The stone on my heart

I think my mother was a witch.

This is not a story about facts. This is not a report of family history or sociological study of the Craft. This is a story. It is not about facts at all.

First of all, there were the books. Not the bodice-rippers and horror novels stashed in the headboard bookcase of her bed, nor even the wildly explicit novel about the Roman emperor Elagabalus, one of Rome’s moreā€¦ flamboyant emperors, that I peeked at when no one was home. But the newspaper insert with excerpts from Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs. The illustrated book about witches with pictures of women holding chalices, clad only in long hair and cuff bracelets. The little book about talismans, and my mother’s conversation with the rather odd lady who worked the circulation desk at our neighborhood library and kept a pet tarantula. I never knew where these books came from; they were just there, in our house, to be stumbled over and perused cautiously. I was never warned off from reading them.

Then there were my mother’s amateur theater friends. I did amateur theater, too, though not as many plays as my mother, which is why I’m not particularly shy about taking my clothes off in front of people. I spent a lot of my childhood in crowded dressing rooms, and a lot of it in church wearing vestments, too. Dad had stories about one woman, call her Tara, who claimed to be a witch. She had seen ghosts in the theater, a basement black-box theater with some decidedly spooky storage areas. (Spooky and probably fire-hazardous.) She wore black all the time. One time, he said, she had summoned something and been unable to dismiss it, and it still followed her around. My father, a self-described atheist, related these stories with rational seriousness.

My father, while a good nurturer, was also chronically unfaithful, always in search of more sex. Was my mother making talismans to keep him from straying? Was she looking for love spells to keep his libido fixed on her? Did she charm herself to conceive at the age of 39, with a tumor lurking in her uterus, to keep him from leaving her? That tumor was my secret twin.

A couple of years ago, before the corona times, I had a soul retrieval done. The healer did not so much bring back parts that were missing as clear out extraneous gunk. One of those extraneous pieces was something lodged on my heart. My healer said it was a piece of my mother.

My mother was raised Methodist and sang for years in an Episcopal church choir. She liked the Episcopal church but did not convert. She was neither religious nor superstitious; she sent her daughters to church but never went to a service herself, though she supported all the bazaars and church suppers and bingos. She had none of those little ways that people talk about in witchcraft books, inexplicable things that their mama or nana or that strange aunty did. And yet. She read horror novels as lightly and voraciously as many women read romances or mysteries. She had a way of looking at you, a way of talking to you. She could be both hilariously funny and mercilessly cruel with her words.

Am I the daughter of witches? Does the power run in my blood? I don’t know, and yet. This is a story with an ambiguous ending. What do you think, reader?

The McCoy Disclaimer

In one of the classic episodes of the original Star Trek series, “Devil in the Dark”, Dr McCoy is faced with a wounded Horta, an alien that is basically a sentient rock. Captain Kirk has only just learned that the monster that’s been killing miners is, in fact, a sentient person and a mother trying to protect her eggs, which have been crushed by the mining operation. Faced with trying to patch a phaser wound on a rock, McCoy balks and utters the famous line, “I’m a doctor, not a bricklayer!”

Being a doctor, McCoy improvises and successfully helps the Horta, and Kirk mediates a peace between the alien mom and the miners. McCoy got to make his disclaimer several more times over the course of the series, and while I’m a little behind on some canon, I’m pretty sure every other doctor in a Trek series has gotten to echo McCoy’s line at least once. 

I’ve been looking at witches, pagans, and occultists on various social media platforms lately, and my reaction to what I’m seeing can basically be summed up in a McCoy Disclaimer: I’m a polytheist, not a witch.

I’m a polytheist, not an occultist. I’m a polytheist, not a magician. I’m a polytheist, not a priest, or priestess, or priestx, even. I’m a polytheist, not a spiritworker.

What I am, what I do, as a polytheist, seems to me to be closest to what Christian tradition calls an oblate or a tertiary. An oblate or tertiary is someone associated with a religious order, usually with a specific local community, who is a lay person with a day job and a mundane home life, who also carries out certain religious practices in unity with the monastics. Benedictines and their relatives call them oblates; Franciscans and similar orders call them tertiaries (the “third order”, after monks and nuns). 

Oblates, like their monastic kindred, make promises of dedication, keep a rule, and keep in contact with the monastic community. But they continue to live “in the world”, in secular society, a kind of outreach of the monastic life of prayer.

The oblate analogy is not a useful one for everyone, to be sure. But even if it’s not, I have a little secret to whisper to the internet, in case you haven’t heard it.

Are you ready? Here it is:

You don’t have to be a witch to be a pagan.

No, really. You don’t. You don’t have to be a witch or any kind of magical practitioner. If you are a polytheist and believe there are many gods and want to worship some of them, you can just do that. You don’t have to learn Tarot, follow astrology, or cast spells. (Although Tarot is neat and astrology is useful.) You don’t have to cast a circle and call the quarters, You don’t have to have the witch’s tools (if you’re not a witch). You don’t have to work with crystals. (Unless you like them, which I do. Rocks are friends.) 

If your inclination, like mine, is to be a devotee, a religious person, rather than a magical practitioner, you can simply make, purchase, or even print a picture of a deity, put a tea light and a glass of water in front of it, burn some incense, and say a prayer. Start with “hi how are you I think you’re neat” prayers, perhaps something from historical sources like the Orphic or Homeric hymns (if you’re approaching Greek or Roman gods, for example), rather than “oh hi there please gimme X asap” prayers. Be respectful and a little formal. Asking for help can come later, once you’ve established a relationship.

Because that’s really all we’re talking about: establishing a relationship between a human person and a divine person. You don’t need magical skills to do that. There are magical skills that can help you in refining that relationship, but they aren’t absolutely necessary. You can proceed on the assumption that the Gods are available, that they have good will toward us, and that an offering and prayer respectfully presented will be noticed. 

You don’t have to wait for a sign or a calling. If you are inspired to worship Anubis, you don’t have to sit around hoping you see x number of black dogs as a sign that Anubis! wants! you! Do a little research, make a little offering, make a few more offerings, and–here’s another little secret for polytheists–give it time and see if devotion to Anubis enriches your life. I don’t mean expecting Anubis, or any deity, to hand you a new car, that big promotion, the really expensive Mac computer, or anything strictly material. I mean asking yourself if devotion to Anubis makes your life more meaningful, more coherent. If it gets easier to go with the flow and deal with your average daily level of stress. (Allowing for the fact that right now, especially in the U.S., we are all at above-average levels of stress due to the COVID-19 pandemic.) If maybe you are inspired to make fancier offerings or to create something for the god, like an image, a painting, your own hymns and prayers. 

I have a lot more to say on these topics, I think. But I’m going to say them another night.

POEM: The Iron Tree

I am the Iron Tree.
I stand upon the Mountain
at the center of the World.
My trunk is straight and strong.
My roots go down deep into the earth.
They spread out and drink the waters
of the four rivers of the underworld,
blue-green and glacier-cold.
My taproot sinks to the center of the earth
and brings up the heartfire.
I am nourished and empowered.
My branches reach up high into the heavens.
They drink the light of sun, moon, and stars like rain.
A single ray from the single star that belongs to me alone
descends into my crown, illuminating and guiding me.
The winds of the four quarters blow upon me,
bringing news and carrying messages.
My spirit allies gather around me,
knowing they can meet me here.
I am the iron tree, grounded and centered,
illuminated and balanced.
I bend only when I will,
and I do not break.