Column: That’s Why We Call It Spelling

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A couple of nights ago, I went outside to say goodnight to the moon. The sky was covered with clouds, and I was sad to think I would not see her. Then, as I stood looking skyward, the wind shifted and parted her shimmering veil. Gazing at her beautiful silvery self, I felt waves of relief and love move through me. The moon and I have both been traveling, and it was good to once more be in her presence.

Although my body spent almost every moment of every day of the last year at home, during that time I went on some deep spiritual journeys. Now that I have returned, it feels like I have been on the kind of meandering adventure where I am surprised to find that the road has led me back to a place where familiar, established things welcome and comfort me. At the same time, I am looking at my surroundings with an understanding refreshed by a renewal of spirit.

A wish made on a dandelion [B. Rhodes]

I have spent the last two days thinking about that renewed outlook. After journeying 50-some years in this realm, it seems I have arrived at a state of being where I am more willing than ever to employ a child’s willingness to engage with the magic and beauty that surround me. Where I understand to a greater depth the simple foundations of some types of magic and the ease with which they can be accessed; that the stress and fatigue caused by living in a time of crisis can make it difficult to focus on any complicated magical practice. That embracing simplicity may be a key to personal peace.

I adore the artistry and pageantry of formal ritual: an altar set with intention, formal dress, invocations and chants, and sharing sacred space with people I trust. But I have never found that formality to be necessary for my personal daily practice. My go-to spiritual style has always been simple. It is a practical extension of how my relationship with magic developed, beginning in my early childhood.

My mother, who was never a practicing Pagan, taught me my first magic spell when I was about four years old – young enough to be put to bed while it was still light outside. One night I was afraid to be by myself and pleaded for her to stay with me. I remember her sitting on the edge of my bed; she held my hand and told me to close my eyes. Then she told me to smile and think about something that made me happy. She said if I kept my eyes closed and whispered my happy thoughts out loud, I would feel safe. She was right. She was right, and I learned that I could use words to change the energy within and around me.

Within a year of that night, I was deemed old enough to walk the half-mile to our hometown library all by myself. The first books I wanted to find were books about how to be a Witch. It is hardly surprising that a small library in 1970s upstate New York did not have any how-to manuals on Witchcraft – no spellbooks nor books of shadow. However, there were books about fictional witches and marvelous stories that fueled the imagination of a curious child. Once again, words held the power to open my mind and to create change.

The county historical society was also within walking range of my home. At one entrance to the grounds, there are two lion statues. I first met them while walking to church with my grandmother. They were looking at me, so I waved to them, and they whispered in response.

A stone lion statue by a terracotta planter [S. Barker]

When I asked my grandmother what they were saying, she told me to stop being silly. No need to write here about the ensuing discussion of why words from lions are silly, but words from her ghost church were not. The important takeaway for me that day was that grown-ups don’t always believe in real magic.

Later that week, I went back to visit the lions by myself. I could hear their whispers before I could even see them. Sitting on the steps between them, I felt a profound sense of safety. Unable to translate their words, I understood them anyway as I heard them with my spirit. These fearsome protectors were guardians of a gateway to the south, and I was safe while in their presence.

Once again, words opened my mind to the possibilities of magic. I had never heard of such guardians, but if those could speak to me and share magical secrets, then surely there were others like them. Their gift to me was the knowledge that there was even more magic in the world than I had dreamed, and I have never stopped looking for it.

Now my home is filled with bits of magic. There are altars and shrines, piles of books, and small artifacts and correspondences in every room. Rocks, crystals, incense, feathers, seashells, dried herbs and flowers, runes, written word, candles, bones, and antlers are all part of a tactile magical treasure trove. Each identified by a word, each word linked to knowledge or memory, each word a source of power.

By touching any of these items, I am able to use their energy to ground myself, to journey, to visit a memory. They fill the house and gardens with strands of energetic threads woven together to contribute to Bear Path Cottage’s living spirit.

My return to this place coincided with the return of spring. The warm weather and my renewed spirit pull me into my yard and gardens. I am reminded of a line from Thomas Wolfe’s novel, You Can’t Go Home Again: “Some things will never change. Some things will always be the same. Lean down your ear upon the earth and listen.”

Every day that I go outside, I take the time to lie down on the grass to connect more fully with the land. Sometimes I talk to it, or sing, or recite poetry. Sometimes I just listen. The land and every living being connected to it have so much to say, so much guidance to give.

I am pleased to find dandelions blooming already. They bring sweet memories of grubby little fists filled with dandelion bouquets, and each bright yellow head holds all the memories of my favorite childhood magic. An image of my mother holding a gone-to-seed dandelion in front of my face, laughing as she told me to make a wish, then showing me how to blow the seeds away.

I believed with all my might that those seeds had the power to carry my wishes to just the right place. I still do. Every time I see a dandelion, I see a wish waiting to happen, and I hear those words, “Make a wish.”

That thought and those words lift my spirits and bring me hope.

A sign that reads “gratitude,” with red berries dangling overhead [S. Barker]

Someone once asked me about what they perceived to be the clutter in my house. I checked my ego, then asked her why she liked to visit my home. “I like the way it feels here,” she replied. “Your house always makes me feel calm and happy.”

I smiled. “That’s because of all this clutter.”

She sat with that for a minute, then said, “Well, I get the stuff has a purpose, but I really don’t get the word art. Who needs that?”

It was my turn to sit with my thoughts. I considered the plaques, the runes on the door, the words on the wall beside my desk, the words on the mirror. I tried to explain to her about focal points, about setting intentions, about creating energy.

She didn’t get it.

Finally, I said, “You know I’m a witch, right? This is all witchcraft, and the words create the power. That’s why we call it spelling.”


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