Burn it like an Eisteddfod Fire: My First OBOD East Coast Gathering

This essay appeared in the Winter/Spring 2017 issue of Druid Magazine.

by Loam Ananda

The day before I left for the 2016 (7th Annual) OBOD East Coast Gathering (ECG), I was working on a writing project. And I was stuck. Like, super stuck. Like I’m going to build a bonfire when I get back and burn everything I have ever attempted to write stuck. I was nearly 20 hours and two beta readers into a 1,500-word creative nonfiction essay, and I was ready to throw in the towel. My goal had been to finish the blasted thing before leaving for ECG and make the final tweaks after I returned. I wrote until the last minute, giving myself a short half-hour to pack for the ECG. I was totally unprepared, both mentally and logistically, for the gathering. Luckily, I had enough sense to realize it was probably colder in the Pocono Mountains of Northeastern Pennsylvania than it was in Southwestern Ohio.

With the help of my husband (I am NOT a morning person), I was on the road by 5:45 the next morning. The drive to Camp Netimus from Cincinnati was a solid 10 hours, and I wanted to be there in time for the opening ritual. The long drive gave me time to mentally prepare. I thought about creativity. I thought about community. I thought about music. “Wouldn’t it be nice,” I thought, “if I could find someone to make music with?” That drive became its own kind of ritual, my thoughts and desires spinning a spell around the weekend.

A couple pit stops and wrong turns made me miss the opening ritual, but I arrived early enough to spend some time getting to know my cabin mates. There were four of us, one a second year “veteran” and the other three attending our first ECG. I had been intentionally grouped with others who were attending on their own and were also relatively new to the gathering. In that first hour, fresh from the road, as I bonded with my cabin mates, I felt the care and attention that camp director Lorraine Soria, the Louisiana Contingent, and all the ECG minions put into this gathering.

After setting up our bunks, my cabin mates and I made our way to the Pavilion to attend the first workshop of the gathering—“The Faeries of Earth, Air, Fire and Water.” Gale Park guided us through the large and diverse realm of faerie with the elements as our map and traditional Celtic faerie lore as the medium. We learned about the Gnomes (Earth), the Sylphs (Air), the Salamanders (Fire), and the Undines (Water). Gale’s workshop reminded me that we walk the land with the faeries beside us and that elemental faeries can aid us in our mundane and magical work if only we approach them properly. Maybe, I thought, they can help me with my writing.

That night at dinner—a meal (like all ECG meals) that offered delicious options for omnivores, vegetarians, and vegans alike, something this dairy-intolerant writer is extremely grateful for—I connected even more deeply with my cabin mates. The things I had been thinking about on my drive became topics for conversation. Turns out, I had some soul mates on this OBOD journey.

Then came the announcement: “Don’t forget to sign up for tonight’s Eisteddfod Competition!” I knew from the ECG web site that this year’s formal Eisteddfod would be a friendly competition, that 10 performance slots would be available each night Thursday through Saturday, and that three winners from each round would advance to the final round on Saturday evening. I had thrown my guitar in the car, thinking I might enter, and enter I did.

We gathered at the Friendship Fire Circle just before dusk. If you have never seen a fire built by Derek Batz and Brom Hanks, you are missing works of art—art in the stacking, art in the burning. The Eisteddfod Competition started shortly after the bonfire was lit.

Sitting on the benches, listening to the offerings of my Bardic companions—singing, harp, poetry, storytelling, comedy routines—I felt connected, deeply connected, to this tribe that celebrates the bardic arts. It was cold that night, so cold that my guitar wouldn’t tune. But I didn’t care. I had already been welcomed by the community with such care and compassion that I was determined to offer my song as a gift, no matter how off-tune it might be.

Remember my drive-time wish that I meet someone to make music with? Well. Be careful what you ask for—the gods are listening! On that very first night, I met Evangeline, another Eisteddfod competitor. She and I both advanced to the final round, and we pledged to sing harmony for each other’s final entries.

Merriment and more Bardic “stuff” around the fire commenced following the Eisteddfod as scheduled. We enjoyed mead from Dragonfire Meadery. We sang. We danced. We cavorted.

That night, as I layered myself in shirts, sweaters, and coat, hat and mittens under my three-season, goose-down mummy sleeping bag and wool blanket, I could see the nearly-full moon climbing the sky from my cabin window. I was ridiculously cold, yes, but I was content—two adjectives that rarely sit next to each other in my life!

Friday morning, I snatched a quick breakfast before my Bardic Initiation, a special experience that left me feeling, in many ways, reborn and even more deeply connected to the other bardic initiates. Following the initiations, Cindy Bertsch led an elemental ritual for peace.

After lunch, I basked in the sun with my cabin mates, feeling warm for the first time since arriving at camp. We took turns drawing cards from the Druid Plant Oracle. When Selene drew the Nettle card, I told the story of how, years ago, a friend of mine had swatted me with nettles in the woods during a medicinal plant walk, and the phrase meet me with some nettles in the woods birthed a silly ditty that I would hone and craft for the final Eisteddfod competition. In the days to follow, all these beautiful bards came out of the woodwork and fed me creative fodder for the Nettles Song.

While we basked in the sun and laughed about nettles, Lorraine gathered children and parents together for an Animal Journey, introducing our younger members to the art of creating a grove and “imagining” an animal companion—an important first step for visualization. Even though my own daughter is grown, I remember how important family and youth workshops were to me when I first began walking a pagan path nearly 20 years ago with a toddler, and I was pleased that ECG welcomed families.

Gabby Roberts led us on a journey through the world of crystals, their properties and uses in her workshop, “The Art of Crystal Jewelry.” We learned about the energies of the stones and crystals, and to trust our instincts in choosing stones. Instinct involves an element of playfulness, I thought. My ECG experience was presenting me many opportunities for playfulness, and in that playfulness, intuition and creation.

Wrapping up Friday’s workshops, and rekindling any energy lost through the day, Hex Nottingham presented his workshop, “Spiritual Drumming.” From drum circle etiquette to deep listening, and from dynamics and volume to sending and sensing energies, Hex engaged us with his passionate and inclusive approach to ritual drumming. I had not brought my drums, but I slapped out my rhythm on the Pavilion picnic table. Some people used their chests and legs as drums. Others stomped their feet. Each of us discovered our individual beat and wove it into a polyrhythmic tapestry in an impromptu, ecstatic, drum circle.

After dinner, we gathered around the bonfire—not yet lit—to gaze at the moon and stars and learn the lunatic wisdom of Sarah Fuhro’s workshop, “Moon Wisdom.” We stood under our Harvest Moon teacher, opening to change, the ebb and flow of tides mirroring that of our emotions. We traced our relationship to the Moon, gathering in groups according to the astrological sign she occupied at our birth, seeking to learn how our moon sign sets the rhythm of our life.

On that second night of Eisteddfod and bonfire, the Mari Lwyd made an appearance. The Mari Lwyd is a Welsh wassailing folk custom, involving a horse’s skull mounted on a pole. Our Mari Lwyd, created and presented by Nicole Sussuro, had bright glowing eyes and dancing ribbons for a mane. Nicole told us that the Mari Lwyd would be carried from house to house, requesting entry through a song. The householders were expected to initially deny it entry, again in song, until eventually relenting and inviting the Mari Lwyd inside for food and drink. I imagined creativity, the Awen, was the Mari Lwyd herself, knocking on my door, singing to me. How many times had I turned her away without food or drink? As we attempted to sing the Welsh call and response verses that Nicole taught us, I imagined opening my door wide for the Awen, inviting it to sit down for tea and cake. Maybe a little mead.

That night I felt warmer and slept without my hat and mittens.

Saturday morning, we prepared for the Alban Elfed ritual. After lunch, Cathryn Bauer and Kris Foster armed us with a roll of white butcher paper and two boxes of marking pens. We created a banner expressing solidarity and support for the Standing Rock protesters, posing for a photograph with the banner to be posted on the Facebook page dedicated to the protest. Some of us attended a “Beekeeping Basics” workshop, led by Todd Bertsch and Jim Hutchings. This covered the beginning steps for becoming a beekeeper, hive types, the colony and its organization, and beekeeping equipment. Todd and Jim shared how to get started keeping bees as well as how to manage the colony.

Evangeline and I met in the woods to practice our “set” for the final Eisteddfod competition. I expressed concern that my nettle song was unfinished, and she encouraged me to share it as it was. Everywhere I turned, I was reminded that things don’t have to be perfect or finished to be shared. I was reminded to play—and enjoy the playing. I was reminded that community is an important catalyst for my creative process. The gods said, “Are you getting this, Loam? Are you taking this down? This is your lesson. Will you remember?”

By the time we gathered for Alban Elfed, the main ritual of the weekend, I was totally enamored with this community. The gifts we prepared in the morning were presented in ritual by the guests, families, children, Bards, Ovates, and Druids, each one beautifully rendered. I was touched by the sacred esteem with which we held our guests. Here, in this space, they were not merely spectators; they were vital threads woven into the fabric of our weekend tapestry. Again, I thought of the Mari Lwyd, the Awen, the sacred guest. Would I make creativity my Sacred Guest when I returned home?

That night, as I approached the fire, I heard someone say, “Loam is here,” and then, right there before my very ears, 100 or so Druids burst into a chorus of Happy Birthday—Druids from Georgia, Florida, and Louisiana. Druids from New Hampshire, New York, and New Jersey. Druids from Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. From North Carolina, Virginia, and California. From Vermont, from Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. Canada and Greece. As an adopted person, my birthday is usually a tough time of year for me. Now I have another “birth” day—my Bardic Initiation—and the deep connection I felt with my Druid family. “Soooo…we’re going to do this every year on my birthday, right?” I joked.

The fire burned hot that last night. Evangeline and I presented the Nettle Song to a generous audience, and it felt to me like both a gift from and to the gods. The Nettle Song (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bJYypPFLR_4&feature=youtu.be) won the Eisteddfod competition, and in winning, a great gauntlet had been laid down. Would I accept the challenge to keep writing? To keep creating? Would I get out of my own head and engage my community?

On the long drive home, I mentally picked up that gauntlet. The Eisteddfod bonfires offered an alternative to my pre-ECG pledge to burn everything I had ever attempted to write. I realized that I needed to burn away not my writing, but the resistance within me, the obsession with perfection and completion, the assumption that the creative process was a lonely one. Every day, I must artfully stack the wood in my creative heart. Every day I must seek out the spark of community to light the fire. I must let it burn, and enjoy the burning. I must build it all again the next day, and the next. I must remember that the excuses I make to the Mari Lwyd, barring her entry, are meant to be nothing more than playful banter – that what Creativity and I both really want is to sit together around a fire, sharing food and ale.


This essay originally appeared in the book Regeneration under the byline Loam Akasha-Bast

Betty Crocker, kiss my ass!  Martha Stewart, bite me!  The mask is coming off, girlfriends.  I’m not going to be your Lunchbox Bitch.  Ain’t gonna be no laundry whore.  Deadbeat dads?  We don’t need no stinkin’ deadbeat dads.  I’m a bisexual, twenty-something, witchy single mama, from here on out referred to as Bi20s-WSM, and while some of the things I say might appall you, I’m here to tell the truth.

I chose to have a baby at age twenty-one and I chose to raise her alone.  By the time I’m thirty – if my love life continues its one-act play – I will have spent all but one year of my twenties as a single mama.  And let’s face it.  Exploring your sexual identity while sharing a bedroom with a toddler inevitably stifles one’s inherent orgasmic nature.

Bi20s-WSM Personals:  Snake-wielding priestess of the kitchen drain sludge seeks androgynous dishwasher punk for sexual housecleaning experiment.  Big plus if naked Barbies in the bathtub turn you on.

Let’s assume our twenties are a time to explore our identity, our notion of self in relation to the “rest” of the world.  Before we hit our twenties, most of our social interaction occurred with people within one to five years of our own age.  We moved through elementary, high school and college as a herd.  Then we graduated, high-stepped out into the Big World, and suddenly our peers were gone.  Or at least their numbers seemed to have dwindled.  Where once I was a college senior in a many-to-one relationship with my adult professors, I am now a Bi20s-WSM in a one-to-many relationship to these strange corporate beings with whom I work.  And if being dropped on the doorstep of this grave new world, swaddled in nothing but a breezy liberal arts degree wasn’t disorienting enough, Motherhood severely mutated my connection to other twenty-somethings.  Gone are the days when I club all night, crash on the couch of a friend only to wake up sometime the next afternoon.  No longer can I afford to wait tables while working on a writing career.  I can’t remember the last time I called up my best friend for a spur of the moment movie date.  Come to think of it, I haven’t had a best friend since I was childless.  Because of finances and childcare resources, I usually have one,  count it, one – chance for a childless social event each month.  Talk about putting a damper on spontaneity.

Bi20s-WSM Missed Connections:  My dear Spontaneous Interaction, I saw you on the bus today, headed downtown.  Where have you been?  I miss you.  Come back to me.  I swear I’ll make more time for you.  How’s Thursday?

No matter how evolved my childless cohorts are, they are afforded an infinitely larger amount of freedom which creates a gap between our realities.  I have loads of young childless friends, some of them partnered, some of them not, who are not only supportive beyond all reasonable question and love playing with my daughter, but who cannot possibly fathom why I never seem to have time to return their phone calls.

And no matter how much I may understand the parenting experience of the dual-income, mid-life-baby, suburban mama, our alter-identities are almost always disparate.  I know dozens of great moms with whom I can talk for hours about bedtime routine strategies, car seat laws, and hunting for a good kindergarten, but who just don’t understand why I pierced my nose.

Bi20s-WSM Approved School:  Upon learning that a kindergarten boy was teased by an older student for kissing another boy, the teacher replies:  “You can kiss anyone you want to, as long as it is okay with them. It is nobody else’s business and the next time you get teased go find an adult to help you.”

Bi20s-WSM Denied School:  Upon taking the tour, the smack-happy PTA mother announces, “If your child gets into this school, and you’re not prepared to work your butt off as a parent, then you’re not a good parent.”


I don’t fall for all that mother guilt.  Okay, I’m lying.  The socialized mother-guilt tape plays in my head almost as often as I find myself humming I’m A Little Teapot.  There is a ridiculous amount of mother-guilt in our culture.  Some would have you believe that the entire reason our society is going to hell is because of bad mothers.  Let me just say that the pressure of the mother-guilt is even more constipating when you are also presenting yourself as 1) young and single; 2) bisexual; and 3) a witch.

From the Bi20s-WSM Horror File:  Just spent my lunch hour inserting a rectal suppository up my constipated 4-year old’s ass.  Sat near the toilet eating my lunch while she groaned and grunted.  Yum.

The pendulum of identity exploration swings wide in our twenties.  Experimentation is the name of the game.  When I first (consciously) realized that I was attracted to women, I immediately announced myself a lesbian, ended a two year committed relationship, cropped my hair, started wearing boxers, and vowed to sleep only with women.  I declared emancipation from the Penis and tried on my new identity as Vagina Lover.  Two years later I ‘fessed up to the fact that I was also still a fan of the phallus.  I identify as bisexual only because that’s the best explanation I have for my varying levels of attraction to different guys and gals. Even the word bisexual is only a benchmark on the spectrum of human sexuality.  I feel a certain pressure to “equalize” my relationships with men and women in order to “prove” my bi-ness. What a load of crap.  The truth is, I am attracted to – and have sex with – both men and women, but I seem to get emotionally involved more with men.  The way I see it, we all have a range of attraction to different genders and those levels can change (or not) throughout our life. We get to choose the identity that feels most comfy; but we may not choose right the first time.

Unfortunately, this identity trial and error is rarely seen as a valuable process in trying to establish a sense of self.  Even worse, one is expected to stop all that nonsense upon becoming a parent.  The general public does not look kindly upon mothers who experiment with their sexuality or spirituality.  Apparently, you are supposed to have the perfect (static) identity before you have children.  You should have cultivated all your values with precision and accuracy and expect them to never change.  That way you don’t mess up the young’uns too much by exposing them to sundry cultures, beliefs, attitudes, and lifestyles.

Old-School Mama-Rule #1:  Mothers have no sexuality.  They should have more in common with the Virgin Mary than with Mary Magdalen.

Being a witch, I’m down with the sacred feminine.  The Goddess is all good things and the Goddess is all bad things.  Actually, the Goddess isn’t really good or bad at all. She just is.  She’s that delicious cross between the Marys.  She is mother and temptress, creator and destroyer all rolled into one.  If the Goddess can manage to simultaneously be maiden, mother and crone, I think I can pull off a little identity exploration in between the lunchboxes and laundry.

My path toward witchcraft was not so much a wildly swinging pendulum as it was an evolving path. When I first moved to San Francisco, I joined Glide Memorial Methodist Church, a diverse, cutting-edge church that (to my observation) practiced what it preached.  Having grown up in a conservative Christian mid-western town, I was impressed by Glide’s radically inclusive message and community work.  No matter how poor or marginalized you were, there was a place for you at Glide.  While the message was right, the commute was a little far for me.  I wanted to create spiritual community closer to home.  I found a Unitarian Universalist Church in Oakland, just blocks away from my house.  The UU church led me to CUUPS, the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans, which opened me up to the beautiful earth-based spirituality known as Witchcraft.  I just kept moving along toward what felt right.  Each step of the way brought me closer to feeling grounded in my spirituality.

Identity is fluid.  Who I am today is not necessarily who I’ll be tomorrow.  I’ve had to let go of some of my expectations.  My inner Mr. Rogers whispers, “The word for the day, dear mommies, is Surrender.”  Surrender.  Give up to someone or something; sign away my rights; acknowledge defeat.  My twenties have been a time of little control over anything.  No control over job, money, or sense of self.  I’ve been living paycheck to identity paycheck, balancing an emotional budget and a baby on my knee. My sense of self has been eating Ramen for a half-dozen years but I suspect there is a freezer full of steak in the basement of my psyche, if only I can figure out how to get down there.  This time in our human development begs us to give in to the discomfort of not knowing who we are and to acknowledge that self-doubt is a necessary step in the quest to find confidence.  In fact, doubt becomes the fire that forges a strong sense of self-assurance.

In case you think I’m getting too preachy here, I must confess that part of me believes that as a mother, I’ve skipped all the ugly, nasty shadow work that is so integral to what authors Alexandra Robbins and Abby Wilner refer to as one’s Quarterlife Crisis.  I can be kind of self-righteous about this sometimes.  I mean really.  Figure out my life’s direction?  Carve out a personal identity?  Resolve self-doubts?  Balance the many demanding aspects of personal and professional life?  Come on.  I’m just trying to put food on the table.  Baby needs a new pair of shoes, honey, and I ain’t got no time for self-exploration.

The truth is, the inner work just got infinitely more urgent.  I’m caught in a paradox of ultimate tension.  Not only am I responsible for the murky task of sorting out my own physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual needs, I’m also spearheading an eighteen-year campaign to determine – and supply – those basic needs for another small being.  Parenting forces you to relate identity faster than you can dart a sick toddler’s projectile vomiting.  Figure out what is important to you, and figure it out quick.  Assume control, even if it feels like a paradox.

Motherhood is a subculture unto itself.  I know that no matter what else I am, I will always be a mother.  Exploring my identity while locked into the role of motherhood makes me feel grounded and it makes me feel trapped.  The good news is that I have a built-in safety net.  I’m probably not going to do anything too life-threatening in the holy sacred name of Identity Exploration.  On the other hand, where the hell do I meet people?  And when I do, what chance in Hades do I have that they will be even remotely interested in the whole package?

Bi20s-WSM Personals:  Dancing Green Serpent Goddess of the Temple of Legos seeks pragmatic idealist who enjoys temper tantrums, power struggles, and fairy tale endings.  Bring your own Rubber.  Duckie, that is.

Here I am, legs spread wide, straddling two roles.  I’ve been riding the stiff tension between responsible caretaking and neurotic self-indulgence for almost a whole decade.  No wonder I feel exhausted, isolated and misunderstood.  My expectations for life in the Real World, as well as those I had about Motherhood, crashed to the ground like a tower of Legos once I moved beyond the theoretical.  Stripping away the mask means facing up to the bloody, ugly reality of what lies beneath.  It’s shocking because it’s unknown.

This is the tale of a twenty-something who meanders toward self-actualization in the midst of tea parties and toilet training.  There is no end to this story.  The plot is ever evolving and I’m not sure what comes next.  With any luck, your heroine will scuttle through some grand rite of passage and land safely into the next narrative, where Betty and Martha star in a tantric tragicomedy of transformation and rebirth.  Until that time, look for me in the Bi20’s-WSM Personals, where stretch marks are sexy, the breastmilk’s on tap, and revolution comes from a small voice crying “I’m done pooping, Mommy.  Come wipe my butt!”

Book Review: Pagan Parenting: Spiritual, Magical & Emotional Development of the Child

This review originally appeared in the Autumn 2001 issue of Reclaiming Quarterly under the name Loam Akasha-Bast.

Pagan Parenting: Spiritual, Magical & Emotional Development of the Child

By Kristin Madden

It won’t fill the same beloved space on your bookshelf as Circle Round, but Pagan Parenting is bound to make its way onto your parenting resource list.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this book is author Kristin Madden’s introductory discussion on incarnation and her comprehensive analysis of the development of energy systems in a child’s body.  She presents exercises such as lucid dreaming and telepathy to encourage innate psychic abilities.  One caveat: much of the book is written from a shamanic perspective, so if you sway cynical toward the metaphysical, you may consider using this book strictly as an activity reference.

Chock full of hands-on magical activities and games (including a thorough resource appendix), Pagan Parenting provides a framework for families to explore such topics as nighttime protection, elemental play, grounding, and identifying your child’s spirit guides.  Age guidelines are provided for each activity, often including variations for younger or older children. One of the exercises I found particularly helpful with my own daughter is “Be a Bee”, a breathwork activity based on a pranayama technique.  This deep breathing activity has been extremely helpful in situations where my daughter is hurt or scared from nightmares.  By breathing in deeply through her nose and exhaling with an exaggerated buzzing sound, she is able to calm herself down without too much intervention on my part.

This book includes practical advice on topics such as health and healing, the family and community dynamic, honesty versus secrecy and some generalized answers to the “tough questions,” such as:  What happens when you die?  Do animals have spirits?  Where do babies come from?  Why are you homosexual/bisexual?  Why are we pagan?

Rites of passage rituals are included for everything from pregnancy to the death of a pet.  I was relieved to see an Abortion Healing Ritual included as part of these Rites of Passage; however, I felt the section focused too heavily on abortions for pregnant teenagers and precluded abortion as a possibility for adults.

All in all, this is a very conscientious book.  There were a few places where “male” and “female” energies were too genderized for my taste, but on the whole, Madden writes with a constant awareness of pagan ethics and is respectful of the various pagan paths.  She emphasizes sacred play in a way that is not at all dumbed down or condescending.  Parents are encouraged to work through their own shadows so they can they can be more effective parents.  Her ultimate goal is to help parents create empowered children who thoroughly understand their mundane and spiritual selves.

From the Hearth: Reflections on Witchlets in the Woods 2001

This essay originally appeared in the Autumn 2001 issue #84 of Reclaming Quarterly under the byline Loam Akasha-Bast

Witchlets in the Woods, a weekend of games, crafts and fun in the woods, was held at Mendocino Woodlands the last weekend of July.  Organized by and for families, Witchlets emerged out of a need to provide sacred space for families to come together and honor the unique needs and gifts of the children in our tradition.  This event was dedicated to creating an environment where our children are surrounded by magic and community and where they feel safe and free to step into their own magical power.  It was an opportunity for pagan parents to build community resources and make a connection with each other. Twelve families, with children ranging in age from two and a half to seventeen, and four “childless” adults who love kids, hailing everywhere from San Francisco to the Sacramento Delta, and from the South Bay to Mendocino County attended this first-ever Bay Area Reclaiming Family Camp.

Parenting in the mundane world is tough work.  Surprisingly, parenting in ritual can be just as hard.  Maybe you’ve seen us parent-types around.  We’re the ones who trip over you to retrieve a wandering child while you attempt to lie peacefully in trance.  After ritual, we usually feel more strung-out than refreshed.  If we seem spaced out, it’s because we know that our children have not developed their energy fields to filter psychic and environmental influences, and we are projecting at least half of our energy across the room/meadow/beach to act as a protective blanket around our children!  We live in a society where parents are expected to be the sole providers of this spiritual energy.

Not so at Witchlets in the Woods.

Witchlets became a weekend where children – and parents – played together without stress and structured agendas.   Relationships transformed like light flitting through leaves – no one person took on the burden of responsibility for another alone; rather interactions shifted and turned and people passed between one another.  We fell easily into the hive mindset, working together as one body, shifting to the needs of our children and each other.  “Childcare” evolved into “childshare.”

Friday night’s Opening Ceremony took place in the dining hall.  We declared the camp sacred space and invoked Lugh and the Bee Goddess.  We called in the spirit of “hearth,” that sense of home and security.  The hearth is the central womb of the community, a cradle of sacred creation.  The hearth represents domestic comfort, the most primal expression of human communion.  We gathered around the fire in the old way, sharing warmth and food and creating bonds.  Stories were woven into the sacred food.  Love was passed through the drinking cup.  The fire sparked a sense of security when the darkness of night fell heavily outside.  Though we didn’t formally call them in, Hestia and Brigid, both Goddesses of the hearth, were there.

It is no surprise then, as we gathered inward into a tighter spiritual circle, that our collective energy spiraled into a work- and playground of activity around the dining hall and kitchen space. Throughout the weekend, families continually intersected in the kitchen.  We shared our food, each taking care of his and her own family while simultaneously offering food to others.  “Does anyone have an extra egg?  I need an egg!” “We’ve got extra pasta over here,” and “I’ll trade you a string cheese for a peanut butter sandwich” were our kitchen chants.

On Saturday afternoon, I looked out from the industrial kitchen at Mendocino Woodlands.  The music of Libana echoed through the dining hall while I prepared Spiral Cookies for the evening’s dessert.  I felt my cooking as spellcrafting.  In kneading the dough, in measuring ingredients, I created a container for my love of these families.  Adults and children drifted in and out of the kitchen.  “What are you making?  Are those for us?”  The hearth is the place where we take care of each other, where we all provide.

I was looking out from the center.  Through the kitchen window I saw families creating their own quiet time.  Some were at the crafts table, wrapping florist wire around sea glass, shells and rocks to create long lines of delicate mobiles and some were creating salt-dough clay figurines.  Others gathered by the Dress-Up tree, shapeshifting into Gods and Goddesses of the fairy and animal realm with costumes, face‑paints, and fantasy accessories.  Mundane clothes were hung on trees like shed skins, a visual metaphor for the casting off of our ordinary lives.  The T-shirts we silk-screened with images of the goddess, animals and the Witchlets logo peppered the base of a redwood tree, a makeshift altar to our weekend’s intention.

The children took a mini-hike to search for flowers, stones, sticks, and cones to place on the altar.  When we found a group of flowers stretching themselves onto the trail, I instructed the children to ask the plant permission before picking it.  A chorus of little voices asked “Do you want to come with us, flowers?”  The high, squeaking voices of the flowers channeled through the children, responding, “Yes, we do!  Pick us!  Pick us!”

The Mendocino Woodlands staff led the group on a Night Awareness Walk.  Campers learned to walk like animals, knees held high and contacting the ground with their pinky toes first and rolling the feet in and down from the front to walk silently through the night forest.  We learned how to cup our hands over our ears to create “deer ears” that would hear noises from far away and we chomped on Wint-o-green lifesavers with our mouths open, creating sparks in the dark!

On Saturday evening, we all gathered for a community vegetarian dinner prepared by Master Chefs Liz and John.  I saw one family sitting alone near the fireplace.  They were smiling and laughing as they ate their dinner.  “We can’t remember the last time we sat down alone together to eat,” they marveled as their daughter played outside with some of the older children.    Parenting is easy in community like this.

By the time dinner was over, we were moving as a pack.  We met at the fire circle for our Lammas ritual.  The children purified the circle by running around the perimeter and shaking the rattles they had created from film canisters and gravel.  Three of the older girls directed and performed the story of The Bee Queen from Circle Round.  We thought about our hopes and fears for the coming year and danced the Bee Dance (also from Circle Round).  After the ritual, we ate Wicker Man cookies and drank Sun Tea.  We sang, danced, and toasted marshmallows in the ritual fire.

Before we went our separate directions on Sunday, we assembled for the closing ceremony.  The children gathered in the center of our circle, and I realized the symbolism of their position.  As the once unborn and as our future ancestors, our children nudge the boundaries between the worlds, reminding us that by securing them in the heart of our energy, we are closer to infinite All That Is.   We collectively cast our energy inward to protect them and in return, they radiate an open goodwill and questing intelligence that benefits the community at large.  When we parents are not drained of our energy from psychically and physically protecting our children in isolation, we are more open to the subtle balance that comes from holding their spirits at the center, and we learn from them.  We become each other’s teachers, and the lessons almost always come from the heart and from the hearth.

See you at Witchlets next year!

For more information on Witchlets in the Woods, or to be added to our mailing list, email WITWoods@yahoogroups.com.

Witchin’ It on the Farm: A Solo Ritual Under Cover of Darkness

This essay originally appeared in the Spring 2001 issue of Reclaiming Quarterly

This isn’t going to be one of those rituals where I dress up as a fairy or take my clothes off and run around naked.  No, this is going to be one of those rumored hat-and-mitten rituals rarely seen in California.  This is going to be a ritual where coyotes threaten to eat me alive.

Well, maybe not real coyotes.  Real coyotes rarely attack humans.  I’m talking about those coyotes in my head.  Charged by my spirit guide at the Y2K Spiral Dance to conduct magical work on my family’s farm, I was about to return to Nebraska for the first time since identifying as a witch.  I was about to dive back into my own underworld, in a place where the earth is nothing but wild and spirituality is only seen in varying shades of Christianity.  What had drawn me to the tradition of witchcraft was the sense of community I felt in the context of the natural world.  I was excited about connecting viscerally to nature’s rawest elements, yet feared the sense of disconnection from having no one with whom to share this experience.  This was a secret ritual.  The coyotes in my head were howling.

I could tell you about all the fabulous little magical “coincidences” that took place to nudge me closer to conducting this ritual, like the fact that on the night of my vision, a tornado ripped a twenty-year old corrugated metal cattle windbreak straight out of the ground on the very hill on which I had envisioned my ritual.  I could tell you I learned about the tornado only an hour after I had decided to invoke the Orisha Oya, warrior goddess of transformation and wind deity.   The tornado had cleaned out a large number of old dead branches from a stand of trees, a convenient resource for my ritual fire.   I could give you astrological reasons as to why the day of the ritual turned out to be quite an auspicious day.   Any wishes or commitments planted in that space would grow deep and strong as the moon entered Scorpio in its compost or balsamic phase.  Unrealized powers would manifest.  And, after all, Wednesday is Oya’s day and the Dark moon is her planet.

These coincidences, the psychic connection and the opened perception to nature’s gifts, are an intrinsic part of witchcraft.  The connection to the gut must be especially strong when planning a solo ritual.  I planned from intuition, taking my cues from my vision and the signs and materials presented to me.  The Goddess was continually forthright in stating her intentions.  Things just “worked out” without too much intervention on my behalf.

I could tell you about how much physical labor I put into this ritual, like the hours I spent relearning how to use an ax, trying to transform large tree branches into fire-sized pieces.   I chopped, I pried, and I bent pieces over my knees.  One of them slapped me in the face, leaving a very annoying gash to explain.  I could tell you how much my back hurt after scooping a foot of snow from the ritual floor, a circle at least sixteen feet in diameter, or what it feels like to pound a posthole digger into frozen ground, trying desperately to dig a hole deep enough to leave gifts for the earth.  My body ached, my toes were cold, and my face was wounded.  I ripped my favorite pair of jeans and lost a perfectly good mitten.   My only consolation was imagining how happy the Goddess must feel that I was putting so much work into honoring her.

This hard work is also nothing new to witchcraft.  Many of us who have spent years donating our bodily resources to activism know there is magic in the physical work as well as the psychic.

I’m not here to talk about those aspects of witchcraft.  To tell you the truth, those were the easy parts of my ritual.  I’d like to talk about the coyotes, the shadow side of witchcraft.

Fear and secrecy remain part of our collective unconscious.   Rituals around symbolic fear offer us the opportunity to transform fear into power.

I worked furtively to prepare for my ritual in ways that would not raise the red witchy flag to my Christian family.  I went “underground.”  I snatched the opportunity to chop wood while my parents were at work.  I hid my ritual supplies under my bed.  I lived in the shadow, making elaborate plans that wouldn’t arouse the slightest suspicion.

What was it I feared, exactly?  What was my primary motive for keeping this ritual a secret from my family?    Why would I hide my identity from my own family?  Intellectually, I knew my parents wouldn’t dream of burning me at the stake.  The only context I had for explaining my spirituality to my family was the land, and even that I couldn’t see them taking seriously.   Witches have a history of misinterpretation.  I fear my most reverent acts will be seen as silly, as devil worship or a wasteful use of my time.  I fear my family may discount my spirituality, which is so important to me.  If they discount that, then how can they see me in my entirety?  I will remain hidden to them, as unseen as my actions in preparing for this ritual.

At the same time, there seemed to be a sort of special intention to the secrecy.  Everything I did was well thought out and executed carefully.  Was this my legacy as a witch?  Perhaps it was our ancestors who whispered in my ears, urging me to seek out a spiritual connection to their experience.  At that point, I only knew my intent was to come to the land on my own terms:  not as a farmer’s daughter, not as a City Girl, but as a witch.  Plain and simple.

On the night of the ritual, I stopped at the line of darkness, where the yard lights cut the seeable from the unknown.  I tried to open my eyes to the cold darkness, wishing I could feel more like predator than prey.  Vulnerable to all those eyes unknown, I stopped to light a candle.  The wind blew it out.  I knew if I returned to the house for a flashlight, I would chicken out.   It would have been easy to turn back.  It always is, when we approach the shadow side of magic.  We’ve been taught for so long that there are monsters in the darkness, that it is the playground of all that is evil.

I crossed the line between the light of a porch light and the dark emptiness of prairie

pasture.  To calm myself, I started singing.

There is Power here

In the Darkness, in the Fear

Let the Goddess draw you near

There is Power here

I continued to chant on the half-mile walk to the ritual site.  I slipped on the ice at least four times, my voice wavering, but never stopping.  Once there, I heard a small sound like the mewling of a kitten.  “Here, kitty, kitty,” I pleaded, unable to see into the darkness, praying that a cute little furry familiar would make its way into my circle.  Afraid to turn my back on the noise, I lit the fire from the North.  Tried to light the fire.  For forty-five minutes I sat on the frozen ground lighting and relighting the snippets of alfalfa I had hoped would work as fire starters.  Everything was still so wet from the snow.  Waiting, re-lighting, then waiting some more, I wondered if I had the balls – no, ovaries – to do a ritual in the dark with no fire.  It would be the ultimate secret rite after all, a ritual under the cover of darkness.  I was shaking.  Anytime I heard a vehicle, my heart started pounding.  Would someone be able to see my fire from the main road?  Would my parents smell the smoke from the house when they returned home from the community Thanksgiving Eve Church service and come dashing out hoping to avert a pasture fire?  I’d taken as many precautions as I could, trying to remain on sacred ground in a secluded area.  I thought of my daughter, warm and cozy in the Lutheran Church, dressed in her pretty black and white church dress, being indoctrinated into the protocol of Christianity.  What an ironic price to pay for a night of childcare.

Finally, the fire took hold in a small corner at the North.  I lit candles in each of the four directions and unpacked the rest of my ritual supplies.

I purified.  I slipped off my gloves to open the plastic margarine tub full of salt water.  I traced a pentacle on my forehead, drew warrior marks on my cheeks. I plunged my already freezing hands into the cold water, trying to transform pain, fear and anxiety into confidence, clarity, and resolve.

I grounded.  I noticed that the wind was blowing from the South, so that any scent from my fire would be carried away from my family’s house.  With relief, I imagined my root pushing through the icy ground and suddenly the fire blazed high.  Ah, sweet relief!  Out of the darkness, this fire urging me to continue with my work.

I cast the circle. Walking the perimeter of my sacred space, I could see only darkness as I drew pentacles at each of the directions.   I invoked the directions through song.  Singing alone on the top of hill with no one around is odd.  When it is only you and the wind, and you try to sing as loudly as she, you realize quickly how very small you are.  When I invoked North, singing “I am the wolf,” the coyotes began howling.  I felt now that they were my sisters.  They weren’t there to gobble me up like the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood, they were invoking with me.

I invoked the ancestors: the native people of the land and my uncle Matt, who planned to take over the family farm before he died.  I invoked the Horned God and Oya.

I sang to Oya as I invoked her by lighting her candle and offering her frankincense incense.   I poured her a glass of red wine and sprinkled the remainder of the bottle around the perimeter of the circle.  Though I could not see it in the darkness, I imagined the snow around the circle dotted with crimson offerings.

I proceeded to offer my gifts to the land.  In each of the doorways to the directions, I buried objects that would symbolize my wishes on behalf of the land and commitments I would make to myself.

In the East I buried a bell.  Oya!  May you bless those who live on land with clarity to hear the needs and desires of the earth.  May her wishes ring clear.  In burying this bell, I pledge to gain clarity of purpose and to articulate my intentions.

In the South I buried my menstrual blood and used tampons.  For days, I had been saving the tampons, blood, and a bit of water in an old mason jar with plans to bury this strange tea during the ritual Oya! By the healing and destructive powers of fire, bless this land with fertility.  Ask that she absorb all hatred toward women by absorbing these tampons.  Let the passionate hatred and fear of my body die and let me honor her as I would honor the goddess. I vow to not participate in the corporate feminine hygiene industry.

In the West I buried the pen my therapist gave me before embarking on this emotionally difficult trip to remind me of my emotional connection to California and my commitment to honoring my emotions and intuition.    Oya! By the powers of water, free this land from sentimentality so that she may speak her will.  Release the emotional tie-ups of the people who work her. I pledge to honor my intuition and ask for the courage to get my emotions outside of me and onto paper.

In the North I bury “I am” Papers.  Before burying them, I walk around the fire, reading them.  “I am a witch.  I am bisexual.  I am a good mother.  I make good decisions.  I know what is best for me.”

Oya!  I ask the land to love all people, regardless of identity.  I pledge to merge my past with my deepest nature.  By burying these phrases in the ground I root my identity in this land and pledge to be true to myself no matter what land I walk upon. 

In the Center, I burn an old Land Spell.  Frustrated with the cost of living in the Bay Area, and burnt out from trying to find creative ways to survive, I had, months earlier, created a land spell to ask for direction regarding my physical location.  During those months, community had manifested to me in the Bay Area and I wanted to burn my spell to acknowledge the end of my search for place.

Oya!  By the powers of the center, receive this land spell so that all who desire to live here are welcomed into the community.  I pledge to open myself up to staying in the Bay Area.  I ask for abundance in community and wealth so that I may have the resources necessary to utilize my energy for spiritual work.

I thanked Oya for her presence in my circle. I turned to snuff her candle, but it had blown out on it’s own.  The coyotes were silent as I devoked.  As I scooped handfuls of snow onto the fire, the night seemed clearer.  I wasn’t euphoric, but I was slightly calmer.  My eyes stung from all the smoke and I was exhausted, but I didn’t slip once on the walk home.  Back at the house, my family was changing out of their church clothes.   I longed for the “cakes and wine” portion of the ritual.  There was no one with whom to share my feelings, no personal feedback.  There was only me to bear witness to the power of my ritual.  I long for my sisters and brothers back in the Bay.

I had been waiting for that feeling of connection I had while looking into the eyes of nineteen hundred people while dancing at the Spiral Dance.  I was never totally “comfortable” though I know I was in sacred space, both physically and mentally.  Perhaps it was a natural side effect of invoking Oya.    I thought if I didn’t get past the fear, it wouldn’t be a legitimate ritual. How wrong I was.  This legacy of fear is part of our past, and truthfully, fear is an excellent teacher.  There is a shadow side to magic.  As much as we crave that sense of connection to our brothers and sisters, we need a time and place to test our own wills and doubts to know that we are sure of our place in the universe.  It is easy for me to dress up like a fairy and dance happily amidst this community of my brothers and sisters.  It is so much harder to pile on layers of winter clothes and dare to howl alongside the wind and the coyotes.