Archives For second-generation paganism

Oxararfoss

Eric O. Scott —  July 11, 2014 — 8 Comments
Oxararfoss, Thingvellir, Iceland. Photo by the author.

Oxarafoss, Thingvellir, Iceland. Photo by the author.

The waterfall, I was told, was called Oxararfoss.

It was not the largest waterfall I saw while I was in Iceland; that was Skogafoss, down in the south of the country, where I walked along the rocky beach below the cliffs until I came to the edge of the falls and let myself be drenched in the spray. Nor was it the waterfall I got to experience most intimately – that was Seljalandsfoss, where I walked up a flight of sturdy iron steps that leading behind the waterfall and found that on the other side, the trail’s improvements ended and all that awaited me were a series of sharp, water-slick rocks that had been worn away by the weight of other human feet.

By comparison, Oxararfoss felt small and domesticated. As, I suppose, it was: Oxararfoss had been sculpted by human hands during the settling of Iceland. The settlers diverted the river Oxara sometime in the 10th century and sent it tumbling over the continental ridge that forms the edge of Thingvellir, where the Icelandic parliament was established around the year 930. The resulting river traces a path through Thingvellir before emptying in Thingvallavatn, the largest lake in Iceland.

I didn’t know any of that at the time – a woman from Ásatrúarfelagið, whose midsummer blót I had come to see, told me of the waterfall’s history after I descended the trail back to the clearing where Ásatrúarfelagið had camped. The only thing I knew about the waterfall beforehand was that it existed: I had seen it, just for a moment, from the road leading out from Thingvellir, with only the crest of the falls appearing from behind the rocks. It seemed isolated from the rest of the valley at that distance, but in reality, a well-maintained wooden path led up a hill to the waterfall from the ground, and there was even a platform built out into the stream so visitors could get closer to the waterfall itself: another place where humans have altered the landscape to better fit our needs.

Still, fabricated, manufactured, artificial: these distinctions all disappear when one is in the presence of a waterfall.

A waterfall is nothing but water, rock, and gravity – three of the most unremarkable components of life on this planet. But their admixture entrances me like nothing else; the wonder of their constant movements, the calculation of how long and how much they have flowed, the study of the ways tiny clefts within the rock manifest later as massive columns of white water before they crash into the surface. Those things are harder to see with the massive waterfalls – they are too tall to observe easily. But as I stood before Oxararfoss, I could look for the details, could contemplate them, could empty myself of myself in their presence.

I stood there for ten or fifteen minutes, perhaps. Not much more than that. I was expecting my ride back to Reykjavik to arrive, and didn’t want to be lost up in the hills when he came, so I turned back. (He didn’t arrive for another two hours, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Rain fell in a lazy drizzle as I walked upon the wooden platforms leading back down to the campsite. Although I had been in Iceland for almost two weeks, cold rain in June still felt like a novelty; I closed my eyes and moved on with a smile. Oxararfoss still roared behind me.

Out of the wordless joy inside my mind, a thought surfaced: It will be wonderful to walk this trail again someday.

Then I stopped walking and opened my eyes, saw again the black and barren rocks of the continental divide and the wide gray sky. I saw the wet planks of the trail ahead of me, where I had been walking.

My grandfather had gone into the hospital just a few days before I left for my trip – he stepped on a nail and then, despite his diabetes, never went to the doctor until he couldn’t bear it anymore. He thought he would be in the hospital for an afternoon – a dose of antibiotics to knock down the gangrene in his foot and then he would be back home.

They cut off his leg just above the knee.

My grandfather was a carpenter, the kind who never really retires; as recently as two years ago, he got in trouble with the City of St. Louis for leaving a two-story-tall ladder propped against the rear of his house, just in case he felt the urge to go tar the roof again. There would be no more of that.

My grandfather will never see this, I thought to myself, that moment on the trail.

This shouldn’t have been a shocking revelation – my grandfather hadn’t gone anywhere more than a couple of hours away from St. Louis in twenty years, even before the surgery – but it was. He would never see Thingvellir. Even if I showed him the photographs, or explained to him the history of Iceland, he still wouldn’t understand what made this place important to me: that I had come here on pilgrimage, searching for gods hiding among the rocks and water and gravity. This was a part of my life I have kept hidden from him, and probably always will.

I began to walk again, and soon came back to the campsite, where there were hot dogs and cans of Egil’s Pilsner waiting. I opened one of those green cans, named for the poet and warrior Egil Skallagrimsson, and walked out a ways into the fields. It was nearly ten o’clock in the evening, but then, there is no such thing as nighttime during the summer in Iceland.

I looked back to the ridge above the clearing. I could see the wooden trail leading up to Oxararfoss, but it turned a corner near the top of the hill and vanished behind the rocks; the waterfall itself was entirely hidden. I would only see it again from the car as we left Thingvellir, tumbling over the rocks and down into a valley whose bottom I could not see.

(Author’s note: This column is the first in a series of pieces about my time in Iceland. I have chosen to anglicize the Icelandic names of places, though with a heavy heart, since I just spent two months learning how to pronounce them. For reference, the Icelandic names for the geographical features are Öxarárfoss, Skógafoss, Öxará, Þingvellir, and Þingvallavatn.)

Divinations

Eric O. Scott —  May 9, 2014 — 9 Comments
The Hooded Man, from the Wildwood Tarot. Deck by Mark Ryan and John Matthews. Art by Wil Worthington.

The Hooded Man, from the Wildwood Tarot.
Deck by Mark Ryan and John Matthews.
Art by Wil Worthington.

“I feel like doing Tarot readings,” says Jeff.

It’s about 8:45 and on most nights we would be packing up to leave the Freebirds Burritos restaurant by now, but tonight Jeff decides he wants to run out to his car and grab his deck. There are only three of us – Jeff, Sielach, and me – at this week’s meeting of Hearthfires, a local Columbia Pagan Forum that I have been attending for a few months. I’m thinking about how much work I have to do before the end of the semester and how spending an hour here doing divination is an hour I can’t spend writing my seminar paper on Giambattista Vico and the completely arbitrary relationship I am drawing between his philology and the Icelandic Sagas.

But Jeff wants to do a reading, so we do a reading.

He sorts out the deck onto the wooden table. His deck is called The Wildwood Tarot; I have not seen it before. The artwork is full of nature imagery and fairy-tale settings; in the world of these cards, there is little evidence of human civilization at all, outside of a few human characters and the tools they carry. I search through Jeff’s deck and look at the major arcana. I don’t recognize the names of most of the cards. I only own three Tarot decks, and they all tend towards the traditional – Rider-Waite-Smith, Thoth, Tree of Life. (Tree of Life is my favorite, even though it has no illustrations except for diagrams of the relationship between the cards and the sephira. I am a sucker for diagrams.) I’m accustomed to the seventh card being the Chariot, for example; in this deck, it is the Archer. I don’t know its meaning.

I mention all this to Jeff, and he shrugs. He has looked at the Rider deck before, he says. “But I never got anything from those cards. There’s something in the rigidity of the artwork.”

Jeff begins to draw cards from the deck for me. I don’t mention any specific question for him to look into, in part because I’m interested to see what he pulls together and in part because I don’t have any questions that I want to voice aloud. I have two main concerns in my life right now – in a few weeks, I will be going to Iceland, and in a few months, I will be getting married. Sielach had given me a reading the week before about Iceland, so that seemed covered, and frankly, the wedding seems too distant and overwhelming to worry about now.

Jeff places nine cards down in a pattern – center, cross, left, below, right, above, and then four cards along the side. He describes this pattern to me: the card in the center represents me as I am now. The cross card can be thought of as either my obstacle or my guide. To the left is the recent past; to the right is the near future. The card above is the Sky, or an ideal outcome. The card below is the Root, or the source of my question. The cards along the side give a rough timeline of events, beginning at the bottom and proceeding into the future as we move to the top.

I watch Jeff with curiosity as he lays the cards out on the table. I have never taken to divination of any kind, despite being raised in a Pagan household where I had plenty of opportunity to study it. I’ve never done a Tarot reading for anyone, though I have, in the past few months, begun to do rune readings. I’ve always been more interested in looking at these tools in terms of systems than in terms of oracular use. After I read Alan Moore and JH Williams III’s Promethea, I spent a lot of time thinking about the connections between Tarot and Kabballah, but it never occurred to me to actually shuffle up the cards; I couldn’t get my mind past the inherent randomness of the process.

“I see a lot of Air in the center of the table,” he says as he looks over the tableau. The center card is a Knight of Arrows, or the Hawk. The cross is the Nine of Arrows, which is glossed as Dedication. In the traditional decks that I am familiar with, Air would be associated with the suit of Swords, but the Wildwood Tarot changed the suits. Here, Swords are Arrows, Cups are Vessels, Wands are Bows, and Pentacles are Stones.

Jeff goes through the rest of the cards: the Mother Bear is my Sky, my near future is Healing. (What would I need to heal?, I wonder.) He details a timeline that seems like it might correspond to my time in Iceland – The Pole Star, The Ancestor, The Wheel, The Great Bear – but I am barely paying attention. I am too busy being struck – terrified, actually – by the card in the Root position.

The card is marked number 9. Normally, I would know it as the Hermit; here, it is the Hooded Man. He says that here it has an association with death, which is, of course, not necessarily a bad thing; death can simply mean change. Jeff reads this card as being about living through the winter. But that is not the association I carry.

“I wish I had brought my book with me,” he says, referring to a handbook that provides a list of interpretations and correspondences for each card. “I feel like some of my interpretations are off tonight.”

I nod. “I know I feel differently about the Hooded Man,” I say. “I don’t think that’s about death at all. Especially not at the Root. I think that’s a different Hooded Man altogether.”

Sielach nods as she comes to understand what I mean. Jeff doesn’t, though. “Oh. So you’re dealing with some other hooded person?”

“Maybe not a person,” says Sielach. “A hooded personage.”

I have trouble expressing just how spooked this Tarot reading made me. I had a moment of strong cognitive dissonance. My rational mind pushed strongly against any kind of deep meaning to a particular reading; it’s a random deal of the deck, after all. Which card ends up in which place is just a matter of chance.

And yet I read everything about the tableau in relation to Iceland, and it fit. Including the Root. Especially the Root. The Hooded Man. Card number nine. (Nine. Another spooky coincidence.) Of course he would be at the heart of the question.

I remembered pacing back and forth in my advisor’s office two months ago. I had just found out that I had been accepted into a summer Icelandic program through the University of Minnesota, but I hadn’t been offered any money; it would have cost me thousands of dollars that I just didn’t have. We called every university we were in contact with, every Scandinavian educational association, even the Icelandic embassy, looking for grants. Nothing. Too late to apply. We accepted that I probably couldn’t afford to go this year; our best hope was to defer the admission until next summer, when perhaps I could get a better jump on the grants.

The next day I started a fundraising drive, just to see. Within 24 hours, people – mostly my friends and family, but some people I barely knew, and even some people who I can only assume just knew me through my work – had pledged two thousand dollars. The total climbed to over three thousand by the end of the two month drive. I was dumbfounded. I really had not expected it to work. But it did.

As Florence says, “This is a gift. It comes with a price.”

I leave for Minneapolis, and from there Reykjavik, in a little over two weeks. As that day approaches, I find myself thinking more and more about the bargains I have struck. I made a bargain with myself to quit my job and return to academia; now I have made a bargain with everyone who donated to make sure this endeavor is worthwhile.

And of course, I wrote here not that long ago about the bargain I struck with the Hooded Man himself. And there he is, card number nine, staring at me from the root of the world, exactly where I knew he would be when I began this journey last year.

I have been thinking a lot about divination since last night; what to make of it, how to approach it. How any of this applies to changes I have made in my life, and the changes yet to come. What I might believe about what goes into a Tarot reading.

I believe that the cards in any given tableau are random, arbitrary. I believe they have only the meanings we attach to them.

I believe the cards are fated, fixed. I believe each reading tells us exactly what we need to know at that moment in time.

I believe in all and none of these things.

Eric’s note: This post has been updated to feature the actual Hooded Man card from the Wildwood Tarot. Many thanks to the creators for letting us use the image.

Reclining Pan

Eric O. Scott —  March 7, 2014 — 6 Comments
Reclining Pan, c. 1535, attributed to Francesco da Sangallo. Photo by Preston Page.

Reclining Pan, c. 1535, attributed to Francesco da Sangallo. Photo by Preston Page.

Pan lies at the end of a hallway on the first floor of the St. Louis Art Museum, stretched out on his back on a bed of stone. In his right hand, he holds his pipes, ready to bring them to his lips for a song; he rests his head against his other arm, his left hand toying with the head of a goat whose skin the god wears as a cloak. Bunches of grapes rest between his shaggy feet. A tiny salamander crawls near his right hoof. I cannot read his absent gaze; while he would seem to be reclining in leisure, something in the way the god’s lips hang just slightly agape makes me think he is in some sort of sublime state, either pain or rapture.

This Pan is a statue, of course – Reclining Pancarved from a discarded chunk of marble, and once used as a fountain. (Water would have poured from the bag under Pan’s back, which seems highly impractical.) He was carved in the Renaissance, probably by an artist named Francesco da Sangallo, sometime around 1535, and spent most of his half a millennium of life in the collection of the Barberini family, whose members were princes and cardinals. He came to America, and to St. Louis, two years after World War II, where he has been ever since.

So far as I know, Reclining Pan is not considered one of the great works of Renaissance sculpture – not bad, but not one of the masterpieces. But you would not know that from the way my family treated it whenever we visited the Art Museum while I was growing up. We did not always go immediately to Pan, but inevitably, our labyrinthine paths through the museum would lead us to the hallway where he lays. My parents love art, and would happily observe and discuss nearly anything in the museum collections, but Reclining Pan merited a special reverence. He was our icon, our site of devotion.

But he was not alone. In the rest of the European art, there were other works that featured the gods of antiquity: Bartolomeo Manfredi’s Apollo and Marsyas was always a favorite, with its vivid colors and the wonderfully expressive faces of its subjects. If we wandered downstairs to the Ancient Art section, we found other pieces that usually caught my eye: small statues of Horus, Osiris, Ma’at and Thoth in the Egyptian cases, two headless statues of Artemis, an amphora showing the meeting between Heracles and Apollo at Delphi. A young Pagan could spend all day scouring the collections, looking for traces of the gods, and I often did.

When I was perhaps eleven or twelve – just beginning to understand what my religion was, and how it was different from what most of my peers at school practiced – I remember looking at the scenes painted on the case of Amen-Nestawy-Nakht’s mummy, detailing the path his soul would take in the afterlife. I looked at the gods – Osiris, Isis, Anubis, and many more – painted on the casket, and I recognized some of the scenes from the Book of the Dead. Then I looked at the information placard; it said that Amen-Nestawy-Nakht had lived during the 22nd Dynasty, sometime around 900 BC. I paused, and read the placard again. I don’t have the proper metaphor for how this revelation hit me: this person had lived a thousand years before Jesus. A thousand years! I was closer to the Renaissance than this priest of Amun had been to the birth of Christ. And yet we had statues of these gods on our family altar; I may have even had my own statue of Horus in my bedroom by that point. I can’t tell you how comforting it was to know that, in some way, I was connected to something so ancient.

I look at certain things in the Art Museum more critically now than I did as a child. I can’t help but be aware of the colonial stigma attached to the mummy of Amen-Nestawy-Nakht, for example, who had once been interred in the Theban necropolis and would, I am sure, have preferred to stay there, rather than passing into the hands of French collectors and eventually a museum on the other side of the Earth. I notice that the two statues of Artemis on display are both missing their heads, and I wonder what happened to them, whether some patriarchal malefactor destroyed the face of the goddess in an attempt to show his domination of her. And I can’t help but note the irony that Reclining Pan was carved for the family of a Catholic cardinal, the very embodiment of the religion that displaced the worship of gods like Pan.

But still, when I am home and have the time, I make this tiny pilgrimage. Part of growing up Pagan was learning to take comfort in the little reminders of my faith that infiltrated the world around me. I kept my chapels hidden in plain sight. Other visitors to the Art Museum might only have seen a statue of a strange-faced faun reclining on a comfortless bed of stone. I saw a god, and something more than a god.

I saw the face of an old friend.

 

Nature’s Social Union

Eric O. Scott —  January 10, 2014 — 12 Comments
Photo by author

Maiden, Mother, and Crone

My fiancee and I have been waffling about making exact plans for our wedding since May, when we were engaged. This is mostly because of our odd living situation – for a variety of reasons, we have been together for nearly eight years but have only ever lived in the same city once, at the very start of our relationship, and that situation doesn’t seem likely to change soon. But we have finally made up our minds to get things in order. So what if we still live in different states? Are we not moderns?

The idea is to have the wedding in St. Louis at Tower Grove Park – the same park that my parents were married in, and the park where I proposed to her. I like the idea of being married under the branches of those trees; Tower Grove was the park closest to my parents’ house while I was growing up. It was where I took the dog on walks, where I learned to ride a bike. Growing up in the city, Tower Grove was the closest place I could visit to experience nature. Even now, on the occasion that I consider the idea of a Summerland, really I’m just thinking of an eternity laughing on the grass of Tower Grove Park.

Which is odd.

Despite the trees and the flowers and the duck pond, there’s nothing “natural” about Tower Grove Park, nor most other parks in cities across the US. City parks, with a few historical exceptions, are a product of the Industrial Revolution just as surely as factories or high rise apartment buildings, and indeed, rely on those things for their very origins. It was considered important for the physical and spiritual health of industrialized workers that they had an opportunity to spend their leisure time in nature; otherwise, the dehumanizing, “unnatural” urban environment would wear them away. City parks were seen as the solution to this: an area of the city that was reserved away from the weary ugliness of urbanity and instead given over to greenery, where people could interact with the earth in the ways they had since the dawn of the species, according to nature’s design.

Tower Grove Park, in particular, was a bequest from Henry Shaw, who also donated the grounds for the nearby Missouri Botanical Garden, which St. Louisians to this day still call “Shaw’s Garden.” It took decades to improve the property to meet the needs of visitors: there were pavilions to be built, bronze statues to be erected, and the earth itself to be molded, irrigated, and forcefully acquired in order to complete the park. Even today, nearly a century after the last tract of eight acres was added to the grounds and the park declared “complete,” Tower Grove requires a small army of groundskeepers, botanists, and rangers to maintain the buildings, plant the flowers, and keep the grass cut low enough that the insects don’t annoy the patrons.

Of course, in “real nature,” the grass grows tall and in the summer the air is thick with bugs. In “real nature,” the greenery isn’t bounded on four sides by major streets, nor are there life-sized statues of Shakespeare, Rossini, and Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben. The city park is an architectural space just as surely as any civic center – it just happens to be sculpted, in the main, with trees and grass as opposed to concrete. To put it another way, urban parks may be “nature,” but they are not in any sense “wild.” They exist because of human design. They are hardly what nature intended, except perhaps in the bizarre alternate reality of the Victorian mind.

This fascinates me, because – despite the debates the community has had over the legitimacy of this definition – my Paganism is, at its core, nature worship. Sometimes when I pray, it’s to the disir or the land-wights or to the gods; but sometimes I just pray to the trees, and that seems like it’s enough. But the way I think of nature – the way I think of “trees!” – has been buttressed by all those afternoons in a heavily cultivated city park, a tamed form of nature where every plant sits according to the plans of human beings. Does that taint the legitimacy of my connection to the earth? Can I really be said to worship nature if my idea of “nature” resembles a Victorian greenway?

Perhaps. On the other hand, perhaps not. I have Annie Dillard on my mind right now – I’m teaching Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in my Introduction to Nonfiction course this semester – and the central theme of that book seems to be the presence of nature in all her beauty and all her savagery all around us, everywhere we would care to look. There’s a famous passage near the beginning where Dillard sees a frog eaten alive by a giant water bug, which bites into the frog and devours its insides while leaving the empty skin-sack intact, like a deflated balloon. To Dillard – and to me – it’s an otherworldly, terrifying scene. But it’s just the way those two creatures interact: the giant water bug eats the frog, just as the frog eats the fly. Dillard’s Tinker Creek isn’t a finely sculpted civic attraction like Tower Grove Park, but it’s still shaped according to human intentions – there’s a cattle barrier doubling as a bridge slung over the creek, for example. But if the presence of humanity has made any impression on the frog and the giant water bug, they make no sign of it. Nature – “real nature” – goes on regardless.

“This place look like public property to you, bucko?”

I proposed to my fiancee at Beltane last year. In the days leading up to the sabbat, I made a habit of going over to the spot in Tower Grove Park where I planned to ask her. Without fail, every day I was visited by a cardinal bird. He was a feisty young buck, bright red and full of the warrior spirit. He seemed to take offense at the presence of my car sitting underneath his tree, and would swoop down onto the hood to peck at the windshield glass – probably, I suppose, thinking that his reflection was an intruder on his territory, though I like to think he just thought he was tough enough to scare away even a creature as big as a Chevy Cobalt.

The tree that cardinal lived in was planted by humans, kept up by humans, and was meant for human use. But the cardinal didn’t know any of that. To him, it was simply his tree, just as all his forebears had before him.

Perhaps, if the world were still in its primal state and the hand of humanity had never touched this acre of Tower Grove Park, the tree wouldn’t have been there, nor the cardinal, either. But they are here, and they’re true enough.

Buffalo_reflex_Buffalo_Mo_18690821 (1)

The first issue of the Buffalo Reflex, the object of my desire, from 1869. Ah, for the days when poetry got top billing. Retrieved from the Missouri Digital Newspaper Project.

The research room of the Missouri State Historical Society Archives is not much to look at. It’s a dark room in the basement of the Ellis Library at the University of Missouri, the institution I now call home. The largest section is nothing but work tables and census catalogs, tracking the names of every person who has lived in the state for more than a century. Rows of obscure books stretch off in the opposite direction; I have no idea what any of those books are. I come here for newspapers; the archives have virtually every newspaper ever printed in the state of Missouri since its inception, all maintained in cabinet upon cabinet of black 35 millimeter microfilm. For the third day in a row, I have been sitting here in the dark, staring at the projection of the microfilm on a computer monitor, looking for something I doubt anybody but me even cares to find.

It was not that long ago – just about two months, now – that I spent most of my time in a different basement room, also staring at a computer screen. In some ways, my days have not changed much.

But make no mistake: in the month since I last wrote here, I have changed almost everything about my life.

I don’t say that to brag; when I made the decision to quit my (admittedly awful) job, leave my beloved hometown of St. Louis, and come here for my doctorate, I figured that the odds of it being the worst decision of my life were around 40%. It might still turn out to be – I’m going for a PHD in English, after all, and the job market for that particular specialization tanked over a decade ago and hasn’t yet stopped sinking. One of my classes is, essentially, a semester-long investigation into ways this might turn out poorly.

But in the meantime, I’m having a tremendously good time. I tend to spend about twelve or thirteen hours every day working, and I make less than half of what I did at my “real world” job. But it’s good work, and I feel more welcome here in my new home than I have felt anywhere else in years.

We’ll see how it turns out.

I’m searching in the archives for newspaper articles from the region around Springfield, Missouri, dated late October or early November 1983-84. I’m searching for stories about a fire that would have happened just after Samhain. According to my coven’s legends, we held our sabbat on a member’s farm a little ways north of Springfield, near the town of Buffalo, Missouri, which is small enough that I had never heard of it before despite living in this state my entire life. We had built a cabin on the farm to sleep in after the ritual; after everyone had gone home, someone had burned the cabin to ashes. The person who had owned the cabin told me her sister had seen a story about it in the paper, including the detail that the reporters had discovered chicken bones in the fire pit nearby and declared it proof of animal sacrifice – when in actuality, we had merely eaten roasted chicken for dinner that night and thrown the bones in the fire.

(It strikes me, as I read over that paragraph, how effortlessly I slipped into the first person plural: I wrote that “we” did this. Of course, I had nothing to do with it. If this happened in October 1984, I was still nearly two years from being born. But perhaps that illustrates what it feels like to be a second-generation Pagan. What they have done, I have done; what has happened to them has happened to me. It is impossible for me to think of my family’s history objectively – I know too well how every event in it has shaped me.)

As best as I can tell, the newspaper article does not exist. The universe described by the local paper, The Buffalo Reflex, does not contain witches; as best as I can tell, it doesn’t contain anything except for the school lunch menu and an occasional syndicated editorial about Grenada. Perhaps the story ran in a church newsletter or some other kind of small, barely-circulated publication; perhaps that detail was just an embellishment of the story, now told so often that as far as anyone can remember it actually happened. The first thing one learns in memoir is how fickle memory can be.

What I did find, looking for articles written in the same region and roughly the same time, was one article from the Springfield Daily News, dated Halloween, 1979. Springfield, for those who think of the Midwest as flyover country, is the third-largest city in Missouri, with about 150,000 residents. Lorelei, one of my coven-mates, spent her college years there, and recalls it as a conservative place, not very welcoming to weirdoes like us.

And yet there’s this article, titled “Real witches shatter diabolical stereotypes.” It’s about the writer Kathy Maniaci’s experience meeting with members of Springfield’s Shadow Coven. It’s not a long article, and some of it plays with a vision of Wiccans that must have been clichéd even in 1979. The article begins with Maniaci running late, with the words of an unnamed friend in her mind: “The last thing you want to do is make a witch wait.” Presumably because she would shortly find herself a toad, I suppose. When one of her interviewees mentions how hard it is to find a good robe, Maniaci responds, “I winced, as if I’d just heard a vampire say, ‘You know, a good grave is so hard to find these days.'”

But I am fascinated by the article, nonetheless. While engaging in some annoying spectacle, I am moved by the attempt, however fumbling, to humanize Pagans. The Daily News served a small city in the middle of America, after all; I doubt they had any particular obligation to look out for us. The stereotypes are there, but she allows the members of the Shadow Coven to gently debunk them; at no point does she belittle them personally, nor suggest that they are anything but proud of their identities. Considering this was written on the cusp of the Satanic Panic, I find that commendable.

And considering that in a little over a month we will undoubtedly be flooded with articles not terribly dissimilar to this one, I find that certain things really haven’t changed that much.

The archives close at 4:45 most days, and my time is up. I rewind the microfilm and put it back on the cart to be reshelved, and then head out. Only a few other researchers are still there when I leave; each of them is much older than me. I doubt that anybody but me, outside of the staff, is under the age of 60. They come here for genealogy, mostly, combing through census records and obituaries, trying to fill in the bare spots of their family trees. Trying to figure out where they come from.

And of course, I understand. I spend most of my time trying to do the same thing.

Be it ever so humble.

I never had an altar before I moved out of my parents’ house. That seems impossible, in retrospect, but I can’t remember ever setting one up. I had some statues – mostly the same ones that line my altar today, actually – but I never thought it was important to set them up in a way that would facilitate personal rituals. For that matter, I never cared much about doing said rituals in the first place. This may explain why, all these years later, I’m terrible about remembering to actually use my altar; whenever I hear somebody I respect mention how she finds daily practice mandatory, I feel sheepish. This is my version of feeling guilty about not going to church.

When I was 18, I moved into a Truman State University dormitory in Kirksville, a small town in the far northern reaches of Missouri. Like every dorm room, it was not set up for comfort so much as interchangeability. There was nothing distinctive about it, other than having once been the maids’ break room. (The room I moved into a semester later had literally been a broom closet the year before. You kids living in Missouri Hall now, after the renovation? You don’t know how good you have it.) The furniture was the same as every other room: a “lofted” bed, which is to say, a bunk bed without the lower bunk; a particle-board desk; an uncomfortable blue chair. If you were drunk enough, you could get off the elevator on the wrong floor, walk down the wrong hallway, and climb into the wrong bed, all without realizing something had gone awry until you heard the screams.

This was a hell of change for me. My parents left no inch of their home unchanged by their presence; there might be twenty feet of bare wall space in there. An entire wall of masks brought back from Mexico, cabinets filled with collections of elf statuettes and minerals, a five-foot-tall painting of my father naked holding a yowling cat; these are only a few of the things I grew up around. (Mom and dad never really cared much about making our house “suitable for entertaining.”) The place is bewildering to strangers, who invariably stare straight ahead to resist being overwhelmed.

In the living room, my parents have a tall cabinet filled with all of their ritual equipment: robes and swords and a whole drawer dedicated to incense. The altar sits atop the Magick Cabinet, filled with so many icons of the gods that my dad had to start moving them elsewhere in the house to keep them from spilling off the edge. 

But although the cabinet was where dad performed his personal ceremonies, in reality, our entire house was an altar, every edge of it filled with items of magickal significance, even if only we understood what that significance was.

So within a week or two of moving into my bland dorm room, I was homesick – not just for my family, or the familiar environs of St. Louis, but sick at heart for the house itself. I needed a bit of it to call my  own. I needed an altar.

I had most of the things I wanted for it already, but there were certain constraints on my behavior in the dormitory. For one thing, we weren’t allowed to have knives, so I couldn’t bring my athame from home; it remained tucked away in the Magick Cabinet for several more years, until I got an off-campus apartment in my junior year. Instead I used a wooden letter-opener I got from the St. Louis Hare Krishna temple, a bit of ingenuity I’m still proud of. (Since I couldn’t take my athame on the airplane, I used that same letter-opener during Pantheacon earlier this year.) My roommate thought this was hilarious, and constantly asked me to get my athame when our mail came in. There was no way around the prohibition on fires, though, so I went without burning incense. For that, I’m sure, my roommates were thankful; broom closets aren’t that well ventilated.

Given the premium on space, I set my statues and implements up on top of the wardrobe, which abutted the headboard of my loft bed. Every night before I went to sleep, I crawled into the ten inches of space between mattress and ceiling to make my offerings, whisper my chants, and consecrate my chalice full of tap water. (Dry campus.) It wasn’t much; it lacked many of the trappings that I had always thought of as essential to practice.

But despite my situation – my threadbare little altar in a faceless dorm room in a town too small to have much in the way of other people like me – I felt very Pagan when I prayed at that altar. More Pagan than I had felt before in my life. This altar wasn’t much, but it was mine. 

And, more to the point, it was not my parents’.

I imagine all children must have feelings like I had: the feeling that their religion, whatever that religion is, belongs to their parents. Everything they have known about their faith has been shaped by their parents’ tastes and predelictions; not much about it has been defined by their own needs and desires. This is true for a child born into Paganism, too, and maybe especially for one born into Paganism. After all, my parents were eclectic, and accepted all the things that appealed to them into their version of Paganism – which, in our case, not only structured the religion, but structured the very nature of our house. (How many other kids grow up with a Magick Cabinet in the living room?) But that meant everything that didn’t suit them was left out. Perhaps they never banned those things outright, but still, if it didn’t appeal to them, it didn’t make its way into our home, and therefore, not into my head.

So when I looked around the altar of our home, I saw all the things they had put into it, and not much of my own. I had been borrowing their altar my whole life, and in doing so, borrowing their Paganism. When I built my own altar, I took my first steps towards finding my own way of looking at the world.

My practice is, of course, founded on the things my parents taught me, but it’s not the same thing. Some of the choices I have made are considerably different from theirs; some are the same. But they have been my choices, not theirs. If you look at our altars now, you’ll see how they are alike, but you’ll also see how they are different.

I’m pretty sure this is how they hoped it would turn out.

Unsolitary

Eric O. Scott —  March 15, 2013 — 20 Comments
Picture taken in my parents' kitchen.

The banner of Coven Pleiades.

We are chanting, waiting for Lorelei to appear:

Full moon shining bright, midnight on the water
O! Aradia, Diana’s silver daughters

If Coven Pleiades, the Wiccan group I was born into, had only one song, it would be this one. We sing it, our voices growing loud enough to fill my parents’ house with the force of our love, loud enough to fill the dark space where Lorelei waits, her hands bound, her eyes covered, her body naked. This is her initiation ritual, the first we have held in several years – the first, I think, since my own second degree.

It’s also the first time I’ve seen an initiation from the other side of the blindfold. It’s a bit like being backstage at a play, or a magic show. I am part of a large cast, performing a show for an audience of one. When Lorelei appears, she will be set on a path beset by obstacles, a sharp and thorny forest filled with the howls of beasts. And of course, we are those beasts and brambles, both her path and the things that block her from it.

The priest, my father, goes to retrieve Lorelei from the underworld. She arrives at the edge of the circle, nervous, but ready.

“What is your name, child of the Goddess?” asks my mother, assuming the form of the White Goddess.

“Lorelei,” she says, formally adopting this as her Craft name.

“And what do you bring with you?” asks the Goddess.

“Perfect love and perfect trust,” says Lorelei.

Thus she brings the traditional wages of initiation, ready for us to offer her the bargain that they might buy.

***

Lorelei’s initiation happened the Saturday after Pantheacon. I had begun to recover by that point – returning to a soulless office job will do that for you – but still, I felt like a changed person. I had gone through a lot, been exposed to many things I had never seen within Pleiades.

Several people have told me that it was a brave act for me to come to a big event like Pantheacon alone. This was always said with the unspoken but obvious afterthought, “brave, and perhaps foolish.” I had nobody there to pull me back if I went too deep, nobody to ensure I, to use both a drug analogy and a play on words, didn’t have a bad trip. I can see how, had I been a slightly different person, or things have gone a slightly different way, I could have been overwhelmed by the experience, left broken by it. This is not to say that I made no friends at Pantheacon; the first thing I did when I got off the plane, in fact, was to meet the people who would become the dramatis personae of my weekend. But many of those folks were exactly the people luring me into new experiences, for which I might not have had the appropriate mental defenses.

This company of two thousand Pagans taught me much about solitude, and its value. I learned of my own need for loneliness in the times I had to withdraw to the quiet of my hotel room for an hour to escape the crowd. I learned more firmly about the things I could accept into my practice and the things that I couldn’t. And I learned that, sad to say, I’m really just not cut out for 1 AM hospitality suite parties. (Sorry, guys.)

On the last day of the convention, I went to Teo Bishop’s presentation on the Solitary Druid Fellowship. Compared to much of Pantheacon, it felt mellow and contemplative: just an audience, seated in the round, with Teo standing in the middle, spinning back and forth to face each of us in turn.

If I am being honest, I didn’t go to this workshop because I thought it would be particularly interesting to me. It was, after all, addressed to solitary members of the ADF, and I was neither of those. But I was more interested than I thought I would be. Teo knows how to tell a story.

In this one, he described the special needs of a solitary Pagan, reflecting the greater needs of that particular umbrella by describing what he needed in his own practice. He brought in his personal history – his past life as an Episcopalian, his current life within ADF, his love of liturgy and the Book of Common Prayer. He told us of the challenges of solitary practice – the feelings of loneliness, of personal motivation, of being disconnected from a greater religious practice. And he brought in the advantages of solitude – contemplation, personal direction, the opportunity for great work within the body of the individual practitioner.

I had never considered that being solitary could work out to one’s advantage, myself, so this last part came as a surprise – but I saw the possibilities as soon as Teo mentioned them. He had a point. Like many of the great ideas I have encountered in my life, I immediately recognized this one’s worth. Also like many of those great ideas, I recognized pretty quickly that it wasn’t meant for me.

Yet it made me think about my own practice, and how it related to the things Teo was talking about – the benefits and the consequences of being so ingrained into a group.

In my mind, the coven – or, to be more accurate, my coven, Pleiades – is the fundamental unit of religion. (Let me emphasize the words in my mind, lest you think I’m prescribing a course of action that I believe everyone must follow. You, as you have likely noticed by now, are not me.) The dynamic of the group is the basic energy which powers Wicca for me, and as our composition and focus changes, so does the religion. While I have explored and practiced several other forms of Paganism – Taoism, Kabbalism, a long courtship with Asatru – my mind always returns to Pleiades, which, to me, is Wicca itself.

This is a source of great strength, for within the group I find my teachers, who have guided me in my explorations of life and magick. Here I find my elders, who have watched me grow up, whose relationships with me have been a constant evolution. And here I find the people to whom my magick is directed, the people who assure me that my practice has a purpose beyond myself.

And this is a source of great trouble, too, because the relationships within a coven are not stable things. People move away, fall in love, break up, fall out. Even if those changes have nothing to do with our rituals, they still reverberate throughout our circle, like concentric waves in a pond once a rock has been thrown in. If those waves are violent enough, they can threaten the existence of the coven’s very existence; I suspect more covens have been destroyed by such forces than survived them.

To me, it’s worth the heartache. A good coven is a family, after all, and every family is a source of both sorrow and solace. That’s the bargain we make, and most of us, I think, find it a worthwhile one. For me, Pleiades isn’t even that old saw, a “family of choice” – I didn’t choose them. They’re simply family, as much as a family of blood or law.

***

The main business of the initiation has concluded. Lorelei has taken off her blindfold, had her hands released, slipped her robe back onto her body. She has been told the secrets, which I will not speak here. Now we sit, drinking wine and munching on cakes. We are talking – mostly about the ritual, giving Lorelei congratulations and presents. (I, in typical fashion, left my present in the car, so it will have to wait until later.) But we also talk about mundane things. We crack jokes. We talk about the present and the past. The name for the act is communion, after all. And here we are, a coven, communicating.

At one point, my dad clears his throat and speaks. “In a lot of groups, initiation means that you are a Witch. It’s a title you get by going through the ritual. Here, we don’t do that. Whether  you call yourself a Witch or not, that’s not for us to say – that’s between you and your gods.” He smiles at Lorelei. “For us, initiation means that now, you are our Witch. That you belong to us, and we belong to you.”

I have belonged to Pleiades since long before I was initiated, since I was in the womb. I am an unsolitary Pagan; I don’t really know any other way to do it. They are the the path and destination, the actors and the audience. While I stumble through the darkness of life, they are the ones stretching out their hands to mine. They guide me – and I guide them – on our eternal journey to our destination, our source, our home.

The Weekend Before

Eric O. Scott —  February 13, 2013 — 7 Comments
image

Oh, like you need my phone number.

Friday

Today I bought business cards. This feels more important than it probably is.

Pantheacon starts in one week. I have never been before; for that matter, I have never been to any Pagan event like this except for the Heartland Pagan Festival and St. Louis’s Pagan Pride Day. The last time I went to Heartland, the attendance was, I think, around six or seven hundred. I’m told Pantheacon is about four times that big. That’s a lot of people to meet. Supposedly I should have gotten ribbons, but business cards will have to do for now.

“Take a look at this,” I say to my girlfriend. We live in different cities at the moment, a moment that has lasted nearly the entirety of our relationship, so this conversation happens over Facebook. I send her a picture of a business card design I made up on the Office Depot website. “Is it hideous?”

The card is blue and green, vertically aligned. At the top is a surreal picture, the silhouette of a man standing in the center of a pyramid whose walls are made of a starscape, a sky dotted with clouds, and a field. Below that, my pitch: “Eric O. Scott, Author, Blogger, Memoirist. Contributor to Killing the Buddha, Patheos, Pagan Square, and the Wild Hunt.” Below that, an array of contact info.

“Hideous is way too strong a word,” she says. “Though it’s wordy. What’s the story on that picture, anyway?”

“It was the only thing that popped up when I searched for ‘New Age.'” Office Depot, as expected, had no results at all for “Wiccan” or “Pagan.”

“The graphic doesn’t seem very you,” she says. “You are more of a tree than a mystical triangle thing. You have roots.”

This may well be the sweetest thing she’s ever said to me.

Saturday

Today is the big Mardi Gras parade down in the Soulard neighborhood of St. Louis. I don’t go to the parade – I had to work the night before, so I slept, instead – but in the afternoon I go to my parents’ party. They throw one every year, ever since my mother developed a love for New Orleans after spending a long weekend there with her a friends a decade and a half ago. Sometimes I am struck by the oddity of our fervor for an ostensibly Catholic holiday, the point of Mardi Gras being a final explosion of indulgence before the long austerity of Lent.

Then again, I suspect the majority of people getting drunk at 11 AM down in Soulard don’t plan to give up anything until Easter, either, so perhaps we’re just playing along.

They draw a big crowd this year, dozens of hungry mouths waiting to scoop out bowls of jambalaya and gumbo. People stake out their spots out on the patio, in the living room, or in the kitchen, the last of these being obviously the prime location. My dad’s friends congratulate me on my upcoming book, much to my discomfort. My aunt attempts to play the tambourine and mostly fails. It’s a good party.

A friend of the family shows up later on, once most of the food is gone. She goes to Pantheacon most years, though she won’t be there this time. (I’m secretly grateful she is staying home; I know myself well enough to know that I tend to cling to the people I know when I’m in a crowded room. The best insurance against my own shyness is to simply not know anybody.) She gives me a list of recommendations: bring a cup, keep track of time, don’t get star-struck when Margot Adler passes by. (No promises.)

“And try not to stand in the back of the elevator, if you can help it,” she adds. “There’s a guy there who will try to grab your ass if you aren’t careful.”

Something to look forward to, I guess.

Sunday

Today is a road day. I’m heading east, to Champaign, Illinois, where my girlfriend goes to graduate school. I’m working on three hours of sleep and a Coke. I miss the turn off from Highway 55 and have to circle back around, lest I end up in Bloomington and add to my girlfriend’s ledger of Evidence That I Am Bad At Directions.

It’s going to be a packed week. Four nights in Champaign, followed by another day of driving on Thursday to be home in time for my father’s birthday dinner. (Yes, he was born on Valentine’s Day.) Then a 6 AM flight to San Jose, followed by…

Something. I don’t know what, yet.

As I have noted before, I am a statistical freak. Pagans-and-Heathens-and-Polytheists – look, you know what I’m talking about – we are, by and large, converts from Something Else. My parents were both Low Protestant Christians in their childhoods. I know some ex-Catholics, some ex-Lutherans, some ex-atheists. But I was born into it. It’s all I’ve ever known. And that has non-obvious consequences.

Here’s a big one: I’ve never gone looking for a Pagan community, because I’ve always had one of my own. While I’ve known of other Pagans in the places I’ve lived – my dad infamously engaged in open warfare with certain St. Louis Pagans in the days of listservs – I’ve never sought them out myself with the hope of making connections or friendships. I considered myself as isolated from the “greater Pagan community” as I was from mainstream religions, an outlier to both, my life holding little in common with anyone else’s. (As a teenager, I would occasionally meet another teen who had just declared themselves a Witch and hear the inevitable conversion narrative. “Sure, my parents made me go to church, but in my heart I know I’ve always been Pagan.” I would smile, but inside, I always thought, “Really? Because my heart never told me that, and I actually -was- always Pagan.”)

I’m told that Pantheacon is a friendly place, that I’ll find the place inviting. I hope so, of course. But still, it’s an awful long way from home.

I make it to Champaign before dark. I kiss my girlfriend hello and say nothing about missing the turn.

Monday

Today my girlfriend spends her time preparing for the oral examination of her qualifying papers, which will be held tomorrow. Late in the evening I watch her rehearsing with her PowerPoint. Slides flash by, full of citations for studies into Russian language acquisition and data points for the relative cultural prestige of languages in Kazakhstan. Though my life revolves around language, it’s over my head; I only took one semester of Linguistics, and that was years ago.

I spend most of the day doing crossword puzzles, writing, and reading anything that comes across the Pantheacon Twitter feed. The CAYA coven posts their packing list, which seems useful, though I have no idea what counts as “necessary” ritual gear; I’ve only done ritual with strangers a handful of times. (Can you stow an athame in a suitcase? What if it’s wrapped in a sock?) The Pantheacon site suggests only picking three “must-see” events a day, as there simply isn’t time to see it all. I glance at the schedule I’d set out, which has only three empty slots throughout the weekend.

I get the feeling that I am not prepared for this, that I have decided to dive into a cenote without first learning how to swim. By nature, I am a solitary person, accustomed to sharing my religious life only with my family. I am all too aware that my experience with the “greater Pagan community” has, for the most part, come only at the safe distance of a computer screen. In a few days I will find myself standing in the middle of a convention full of strangers in California, strangers with whom I may have many more points of divergence than similarity. My vision of that coming throng scares me a little.

And then, I shrug. Oh well. So what if I’m anxious? There’s nothing to do with the unknown but conquer or be killed by it. The flight’s already booked; the business cards have been printed. The dark water glints at the bottom of the pit. The only thing left now is to jump.

Cousin Gabriel

Eric O. Scott —  January 18, 2013 — 10 Comments

Soulard Restoration Church at 1216 Sidney Street in St. Louis, MO. The building once housed an Assembly of God congregation.

 

Ask my cousin Gabriel about his ’56 Chevy sometime. He’ll tell you all kinds of stories about that car – stories that never end up quite the same way, but always share the same basic formula: cruising around town, running into pretty girls, picking them up and going to the movies. The story tastes like pure Americana; I almost expect Veronica and Jughead to show up.

Gabriel has never had a ’56 Chevy; he’s never driven a car. When he was a child, he fell from a second-story porch at my grandparents’ home on Cherokee Street in south St. Louis, and it left him with brain damage. He has never been able to live on his own. But Gabriel is a vigorous storyteller, and even if you’ve heard his stories a dozen times before, you’ll ask him again, listening for the quirks of the telling, the details whose source you can’t imagine. My father gets wistful when he tells me about Gabriel’s stories: “They’re like fantasies of the life he never had.”

Gabriel was born in 1950, six years before my dad. During his childhood, my dad spent nearly every weekend with Gabriel at his family’s house in Cahokia, Illinois. My grandparents would play cards with Gabriel’s parents, while dad spent time with the boys – for Gabriel, along with his brothers Jerome and Sid, both born with developmental disabilities, were always thought of “the boys,” no matter how old they were. Dad especially liked spending time with Gabriel, because of their shared propensity for wild lies.

Dad and Gabriel would ride their bikes around Cahokia, usually without incident. But Cahokia wasn’t a big place in the 60’s, and everybody knew their family. Occasionally some older kid would decide to pick on the retarded boys, and my dad would be the one around to defend them – usually by yelling to hustle back home. Even though he was younger than Gabriel, my father always felt protective towards him – paternalistic, even. He had to. Gabriel couldn’t do it for himself. He wasn’t equipped for it.

It’s strange to think how a child’s instincts could shape my own life – how I, almost fifty years later, could be defined by one question asked by someone so young.

*                      *                      *

“Your aunt and I went to Sunday school at the Assembly of God Church on Sidney, between 12th and 13th streets,” my father tells me. That building still exists, though it now houses a different Assembly of God congregation. My grandparents never went to church themselves, but they sent their children, saying it would be good for their souls. “I think they mostly just wanted a couple of hours to themselves on Sunday morning,” dad says.

The children never went into the main church building. Instead they spent their time in another building, where they were broken up into groups led by youth pastors. They almost never saw the preacher himself, who spent all of his time attending to the congregation’s adults – the “paying customers,” as dad puts it. He was ten years old or so at the time of this story – “old enough to be larcenous,” as he puts it. “My mom would give me a dollar to put in the till. I would sneak off to the corner store and buy fifty cents worth of penny candy with the Lord’s money.”

The youth pastors had liked my dad ever since he’d won a contest for reciting the Ten Commandments from memory. He won a silver-colored ring from the contest, square-faced with an indented cross in the center. He remembers being so proud of the ring that he wanted to wear it all the time, but it turned his skin a greenish gray and smell strange. He was, apparently, allergic to the cross.

The youth pastors called the preacher in shortly after that. Every now and then, the preacher came by the Sunday school and trawled teenagers and promising children about getting saved. They had taken dad’s victory in the contest as proof of his loyalty to God, and thought he was a prime candidate. So the pastors put a chair before him, had him kneel down, and had him place his elbows on the seat, ready to pray.

“Are you ready to get saved, son?” they asked him.

“I wasn’t really clear on what that meant,” says dad. “People had talked about getting saved, had said they were so glad they had done it, but I didn’t know what it was. To be honest, I wasn’t really concerned with religion at that point. I was more concerned about comic books.” He pauses. “They played me winning that contest as a sign of devotion, but I just wanted to win the prize.”

So he asked what it meant.

The preacher straightened up and said being saved meant you understood and accepted a handful of things – things you had to say out loud, things you had to mean:

You had to understand that you were a sinner.

You had to understand that, as a sinner, you were bound for Hell.

You had to understand that only Jesus could save you from that fate.

You had to confess to the Lord that you were a sinner, and that only He could save you.

And you had to accept Jesus as your personal savior.

“They made their case on an emotional level,” my dad says. “‘Be afraid of this awful fate. You’re in danger. You need the Lord’s protection.” But their message relied on fear, and dad wasn’t afraid. “Maybe I didn’t know enough to be scared,” he says. “I wasn’t afraid of the devil. I was afraid of my father.” This became an intellectual proposition to him – an invitation to debate. And so he made a counter-proposal.

“What about my cousin Gabriel?” he asked.

Dad doesn’t know why Gabriel came to mind, though he guesses, it having been a Sunday, he had probably visited Gabriel the day before. He explained to the preacher about his cousin, about his fall from the porch before he could have possibly understood any of those questions, before he could have understood what it meant to sin or that he needed to be saved. It wasn’t his fault; he couldn’t do it for himself. He wasn’t equipped for it.

So what happens to Gabriel?

“The preacher gave me a look like they give you when your dog has to be put down,” dad says. “And he looked down at the ground, shook his head, and said, ‘Well, he’s going to hell, son.'”

“Then I’m going with him.”

The preacher tried to talk him out of it, tried to tell him that he needed to look out for his own soul, not to worry about the fate of other people. (This seems like strange advice from a person whose professional duty is to save other people’s souls.) But dad stood up and walked out, waited at the bus stop for his sister to come out. When he got home, he told my grandfather that he didn’t want to go to Sunday school anymore.

And he didn’t. That moment in the Assembly of God on Sidney had ruined him for Christianity. And although he could not know it – indeed, could not know the road it would lead him down himself – he set the course of my life in motion that day. I owe the strange chance of my religion to a ten-year-old’s question and a preacher’s abominable answer. I feel both horrified and grateful.