm, and intimate, and joyful; shutting that flow off deliberately and suddenly turned out to be a lot like going from a cozy sauna into an ice bath...only with the cold on the inside, not the outside.
***...as Henry Wilbur once said, "Messages in Quaker meeting are like water going through pipes, and sometimes the water tastes of the pipes!" (From Poley, Irvin C. and Poley, Ruth. Quaker Anecdotes. Pendle Hill, Wallingford, Pennsylvania,1946. Quoted at Geneology.com)