Archives For Solitary

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.

This is a follow-up piece to the two-part series on solidarity written by Heather Greene for The Wild Hunt. There is a great deal of conversation taking place around A Question of Pagan Solidarity: Part 1 and A Question of Pagan Solidarity: Part 2, and this post offers a practical example of how solidarity can be experienced by solitaries, and how that experience of “solitary solidarity” can inspire those in the broader community to approach solidarity as a meaningful practice.

Solitary Tree

Solitary tree at Sunset (CC)

Some have asked, “How can we have a conversation about solidarity if we can’t even agree on how we define ourselves?” I’d suggest that having a conversation about solidarity might help us have the conversation about identity, especially if we engage with one another with the intent to experience solidarity, rather than simply define it.

I’m going to offer up an example of solidarity in practice, particularly solidarity for solitaries. “Solitary solidarity” may technically be an oxymoron, but so is “deafening silence,” and who doesn’t love the poetry of that term? An oxymoron can be useful, beautiful, and relevant, and I think this example of “solitary solidarity” might even help us discern a new way of engaging with one another in community.

I’ve committed myself in service to the Solitary Druid Fellowship, which is built on the concept of solidarity for solitaries (or as I often call it, congregation in solitude). Our solidarity is not one of a strict agreement of identities, or even an agreement about an identical practice. Ours is a solidarity build around the awareness of each other’s existence, of each other’s mutual needs, and of our commonalities. Our differences are respected and supported, and they do not threaten the life of the Fellowship, because the Fellowship is not built to institute uniformity.

SDF LogoOur solidarity is the grounds of our shared spiritual practice. We join each other in a shared observance of the High Holidays, the Sabbats, using a shared liturgy. But even in that framework, there is room for individuation. Some will be observing Imbolc, and others Charming of the Plough. Some will make libations to Roman gods, and others to no gods at all. Some will take the liturgy and completely re-write it, using it only as an inspiration for their religious observance. And yet, though all of this, there is solidarity among us. We are aware of each other, we are holding each other in a state of respect, and we are, if in this way only, united.

Our consent to this solidarity allows for us to step into an experiential reality of interconnectedness. We are doing something together, even as we are apart. Our togetherness is not synchronous. We are not coordinating a “shared ritual” at a specific time on a specific day. Our asynchronous observance is more of an agreement we make to honor what is meaningful to us, to celebrating in the way that is most resonant for us, and to steering clear of the impulse to fence one other into specific ways of being, thinking, acting, or identifying.

From the outside, this solidarity we experience may seem trivial. It may appear insubstantial enough to constitute “solidarity.” But for those who consent to being part of this Fellowship, which is but one model of how “solitary solidarity” might be experienced, we open ourselves to a different understanding. Through the doing, there is a new experience of knowing.

If I were to attempt to make this solidarity into a “Pagan solidarity”, or an “ADF solidarity,” I would be missing the point, and I’d be shutting certain people out. There are ADF members who are participating in the shared practice and observance of the Solitary Druid Fellowship, of course. The Fellowship is a service extension of ADF, so this is only natural. But there are also non-ADF members who are taking part. There are people who don’t identify as Druids, polytheists or Pagans, and some who don’t have a clear take on what the gods are at all. There are theists, atheists, polytheists and agnostics taking part. They are approaching reverence, albeit for different things. They are sharing language, even as they’re engaging with it differently. They are suspending the need to be the same, and in doing so they are opening themselves up to something harmonious.

I would like to see other experiments in solidarity. I would like to see it on a micro and macro scale. I’d like individual traditions to see how they can foster solidarity among themselves, and then see if there are ways to extend that experience of solidarity outside their boundaries. Approaching solidarity with other solitaries is an opportunity to experience solidarity on the scale of the individual, and if we allow ourselves that, perhaps we might begin to allow if for larger groups who identify differently than we do.

We might experience solidarity with humans who don’t look, think, dress, love or act like us. We might begin to foster a deeper respect for one another, and come to honor the ways in which we are unique, and the same. In time, this newfound respect might extend to those non-human beings who share our land, our water, our food, our resources. In time, we might find more ways to experience solidarity than we do discord.

Solidarity can become a discipline, like meditation. Seeking to know the feeling and experience of solidarity, to understand how it can be felt among a seemingly disparate, disconnected people, makes possible new awarenesses, new understandings.

How do we have a conversation about solidarity when we aren’t in agreement about identity and terminology? We answer that question by devising new ways to experience solidarity. We find the new way by making a new practice.

Then, we come to understand solidarity.

This, at least, has been my experience.

So I ask you —

How have you sought to create an experience of solidarity? Or, could you conceive of a way to do it? 

Can you imagine a way to foster an experience of solidarity with those in your tradition? If so, what would that look like? Then, could you imagine a way of expanding that experience of solidarity to those outside your tradition?

How would you do that? Through liturgy? Through a shared calendar? Though a shared language? A common practice?

How can you make solidarity happen?