Starla and Birch both came running up to me, grinning from ear to ear. “We’re getting married!” they yelled in unison, and grabbed me into a group hug.
I embraced them back, trying not to allow my racing thoughts to distract me from showing them love in the moment. She was barely eighteen; he was maybe a year or two older; they had both been living on the streets for several years, and they had known each other for less than a month. And yet I also knew that such a ‘marriage’ was quite typical in their world.
“Congrats,” I said, smiling. “Where and when?”
“Tomorrow, at 3, at the park,” said Starla. “You can come, right?”
“Of course,” I assured them. I was actually supposed to be elsewhere, but those plans had suddenly become meaningless. I had never been invited to a street wedding before.
“It’s going to be a pirate handfasting. You know, old school. Arachne’s gonna marry us.”
“Pirate handfasting?” I asked. “Is that anything like a Pagan handfasting?”
They both shrugged. “Never seen a Pagan handfasting before,” said Starla.
I had been to a wedding that had been billed as a ‘pirate handfasting’ in the past, but that was a typical Pagan-style handfasting with a friendly pirate theme. Arachne was one of the primary leaders in their family, a group that passionately self-identified as pirates. I knew that whatever was to occur the next day would not so much be a simple handfasting in pirate-themed costumes, but a ceremony put on by and for folks who literally considered themselves to be pirates. But I also had a feeling that the ceremony would inevitably be much more like a Pagan handfasting than Birch or Starla realized.
“We’re going to need some skull-and-crossbones flags,” said Birch.
I immediately knew that in this instance, “we’re going to need” was code for “could you provide.” Birch had been to my studio a few times in the past and had taken quite a liking to my skull-and-crossbones prints, and he also was a seasoned expert at nudging me into offering assistance without actually asking for it. “I’m sure I can make that happen somehow,” I said. “Is there anything else you think you’ll need?”
“Yeah, actually … can we use your place before the ceremony to get ready?” asked Starla. “We don’t really have anywhere with a shower … unless you know any other housies who could let us … I mean…”
“Of course,” I interjected. “No worries.”
“And could you be our driver?”
I nodded and smiled. I realized at that moment that I was the probably the only ‘housie’ that they knew well enough to ask for assistance with this event. And with that realization, it occurred to me that the next 24 hours of my life would most likely be devoted to handling most, if not all, of their wedding-related needs. While the social backdrop and implications around this “marriage” were distressing to me on a certain level, I felt a strong obligation to temporarily surrender myself to their needs in order to help make their handfasting as special and as true to their vision as possible.
“Just come by if you need anything else,” I told them before heading home.
I had been home for a few hours, and was just starting to tear strips of black canvas for the flags when Arachne showed up at my front door. “I need a proper staff, for the handfasting ceremony,” she said. “I just found the right branch, but I don’t have any tools or a space to do it. Do you have either of those things?”
At the time, I was living in a converted garage in the back of a house, with a tiny studio across the yard that I used for dyeing and printing. The building’s previous occupant had left a decent collection of woodworking tools in the desk drawers; tools that had sat unused and mostly forgotten until that moment.
“Yes, I have both of those things. Let me grab the tools and you can carve it in the yard.”
I brought a stool and the drawer of tools out to the yard, and set Arachne up on a flat part of grass next to my studio. I looked at the branch she was carrying, an impressively straight piece of wood that was perfect for a staff.
“Do you know what kind of tree it is?” I asked her.
She smiled. “Of course. It came off a birch tree. Birch for Birch.”
“You knew where to find a birch tree?” I asked.
“I know where to find any kind of tree,” she replied.
I nodded and went back into my studio, watching her work while ripping strips of canvas. A few minutes later, I heard Arachne shout to someone across the yard. I looked up, and saw two street kids who I recognized as part of Birch and Starla’s group of friends. I came out of the studio and looked over at Arachne. “That’s Ocean and Forager,” she said. Her voice lowered to a whisper. “I think they need space to make something as well.”
I walked towards the couple. “Hey there,” one of them said. “We’re friends with Birch and Starla, and we wanted to make them a handfasting cord, and we were wondering if you had any yarn or string or a place where we could make one.”
Handfasting cord, I thought to myself. I thought back to a time years before when I had made a few handfasting cords for some friends. I still had the tub of yarn somewhere. “Yep, find yourself a place in the yard, and I’ll dig you up some yarn.”
I again went back to my flag-making, leaving the studio door open as staffs were carved and cords were woven just feet away from me. I finished tearing the fabric and as I started to print, suddenly there were three more people in my yard. I looked up at them.
“We need to gather flowers for bouquets,” they yelled across the yard. “Do you have scissors, and a basket?” I pointed them towards the house.
A few minutes later, a kid who I knew as Diamond ran into the yard with a cake-sized box. “ SCORE! We dumpstered a cake!” he yelled to the group, holding the cake above his head victoriously. He looked over at me. “Do you have room in your fridge?” I pointed him towards the house as well.
By the end of the evening, at least a dozen people had come through the yard, and an enormous pile had amassed in my tiny living space: sticks, staffs, cords, chairs, stools, drums, cups, plates, tapestries, water jugs, several baskets of flowers, a bundle of wild sage, and an unusually large amount of Chex Mix. The flags were drying in the studio, and I managed to get some cleaning done and a decent amount of sleep in before I was awoken in the morning by the phone.
“Hey, this is Forager. Can you meet us at The Pines? We need your help with something.”
The Pines was a motel downtown, one of many that is primarily occupied by the homeless and transient population. “Help with what?” I asked.
“We all pooled together money so that Birch and Starla could have a honeymoon, and we’re here trying to reserve a room for them for tonight, but they won’t rent a room to us because none of us have valid ID.”
My annoyance at being awoken immediately faded upon hearing their intended plans. The amount of generosity that was consistently displayed by this group towards each other despite having so little to nothing themselves never ceased to amaze me. “Be right there,” I said.
As I walked towards the motel, I reflected on the ‘honeymoon’ I was about to help arrange, and the larger similarities and differences between this handfasting and many of the others that I had experienced in the past. I remembered distinctly that the last couple whose wedding I attended spent a week in Florida for their honeymoon, and it occurred to me that most people I knew from middle-class backgrounds wouldn’t spend a night at The Pines even if I had paid them. And yet, in Starla and Birch’s case, not only was it was a simple and brilliant gift, but they would undoubtedly be overjoyed. A night indoors is a special occasion for them no matter what the lodging situation, but to have privacy of any sort, let alone a room of their own, was a rare and unexpected treat.
When I arrived at the motel and looked at the group gathered in front of the window, I immediately cracked a wide smile. They were downright giddy despite their frustration at not being able to rent the room themselves. It was obvious that they knew the value of their gift. It was not only the most meaningful and thoughtful thing that they had in their power to give, but the personal sacrifices that they made in order to make it happen gave the gift a whole other level of significance, one that I knew would not be lost on its recipients.
I rented the room, dropped several of them off at the service center to do some laundry, and, when I got home, Starla and three of her friends were on my front step waiting to get ready for the handfasting. I looked down at what they were carrying, and somehow they had managed to round up an impressive assortment of hair care products, accessories, and makeup. I walked them around back to the bathroom, which was fixed to the rear of the garage, and went back into the studio to give them room and space. After a few hours I came back in through the front door, and the four of them were posing in the mirror as I walked in. All four of them looked like they were ready for a faerie festival.
We loaded the large pile of handfasting-related contributions into my car and headed over to the park, where the ceremony was already in the midst of setting up. I saw Arachne standing in the center with an elaborately decorated staff and a small altar in front of her. Behind her was another woman with what appeared to be a bowl of sage. Two others were tracing and pointing out the boundaries of the circle.
Starla and I unloaded the car. I handed the skull flags to Birch, and I immediately made myself disappear as much as possible. At that moment, I felt a strong need to simply observe. I stood slightly towards the back, jotting down the details of what surrounded me in a pocket notebook while keeping one eye on what was transpiring in front of me all times. As I quickly scanned the group and scribbled down the names of everyone in attendance, it occurred to me that the list of names read nearly identical to the guest list of any typical Pagan handfasting: Sage, Willow, Raven, Leaf, Cinnamon, Ocean, Forager, Storm, Juniper, Scout, Arachne, Diamond, Starla, and Birch.
One of the very first things that ever struck me as a strong similarity between the Pagan and street communities was the way that folks typically adopt another name upon entering that other world. Street names and Craft/Pagan names were not only nearly identical in the types of names that are typically chosen, but the intent and motivations behind such a choice were strikingly similar as well. Both Pagans and street folks often have a legitimate need to hide and/or protect their legal identity, albeit often for very different reasons. Both groups also often regard the taking of a new name as an act of taking one’s power back and/or cutting ties with their former life. Especially in the case of runaway youths, their legal names are often a closely guarded secret, keys to their old life that they often fiercely protect, and they see those names as potential weapons in the hands of others that can be used against them. And once in a while it is; referring to one by a legal name instead of a street name in public is considered to be among the greatest insults and can often provoke a violent response.
I looked up from my list of names and realized that the ceremony was beginning. As I watched what was taking place, I was unsurprised and, yet, fascinated by how similar it all was to a typical Pagan handfasting. As I watched Arachne expertly tie the handfasting cord after wrapping Starla and Birch’s wrists together, I made a note to ask her where she had learned such a ceremony.
“I learned that from my brother Fern,” she told me later. By ‘brother,’ she was referring to street family, not blood family. “I’m not sure where he learned it, but I’m pretty sure that whoever he learned it from was the pirate who created it, and he spent a lot of time down near Shasta so I think he might have learned it down there. But I taught it to several other people, so there’s probably a few more out there who know it as well.”
I paused for a moment, as it hit me that she was unaware that the ritual she had performed was actually quite well known and widespread within the Pagan community. What I had witnessed was so passionate and true to its origins, which stood out for me even stronger as I realized that the person whose energy drove that ceremony wasn’t even aware of its history or origins. At that moment, someone yelled her name, and she nodded to me and ran off in the other direction. I looked over at Birch, holding the staff that Arachne had carved with an overjoyed expression on his face. I scanned the crowd again, and marveled at the time and sweat and love that they poured into this, all with one day’s notice.
As the crowd started to disperse, Birch and Starla walked towards me. “Ocean told us that you’re supposed to take us somewhere,” Birch said. I nodded and escorted them towards my van, and drove them to their surprise honeymoon suite.
A month or so later, I ran into Starla downtown, sitting on a planter, alone. “Heya,” I said. “Where’s Birch?”
She sighed, looked up at me, sighed again, and looked away.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“Yeah, I’m okay, I guess. Birch went back to Cali… his mom is sick and so he took off, although she’s been sick for a while, and that’s kinda just his excuse, but … well, you know how it goes…”
Sadly I did know how it went. It was a story I saw play out far too often.
“But you know what, even though he’s gone, I’m still glad we had the handfasting. It was awesome. Thanks so much for letting us use your house and driving us and all that. I can’t believe what everyone did for us, how you all pulled it off. That was the nicest day I had in a long, long time.”
She got up and gave me a long hug. I nodded and hugged her back, and as I felt my throat tighten up, I thought back to the strong feeling of obligation I had towards helping them with the handfasting. What I instinctively understood at the beginning was just confirmed and clarified before my eyes, and despite the profound sadness that I felt at that moment, I was deeply grateful that I had been able to help facilitate that memorable day for her. It was a powerful reminder that, when one is mostly helpless in the face of the larger tragedy at play, creating meaningful moments within, despite that larger tragedy, is a powerful and often crucial act.
(Author’s Note: Names and minor details have been changed to protect privacy.)