There is a picture of a group of people. They are standing in a living room, although there are enough of them in frame that the details of the room are mostly hidden. All of them are smiling, dressed in similar clothes, circling a simple altar. On the altar is long piece of fabric with a symbol carved in wood affixed to the front.
That is all I can say about it. I would like to print this photo and put it on my dresser, a signpost for me to touch each morning and remember, this is who I am now. I am in the photo, near the left of the group, standing tall and smiling. I like how I look there, surrounded by my fellows, and there are few enough photos I can say that about, but I cannot take the risk that someone else would see it. There are things in this photo that are oathbound: the symbol on the altar, the number of people in the room, the clothes we are wearing. Only those of us who have taken the oath are allowed to know them.
I have never kept a secret like this before.
I am not a secret keeper by nature. I believe, almost more than I believe in anything else, in the flow of information. My favorite heroes growing up were the fresh-faced youths of the black and white movies, infected by the fever of righteous journalism. “The people have to know!” they would say, crushing a newspaper in their right hands, their cheap suits belying a wisdom that had nothing to do with ambition or money. Mostly they were played by Jimmy Stewart, and in that they will always have an advantage on me.
I listened to my earnest reporters and I believed them. Secrets were the tools of the rich, backstabbing, upper-class man in the fancy suit, the sort of character played by Claude Raines, Sydney Greenstreet, or Lionel Barrymore. The best tool, sometimes the only tool, that our plucky hero had in his arsenal against such evil was the truth.
I told the truth as a matter of course, scrupulously, at length – and worse, I assumed that everyone else did as well. When Jeremy, in third grade, said that his home in the farmlands of Kansas had been the victim of an anonymous drive-by, I believed him. It didn’t occur to me until years later that the muttering in class that day might have been amusement that I had taken the bait. Mr. Ellis, whose wife sold Amway to my parents, told me that there was a dragon in a nearby valley. I believed him, even though he seemed surprised that I asked after the dragon a week, a month, a year later.
My ability to access that credulity has been a real benefit in magic. A willingness to believe multiple paradigms as simultaneously true has unquestionably been what brought me to eclectic Paganism, and has always formed the core of my theology. Until last week, though, I was not aware of the baggage that credulity brought with it, that keen-eyed, honest part of my trickster-loving soul that has always hated keeping secrets and telling lies.
I cannot give details on the oath that binds me. There are many aspects of the Fellowship of the Phoenix that are open to anyone on the LGBTQ+ spectrum, but the ritual in which I passed from being a Seeker into a member of the Order itself is not one of them. Every aspect of that night, from the moment I approached the door until I went home, I am sworn to keep between myself and other members of the Order.
There is a part of me that is intensely delighted by this. “I cannot tell anyone the oath that binds me.” If that isn’t the most fairy-tale-cursed-prince nonsense on the planet, I don’t know what is. These are the trappings of magic – groups gathered in private, the solemnity of ritual, well-known voices contorted around arcane phrases. This is what I have studied for years to enact.
On the other hand, like the fairy-tale prince in his bear hide, I also feel trapped. I have held many secrets in my life – heavy ones, secrets that have shaped my body and my name. They have weighed heavy, and I have spent years banishing them. Queer folks fall back on the phrase “speaking my truth” too much, but it’s a good phrase and a true one. Taking on a new secret feels like taking a step back into a time where I needed to measure every word against my audience and judge whether this was the proper time and space to say the truth.
“What do you think about the magical purpose of secrecy?”
We are sitting in a good, relatively upscale Mexican restaurant. There is a fountain in the center of the room, spotlighted beneath a skylight, with torrents of philodendrons dripping off of it. It’s daylight, and a little ways across the room a birthday party is starting to assemble.
“Uh,” I say. The vast majority of my knowledge, magical or otherwise, comes from books. “I haven’t really thought about it.”
My elder nods, and prompts me on. “Do you think magic is more effective if it’s kept secret?”
I think of the rituals I have planned weeks in advance, so that my wife will know to be out of the house. Still, I shake my head. “No. I think – I think it’s easier to do, maybe?”
They nod. “I think that things are kept secret to protect the experience, to allow us to be fully present in the moment,” they say, and pause. “I know you’re nervous. I’ll tell you what to expect in the ritual, if you want.”
“Oh! No.” I shake my head. “No, I don’t want to know beforehand. I just want some reassurance.”
They take my measure and then nod, spreading their hands. “What can I tell you?”
“Magic looks silly!” another elder tells me, when I ask him that same question. “It does. If people aren’t inside, if they don’t know, then it’s just so many costumes and strange symbols. Keeping it secret protects it.” He pauses, measuring his words. “And the act of keeping it secret makes it important. It gives it real weight.” He motions with one hand, as if hefting a heavy ball.
There are people all over the room, carefully curled around their dinners as they listen to him. He knows more secrets than most of us here and it gives him a power that I do not think is entirely intentional. “It’s psychological!” he says, grinning. “Yeah? We have to notice it, and think about the fact that it is secret, so it stands out. Does that make sense?”
I think about my best friend, whose practice is intuitive and done almost entirely in secret, who guards their words closely, even with me. “Something kept between two people is powerful,” they tell me, when I ask. “And it keeps others from messing it up.” Which is not quite the same, but it makes sense enough.
When I answer the question myself, out loud, the nerdiest part of me rears its head. What do I think about the magical purpose of secrecy? “I’m very postmodern about it,” I say, still not entirely convinced I know what that word “postmodern” means. “I think that, whatever you believe about secrecy, that’s true for you. So if you think that keeping a secret makes it more magically powerful, it does.” This is enough for the conversation, and for the person who asked. It is enough for me, until I think about it more.Here is a story that I can tell in its entirety, without pausing to weigh my words.
This summer, over the course of my first studies with a teacher, I was given the assignment of consecrating my magical tools. The ritual that I was given pulled from Wicca, Traditional Craft, and Ceremonial Magic – none of which are my usual path – to call on a god and goddess to bless the item at hand. I dismissed it as real “cup and dagger stuff,” but I sucked up my incredulity and nonbinary annoyance and got down to work.
My wife safely out of the house, I cleared out the living room and set up a circle. Four times in four months I called on my patron and his wife to bless my own dagger, wand, cup, and pentacle. Each time was a little easier, a little less self-conscious, a little more successful.
The fourth invocation was by far the best. I was familiar with the pattern of the rite by then, and I could relax into it, following my intuition to add a little extra offering here, a little more drumming there. A full head of steam behind me, I built up to the climax of the ritual and dipped my dagger into the cup of wine, enacting the Great Rite, the ultimate symbolic procreation – and simultaneously there was a banging at my window.
I froze, dagger still submerged. I was not naked- even in the privacy of my own home I do not go skyclad – but I was wearing little enough to hope fervently that the windows looking down into our garden apartment were closed enough to block line of sight. Never mind the candles, the brightly colored altar, the large knife poleaxed in the middle of the symbolic PIV; all I could think was how grateful I was to be wearing pants.
“Hey! Hey, are you guys home?”
Hector lived on the other side of the apartment building with his puppy (named Puppy.) He had realized that he could yell in our window a couple of months earlier when he interrupted a screening of Jurassic Park, and had made frequent stops by since. We always tried to say hello, but even if I had wanted to reply this time, I would have had to cross my circle to get to the window.
Never mind the ritual. Never mind the dagger, still in its cup.
I looked down at my hands and started to giggle to myself, careful to stay entirely silent. Oh my gods, I thought, the Great Rite made a child.
Another round of banging. “Hey! Hey, can you hear me?” I shook in place, closing my eyes. There was nothing I could do but to wait it out, dagger in hand, until Hector left and I could laugh out loud, breathless, and finish the rite, grinning.
We moved soon after that, and I did not see Hector again. There is a chance that he looked in through a crack in the blinds and saw me sitting there, entirely still, candles and all. There’s more than a chance that he had heard my drum, came to see what was happening, and knew that someone was home. But I stayed silent. I kept the secret of my ritual, but I did not – could not – stop the impact that it had.
I think that’s how silence works. The question, then, is how to use it.