The Forgiveness Chronicles - Part XI: Gaea Goddess Gathering
Updated: Dec 31, 2020
The Forgiveness Chronicles, Continued
Part XI: Gaea Goddess Gathering
It was a Blue Moon on New Year’s Eve 2009-2010. Maria’s living room was dark, lit only by candles and a light in the basement hallway. Twelve women crowded into a circle in the center of the living room. Muffled sounds from the basement were the only thing keeping the silence at bay. This was Janis’s first introduction to the Circle. I had taken Janis to Maria’s with me that night to celebrate the New Year. Melody, a self-proclaimed priestess who was leading the ceremony, had a deep, rich voice that commanded attention. She opened the full moon ceremony with song as she beat her drum, her voice resonating:
Breathe it in
Let it flow,
Round and round we go,
Weaving a web of wo-men,
Let it in, let it flow,
Round and round we go,
Weaving the web of life….
The chant continued for about five minutes, as a tingle ran up my spine. Other women began to add their voices to the song. Melody instructed us to clasp hands. Each of us took a turn to announce our intention for the coming year. As usual, caught off guard by rituals involving more than just me and my solitary form of magic, I hadn’t planned anything to say. I blurted something unremarkable. Janis was next. In true Janis splendor, she threw her head back, and with all the defiance she had repressed, yelled at the ceiling.
Immediately, a collective gasp from all the women sucked the air out of the room. I even gasped. The room turned silent and a strange energy twisted through each wrist, hand, and fingers. Everyone dropped the hand they were holding. Janis looked at me, then Maria, then Melody.
I readily admitted my ignorance on even a bad day, but what little I did know was to never tempt Fate. I looked at Janis quizzically.
“What?” she whispered.
“Later,” I muttered.
Melody had cleared her throat and moved on with some other closing exercise that was vanilla by comparison, and within fifteen minutes, everyone had cleared out and I found myself taking a shot of tequila in the kitchen.
Somehow, “later” was forgotten and we didn’t discuss it until the first shoe dropped five days later. Janis called in a panic; she had lost her job for being too good at her job.
“I increased occupancy, those mutherf*$kers!” she had shouted over the phone. “Now that the building is full, they don’t need me anymore!”
“But you said, ‘bring it,’” I reminded her.
There was a long pause.
“Bring it,” she said softly this time. I wondered if that was defeat or surrender that I heard.
“Yes, it’s been brought,” I reminded her.
“I probably shouldn’t have said that,” she admitted. I could hear the click of a connection being made as she remembered the odd behavior of the women that night. Everything now made sense.
“Yeah, usually the more specific you can be, the better,” I said. “It’s usually not a good thing to challenge the Universe to a duel. The Universe always wins.”
“F*$k,” she said, immediately accepting defeat.
“Pretty much,” I answered.
“This is gonna be that kind of year.”
The year of “Bring It” dealt one blow after another to Janis, as though the entire cosmos was rearranging itself, undertaking a massive course correction after having spent years asunder.
It just so happened that “Bring It” coincided with her 40th year, making it all the more chaotic of a transition. It had been one of the most pivotal years of her life, and it all started from that seed she planted on the full moon on New Year’s, in the ceremony Melody had led.
Maria, the oldest of some-teen siblings and mother of four, was always eager for alone time and went to the festival early, before the rest of us could go. The tipi tent I had gotten us to stay in ripped near the top due to high winds and had to come down. Then, a belt near my air conditioner in the Subaru decided to begin shrieking and that had to be fixed before I was able to hit the road. Meanwhile, the chores piled up and I was frantically trying to get everything crossed off the list before I left. In all my frenzy, I was done by three, and there I sat, waiting, until Janis arrived at six. I was such a planner that I had anticipated getting to our destination, and getting unpacked, by dark. It wasn’t meant to be. Back then, Janis was never on time.
Time and I had a difficult relationship by now. What I did for a living 50+ hours a week was beginning to clash with the time it took to keep my home the way I liked it, to garden, to be a Mom, to enjoy my relationship with my husband, and to spend much needed “me” time with my friends. From my worldview, the law was such a patriarchal figure. The Saturnian energy was incredibly pervasive. Chronos, the Greek Mythological equivalent, was Father Time himself. When I stared at artwork of Chronos, all I could see was a large, bearded, older man with a gritted jaw holding a scathe. He is reaping time. From everything. Always. The past controls the future, to the point of attempting to devour it whole. Especially with the type of law I practiced, the future was in constant danger of being swallowed by the past as old wounds within families surfaced postmortem and devolved into litigation, the legacy squandered on fighting over money. Money was nothing, if not another yardstick for time. If I wasn’t billing hours, I felt unproductive. I was highly motivated to pay off the ever-present student loans, which was money owed, and yet another representation of time.
So, when it was on my calendar, it was on my calendar. It was difficult to shut off the programming that compelled me to plan every last minute, prioritizing the events and projects that needed to be done in such a way as to maximize efficiency so that one thing led smoothly into the other. That was the aspiration anyway. Everyone who witnessed my time management skills were impressed; they would comment on what a gift it was. I didn't really see it that way; it was so second nature, I didn't realize it was a gift. If it was a gift, it was a lonely one. No one ever saw the dark side, or at least they struggled to see it. When I desperately needed to shut off the "gift" and just live my life, I couldn’t. Not completely. I found it impossible to relax or enjoy anything. Time off was never really time off because every moment I wasn’t working, time was piling up behind the dam just waiting to consume me in the future, when the present moment passed. It ran in the background like a persistent threat I couldn’t get away from. Responsible, ever present, looming huge behind me, always watching and waiting: Chronos, waiting to spank me and wield his authoritarian merciless instrumentality of worth, this purely human construct we were all duped into making a social contract.
I fidgeted anxiously.
If Janis was late, Nora was later, and didn’t arrive until dusk, just as the sun began to slide behind billowing, purple clouds on the western horizon. Every single time we met up, it was always something…her husband had a production meeting or was at some film festival out of state or something had come up for work and he couldn’t be counted on to spend the weekend with their daughter. All too often for moms, "me time" comes dead last. It wasn’t just my profession; it was like this for all working moms. On the list of priorities, penciling in relaxation and self-care was never at the top of anyone’s list. And that was the problem: moms made the list. Of course they’ll assume everyone else’s stuff is more important than their personal time. We set the precedent, we are the glue, and then Chronos takes that precedent and permanently chisels it into the stone tablet of expectation. It becomes almost this immutable law we live by. We question it, sometimes, when we dare. But do we ever truly endeavor to change it? No. It would throw our little universes into chaos. And where there is chaos, there is no peace, so the entire point of changing the script – to get some personal time for peace – would defeat the entire purpose. The wheel rolls on, we submit to the grind, and we negotiate long weekends once or twice a year for ourselves, undervaluing ourselves in the process.
That’s why we all brushed off the excuses and piled into the car. None of us wanted to wallow in work or childcare issues; we just wanted to be free from our roles as wives, mothers, daughters, working women, and whatever other labels society deemed necessary to heap upon us. We were shrugging the stone tablet of expectation from our backs. Maria had a saying for this: "not my circus, not my monkey." At least not for four days.
We headed west, shedding our obligations with each mile, unable to avoid the darkness enveloping the fields as clouds rolled in and began to obscure the moon that hung low in the sky. Violent flashes of lightening sent electric purple streaks across the horizon. Deeper into the country, the road narrowed, street signs were scarce, and gravel roads were hidden behind tall stands of prairie grasses. We stopped and asked for directions at a lonely fire station in the middle of nowhere. Fire tenders asking firemen for directions to a goddess festival? The irony wasn’t lost on us and I was sure Chronos was laughing.
By the time we arrived at the secret camp in the heart of a rural pocket of woods, it had been dark for an hour, and the sky threatened to unleash its fury upon us. The camp was roughly 160 acres that used to serve as a nudist colony back in the early 1900s. The narrow gravel road leading in was completely overhung by trees, creating a mysterious tunnel that winded toward the front gate. We were greeted by a woman who introduced herself as “Grandma Dragon” who was upset that she was guarding the entrance on her own and that the guard shack was too moldy to stay in. We explained that we were fire tenders, under the mentorship of Agate Thornberry, and that we had pre-registered. She stood aside and let us in, with a plea to tell Agate that she wanted to be relieved of her guarding duties.
“Whoever was supposed to relieve me at six never showed up, and I’ve been here alone in the dark for the last two hours,” she protested after us, as we headed further into the woods.
“Oh, okay,” Nora said as the guard shack disappeared in a thin plume of gravel dust behind us. “Drama already,” she muttered.
This oversight was something I tucked away for later; it didn’t surprise me when communal experiments failed because there were a few people who always did more than their fair share to make up for all the others who contributed little to nothing, with no means for enforcement. Organizational skills often suffered, and expectations were not met, due to a lack of organized, reliable leadership. Then again, anarchists didn't believe in leaders. It was a strange paradox; leaders were absent in theory, but in practice, there was a weird, watered down hierarchy not based on merit, but instead on arbitrary longevity. Chronos even had his way of infiltrating a goddess festival with rules and hierarchy based on time. I wondered how many fire tenders would actually show up to work. I brushed the concern aside as we continued deeper into the camp.
As we drove up the steep gravel drive, we saw flashes of nakedness in the headlights partially obscured by vegetation. Breasts swayed with hips as women wandered along the road and through the woods. Little cabins dotted the hillside and mysterious footpaths disappeared into dense foliage. Before long, after a few twists and bends, we saw a warm glow up ahead. The ritual fire had already been lit, the wooden crow we had built weeks prior was just a silhouette encased in flame. The piece creating its head and beak was a knotted piece of wood, rounded into almost an egg shape and sharply pointed as though a massive twig had been snapped off the end. The body was comprised of logs with holes through their middle sections, and the wings were long trailing bundles of brush resting in a nest that encircled the entire bird. Just when I was about to become transfixed, Maria hopped in front of the Subaru waving wildly. I slammed on the brakes and dimmed the headlights.
“We’re camped over there,” she gestured. I followed her patchwork skirt as it flickered in my fog lights. We drove in and down a long grassy field that was bordered with tents. At the end, backed up to the woods, was our campsite. Right next to us was a tent with a procession of Egyptian goddesses painted across the walls, little jewels and glitter catching the light and dancing in the darkness. I parked so we could unload.
“You can’t keep the car here,” she informed us. “You’ll need to drive down to the other field at the end and park there. They don’t allow cars in the camping area,” Maria said, as she whisked the coolers away to our camp’s kitchen while Janis loaded her arms up with our bags and headed for the tent.
"Hey, a lady named Grandma Dragon at the guard shack wants someone to know she needs to be relieved!" I shouted. There was no way I would be able to unpack the car before the storm hit and search out Agate to pass along the message in the dark.
Someone by a smaller campfire shouted back, "Oh, okay."
I assumed someone knew who to tell. I turned my attention back to the car.
“All of that’s going in the tent?” Maria asked quizzically, looking at the heap of bags.
“Yes!” Janis answered. “It will fit!”
“Where’s the tipi?” Nora asked.
“Long story. Talk later. I gotta get this car moved before it gets too dark for me to see the walk back,” I answered quickly, reminding myself to let go of expectations. “Thank goddess Maria brought an eight person back up tent.”
“That tent was going to be our changing tent,” she added, picking up a bed roll and eyeing the pile of bags again. Nice thought, but not this weekend. Maybe next year.
I picked up the box with 20 bottles of wine in it and put it in the tent. I located the scull glasses, one for each of us, and got to work looking for the wine key.
“We could survive the apocalypse with all this shit!” Janis laughed. “It’s glam-ping,” she reminded everyone.
“I think the wine might get us through a few days in an apocalypse,” I said wryly.
After grabbing a dinner of polish sausages and beans, polishing off a bottle of wine, and grabbing the new fire poker Chet had made me, we drove the car to the porta-potties across the field from the pavilion and headed to the fire. We stood on the outskirts of the ritual, uncertain of our place. The fire was being tended and nothing was required of us that evening. Relieved, I sat on a bench, gripping the fire staff like a security blanket and watched as women danced topless under the lightening lit sky before the hot fire. The fire area itself was a huge round circle of sand that had benches at the perimeter, then a few feet of grass, and then circumscribed by tiki torches that set the area apart from the field beyond. In the center, the sand slowly banked up and created a barrier between the fire and the dancers circling around it.
A ritual was being conducted. A tall, thickly built woman with a lion’s mane of red, curly hair and a commanding presence held a large round drum in one hand and beat it with a mallet held in the other. Her face was covered in heavy, glittery makeup that sparkled in the firelight like warpaint. I recognized her immediately, even though it had been five years since I had last seen her.
“We are ALIVE!” Thump!
“We are BEAU-TI-FUL!” The staccato of the thumps from the drum accented the syllables.
“We are CREA-TIVE!” Thump! Thump!
“We can do ANY THING…” Thump!
“We put our hearts and love IN-TO!” Thump, thump, THUMP!
The women marched and danced behind her, chanting in unison over and over, like a mantra. Off to the side, in a semicircle in the grass just beyond the sand but inside the ring of tiki torches, were the drummers. Each had a bongo drum and they were thumping out a monotonous beat that started off slowly and eventually reached a crescendo.
The red-headed woman leading the ritual – a self-proclaimed priestess – started a new chant:
“Rise UP!” Thump!
“Rise UP!” Thump!
I just sat, watching, as the women kept repeating the chant. I was conflicted. While it was one of the most amazing things I had ever seen – hundreds of women in varying degrees of nakedness in one place all celebrating the feminine – at the same time, I wasn’t totally comfortable. Something kept me from participating. I remembered back to the first time I met Agate, just a month prior. Not a single woman in her home had greeted me, and in fact, the few looks I had received were dismissive. I had immediately felt shunned by what I had assumed was “my own kind.” What was this supposed “sisterhood” about, then? The vibe had been unpleasant. I learned later that she had just kicked a roommate out of the house and needed to restore her energetic balance in the space. Regardless, the tension was palpable.
“Well she’s a little judgmental,” Janis had remarked. “Plastic pagans. Crazy cat lady!” Her words rattled in the back of my mind as I slipped into a mild meditative state. Communication had been lacking. Chanting was a poor salve for deep connection and a guided meditation or a statement of purpose. I wondered at the bigger intention behind the festival, the unifying force. It had to be more than just possessing the right anatomy; otherwise, it felt superficial. Why were we there?
I wasn’t at home with the people surrounding me…except, of course, for Maria, Janis, and Nora, who provided the comfort of a security blanket in a dark and unfamiliar space. Everything was beautiful and disturbing at the same time. What does ‘Rise Up’ mean in this context, exactly? I wondered. Was this a militant chant, a civil rights anthem, a harkening back to a suffrage-esque oppression of women? Was this a call to women to rise up within themselves to recognize and honor the goddess within? Were they commanding their energy to rise up? I was confounded by the lack of clarity and focus associated with the chant because I had always been taught that when setting an intention to manifest something, clarity of intention was necessary. The vagueness of the chant in turn disturbed me because it seemed to mean that without focus, the energy generated could be ripe for capture…by anyone or anything. I could hear the voice of my grandmother through the foggy depths of memory, whispering from somewhere distant, “every ritual that is opened must be closed. If it is not closed, and the energy created is not grounded, chaos will follow all those who partook of it.”
I wondered how the ritual had been opened and who would remain behind to close it. It dawned on me that perhaps it was best to watch from the sidelines that first night. Was it me who lacked clear intent or was it just that the energy was so unfocused? Was it both? Was it something more?
We stayed a while, on the outskirts, watching the flames lick the sky as bare-chested women danced around the warmth, bells jangling and echoing through the night in eerie synchronicity with the drums. We drank wine, ducking back behind the benches to take sips, since alcohol wasn’t allowed in the ritual circle and we were wary of drawing Agate’s mercurial wrath. Reluctantly, I released my grip on the fire staff Chet had made me and we each took turns taking it around the circle, attuning with the energy of the object, setting our intention into Windfall the Fire Staff.
Some women had come up to the staff and thought that it was Maleficent; the movie had just come out, and the staff’s symbol for Pluto looked like the symbol in the movie, which represented women who proudly refused to bear children. But they were completely unaware that their symbol had been borrowed from the planetary glyph for Pluto. There was an entire group dedicated to women who considered themselves Maleficents at the festival. None of us could claim that title and politely corrected the assumption. We explained to the women who came to admire the staff that the symbol was that of Pluto, one of my ruling planets as a Scorpio, which happened to be the planet of transformation and secrets bubbling up from the deep to be dealt with and through alchemy, transformed. As serendipity would have it, Pluto – like the Morrigan – tended to give us the courage to confront darkness and to allow that darkness to reveal its secrets so that we can better address them. The fluorite orb balanced at the top of the staff was equilibrium itself, transmuting all that is dark. Like a prism, it dispelled the darkness into a positive intention – in our case, Windfall. Iron (which is what the staff was primary made of) was the metaphysical equivalent of the menstrual blood of Mother Earth; Chet had forged the staff from iron and had painted it black. Of course, no magical tool was complete without a crescent moon with a tiny silver pentagram dangling from its tip. When Chet had made it, he put the intention of strength and protection into it. All those who held it could feel...something. Any woman who asked to take a turn walking it around the fire was given the chance, after being instructed to focus their intentions of Windfall while circumnavigating the fire.
For her turn, Agate requested three silver coins, which I pulled from the change in my purse.
She took me to the fire and taught me her favorite abundance spell:
Circling clockwise, she stated,
“Trink of five, trink of five,” and tossed a coin into the fire;
“Ancient spirits come alive,” another coin was swallowed by flame;
“Let my money grow and thrive,” the last coin disappeared into the coals;
“With the spirits of trink of five.”
I tried to pay attention and follow along, to be grateful at this attempt of mentorship, but something didn't sit right with me. I couldn’t help but wonder why it was okay to toss coins in the fire, but not cigarette butts. It also bothered me that the entire spell invoked something called “trink of five” and yet only three coins were used. I couldn’t help but wonder what a “trink” was (I discovered later that it is an obscure word traced back to Italian fishermen who would refer to their nets as a “trink”). It made sense to me that from the moment I learned what a trink was, if I ever did the spell again, I needed to envision casting a net into the Universe when I threw my coins in, anticipating that when the nets were later hauled in, the catch would be five times more abundant. But this was just my interpretation, because Agate said she didn’t know what it meant; it is just something she had learned.
The more I mulled it over, the less sense the spell made. In numerology, the value of “five” was problematic, because it was the most dynamic of all the numbers. There was no beginning, no end, and certainly no stability. If the spell were performed, five times the abundance may come in, but it could just as easily and quickly flow out, resulting in an exhausting cycle of having to constantly repeat the spell in order to maintain results. The more I contemplated that first night of the festival, the more apparent it became to me that my discomfort stemmed from a lack of deep understanding, coordination, and clear and focused vision. Magic was more than mere recitation of an intriguing rhyme. It was more than just blindly following the spells and opinions and traditions of elders. It was fueled by vivid imagery and a deep understanding of symbology and natural correspondences. Gramma JoJo, my mother, and my years of academic and practical occult studies through Rosicrucianism had taught me as much.
Agate laughed off the mystic who would proclaim that they had “read about it” in a “book somewhere” saying that they referred to such people as “read-about-its.” I wasn't so sure. My spiritual training and profession had both taught me that knowledge was power, and intuition could certainly be augmented and enhanced by a studious understanding of the subtle and symbolic relationships that were woven into the fabric of the natural world. When Agate handed the staff back to me, I kept rounding the fire while she took a seat on the bench. Something inside of me compelled me forward, to continue circling, until I had balanced the energy of the staff. I steadied my gaze on the flames and focused my senses on the heat from the middle of the pit. Let the fire’s heat cleanse the energy of this staff through flame, I willed. Allow whatever negativity found its way into this energy field to be transformed into its most beautiful and radiant potential with perfect love and perfect trust in Nature and the Cosmos.
I was completely absorbed in the epiphany that Agate's spell was missing that key ingredient: demanding, rather than inviting, supplanting human will over Divine Will to bring desires into alignment with Cosmic Law. It is where most mystics, magicians, alchemists, occultists, and metaphysical practitioners go wrong.
The drumming had become background noise, like a rhythmic heartbeat ticking away in my chest. Flames flickered like a movie screen in the back of my mind. I was lost deep inside my own universe. Visions of the ritual the four of us were to do later that weekend came easily, but when it came to myself, the imagery was less clear. I struggled with which role I would play. Maria, the Virgo, was obviously Earth. She was rooted into the Earth through her yoga practice, she embodied the womb, and was the quintessential Earth Mama, always obsessed with mycology. Nora, though Air sign Libra, was not Air. Fire tending had been her idea, and she was Fire through and through. I struggled with Water. Here I was, a triple water sign and a swimmer, but yet, I was not Water. Janis – Cancer Sun, deep and conflicted emotions, intensely passionate – was Water. That left me as Air, the windy intellect, dominated by the head. And perhaps that is where I belonged, though I never would have initially envisioned it. I was constantly analyzing, researching, and studying everything. I was an intuitive “read-about-it” looking for an outlet, and here I was, staring at a fire, holding a fire staff I had named Windfall, made for me by my Air sign husband. The man had left a mark on my soul and we were in such union that I had begun taking on the traits of Air.
I was snapped from my endless march around the fire by Janis, who called to me from the side.
“Hey,” she shouted. “Aubs!”
I looked up. My three friends were gathering up our belongings. I surveyed my surroundings. Somewhere in the midst of my trance, the crowd around the fire had dwindled from over a hundred to perhaps ten. The drumming had stopped, but I was unaware of when. I walked over to the bench and handed Windfall to Janis.
“Sorry,” I muttered.
“Where did you go?” she chuckled.
“A journey,” I said distantly. I wasn’t even sure where I had been or for how long.
Janis pointed at the sky with the fire staff.
“So I am sure I’ve seen a sky that dark, but I don’t remember when. And you’re dragging around a lightning rod in the sand.”
“Good call,” I said gratefully.
She quickly began taking a turn around the fire, drawing her own symbols in the sand with the tip of the staff as the remaining dancers retreated to their tents after the clouds spit fat drops of rain upon the attendees. Within minutes, a group of women went around the circle, kicking the designs out of the sand, muttering that they were “reclaiming” the circle. I asked a woman, Vasha, if we had committed some sort of faux pas by drawing.
“No, not at all, they are just reclaiming the space,” she answered.
“I thought the space was for everyone. Surely the rain would have reclaimed it,” I reasoned.
She shrugged. “It is, and it’s not a big deal.”
It still felt odd, that same discomfort creeping back into the foreground. There was an unwritten set of rules and an unspoken hierarchy to everything in the pagan community.
As we headed back to the camp, there was the priestess herself, Melody, who came to admire the fire staff. I explained Windfall and its symbolism and offered her a turn with the staff, which she quickly accepted, as she marched purposefully around in circle with the staff. She told me that her career was taking off, that she had found a woman to edit her book, she was getting paid for her readings, and that abundance was beginning to manifest itself for her in meaningful ways.
I briefly recounted the events of New Years 2010 to Melody in an effort to reintroduce Janis, but Melody barely showed an interest and was almost dismissive. I was instantly perplexed by Melody’s lack of reaction. If I was told that a ceremony I led had been such a huge catalyst of transformation in someone’s life, I’d want to hear about it and would have a natural interest in the person whose life I had touched. Melody remained unmoved other than a quick shoulder shrug. Perhaps such intrigue was so commonplace in her life as to be mundane, but I was stunned that someone who called herself a priestess would be able to shrug off such deep synchronistic significance. She stumbled off across the field, handing Windfall back to me as though she were handing me a stick.
I watched her go, hearing the women behind me comment that Melody hated camping and chose to stay in a cabin instead.
“She’s trashed again,” came a comment from the fire.
Unlike the rest of the women who each seemed to have their own tents, the four of us shared a tent. We retreated to our beds in the eight-person back-up tent, exhausted, listening to the wind and rumbling of thunder. The next day brought downpours, interspersed with bouts of intense sunshine, always with looming purple clouds on the horizon. We spent the morning sitting on our beds talking about life, sipping tea and coffee. Maria and Nora were summoned by Agate to help gather wood for the fire later that evening. While they were gone, Janis and I decorated the tent for their birthdays in red, black, and white with balloons, stars, and streamers. We laid their gifts on their pillows: a leather grimoire with a lapis stone set in the front and a heart-shaped red jasper for Nora and a silver and blue evil eye talisman with elephants and a shakra balancing bracelet for Maria. The impromptu surprise birthday celebration ended with chocolate mint cupcakes and wine.
Maria suggested we set off for a hike while the skies were clear. We each just slid into whatever pair of shoes we found first in the pile on the rug by the tent flap. She led us down the long field to a steep, wooden stairway that led through the trees and to the bathhouse and dining hall. A narrow gravel drive led past some cabins to a muddy trail head. The trees closed in around the trail which was carved out of dense brush thick with the smell of moisture.
“I never walked with them,” Maria told us.
“Who?” I asked from behind.
“Melody, and the other women I used to hang out with when I came here each year,” she said, matter-of-factly.
Nora chuckled. “Well, we’ve been wearing each other’s shoes all morning!”
It was true. I had gotten up to go to the bathroom and had worn Maria’s rain boots. Janis had given Nora a pair of red cowgirl boots to tend fire in, since Nora forgot her own boots. Oddly enough, I was with Janis about five years ago when she bought those boots in a second hand store, and had laughed when she paid for them, asking her, “where on earth are you gonna go in those things?” It turns out she had never worn them, because those boots had been waiting to find Nora’s feet for tending fire.
“They came every year but never went for a hike?” I continued.
Maria shrugged. “Nope. I always went by myself. Except for today! Hardly any of these women hike,” she said.
We arrived at a spot in the woods were two trees overhung one another forming what looked like a doorway. All around this portal, small trinkets – statues, cups, picture frames, fake flowers, solar lights, Mardi Gras beads, rings, earrings, necklaces, angels – were scattered about the ground and hung from the tree branches.
“This is the fairy spot,” Maria said.
Each of us walked around from one branch to another, as though we were in a museum, examining all the offerings that had been left behind. I dug through my purse looking for something to contribute. I excavated a silver pair of earrings shaped like wings and hung them from a branch with my thanks to the spirits for sharing their spot with us. Nora had been gathering wildflowers, grasses, and seed pods and left her bundle at the base of one of the bigger trees.
We walked further into the woods and came to a dead end, a small peninsula surrounded by a lake. The water was obscured by a thick blanket of bright green algae quilted with Lilly pads. At the tip of the small peninsula, a stone circle displayed unopened cans of Guinness left for the spirits. A cairn of stones marked a spot, with miscellaneous stone statues just off the path peering eerily through the brush, as though guarding the place.
“Lots of male energy here,” Janis noted and turned up her nose.
Each of us nodded.
“This is the Venus site,” Maria explained. “Rumor has it that this is a popular spot for sex rituals, particularly for gay men.”
“Let’s go. I don’t want anything to do with a goddamned penis this weekend,” Janis said stomping back down the trail. “I don’t know about you all, but I need a break from men for a minute.”
Maria’s laughter cut through the woods. “Girl, you said it. I have nothing but penis at my house!”
We walked back out the way we had come and then turned back up a hill to another trail head nestled deep in the woods. An Egyptian statue of Horus guarded the path on one side, with more statues scattered just off the trail. A small shine to children with tiny toys littered one side of the space, with another stone circle in the middle and a shrine behind it with a menagerie of miscellaneous tokens, including a 30-day AA sobriety chip. Someone had cut off their deadlocks and hung them from a tree branch.
“We should come here, at sunset,” Janis breathed. “I like the energy of this spot.”
Nora nodded. “The Egyptian statues are a nice touch.”
We returned to camp just in time for another bout of rain. We ate another round of birthday cupcakes in the tent, blankets thrown across our shoulders. By the time the sky cleared up again, we started a quick campfire and got dinner warming over the coals. We drank wine and watched the flames flicker underneath our dinner, and just when we were ready to make a plan, we were summoned by Agate to build and tend the night’s dance fire. Nora and Maria were chosen to assist Agate in constructing the fire, while Janis and I were tasked with the grunt work of hauling one wagon load of wood after another up the hill from Agate’s campsite to the ceremonial fire space. We piled the wood behind the benches in the grass. There were two other fire tenders who helped Janis and I haul the wood with a second wagon. None of the other fire tenders were anywhere to be seen.
“Where are the other tenders?” I asked Agate, surveying the scene. “I thought you had more coming this year than before, from all over the country.”
Agate busied herself with ensuring the logs were placed just so. “Hmmm?” she said, looking up dismissively and quickly changing the subject. “Why don’t you and you,” she said pointing at me and Janis, “go fill those buckets with water? The spigot is that way,” she said waving her hand ambiguously off towards the trees.
I looked at Janis and we arched eyebrows at one another as we trapesed off toward where we imaged the spigot would be.
“I don’t think the other fire tenders showed up,” Janis said. “She didn’t touch that question with a ten foot pole.”
“I’m used to it,” I said, chuckling. “But, yeah, it’s a bad sign.”
Janis just looked at me. I explained as we spotted the spigot halfway down the field.
“The Grandma Dragon lady at the front gate? She hadn’t been relieved for her shift, remember? How many women are here? There are at least a few hundred. At least. And there’s what, six fire tenders we have seen besides Agate? Us four and those two we just met? That means she doesn’t have help we’re going to get stuck doing more than our fair share. Yay communism,” I quipped.
Jen chuckled. “It won’t be that bad.”
“Watch,” I said confidently. “I’ve been clocking my hours. We’re supposed to do ten hours of service, right?"
“I’ve got seven by the time we’re done here, if you count those two afternoons at Agate’s last month,” I reasoned. “I’m counting those weekend afternoons. That wasn’t social hour for me. There was shit I would rather be doing those days.”
“What? Like binge watching Netflix?” Janis laughed.
“Actually, yes. Better that, on my couch, sucking on a Popsicle in the air conditioning than sweating my ass off in knee high grass wrangling branches out of a meth head’s ditch getting eaten alive by chiggers.”
Janis threw her head back and laughed, but I was being serious. We slid a bucket under the spigot and Janis started pumping.
“So back to the time. How long does the fire ritual last? It starts at sundown, so that’s about eight o’clock…” I thought out loud. “Last night, it ended around one, but if the night is nice, maybe two, so five or six hours, which means after tonight, I’m more than done with my commitment. I hope she’s got other people for tomorrow. I’m not spending the entire goddamned retreat schlepping buckets of water and wagon fulls of wood. It’s a retreat for f*&ksakes. We deserve a break just as much as everyone else here.”
“By the book,” Janis teased me.
“I never get time off,” I complained. “I’m not sure I like this lady and fair is fair,” I said matter-of-factly. “It only works if everyone does their part. If people commit and then disappear, if someone is unreliable or lazy, well, everything falls apart then, doesn’t it? I ain’t here to hold shit together. I do that every goddamned day. It’s called a job. No thanks. This is a retreat.”
I felt like I might spontaneously combust. Would there ever be a reprieve from all the responsibility? Was there no escape? Yes, Aubs, it’s called an all-inclusive resort. Maybe in Barbados or Punta Cana. Not in the middle of nowhere at an abandoned nudist colony pagan festival. Get a grip.
We lugged the sloshing buckets of water back to the fire pit. “I get it, you’re burnt out. When is the last time you took a vacation?” Janis asked.
I paused and thought a moment. “Other than a three or four day weekend down to the lake?”
Janis nodded. “Right. A real vacation. Like a week. Out of state.”
I thought and then frowned. “Its been seven years,” I answered. I felt the pit in my stomach. Seven years??? I knew as soon as I said it that it was way too long.
Janis stopped and looked at me. “That’s horrible.”
“No wonder you are burnt out and wanting a break. I get it. I wouldn’t want to schlep buckets of water this weekend, either.”
“Its just always something,” I said, fending off tears. My eyes stung. These little breaks were nice, but they weren’t adding up to any kind of reprieve.
After hauling water and getting the fire pit set up, we went back to camp, hastily ate our dinners, and returned to the ceremonial fire pit dressed in our fire tending gear. The sun set slowly, blazing neon orange across the horizon. While we waited for Agate to determine the right moment to start the fire, we gravitated towards live music on the stage in the pavilion just up the hill. A female rock band was playing covers of Heart and Joan Jett over a staticky sound system. In the large sheltered area, a woman danced in hypnotic circles with a fluorescent LED hula hoop that traveled from her belly to her neck, down her arms, and up her legs seamlessly and effortlessly in an unbroken motion of grace and agility. Little girls – maidens – wiggled to the guitar and sang cheerfully along. There wasn’t a single man in sight. They weren’t allowed in the festival.
I stared up at the sky and wondered how my husband and daughter were. Chet and I had many evenings where we stared up at the sky together, and I wondered if he was seeing the same stars, in that moment, that I was. The stars were so plentiful it was hard to tell whether there was more darkness or light in the sky. The Milky Way band was pronounced, with a silver moon in the west, and gleaming Saturn winking just below it. Saturn had just changed signs, which I welcomed, because my so-called Saturn Return – the proverbial astrological school of hard knocks – had come to an end. Within a week, Pluto – my ruling planet – would come out of retrograde and go direct, bringing with it a slow transition back into growing peace and prosperity. I was suddenly overwhelmed with gratitude as I stared at my friends, the women who had helped me to heal the wounds motherhood had inflicted.
“Nora,” I said, hugging her, “thanks for healing me and giving me the courage to be a mother,” I cried. Janis and Maria gathered in and we all hugged.
“Motherhood,” Maria said, nodding. “Yeah, we’re all in that together.”
I didn’t have time to continue my cry because Janis had grabbed my hand and flung me around, intent on teaching me “the pretzel.”
“No crying. Time to dance!” she shouted over the music.
“I have no coordination!” I protested. “My grandma couldn’t even drive a stick shift.”
“That’s got nothing to do with anything!” she laughed. She chanted, “left hip, right hip, out, in…”
I spun around, with the stars thick in the sky above spinning into silver webs as I tried to twirl in the right direction.
“No, in,” Janis would chuckle when I tried to spin the wrong way.
In front of us, a woman had at least a few hula hoops whirling around her body as she gyrated to the beat. I was jealous. She made it look effortless.
I knew the music was ending; the telltale flourish that comes as a crescendo when the finale approaches was clamoring from the stage. I saw Agate wind her way through the crowd and signal to Nora that she and our group needed to head for the fire pit.
The clear sky promised a colder night than the one before. The sand felt firm and crunched under foot, stiff from the earlier rains and the chill in the air. The sand had been raked into a gentle berm up to the center of the pit, where a large depression of cinders from the night before had completely lost their spark. The wood we had hauled up earlier still looked and smelled damp, and though we were supposed to have it started by the time the band quit playing, we were delayed by the wet wood. Scraps of paper stubbornly failed to light. Agate was dubious about using diesel or fuel to light a ritual fire, as only purely organic materials were to be used, lest anyone be branded a Plastic Pagan. A crowd began to gather around the edges of the circle of sand, gazing expectantly in Agate’s direction. Her cheeks began to flush.
“We need to get this thing started!” she whispered harshly at Nora.
“We started a fire earlier for cooking,” Nora said. “I’m sure there are coals we can use. I can go get one,” she whispered back.
Agate only nodded. She held her fire staff, a long copper segment of pipe decorated with feathers, beads, and embellishments, loosely at her side. She was unable to breathe life into the fire after all the rain the night before.
Nora ran back to our camp and grabbed a large chunk of log out of our campfire with a bare hand, holding the coolest end of the stump, its other end burning red hot, and ran it back across the long field to the ritual fire. The log was nudged and nestled delicately into the heart of the wood sculpture, the hot cinders inched beneath the twigs and logs. When Nora thought she had positioned the burning log just right, she slowly backed away from the fire pit. Agate wasted no time. She righted her fire stick and gently breathed life into the flames.
A WHOOSH! caused Agate to jump back, almost tripping over the berm, as flames leapt to life from the heart of the fire pit. The drummers didn’t miss their cue and began their monotonous drone of beating and thumping. As Agate backed away toward the bench on the outskirts of the ring, dancers began to shout and trill and prance around the edges of the berm, as though encouraging the flames to roar higher.
“Who is that?” Janis pointed at a woman who was dancing topless around the fire. She wore only a leather breach cloth with a foxtail pinned to the back of it, and underwear underneath. Her golden hair was thick and bobbed about her back. Her tanned body was perfectly trim and slender, her eyes were wild with an otherworldly gaze.
“That’s Fern,” said Agate in her raspy smoker’s voice. “She’s a fire tender.”
“Oh yeah?” I said. “Where is she from?” I hadn’t seen her at any of the meetings or helping out with the chores.
“Tulsa. She’s a doctor. A naturopath,” Agate said. “Not much of a fire tender, though. She just adds her own ambiance, doesn’t she?”
I looked over at Agate, who was admiring Fern with a look I couldn’t quite read. Was it envy? Wistfulness? Lust? I couldn’t be sure.
“Ambiance!” Janis guffawed, as she rolled her eyes and walked off with a fire rake.
“This fire stick was one of thirteen made,” Agate told me, as she plopped down on the bench. I had already heard the story at the first orientation, but I listened again anyway as I watched the fire. “It was given to me by a Native American ritual fire tender who was charged with the duty of teaching Pagans how to be safe with fire. This was the last stick he gave, and I was the only woman he gave a stick to. Kind of fitting, I think, because my father was a fire fighter.”
I was leaning on my fire staff, watching the crowd gather and grow. I looked politely at the stick she held in her hands, as she stared down at it. I could feel her nostalgia for a youthful time long past. There was something sad about her that evening. I wondered if Nora’s gesture, of grabbing that log from the burning campfire, running it across the length of at least a few football fields, and easing it under the fire sculpture had caused Agate to lose face. For as long as most could remember, every fire at the festival had begun and ended with Agate. This year, a new fire prodigy had emerged at a critical moment.
That night, on the verge of the autumn equinox, the four of us tended fire, nonstop, until 1:30 in the morning. One by one, women took turns with Windfall meditating upon their intentions around the fire. One woman asked to just hold the staff as she sat on the bench. I gave her the staff, and she held it, unable to walk all the way around the fire, staring instead at the mysterious fluorite ball. She was elderly and had been coming to the festival since its inception. Her joints were swollen and her demeanor was tired. I wondered if that would be me in another thirty-five years.
“What are you manifesting? What is your windfall?” I asked.
“This moment, right here,” she replied with a contented smile. “At my age, every moment is a windfall.”
I hugged her and left her with her meditation for a long while.
Throughout the evening, true to form, our group broke all the rules of fire tending. No smoking was allowed within the fire circle. But before we had lit the fire, I had mumbled my little prayers for a safe and uneventful night around the fire as I took a drag from a cigarette and blew the smoke from my lungs over the wood. We were not permitted to be intoxicated, but each of us showed up having spent the day imbibing wine…and we continued to drink our wine, sneaking deep gulps from the bottle of peach champagne hidden under our jackets on the sidelines. I wasn’t supposed to wear jewelry, but the necklaces from my husband remained around my neck, bestowing their love and protection. Some rules were meant to be broken.
I had come to resent quite a few rules in all their various forms – laws, regulations, policies, procedures – because they were nothing but a one-size fits all rubric imposed because some person who didn’t know how to be accountable had ruined it for everyone else. Those of us who knew better suffered, and those who were morally compromised, or had enough power, money, or influence – the ones the rules were meant to guard against – always managed to circumvent the rules anyway. I was acutely aware then that I had a front row seat to the demise of the rule of law in the United States; it was only a matter of time, a slow decay into corruption. The Fall of Rome wasn’t so different. The extremely wealthy were the ones making the rules, or at least buying the rules or the leniency of their application. So, ever the rebel, I tended to seize any opportunity to break a rule if doing so didn’t hurt anyone else. It was a small thing, but I took a long drink of wine, feeling the bubbles sting my tongue and the tartness of the peach tighten my cheeks. I smiled with satisfaction.
At the end of the night, we left the fire when the wood was gone and all that remained were white hot embers. It looked like the photographs of the sun I had seen in books on the Universe, so red it was white hot, with flickering bits of orange, yellow, and blue flame speckled with black spots of charcoal. The heat from the coals, even when three feet away, was enough to make the skin on my face feel tight, as though it would melt off of my skull. We only ventured in close to rake the coals and encourage a safe burn in our absence.
We didn’t realize how cold it had gotten until we reached our tent and the warmth from several hours of fire tending wore off. My air mattress was slumping in the chill, the cold air wrapping its tendrils around my spine as I slept. The next morning, I rose with a slight headache and a dry mouth. I was always the first to rise. Years of pre-dawn rising was ingrained into my internal clock and sleeping in was usually close to impossible. I dug out some clothes, toiletries, and a towel smelling faintly of wood smoke in the dim pre-dawn light. I put on the nearest pair of shoes and headed down to the shower house to rinse off two days’ worth of grime. The meadow was wet with a heavy layer of dew and a low fog shrouded the ground with mystique. Light had just broken over the treetops and a cool dampness hung in the air. The stairs down to the showers were steep and I took them slowly. Once I arrived in the shower house, I twitched at the thought of undressing in a cold, large room in front of a bunch of other women, none of which I knew. Fortunately, at that early hour, the place was nearly deserted. I discreetly wrapped the towel around me and slid my clothes off under my towel, piling them on a bench whose last layer of paint was beginning to peel off. I looked around. Unfamiliar noises put me on edge. I struggled in any setting where privacy wasn’t a priority. I had a wash rag, toothbrush and toothpaste, but nothing else. I hoped that there would be bottles of shampoo and soap already in the showering room.
Two women walked out just as I was entering. One bottle of shampoo and a bottle of soap had been graciously left behind by someone who probably took pity on us first-timers, knowing we wouldn’t likely think to bring our own. I found one of two stalls with a shower curtain and chose the one whose curtain appeared to span at least most of the doorway of the stall. I hung up my towel, turned the hot water on, and quickly scrubbed down with the donated soap. My feet were blackened from wandering around in the mud with flip flops the day before. I wanted to savor the warmth, but my uneasiness wouldn’t allow it. In less than two minutes, I was out and feeling refreshed. I quickly toweled off, slipped into fresh clothes.
After breakfast, Janis and Nora went down to the shower house as Maria and I headed to the keynote speaker’s presentation. The keynote speaker wound up being Wise Woman after all, and I was excited that they had decided to bring her in. We arrived somewhat late and Wise Woman had just begun telling her story about arriving in Ireland with her daughter. The entire trip had been planned to reward her daughter for her graduation from a graduate program and all the days were filled with things her daughter wished to see and do, since Wise Woman had been to Ireland numerous times before. However, she wanted just one day to go to the cave of the Morrigan and learn about the local lore of the goddess.
On the day she had chosen to visit the cave, a storm had descended upon the Green Isle and some of the main roads leading to the cavern were washed out. She had gotten lost several times trying to find the place that morning. By the time she found the road up to the mouth of the cave, it was closed off, due to the weather. She had been forced to turn back and engage in a purely academic experience of the cave.
The Morrigan was an Irish warrior goddess who symbolized the “inner battlefield” that lies within each of us: our internal conflicts between the positive and negative aspects of our personalities. Wise Woman asked us to close our eyes and led us on a guided meditation. I followed her voice through a densely wooded, sunlight dappled, dirt path that wound up a hill. Shadows became more pronounced, deep purple pools of dim, the further into the forest we went. At the top of the hill stood a cairn of smooth, flat river rocks, marking a sacred spot. Looking at the cairn, there was a glossy black raven’s feather at the base, stuck quill side down into the soft, damp earth. I picked up the feather and crawled into a key-shaped, feminine looking hole in the side of the hill next to the cairn. Down, down, down into the mountain I crawled, deep and dark. I could smell the moist mineral odor of rock and could feel the slick, damp soil stick to my hands and knees. I felt my way along, without a light to guide me. Eerie swirls of color manufactured by my mind’s eye sparkled around me as I groped my way forward. I came to a spot where the tunnel opened up into a yawning cavern with hazy, flickering torchlight that barely illuminated the rocky space. Large, crystalline stalagmites and stalactites rose and fell like shiny, glimmering teeth. Next to me stood all the people in my life that had lent their support, love, and encouragement: family members, friends, acquaintances, and people I knew and liked. They appeared as gauzy apparitions, faint in their coloring and translucent in substance.
I then asked, in awestruck politeness, for the Morrigan to appear, to protect and guide me, as I faced my own personal demons, placing the raven feather I had picked up at the cairn over my heart. A shiny black raven appeared, gracefully flying out of nowhere toward me, her wings showing off glossy glints of blue in the warm torchlight. Silently, the bird flew over me, and I could feel the disturbance in the air as a bird much larger than I expected, much larger than me, gently landed on the ground behind me with only a soft thud. She wrapped her silky wings around me. I could feel the stiffness in the shafts of the feathers and the softness in their tips tickling my arms and providing warm comfort. Before me I saw some of my good qualities: my generosity, my loyalty and reliability, my ability to listen. In a flash, those examples were replaced by my darker qualities that weren’t necessarily negative, like my ability to be cunning when it served a just purpose; my ability to say no and set boundaries; and my ability to look into darkness and find beauty. These things were replaced by darker things still, the aspects of myself that were truly negative. The things we loathe about ourselves and would rather forget because they create shame or disappointment. Our darkest aspects are our most base secrets. Mine all stemmed from the traumas I had endured and had compacted into a greasy, nasty ball of self-doubt.
For all of my successes, the self-doubt was troubling because it felt like a cancer that was waiting to seize control and sabotage everything I had sacrificed and worked so hard to build. It was as though everything I had worked at, my career, my family, my roles as wife, mother, and friend, were all built upon this rotten foundation of self-doubt that I shoved down so deep that it was buried and locked away never to be unearthed….until one day, the rot would be too much, the foundation would buckle under the weight of everything I had built atop it, and my life would collapse in a giant heap.
Wise Woman’s soft voice in the background of my mind brought me back into focus as I examined my nemesis, which was odd, since it was a facet of myself I was staring at. It was a moment not too dissimilar than when Yoda warned Luke not to venture into the dark part of the forest and Luke went anyway to find and duel with Vader…only to have it revealed that the Vader he struck down was but a version of himself. Wise Woman’s voice guided us to turn this dark aspect of ourselves into an egg. I watched in my mind as this yucky amorphous Blob of Self Doubt twisted and contorted and whirled into poof! presto! an egg, a beige, speckled egg, large and levitating in the air before me.
Then, she instructed each of us to grab a weapon – a wand, a staff, a sword, a knife, even a “delete button” – and aim it at our egg. I immediately saw Windfall appear in my right hand, the cold, heavy, and familiar iron staff whose weight tugged at my wrist as I gripped it. I lifted it up and jammed it down into the floor of the cave, watching as a wave of energy radiated out from the staff and shattered the egg. Yolk oozed everywhere, suspended ribbons of yellow goo wiggling through space and winding about bits of shell. The shards of destruction hung in midair, as though suspended in slow motion.
The Morrigan sprang into action. She let out a deafening CAW! The suspended bits of egg immediately stopped and dropped to the ground, hitting the cave floor with the sound of shattering glass. Her wings unraveled their firm embrace and I felt a wisp of breeze as massive feathers flapped heavily, propelling her off the floor of the cave, as she flew over the top of my head and swooped down in front of the shattered egg. With a sharp, shiny, and hungry beak, she began eating up the bits of shattered and oozing egg from the cave floor. Without a goodbye, the raven flew off into the heart of the darkening cavern, carrying the meal in her belly.
The torchlight began to fade and soon I was enveloped in darkness. I immediately found myself crawling back through the tunnel, which now felt more like a birth canal than a path into a cave. It dawned on me that I had been in a womb, a place of gestation, where things were planted and created. When I emerged, damp from my excursion, the cairn of rocks was bathed in sunlight through a clearing in the trees. I turned my face towards the warm rays and felt victorious, as though I had overcome something huge. I took the raven’s feather and stuck it back in the ground for next time.
There was a rustling in the audience around me that drew my awareness to the present. Wise Woman had stopped talking.
I abruptly opened my eyes. By now, Wise Woman had resumed her lecture as other women emerged from the mediation and looked around the crowd, as though aware they were in the company of a large group of women for the first time. I knew how they felt. It was as though the guided mediation had put each of us into a deep hypnotic trance.
Wise Woman continued her story. The mediation is something she had learned from her trip and had practiced nightly for several months. Each night after she had done her own guided meditation with the Morrigan, the Morrigan had accompanied her in her dreams. Each night had brought new and deeper insights. She closed out her presentation with songs, which I was hesitant to join. My singing sounded like a wounded animal fending for its life. None of the women there deserved to be subjected to it. Besides, by that time, my comfort zone had already been mightily tested from the moment I had arrived at the festival and there was only so many boundaries I was willing to push. I hummed along and listened intently, trying to remember the words, but to little avail. It didn’t matter. From somewhere at the front of the group, Melody’s unmistakable voice bellowed out, overpowering almost everyone else’s with its richness.
After the talk, I went to hug Wild Woman and introduced her to my friends. She told each of us that she had what she referred to as “magic mottos” that she said each day. The first was “I am protected” and the second was “I have all I need and more.” I was able to commit that much to memory and internally chided myself for having neglected to bring the Grimoire for journaling. Her wisdom made me realize how much I had missed her.
I wanted to return to her tutelage. Three summers prior, in her herbology course, she had been one of the sagest women I had ever met. That afternoon at the festival, reunited with her, I was reminded of her wisdom and thanked her for imparting it once again. More often than not, what I needed was already right in front of me; I just had to summon the courage to see it for what it really was. That was the magic in life. In the middle of the strange festival, Wise Woman had given me the reminder that I needed.