Archives For St. Louis

We Know Time

Eric O. Scott —  April 11, 2014 — 8 Comments
"Prosperine," Dante Gabriel Rosetti, 1874.

“Prosperine,” Dante Gabriel Rosetti, 1874.

I woke up this morning – one of the first mornings where I was able to sleep with the window open, the surest sign that Spring has finally arrived – and found it was still dark. I rarely wake up so early, and I took a moment – well, more like fifteen minutes – to lay there in the darkness, still beneath the covers, and listen to the birds calling in the dawn. After a few minutes in which my universe consisted only of birdsong and darkness, a sentence came into my head and began swirling around, like a song with an inescapable tune. “We know time.” It’s a koan that Dean Moriarty, Jack Kerouac’s trickster saint, repeats again and again throughout On the Road. “Everything is fine,” says Dean. “God exists, we know time.”

It shouldn’t be a big surprise that I am a devotee of Jack Kerouac – like many writers, my first encounter with On the Road filled me with shock and liberation, awakened me to possibilities of language and structure that I would not have thought possible. Over the years, I’ve come to think of The Dharma Bums as the better work in Kerouac’s oeuvre, the Apollonian remedy to the Dionysian morass of On the Road, but On the Road is the one everybody remembers best, including me. The peculiar draw of that book is Dean, who is charming and fickle, loving but selfish, and the spots of wisdom to be found among the chaos of his existence. “We know time.” An exhortation to remember how quickly life slips past, perhaps; or a reminder of how human existence depends on the progression towards its own end; or just a bit of truthful-sounding nonsense from a man who, viewed objectively, was an irresponsible, callous exile.

“We know time.”

I came into St. Louis a few weeks ago for my family’s Ostara. It was still cold here in Missouri, and snow flurries continued to fall until the 25th of March; it did not feel much like Spring had begun. Before the ritual, we mostly sat around the fire pit and tried to keep warm; after the ritual, most of us went inside and stayed there for the rest of the evening.

The ritual itself contained a passion play, as many of my family’s rituals do – Kore and Demeter, that foundational myth of the seasons. I called a quarter – West, which is the one I always choose – but otherwise had no special role in this ritual. Instead, I watched as my friend Megan bounced on her toes in anticipation of her cue to speak with the voice of Persephone. But before Persephone can return, Demeter must mourn; the mother must speak before the daughter. And in that moment, I saw one of the more powerful things I’ve ever seen in ritual.

I watched as Therese invoked Demeter. Therese is the high priestess of Watershade, the sister coven to my family’s Pleiades coven; I have known her my entire life. One of my earliest memories is of a sabbat held at her house – one of the Spring festivals, I think, maybe Beltane – where a food fight broke out. My friend Joe and I, only three or four years old at that point, didn’t understand the implicit rules, and started throwing apples. (My dad claims we started asking for canned goods.) When we talk about Therese, we talk about her as a mischief maker, a prankster, a trickster saint in her own right. That is our collective vision of her.

But she was not that person at Ostara. Her son had passed away between Candlemas and the equinox. I don’t want to get into it any more than that – I know how raw that feeling is for me, and cannot imagine how it must be for her. Demeter is a goddess who grieves for a lost child; Therese was a woman who had just lost a child. In the ritual, I saw the duality of the invocation – how Therese was not just a woman, nor even “just” a goddess. In that moment, I saw her, and I understood Demeter in a way I never had before. I was about to write that, in her, I saw the grief made flesh, but that isn’t right; the grief is the flesh. The myth is life.

The only difference is that, in the myth, Kore comes back.

“We know time,” I found myself whispering, still listening to the sound of the birds. I wondered how Therese had felt about playing that role in the ritual, whether she had identified consciously with the myth, whether it brought her any catharsis. I hadn’t thought to ask at the festival; I wished that I had.

My bedroom began to lighten, the black turning slowly to blue. I dug out clothes from the closet and dressed in the dark.

Time in Wicca, as I’ve explained over the years, is about circles, not lines; the wheel of the year turns, but in turning, it comes back around. It’s different than the linear progression of events inherent in the march from creation to fall to salvation to Armageddon. But there is no escaping the linear nature of the individual experience, either, even to one who believes in that cycle. A human life does proceed from birth to death with no backwards steps. Perhaps there are children who follow and continue the cycle – but not always. Sometimes, there’s just the line.

I got upstairs, made breakfast, sat down at my writing desk. Daylight had come, and the birds of the dawn had been replaced by the birds of the morning. I saw them dart from branch to branch in the trees outside my window. New green leaves had formed on branches that were barren a week before. Spring, here at last.

I found myself thinking of the nervous Kore, waiting to say her lines. I found myself wondering if even mighty Persephone truly knows time.

Author’s note: Some names have been changed.

Cheap plug note: Many thanks to my readers for helping to fund my research visit to Iceland! I’m really looking forward the columns that will come out of the experience. There’s still 22 days left in the campaign, so if you want to get your hot little hands on an ebook of my Iceland writings, and maybe a postcard from Reykjavik or other swag, head over to my Indiegogo page and donate a buck or three.

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.

 

Alone in the Garden

Eric O. Scott —  February 14, 2014 — 6 Comments
The Three Graces. Sculpture by Gerhard Marcks, photograph by Scott Spaeth.

The Three Graces.
Sculpture by Gerhard Marcks, photograph by Scott Spaeth.

 

St. Louis summer: not just hot, but humid, sticky, “muggy,” as we, the low-born of the south side, tend to call it. The world seems to glow orange under the proud gaze of Father Sun. On August days like this, sometimes the death of the Sun King doesn’t seem so tragic after all. He has it coming.

It is a little past eleven, and I am standing, alone, in the English Woodland section of the Missouri Botanical Garden – “Shaw’s Garden,” the other gift of our local saint, Henry Shaw. The year is 2007; I am twenty-one years old.

The English Woodland Garden doesn’t seem traffic like some other spots. It is a quiet, mazelike place. Although there is one asphalt road that splits it in half, a necessary blemish so that the trams and tractors can get across the garden, most of the paths in this garden are made of red cedar chips spread on the ground. They wind and twist around plots of dirt and greenery; black metal signs stick out of the ground and give names to the plants: a swamp white oak here, a dogwood there, a collection of bishop’s hats by your left foot. The dirt and the cedar steam in the heat, enough that my glasses fog up. The Three Graces, Zeus and Eurynome’s bronze daughters, dance together atop a stone on one side of the garden. Squirrels rustle past in every direction.

At the edge of this garden sits a wooden bower. In my memory, this bower was made of rough timbers, lashed together with ropes, the bark barely stripped from the still-round branches. The peak of its sloped roof was decorated with branches spread out like the World Tree. It felt like a tiny Viking hall in the middle of my city. I have been there in the years since, and that is not the building that stands there now. The gazebo that stands on top of my memory is sturdy and made of weather-treated four-by-fours and has metal brackets held together with rivets to brace its angles. Perhaps I remember it wrong; perhaps they tore the old down, or it fell apart during a rough winter. Perhaps I dreamed my Viking hall into being. Perhaps it knew why I was there.

I had no other temple. I needed a place to pray.

I stop at the threshold, place my hand on the rough frame of the doorway. Inside are two wooden benches, one to each side. The back of the bower has a railing and overlooks the last few trees and shrubs in the English Woodland Garden before the landscape melts away and becomes Japan. I first found that place the year before; I had come with friends from my coven. We were smitten. Sarah ran her hand across the tall beams of the frame and looked back at me; she seemed to radiate light. “I need you to build me one of these,” she said.

“Buy a house first,” I said, but I agreed to do it.

I sit down on one of the benches and look at my hands. I haven’t cried yet. I feel like I should have by now. That would be the human thing to do.

Two hours before, I had kissed you goodbye for the last time. I doubted I would ever see you again. We had been standing in the airport with your parents; you were boarding a plane for Washington, DC, en route to Almaty, Kazakhstan. You always said you were going into the Peace Corps: it was one of the first things I ever heard you say about yourself. You never said anything different, even after we found ourselves staying out talking at restaurants until we were forced out by the wait staff, even after I took you to a dance while dressed as a giant mouse, even after you realized I would never be bold enough to kiss you and so you kissed me yourself. I knew this.

You said you would be there for two years at least, but probably three. We had been together for nine months. The literary critic in me has always rankled at the symbolism.

I kissed you goodbye, and I watched you wheel your suitcase away into the bowels of Lambert International, and I rode in your parents’ SUV back to their house in North County, where my car was parked. I hugged them both goodbye – also for the last time – and drove back into the city, to Shaw’s Garden.

I shut my eyes, at last. Sweat pooled on my forehead. I sit in the muggy heat and try to focus. I begin to chant the names of the gods: I pull their names from my diaphragm like ohms, warping and shaping their names until they are pure notes that stretch as far as my lungs will take them.

I pray to Odin, wanderer. Frigg, all-seeing. Thor, protector. Tyr, oathkeeper.

I pray to Freyr, sower. Idunna, youth. Balder, martyr. Loki, changer.

And I pray to Freyja.

Freyja’s name rises from my belly. My eyes are clenched and my hands are clasped and I am not crying but I wish I were.

I pray to Freyja, and I think about you, and I wonder about what will happen to me now.

There’s a feeling, like a gentle brush of fingers against my hands, and I hear a woman’s voice in my ear. Trust me, she says.

If you say so, I say back.

I don’t think of Freyja when we begin to send each other letters that say how much we miss one another. I don’t think of her when my parents pull together the money for us to spend a week together a year into your term of service. I certainly don’t think of her when we break up two years into your time in Kazakhstan and I try – poorly – to start seeing other people.

It isn’t until you appear in the baggage claim at Lambert Airport and I see your face for the first time in two and a half years and we kiss each other good night on your parents’ front step that I think of Freyja.

Trust me, she says.

Last year, when I bought your engagement ring, I wondered where to keep it until I asked the question. I decided to keep it next to the statue of Freyja on my altar. Perhaps “decided” is not the right word; really, she insisted.

(Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone.)

(Also, today is the first day of Pantheacon! I’ll be there! Will you be there? We should give each other high-fives.)

The Magician

Eric O. Scott —  May 17, 2013 — 16 Comments

the magician

Your humble author.

The sewing machine’s name is Elizabeth. I am borrowing her from my girlfriend’s sister. Her manual, produced on clean white paper with green ink by the Babylock Corporation, refers to her exclusively with feminine pronouns. Elizabeth is a very talented seamstress. She will help me with all of my sewing projects. She knows dozens of stitches and has a built-in arm.

I am more than a little afraid of Elizabeth.

The first thing Elizabeth needs is a bobbin. I have never heard of a bobbin before. When I finally get the white thread to spin onto the tiny plastic cylinder, Elizabeth makes a noise like she’s being minced to death, feet first. I call my girlfriend in a panic, asking if this is normal. It is. Elizabeth just makes noises like that sometimes; she is an excitable girl.

Beltane is in three days. In that time, Elizabeth and I need to assemble the collection of squares and triangles of white cotton laying on the floor of my living room into a robe. We will also need to make a red overcloak, for which I haven’t yet bought the fabric. I also need to buy wine, cakes, plastic wear, ribbons, and at least five other items that I haven’t even thought of.

We are having Beltane in Tower Grove Park this year, in one of the beautiful, ancient Victorian pavilions that Henry Shaw bequeathed to future generations. I have been envisioning this ritual for months now: a sweeping ceremony, full of spectacle and pomp, set against the backdrop of St. Louis’s most picturesque public park.

It is supposed to rain on Beltane.

I still haven’t written the damned ritual.

I am not a very good magician.

* * *

We are going to do all the sabbats.

That’s a simple goal, but when I and the other members of my generation in Sabbatsmeet took it up seven years ago, it seemed scary as hell. I had never led a ritual before we did that first Lughnasadh together in a park near the edge of the city. I had no idea of how to write a ritual, really, and no idea of what I actually wanted in one. I was twenty years old and had no idea what I was doing.

I am twenty-six now. It feels weird to talk about twenty-six as though that were some kind of advanced age, worthy of an experienced master – I mean, I’m an adult, but just barely. But it’s hard to look back on your past with any other perspective. That kid thought he knew everything, but he was barely even sentient. I’m sure at fifty-two I’m going to look back at forty-six and think that guy was an idiot, too.

One thing that twenty-year-old me did was put a bunch of rules into place for our Sabbats, and I have done my best to honor his wishes. Sarah, my best friend and High Priestess, and I do one sabbat per year. That sabbat is always based on a particular mythology and its attendant culture. Everyone in our age bracket, a group that has had as few as four and as many as ten depending on the year, gets a part in the ritual. We don’t repeat sabbats. We don’t repeat gods. Not until we get to Samhain.

So we’ve had Norse Yule and Roman Harvest, Egyptian Imbolg and Greek Litha, always invoking different gods, always doing our best to do right by them. But we had hit most of the low-hanging fruit as far as mythologies go years ago, so we stretched our definitions a little bit. Sarah, being something of an Anglophile, really wanted to do a Victorian-flavored festival, and given my love for Tower Grove Park, I was okay with that. But what would we actually do in the ritual? What were we going to invoke?

And then I thought: the Rider-Waite Tarot. What could be more Victorian than that?

And then I thought: I don’t know anything about Tarot.

And then I thought: what’s the worst that could happen?

I am not a very good magician.

* * *

Elizabeth cannot tell me how to hem a neck-hole. Neither can my girlfriend, Megan, who is asleep down the hall. Elizabeth and I are running thread through the edges of my robe, folding the cloth over into something approximating a hem. But the neck-hole is a strange and terrifying part of the garment, and I’m afraid that I’m going to accidentally give myself a plunging neckline if I mess with it too much.

I look at the clock and see that it’s almost three in the morning. It’s the night before Beltane, and as much as I would like to get the Mystery of the Unhemmed Neck solved, it’s probably more important to get the ritual finished. I bid Elizabeth goodnight and sit down to finish writing the ceremony.

I was stumped by how to write a ritual involving the Tarot. The biggest problem, of course, was deciding on which figures to include. We don’t draw enough of a crowd to justify 22 named parts, and besides, that ritual would take hours. I have to cater to the needs of my audience of the young and the middle-aged; they don’t have patience for that kind of thing.

john fucking madden

Above: John Madden presents Beltane.

As usual in these circumstances, I turned to my father, who suggested I cut it down to seven: the trumps corresponding to the classical planets, The Sun, the High Priestess, the Magician, the Empress, the Tower, the Wheel of Fortune, and the World. (“Why is the moon the High Priestess and not, uh, The Moon?” “Ask the Golden Dawn, son. I didn’t make up that list.”) As it happened, I needed exactly ten speaking parts to accommodate my rules, and this gave me exactly that many: six trumps plus four suits plus one Maypole for the Wheel of Fortune. I declared this a miracle and accepted it immediately. We got together three weeks before Beltane and drew up an outline of the ritual, complete with a strangely football-esque diagram; all I needed to do was sit down and write out the text. Nothing to it.

I finish the Empress’s speech at four AM the night before Beltane. Only three more trumps to go.

the high priestess

Above: Look at that hat!

It is the day of Beltane. It’s cold, and the sky is thick with clouds, but it doesn’t rain. As people start to arrive, I realize that we’ve cast our spell too well: we planned for an English festival, and the weather has complied. As always, the danger of magick is getting what you asked for.

Small things go wrong throughout the course of the day, mostly in the realm of things I never got a chance to buy. Thankfully my friends are both dutiful and clever, and the only thing of real importance missing is a bit of salt for the ritual’s opening. More troubling is that we had not one but two people set up to play the King of Swords, and neither of them made it to the ritual. Oh well. That’s one not in costume.

The defects don’t matter much, in the end; they rarely do. Because when the circle is cast and the wind picks up and blows my red cloak around me, I can feel the power of ritual overwhelm me, bubble over me and drown me. When I raise my tools to the sky and call upon the elements, I feel them with me and within me, responding to my summons as they have my entire life. This is a thing which is always rote and always strange.

We take a deep breath, each of us looking ahead at the Maypole, at the Wheel, at the spokes on that wheel each of us represent, and we begin.

Sarah is draped in blue, her head covered by a hat in the shape of the three-fold moon. A hush comes over our congregation as she casts the circle. Sarah, the High Priestess, the Moon.

I, clad in red, the infinity sign on my brow, hand the Priestess her tools. All of the exhaustion and worry of the past few days melts away, fading into the ritual. I am ready now for the Great Work, the creation of something full of wonder and hope.

I am now something more than myself; I am Mercury. I am The Magician. And a pretty damned good one, too.

We each silently mouth the words in unison with her, the words we have heard so many times before, the most powerful words we know:

This is the circle.

This is the space between the worlds.

Here be magick.

Here be love.

So mote it be.

And, gods willing, so it always will be.




 

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.

Nothing pleases me more than to see voices connected to our community write important stories that explore our experiences, and the influence we can have on the world. Today, I’m honored to spotlight three such stories, published in three different media outlets.

The Plight of Pagans in the Military: Journalist and author Jennifer Willis, a Reconstructionist Jew with “strong NeoPagan leanings,” writes an exploration of the challenges faced by Pagans in the U.S. military for the Religion & Politics site.

Wiccan Pentacle Headstone at Arlington National Cemetery.

Wiccan Pentacle Headstone at Arlington National Cemetery.

[Stefani Barner's] experiences with religious intolerance in the military resulted in her book, Faith and Magick in the Armed Forces: A Handbook for Pagans in the Military. Though far from the witch-hunts of the past, Pagan stereotypes continue to be problematic, but perhaps even more so within the U.S. Armed Forces. Though there are now military chaplains for many minority religions—Buddhism and Hinduism included—Pagan military chaplaincy can’t seem to get off the ground, and until recently Pagan veterans could not have the pentacle—the symbol of their faith—inscribed on their tombstones in military cemeteries. But with increased accommodation of minority religions and a push for greater religious tolerance in the ranks, life could be changing for Pagans in uniform. “Things have improved,” Stefani says. “I think that we still have a long way to go, but that’s true for many, many minority faiths.”

For those who haven’t been following my coverage over the years, this is an excellent summary of the current status quo, and the struggles we’ve faced in getting to the point where we are now. An auspicious first story dealing with modern Paganism at Religion & Politicsa project of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics at Washington University in St. Louis. Be sure to read the whole thing, and share this on social media.

Religion at the Rio+20: Huffington Post blogger Grove Harris, a UN representative for the Temple of Understanding, and a member of the Interfaith Consortium For Ecological Civilization, reports from the Rio +20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development.  Harris talks about a side-event at Rio+20 where spiritual leaders could discuss changing consciousness in regards to the environment.

“In my work with the Temple of Understanding and the Interfaith Consortium for Ecological Civilization I convened a side event of interfaith spiritual leaders to discuss the need for consciousness change in our relationship to the environment. We have spiritual resources to guide us in this dangerous time that can help us enjoy peace as well as take effective action. Dr.Vandana Shiva advocates saving seeds, all kinds of the non-genetically modified kind that have grown food for humans for a long time. Jayanti Kirpalani of the Brahma Kumaris spoke of respect, respect for self, for home, for others and for the natural world. “We have spiritual resources to guide us in this dangerous time that can help us enjoy peace as well as take effective action. I was invited to speak on aligning awareness and action, and offered up a set of concepts: humility, intimacy, interconnectedness, acting into new awareness, composting as a spiritual practice, love as sustainable energy, and spirituality as nourishment offering freedom.” from addiction. This is my early harvest this solstice, the seeds of a book coming your way soon.”

Considering that I just wrote about Pagans and interfaith, here’s an excellent example of a Pagan operating on the world stage within the interfaith movement. Working to help bring our values of nature as sacred to important summits on environmental policy. I’m hoping that Harris issues more reports from Rio+20, giving us a Pagan perspective.

Open-Air Community at St. Louis Pagan Picnic: Finally, here at Patheos, Kathy Nance writes about the 20th anniversary of the St. Louis Pagan Picnic, which happened earlier this month. Drawing over 4000 people, it may be the largest Pagan event held in North America, one that often goes unnoticed by the rest of the Pagan community.

“I’ve been to 10 of our St. Louis picnics. It’s ironic that I lived within blocks of the event from the second one on and had never so much as walked through before becoming Public Relations chairman for the 2002 event, then staying on for 2003. And that I’d been asking, before that, “Where are all the Pagans?” and assumed the answer was, “In California.” I’ve been able to tell, every year, that there are people who are thrilled, even stunned, that there is such a vibrant Pagan community in St. Louis. I had some newcomers in both workshops I gave at Picnic. I saw and talked to others as I walked down vendors’ row. I’ve met a few so happy to find like-minded souls that they have tears in their eyes.”

Many of us, myself included, often fall into the trap of thinking about modern Paganism in terms of 3 or 4 geographical communities that have shaped our history: The Bay Area in California, New York City, or New England/Salem. Rarely do we stop to notice how modern Paganism is growing and thriving just about everywhere, like in St. Louis, Missouri. Luckily, Kathy Nance reminds us that sometimes our most vibrant communities can happen in places we might not suspect. For more on the St. Louis Pagan Picnic, follow their Facebook page, or check out MagickTV’s coverage.

That’s all I have for now, have a great day!

The Passing of a Pagan Music Pioneer: PNC-Georgia reports that Steve Collins, better known within some Pagan circles as Lord Senthor, passed away on Monday. Collins was a musician who played in the band Moonstruck, and served in the Ravenwood Church of Wicca for over 30 years.

“He was a pioneer in the world of Pagan music. He started when there were very few folks singing songs for the Old Ones and he inspired many others to walk that path. Everyone in pagan music owes him a debt. I will miss him.”Arthur Hinds, Emerald Rose

“I am very thankful for his years of service to the Pagan Community through his teachings, his music, and his leadership. I, like many others, mourn his passing, but take comfort in knowing that he lives on in our memories and in the many lives he has blessed.”Selena Fox, Circle Sanctuary

Plans for a public memorial service in the Anniston, Alabama, area are currently under development. For more testimonials and remembrances, please see the PNC-Georgia obituary. Further updates and news will be posted there. My condolences to Lord Senthor’s friends and family, may he rest with his gods and return to us again.

A Request for Healing: In other news, I’m saddened to report that Circle Sanctuary and Pagan Spirit Gathering Community member Ed Francis has suffered a stroke and a large blood clot was found on his brain. A healing request has been issued.

“On Wednesday evening, March 16, Ed was rushed to a hospital and he remains hospitalized. He had a stroke and has a large blood clot on his brain. There also has been some bleeding on his brain. Please send healing blessings to Ed: that the blood clot be safely dissolved, that the bleeding on his brain stop, and that he heal and recover from the stroke. Also send healing support to his partner Linda and his other loved ones.”

Ed Francis, in addition to his work within the Pagan community, is a local radio personality in his native St. Louis. I had the pleasure of meeting Ed at last year’s Pagan Spirit Gathering, and he’s one of those people who fully commits himself to building community, doing the work, and creating bonds that last a lifetime. His loss would be a staggering blow to his local Pagan community, Circle Sanctuary, and the PSG family. So please send out healing, and lets hope Ed recovers from this stroke.

You can hear a short interview with Ed, here, where he shares a memory of PSG from 1999. You can also read expressions of healing support, here.