Archives For Family


If determined enough, the dead can assert themselves to appear nearly as present as the living.

And if one who is noticing and interacting with them does not know they are dead, and/or they are too young to comprehend what dead even is, the distinction between dead and living becomes rather confusing if not at times completely irrelevant.

This was my experience, anyway.

What I believe to be my earliest memory, for example, seems quite average on its surface.

I am a toddler, just old enough to walk and talk. My grandparents are sitting up in their bed, facing the television that was perched on their dresser, and I am sitting at the end of their bed, playing with a pile of coins, babbling enthusiastically to my grandpa about my stacks of pennies. On the television is a rerun of ‘Matlock’, and my grandpa is engrossed in the show, not paying much attention to me. But my grandmother keeps reaching her hands out toward me, trying to get me to sit on her lap. And I keep looking over at her and smiling at her, but I am too distracted by stacking pennies and the sound of my own voice to go to her.


Me at 2 1/2 in the yard where I sometimes saw my grandmother.

It’s a notably clear memory, right down to every little detail. And it wouldn’t strike me as unusual at all if not for the fact that my grandmother died of cancer when I was only a year old, well before I was old enough to climb onto the bed and babble in sentences and recognize Andy Griffith’s face on television.

And yet nobody had told me directly that she had died, and everyone else in the house still talked about her as though she was still there. So it didn’t seem all that out-of-place to me as a toddler that I would see her around and occasionally interact with her. My clearest and most sustained memory of her is of that day in the bed, but I can also clearly recall seeing her hovered over the counter in the kitchen, sitting in one of many antique chairs in the living room, hunched over the dryer in the laundry room, sweeping on the back patio, or in the backyard near the doghouse.

Our dog also had been dead for quite some time, having been my mother’s childhood pet. The backyard had seemingly been abandoned once the dog had passed on. By the time I was a toddler, the backyard was so overgrown with ivy it was barely navigable, and the doghouse still sat in the corner, rotting and collapsing, with a metal bowl still poking out from the ivy. But just as I did not grasp that my grandmother was no longer on this plane, I similarly did not completely grasp that we did not actually have a living dog. I never saw the dog quite as I saw my grandmother, but I sensed that she was there all the same.

It wasn’t until I was around four years old that it started to occur to me that my grandmother was not a current member of our household and that my sightings of her were not shared by my mother or my grandfather. I had overheard a phone conversation in which my grandfather mentioned “the summer before Betty died.” I still didn’t understand what death was, but I could sense what it meant on one level, and it meant that the person was said to no longer be here.

And yet she was. She was all over the house.


My grandmother in the kitchen, exactly as I remember her.


One afternoon not long after that, my mother and I were in our front yard, sitting on the sole boulder that graced the edge of the yard. My mother was watching the road in front of us, waiting for a friend, while I scrambled up and down and around the rock. There were etchings – crude letters carved into the side of the rock, which I had always noticed for their texture but which suddenly held a greater interest to me as I was just learning to read.

“What does it say?” I asked my mother.

“It says ‘Here Lies Elroy’, she said.

“Who’s Elroy?”

“Elroy was my brother’s gerbil.,” she explained. “When he died, Jay buried him under this rock. That was when we were kids, long before you were born. This rock is Elroy’s gravestone.”

“So Elroy is dead like Grandma?”

“Yes, and like your uncle Jay.”

All I knew about my uncle Jay up to that point was that my bedroom was once his room. In a sense, it was still his room. It was often referred to as “Jay’s room” by my mother and my grandpa, and I had always felt that, while it was my designated space within the house, on another level it was not my room at all. I had somehow always felt more like a guest in that room than its primary inhabitant. But unlike Grandma, who was talked about regularly and often as though she was still present, Jay was rarely mentioned, and I had always sensed not to ask questions about him. My room was his room, and that had been the extent of my understanding.

But now, at least I knew he was dead. And on one hand, that knowledge only deepened the mystery, but on the other hand for the first time I felt as if I had some concrete understanding about who was still here and who was not. They were all dead – Jay, Grandma, Elroy and my mother’s old dog who still seemed to live in the backyard. At at that moment the fact that they were all dead was suddenly real where before it had only been abstract.


As I reached grade school age, the sightings of Grandma became much fewer and farther between. And while I couldn’t deny to myself that I was still seeing her occasionally, the part of me that knew that I wasn’t supposed to be seeing her would very actively kick into gear, resulting in a tug-o-war in my head between experience and reason every time I thought I spotted her.

‘Ghosts aren’t real’

‘But I saw her!’

Part of me didn’t want to be seeing her at all. Part of me just wanted to believe I was imagining things. And part of me also wanted to tell the world, or at least to talk to someone about it. But part of me also knew that it was very real, and that I was best off keeping my mouth shut.

And so I did keep my mouth shut about Grandma. I also knew to keep quiet about what was in the garden.

My mother had built a garden in the side yard the year before. She would sit me out in a tiny lawn chair with books-on-tape as she worked for what seemed to be hours on end, weekend after weekend, tilling and planting neat little rows of flowers and vegetables.

Within a few months, we had a glorious garden, and it quickly became a favorite spot of mine. I would spend hours out in the garden, examining flowers and bugs and stealthily rescuing/relocating the snails from the saucers of beer that my mother would leave out to drown them.

Garden slug. Photo by I, Colae.

Garden slug. [Photo Credit: I. Colae]

But eventually, I sensed something else there too. Unlike Grandma, I couldn’t see anything concrete, but after a while I felt a constant presence every time I was in the garden. I could sense her; I could hear her,

Maybe this is God, I thought to myself more than once. But God is a man, I would then reply to myself. I knew little about religion or God, other than that my mother had referred to our family as “lapsed Catholics” when I asked her once. But I had taken enough in from the wider culture to know that ‘God’ was also the ‘Father,’ and while I couldn’t see whatever was in the garden, I felt very strongly that it was female. So she couldn’t be God.

But what was she?

I didn’t know, but she was definitely there. And I liked her, and I could tell she liked me back.

Around that same time, I had started to read the book Anne of Green Gables. In the book, Anne refers to God several times as ‘Providence,’ which stood out to me as unusual as I had thought that Providence was a female name. At some point, I was reading the book in the garden, and when I felt the presence of the yet-unnamed entity in my garden, a potential connection stirred in me.

I asked whoever was there if I could call her Providence. And I sensed immediately that the answer was yes.


When I was ten, my grandfather died.

My mother and I had moved out of the house three years earlier. She had remarried, and they were able to buy a house of their own, a small Cape Cod-style bungalow about ten miles away from what then became known as “Grandpa’s house.”

Grandpa had continued to live in ‘his’ house for the next few years until a heart attack rendered him unable to live alone, and he ended up moving in with us for what ended up to be the last few months of his life.


My grandfather, six months or so before he died.

I grudgingly surrendered my bedroom, not really grasping that his life was coming to an end. He recognized my frustration at losing my space and invited me to share the bed with him if I wished. I took him up on it a few times a week.

And it was on one of those nights, when I crawled into bed with him in the middle of the night, that he died peacefully in his sleep with me sleeping right next to him. When I woke in the morning, I turned to shake him awake, and he was cold. I knew instantly that he was dead.

After the wake and the funeral were over, what remained to be reckoned with was nearly as emotional and painful as my grandfather’s death in itself. We needed to do something with Grandpa’s house.

I had assumed when he died that we would be eventually moving back into that house. After all, not only was it bigger and nicer, and in a much better neighborhood, it was our home. My grandparents were the original owners, and both my mother and I were raised in that house. While I didn’t recognize it so distinctly at the time, I considered that house the closest thing I had to an ancestral home, and the land around it was the only piece of land with which I had ever had a real relationship. I wanted to live where I was born and raised, where Grandma and most likely now Grandpa still remained. I wanted to replant the garden where I first met Providence. I wanted to clean up the backyard and fix up the doghouse so that it was a more proper place for the dog that I sensed was still there.

My mother, on the other hand, had absolutely no desire to live in the house again. And while in retrospect I can completely understand why she felt that way, as a ten year old this decision sparked nothing but anguish, anger, and resentment on my part. I sullenly tagged along as she slowly emptied the house. At times, I flat-out refused to help, as I watched her empty it of the antique furniture with which I had grown up. She eventually put the house up for sale.

By the time prospective buyers were beginning to look at the house, it had all become so painful for me that I started to emotionally detach from the process, not able to bear the thought of losing it. During that period, I often took refuge in what was once the garden, by then overgrown with grass and weeds, crying my eyes out to Providence and anyone else who would listen. At one point, it occurred to me that in losing the house I would be losing my relationship with Providence as well, which only brought more tears.

It wasn’t until a few months after the house had been sold, as I finally started to recover from the numbness and grief associated with the entire episode, that I started to notice an occasional and familiar presence as I went about my day-to-day, unmistakably the same presence that I first met in the side garden as a child.


My mother quit smoking the year I started. Ironically enough, her quitting and my starting were both directly related to the same event. She became pregnant with my sister and quit for the obvious health-related reasons. And then a few months later I started it up as a coping mechanism, wanting no part of a life with a younger sibling. I was fourteen years old and an only child, and was dreading the changes that were sure to come.

When my mother was a smoker, she occasionally kept a pack or two stashed in random places, a fact I remembered one day when I was home alone. Inspired by the idea of found treasure in the form of nicotine, I rifled up and down the sides of my mother’s dresser drawers, hoping to find that prized, half-empty pack of stale smokes.

But instead I found an old envelope in the crack of her sock drawer that had a piece of newspaper poking out of it. I generally wasn’t one to pry in such a way, but my instinct told me to look inside, and so I carefully and gingerly opened the envelope and pulled the piece of newspaper out.

It was a clipping from the local paper dated April 1982, summarizing the death of my uncle Jay. He had been killed in a car crash, having driven into a telephone pole only a few miles away from where we lived. The article stated that alcohol was a probable factor in the crash.

I thought of the uncle I never knew, whose room I grew up in, whose death was never mentioned once throughout my entire childhood. I felt a sudden and strange relief, as a mystery that had grated on me for years had finally been answered without my having to actually ask.


My uncle’s college ID card. He died a year before he was set to graduate.

I also immediately understood why it was never mentioned, especially given my mother’s penchant for avoiding uncomfortable subjects. And as I took in and processed this new discovery, I also forgave my mother for her silence.


I had been living on my own in the city for a year or so at that point, and had decided to drive out to Jersey to visit my parents for the day. On the drive out, my mind drifted to thoughts of my grandfather’s house, which I realized hadn’t seen since it was sold nearly a decade earlier. Out of curiosity, I decided to take a detour through my old neighborhood before heading to my parents’ house.

I parked on the street and stepped out of the car, and the moment I stepped onto the property I felt a distinct chill. Instantly, this place and I recognized and remembered each other despite many years of absence. The yard and the house had both been altered with much of the original flora removed, but Elroy’s rock remained as did the tree I planted as a small child. I walked toward the side yard, toward the garden where I first met Providence. The garden was gone.

“Hey, what you doing?” I heard a voice yell behind me. I turned around and found myself face to face with my former next-door neighbor, whose expression went quickly from anger to a smile as he recognized me. I knew him quite well; he and his wife had lived next door to our family since my mother was a small child. My mother grew up playing with their daughter, and I grew up playing with their granddaughter.

“Oh my God you’re all grown up. Look at you. I knew you’d come back one day.”

Without exactly knowing why, I burst into tears.

He reached over to hug me. “You know,” he said, as I tried to calm down. “Maureen talks to your grandpa and grandma constantly. She sees them all the time.”

I immediately stopped crying and jerked back in shock. Maureen was his wife.

“She does?”

He nodded. “Oh yes. Her and Betty have long conversations. I don’t know the details, but she says they’re both quite loud and active.”

I spoke before realizing I was speaking, before realizing that I had never said what I was about to say aloud before.

“I used to see Grandma all the time. She even tried to play with me once. I remember it quite clearly.”

He nodded again and pointed to the house. “Since your mother sold it, its changed hands three times in eight years. I swear, your grandparents are so loud over there that nobody wants to stay for long. The last folks remodeled the entire kitchen and patio before they left… I watched them just pour thousands into it but then just pick up suddenly and leave anyway.”

I thought of Grandma in the kitchen, and suddenly it all became a little too much.

I explained to him that I was on my way to see my mother and that I had just taken a quick detour and should be going.

“Come back anytime,” he said as I quickly walked towards my car. “I’m sure Maureen would love to see you.”

*  *  *

“I went by Grandpa’s house today,” I casually mentioned over dinner.

My mother looked up immediately. “Oh yeah?” she asked. “Does it still look the same?”

“Not really,” I answered, uninterested in talking about the aesthetic changes. “But I saw Bill. And he told me that Maureen talks to Grandma and Grandpa all the time.”

My mother laughed a bit and then was silent for a moment. “Somehow that doesn’t surprise me. Its funny, I always felt like Mom had never quite left that house.”

I stared at her for a moment, not quite believing what I just heard. Until that moment, my mother had never acknowledged anything of the sort to me, had never given any indication that she ever sensed the presence of anything at that house. Suddenly, between Bill’s words earlier and my mother’s words just then, my experiences were validated after nearly a lifetime’s worth of questioning in silence.

“She never left, Mom, trust me. She definitely never left.”

Still stuck on the idea that my mother held any kind of religious belief or superstition, I decided to go all or nothing and ask one of those questions I had never before dared to utter.

“Why are we lapsed Catholics as opposed to regular Catholics?” I asked.

It was almost as though she was expecting the question. “Well, your Grandpa’s mother, your great-grandmother, she drowned in the ocean when your Grandpa was a teenager. And even though she drowned, the Church insisted it was a suicide, and they refused to grant her a Catholic burial.” She paused.

“And then they turned around and said they would bury her for a price. Which the family somehow paid, but once she was buried the family didn’t want to have much to do with the church after that. And so neither do we.”

I had never really thought much about my grandfather’s life growing up, other than the knowledge that he had lived through the Depression. But something hit me hard the moment that my mother told me that my great-grandmother had drowned in the ocean. Our family had spent nearly every summer at the beach as I was growing up, a yearly trip which I always dreaded due to a lifelong and unwavering discomfort of being in the ocean. I could never fully enjoy the water no matter how hard I tried and I could never quite understand why, and I couldn’t help but to reflect on that discomfort in light of what I had just learned.

“What was her name?” I asked. “My great-grandmother, I mean.”

“Her name was Providence,” my mother answered.


A friend and I had spent the day endlessly talking and catching up, and trying to plan out the pilgrimage that we would be taking in just a few months. Both of us were under a lot of stress, both coming off of traumatic experiences, trying to piece together what had happened with our lives and what was being triggered by our upcoming journey. After hours and hours of back and forth, he eventually passed out on the couch. I passed out in my bed not long after, and slept better than I had in weeks.

And when I woke up, I felt a strange familiar presence, which I noted but didn’t put much thought into until he woke up a few hours later.

“I felt so safe,” he told me. “Safer than I had in ages. And I actually slept. And when I woke up early this morning, I heard this lovely voice telling me that I could go back to sleep, that it was safe. And I did. And I feel so well-rested. And whoever that was, it was such a wonderful feeling. Do you know who or what that was?”

I thought back to the presence I sensed when I woke up and I smiled. “Yes,” I said. “I’m pretty sure that was Providence.”

“Who’s Providence?” he asked.

“I’m not exactly sure,” I admitted. “I once thought she was a land spirit, or more specifically a garden spirit, nowadays I think she might be an ancestor spirit but again I’m just not sure. What I know is that she’s been around me since I was very small and she’s always nurtured and protected me. She’s just… around. I don’t think about her for a long while and then she’s just there and reminds me she exists. I’ve never seen her, but I feel her and I hear her and that’s been a constant for most of my life. She never wants anything. She’s just around, and she’s warm and she’s wonderful.”

“Yes, she’s quite wonderful,” he said with a smile.


I woke suddenly, not knowing why. It was the middle of the night, but I couldn’t remember anything that I was dreaming which could have stirred me awake. I sat up and looked out the window, and immediately felt the urge to be outside.

Quietly so not to wake my partner, I slipped on my shoes and my coat and went downstairs. I stepped out the front door of my building, and felt myself being pulled toward the river. A minute later, I was lying on by back on the dirt by the riverbank, suddenly overtaken by a stream of visions and messages that seemed to be pouring out directly from the full moon above me.

Full moon over Portland. Public Domain.

Full moon over Portland. [Public Domain]

Under the Scorpio moon, just a week before Beltane, the dead filed through and thoroughly between my ears. I closed my eyes and saw generations’ worth of flashes through my mind, scenes that I can only assume were connected to my ancestors. And then, my grandparents. And then, my uncle Jay. And then the scenes changed sharply, and I was back at the house in which I was raised complete with all the familial spirits and old furniture, and as I saw myself as a child in the garden. I felt the presence of Providence nearby.

I opened my eyes for a to stare at the moon, and then closed them again. This time I saw what I only can assume to be the future, with flashes and aerial scenes of myself and a dear friend backpacking over mountains as the dead stirred beneath our feet. Every step we took echoed both above and below, an echo I physically felt in my feet throughout the course of the vision.

It then morphed into darkness, and we were in a cave-like setting. And then, he is gone, and it is only I. And there she is. Not a ghost, not an ancestor, but a god.

I knew what she was about to tell me. I also knew why he had suddenly disappeared, as he had not only received this exact message from Her before, but had related it to me only a few weeks prior. There was also a small part of me that knew that if I opened my eyes at that moment, that it would all disappear, that I technically did have a split-second option to escape this moment.

But I also knew that, while I may be able to escape the first-person utterance, I didn’t get to escape its consequences. And I realized in the moment that the message, though delivered before, was incomplete in its overall meaning until now. For the words were not just about the future, but also about the past.

So I kept my eyes closed and stayed, anticipating her words.

“Do not look there, unless you’d leave.”

*  *  *

I returned home and back into my bed. When I fell asleep again, I deeply and vividly dreamed about the house for the first time in years.

We were all sitting at the dining room table, all having what looked like Thanksgiving dinner. And when I say all of us, I mean all of us: Grandpa, Grandma, my mother, my uncle Jay, and myself as an adult. In my sleep, straddled between worlds, we were talking and laughing and drinking wine and breaking bread without any concept of the barriers between life and death. We were just together, enjoying life, as the family that never quite was.

Even the dog was there, in the corner, patiently waiting for scraps.


This column was made possible by the generous underwriting donation from Hecate Demeter, writer, ecofeminist, witch and Priestess of the Great Mother Earth. 

[Today we welcome Luke Babb. They graduated from Truman State University with a degree in English, and briefly toured Saint Louis University in pursuit of a Masters. They currently live in Chicago with their fiance where they write, participate in the storytelling scene, and work two jobs. This is their first work with The Wild Hunt.]

I have come out as bisexual, trans and queer, but I cannot come out as Pagan. Which means that this is something else.

I started to identify as Pagan (or, at the time, ‘Agnostic leaning Pagan’) in my sophomore year of college, during the same semester that I kissed my boyfriend’s best friend’s girlfriend on a kitchen floor. Those two events are separate, but the feeling of them is similar in my memory; a sort of inherited shame giving way to, not wonder exactly, but an ache like the gum over a tooth that wants to come in.

It’s entirely possible that, in other circumstances, I would have come out that semester. Instead, I spent five years tamping down on these new parts of myself, until the relationship I was in eventually collapsed from stagnation. Which wasn’t terribly surprising — most people find it difficult to maintain a relationship while playing an outdated version of themselves. I put my first altar up less than a month after my boyfriend moved out, began to date again — and all of the potential energy built up through four years of college exploded outward.

[Credit: Mark Chadwick / Flickr]

[Credit: Mark Chadwick / Flickr]

I came out to my parents that fall. We were driving back from a week’s vacation in Ohio, one of the few times I knew I’d get to see my family when I was in grad school. I had chosen that vacation to come out because I wanted to be able to talk to them again about my girlfriends, my thoughts and the new self I was becoming, and I thought they deserved to hear about these things from me in person. I had meant to do it during the week; but as exhausted as I was with sitting, quietly, and keeping my secrets, I found that I was even more afraid of what would happen if I spoke up and destroyed the illusion of the good, obedient, (straight) Christian girl that I’d so carefully maintained. It wasn’t until we were almost home that I realized I was running out of time.

I don’t remember exactly how it happened, but I know the outline of it. Mom, always concerned and just a little bit stubborn, asked me if I would start dating again soon. I had been single for almost six months, at that point, licking wounds I was only starting to recognize and dating casually, serially, exclusively women. So I said that yes, I would. Mom told me not to worry. I’d have plenty of time to find someone and settle down and get married.

With all the tact and clarity of someone who’s been stewing in their own juices for six hours, I explained that, since I was bisexual, there was a fifty-fifty chance I wouldn’t be able to marry them anyway. My father was silent. My mother was confused. And then, more quickly than I had expected, the conversation turned.

“Are you still a Christian?” Mom asked. She sounded scared.

I hesitated. “Well, Mom. I’m agnostic,” I said.

She remained confused. As I explained, I reminded myself that this was the easy option; nothing good or safe was going to come out of Actually, Mom, I’m Pagan.

We got to St. Louis eventually, but nobody enjoyed the ride.

I came out to my extended family a little more than a year later. It was a year in which I had built up enough momentum to realize it was going to be even harder for me to see the place I had come from, the place I was trying to speak to. Knowing this, I enlisted some help. I wrote up a Christmas letter and gave it to three or four straight friends to make sure that I wasn’t using too much jargon; wasn’t speaking in a way my family wouldn’t be able to hear. It wasn’t meant to be comprehensive—I talked about being genderqueer, about my new name and my relationship with my girlfriend, included a picture of us in black and white. It was meant to provoke questions, to start a conversation. It was meant to get them started in getting to know me as I actually am.

The people who read it beforehand thought it was great, with just one caveat. “Why,” asked Eric, who had helped me most in finding my own spirituality, “do you talk about going to church?”

“Because,” I told him. “I want them to listen to me.”

[Photo Credit: Nick Page /  Flickr]

[Photo Credit: Nick Page / Flickr]

It’s hard for me to talk about my queerness in a way that is divorced from my religion. They’re very different sorts of things that come from the same root and have woven themselves together in my life and my understanding. I am a follower of Hermes, of Loki, of Coyote and Prometheus, of those that break boundaries and laugh, of the storytellers, of the fire bringers, of the ones who slide between god and human, woman and man and neither, and show us how to use the divine’s gifts. Certainly my relationship with my gods has informed my understanding of my gender, given me strength as I grow through and into myself. Certainly being a Pagan is as much a part of who I am as my chosen name.

My family knows that name. They don’t know I’m Pagan. I’m all too aware of the need humanity has to pathologize people who are different, and I haven’t wanted my Paganism singled out as the damning source of my queerness. It would be such an easy leap. If I am Christian, they can’t say the reason I’m trans is because I gave up the church; instead I can be cast as the sinner, willful, prideful, lustful. Which is fine, in a way — it’s a story that, at its core, recognizes my agency. As long as I’m not “Satan’s mark,” easily confused and straying from the path, they cannot write me off when I tell them who I am. My family may not have liked what they heard when I came out as genderqueer, but I believe they did hear it.

I would like them to hear this too.

I would like them to hear any number of things, because even saying that I’m Pagan suggests a simpler set of beliefs, a simpler version of me than the true one. I would like to tell them that I haven’t abandoned the church where I grew up. When I leave, I find myself missing the study and the fight to be a better version of yourself that I find in the words of Christ. Solitary practice leaves me lonely, and there is some part of Pagan and Wiccan gatherings that still leaves me lost. I struggle to find a group where I fit; where I am not forced to choose between the God and the Goddess’ circle; where I hear the ceremony with my heart and my head and both are satisfied; where I am received with a welcome and seen in a way that I recognize. So I find myself going back to the church, where at least the ways it does not fit are familiar.

But all of that is complicated, and I have not trusted others to listen to it, and so I have stayed quiet. I have not explained my religion to my family, who still struggle with my name. I have not explained it to my queer friends, who have often been hurt badly by religion, or withdrawn from it for their own reasons. I have not explained it to my Christian friends, or my Pagan ones, for fear that each will see the existence of the other as a strike against me, as a reason for discounting me in other ways. Like all of us on the borders, I know how to be lonely—but that doesn’t mean I have to resign myself to it.

This is not a coming out story. There are certain things that cannot be divorced from their history and made contextless, and the phrase ‘coming out’ is one of them. Coming out is an explicitly queer action, one that carries with it the history of physical, emotional, and social danger that my elders have faced, that queer people still face every day. I have come out as bisexual and trans, but I do not feel like I can come out as Pagan. This is something else. This is flinging open the doors so that others can come in, and know me better.


Eric O. Scott —  October 11, 2013 — 20 Comments

Positive Lightning. Photo by Kara Swanson of National Geographic.

I have been sitting in this chair for five hours. It is, at best, 45 degrees Farenheit; a cold wind occasionally blows through the tin-roofed pavillion. It is two o’clock in the morning and there are still twenty people between me and the damned horn. My best friend Sarah and her friend Mark – along with the punky redhead whom the gods were merciful enough to place on my left side – have all given up, gone to bed. We have a ceremony in less than six hours that I will need to be up for. My only respite – the only thing which keeps me from getting up in disgust and going back to my tent, hoping to steal four hours of sleep on my rapidly deflating air mattress – is the Genuine Icelandic Sheepskin on my shoulders.

High Symbel is no joke, folks.

I spent the weekend before last camping at my beloved Gaea Retreat, about an hour (well, 45 minutes if you drive the way I do) outside of Kansas City. The event was Lightning Across the Plains, a heathen gathering I’ve heard about for years but never managed to attend, even though I lived in Kansas City for three years.

I wasn’t sure what to expect. My relationship with Heathenry is much more difficult than my relationship with Wicca. I was raised a witch; I’ve known the steps since before I realized they were a dance. My family of Wiccans, though it took me a long time to accept it, has done more to shape me than anyone else could hope to. Doing Wicca – or at least the isolated, mutant form of it that grew in my parents’ living room in St. Louis – comes easier to me than almost anything else.

But I came to Asatru much later, and with hesitations that I’ve never had with Wicca. Much of that, I think, is a feeling of phoniness, of ignorance. My connection to Asatru comes mostly from the mythology and a handful of mystical experiences that, while they were extremely powerful to me, fit squarely into that lovely category of Unverified Personal Gnosis. (“But you don’t know Thor likes Jägermeister. That’s just UPG.”) I belong to no kindreds, swear no oaths, make no mead.

Yet this stuff is still important to me. No religious experience has effected as startling a change in my life as the first time I participated in a seiðr, being led down into the roots of the World Tree until we came to the Well of Wyrd. I don’t even remember what I asked the diviner that night. I just remember the tree, the incredible awe of seeing its branches spreading overhead, seeing every leaf, every gnarl and whorl of its bark. I never imagine in that kind of detail: the tree felt like something more than my head could have produced by itself.

Heathenry tends to be a solitary activity for me – I have my altar and my Eddas, and mainly I keep to myself. At festivals, I often spend my time attending every Heathen ritual and workshop I can find, but that’s a different atmosphere entirely. Festivals are anonymous: if you’re getting too comfortable, you can always run away and hide in the merchant circle.

To put this more succinctly: I think of myself as a Heathen, but, for whatever variety of syndrome you want to diagnose – imposter, only child, restless leg – I feel uncomfortable being around Heathens.

(Were I performing this essay in the manner of a stand-up comedian, there would be a short pause at this moment.)

So I’m sitting under the pavilion with about two hundred Heathens after midnight on a cold autumn night, clutching my sheepskin and hoping to the gods that the pace will start to pick up.

There were two symbels during the weekend of Lightning Across the Plains. The first, the “folk symbel,” held on Friday night, was more informal: we all sat around the fire, and whoever wanted to toast called out for the horn and stepped up. A queue formed very quickly, as you’d expect, but overall, if you wanted to talk, you could expect to get the horn within half an hour of calling for it. The High Symbel, on the other hand, involved everybody at the festival. Everybody got the horn. Everybody got to talk. Everybody made a toast.

THE MATH: 200 people X 3 minutes = 600 minutes / 60 minutes per hour = 10 hours in the dark.

(Note that, while this calculus assumes a three minute average speaking time, that might be a wildly optimistic estimate. The first speakers might have kept to that. By the time we were halfway through the pavilion, people had begun to offer four toasts apiece. And then there was the gift-giving… No wonder Sarah went to bed.)

The High Symbel lasted, by my admittedly sleep-deprived count, six and a half hours from the pouring of the first horn to the final speaker. It was, by far, the longest continuous ritual I’ve ever taken part in, and yet, also one where I felt somewhat alienated and alone. At least half of the toasts were made to the gathering of people at the festival, with long explanations as to the relationships that had been formed there and maintained over the five years LATP had been running. It being my first year – and with you now knowing about my own hang-ups regarding the Heathen community – you might be able to understand why those toasts didn’t resonate as much with me as I would have hoped.

I sat there, listening to these people, all strangers, thinking about what had brought me to this place. I listened to them toasting their kindreds, and the households that they had befriended here, and I thought of Sarah, of her parents, of my coven.

It’s not necessarily an easy rope to walk. I’ve been told by some Heathens that I shouldn’t be allowed to call myself one, not so long as I continue to dirty my hands with Wicca. But I belong there – belong with my family, and my friends, and the Horned God and the Mother Goddess.

And I belong here, too, in this hall, with these Heathens. I belong here, in this company, drinking from this horn, speaking these words. The greatest mistake we make, I think, is bifurcation: the idea that we must always choose one or the other, that we must belong to one path and shun all others, that to believe in multiplicity is to really only believe in one gray muddle. I reject that notion.

The horn finally comes to me at just after three o’clock; there are only four people left in line after me. I make my toast to the nameless poets of old, just as I had been planning for the past four hours, and pass the horn along to the man on my right. Warmed slightly by the mead, I sit back down, clutch my Genuine Icelandic Sheepskin around my shoulders, and think to myself, My god, I’m never going through this again in my life.

And then I pause, listen to my neighbor’s toast, and think, Yes, I probably will.

Note: Edited to add some links. -Eric

The Gifts of Madame Death

Eric O. Scott —  November 16, 2012 — 19 Comments
Image taken at the Bellefontaine Cemetery, St. Louis, MO

Death and Birth at the Bellefontaine Cemetery, St. Louis, MO.
Image by William Scott.

Madame Death’s dressed all in black and seated next to a battered metal table. We do not look at her, or touch her, or do anything else to acknowledge her. For her part, she says nothing, but only watches our circle while we partake in the first communion of the night: water and crackers, nothing else.

We chew on this meager harvest, and for a moment, at least, we forget that we stand in the backyard of a house in St. Louis, Missouri, a house with electricity, heat, and more food waiting in the kitchen than we could possibly eat in one night. The ritual takes us to a darker place, a hungry place, a pit in our collective unconscious that knows that the coming months bring a time want and death. We know that we travel through a gate tonight, a gate on the road between bountiful autumn and desperate winter, and the gate is called Samhain.

For me, this Samhain cuts deeper. I expect it is the same for the rest of Sabbatsmeet, too – Sabbatsmeet being a group of covens and unattached Witches that share the festivals together. I have been a part of one of those covens, Pleiades, since I was born. We range from infants – little Julian, less than a year old – to retirees. Most of us have been a part of Sabbatsmeet for decades. This is my family, the same or more so than my legal relatives. And this year, our family has been visited by Madame Death.

“We have come to the part of the ceremony where we remember the dead,” my father says. He sets the cup and the plate, now barren even of simple grain and water, on the battered table. “Speak their names, and remember them.”

I don’t recognize most of the names spoken: people who were known and loved by someone within our circle, but who were not of the circle themselves. Sometimes we mention someone better known: a writer, or a musician. (Someone says “Whitney Houston,” and the circle goes quiet save for a few badly-suppressed snickers.) But we all knew the name that hung heaviest on our hearts.

“Barb,” says my father, the first name called.

Madame Death came to her this year. She arrived after a lengthy correspondence, the culmination of many years of cancer. We had barely seen her in years – her health had been too poor, and she had lived too far away, to travel to St. Louis for the sabbats. But still, we missed her – she had been ours, and now, she was gone. Her absence felt like January wind through a broken window.

I do not cry in the moment’s silence that follows. Instead, just as Barb’s name is called a second time, a memory floods in…

Another Samhain, more than a decade ago. I was 13, perhaps. There was no traditional ritual that year, but instead a sort of haunted house… We wandered through the halls of a familiar place made strange, encountering forms we knew and personalities we did not. I can’t remember the things they said anymore, except for one.

I remember walking into the bedroom, lit in sensuous, dangerous red. A woman with wild auburn hair sits on the bed, dressed all in black. She smiles, and it’s Barb’s smile, but possessed by the spirit of the night. She curls a finger, beckoning me to come closer.

“Oh, Groucho,” she says. “I’ve been waiting all night for you…”

My mind fills with the echo of Barb’s voice, a voice never to be heard again.

For many of those around me, I am sure the pain of Barb’s death comes from the memory of their time together – the years of shared experience, inside and outside the ritual, that make up a friendship. It’s not quite the same for me, being younger, a child of the second generation of Sabbatsmeet. I loved Barb, but I knew her entirely from Sabbatsmeet. I knew of her life outside – that she was a foster mother and a social worker, for example – but I knew her from Wicca. And her death, the third loss our circle had suffered in as many years, forced me to confront an inescapable truth: our family was aging. Some day Madame Death would come to my elders. Someday I would call their names at Samhain.

When we are finished with the calling, my parents tell us to join hands and close our eyes. I take their hands, feel the bones of their fingers twined into mine.

I doubt it would do much good to describe my meditation-visions; they were largely darkness, a dance between night and the ritual fire. Sometimes I thought I could see some of those we had lost: Tom, or Kurt, or Image. Once I thought I saw Barb, dressed forever in the Samhain black of memory. But mostly I felt the heat of the fire, and the cold of the air, and the warmth of my family’s hands pressed to mine.

My father’s voice called me back to consciousness. “Look now,” he says, “Look upon the true gift of Death.”

Madame Death opens her black robe. Beneath her hood, she is a redheaded woman, smiling. In her lap sits a serene infant – little Julian.

Because Madame Death is also Madame Life, my father explains, because every act of destruction leads to space for creation to happen, because without loss there can be no magic – and to most Wiccans, all of this will, of course, be old hat. You will have heard this all before, in books and speeches and rituals. But it’s good to be reminded of it on Samhain, reminded of why, to Wiccans, this is the most important night of the year.

I appreciate that, but it’s what my father says next that strikes me clean to the heart.

“In twenty or thirty years, some of us will be gone, and it will be Julian standing here, saying our names.” He pauses. “And that is a good thing.”

The current narrative in the United States, at the moment I write this, is that the nation has begun to change, that the dominant culture of white suburban Protestantism has begun to give way towards something more diverse. I can’t say how true that is. Life here in Missouri still feels quite entrenched in the culture the media pundits tell me has begun dying away.

But still. I look at Julian, with the serious eyes and the inviting cheeks, Julian, who is the child of my brother in Coven Pleiades, Julian, whose father and father’s father have stood in this circle before him. I look at this child, and in him I see everything I have ever been given and everything I have it in me to give. I look at him, and I see the future of our religion. Even more important than our religion, I see the future of our family, of us.

Someday my parents will be dead. Someday I will, too. Someday Julian will be an old man, and if I am lucky, he will call my name at Samhain. Someday Julian himself will have taken the hand of Madame Death, and some other child, a child whose face I can barely imagine now, will be standing in the circle that her great-grandparents once knew.

We drink at last the second communion, the honey wine and delicious cakes, singing “Hoof and Horn” as we pass the cup and plate from hand to hand. We remember the dead, but we celebrate the living.

In the lap of Madame Death, the little baby stares at the ritual fire, and then lets out a sharp and vital shout.

It is a good thing.

An interesting tidbit filtered through the routine interviews during a local Yule festival covered by the Nashua Telegraph. It concerned second-generation Pagan Elizabeth Becker on growing up Pagan, and why she left modern Paganism for a time.

“Elizabeth Becker of Bristol has practiced paganism for her entire life, as her parents did, except for a period of 14 years in which she described herself as being in a “rebellious” stage. She said she stopped practicing because she and her parents worshiped in solitude, as there were no pagan groups for them to adhere to, and she missed the community aspect of organized churches. Becker grew up in Lawrence, Mass., and said it was not acceptable at the time to practice openly. “I think if my parents had come out as pagans at that time, it would have been a major issue for them,” she said.”

This comment brings up a host of issues facing the modern Pagan communities. Do we have enough support and faith-based community to offer a full spiritual life to our children (outside of San Francisco, Salem, or Paganistan), and how committed are we to the raising of the next generation(s)? While some modern Pagan faiths are initiatory and adult-only, it still leaves the question of what children of modern Pagans should be exposed to, and how to deal with the fact that their parents are “different” from their predominantly Christian peers. While there is a growing consensus that our children should be proudly reared in our faith traditions, some still feel that keeping silent is the best tactic.

“In addition to a basic knowledge of what Christianity is, a child in this day and age, as sad as it is, should also be told not to speak about their beliefs, unless it is with family members. We live in the Bible Belt, and there may be other pockets of the country that are more progressive, but this isn’t one of them. Publicly declaring oneself to be a pagan is enough to have the neighbors ostracize you, to have them refuse to let their kids play with yours, and in some cases to even call the authorities to report the “devil worship.” I personally have never told my children about the concept of the devil, so our risk, I feel, is not that great. But children who hear people talking about the devil should be warned that he does not really exist. Anyone connecting your child to talk of the devil, and knowing that you are practicing pagans, could make trouble for your entire family.”

But as we see above, such tactics can backfire and lead the child to “rebel” and explore other faiths (or no faith at all). While some see modern Paganism and Wicca in particular as “religions of converts”, conversion alone can’t sustain a new faith forever. Eventually, new faiths must root within generations of families or slowly fade away. This isn’t to say I advocate a Pagan “Quiverfull” movement, just that educating our kids about our faiths and working to build real community to interact with (even in the “Bible Belt”) is important if we are going to continue for generations to come.