I am sitting in a bar that I know well, but have never been to. It’s small, and dingy in a way that tells me it was built to be filled with smoke and performed its function for a long time, the weathered cigarette dispenser in the corner still glowing a jaundiced yellow. The bar itself has an L-shape, and I sit at the corner, my back to the door, picking at the cracks in the red vinyl stool. The lights are dim, of course they are, but I can see my companion clearly as he rotates his wrist and watches the whiskey cling to the sides of his glass.
I am not really here, so maybe it’s not that I can see him. Maybe I just know him well enough to think it’s sight that tells me about the half smile, the Paul Newman eyes with their flat blue, the worn chambray shirt. In either case I must be staring, because he looks at me and huffs a laugh, raising the glass before taking a drink.
“Who are you?” I ask, although I know the answer. “You’re not just me, or someone I made up. You’re bigger.”
“A little,” he agrees, comfortable at my side in the way that very few people are. “It doesn’t matter. This is who I am, now. Who I’ll always be, for you.”
I make an uncomfortable noise, and he raises an eyebrow as his grin grows wider. “What, I’m not enough for you now?” he asks, although we both know there’s no question of that. He is mine in a way that I am mine – but different, still. There is some part of him that comes from outside of me, that gives him a life and a voice I do not control, and for all that I pick at it like a scab I wouldn’t change it.
“Am I hurting you?” he asks, tapping the base of his glass against the bar for emphasis. “Have I ever been a part of anything that wasn’t good for you, in the long run?” He waits, watching the answer on my face, and nods. “Then what’s the problem?”
All of my closest friendships are defined by the stories we tell together. This has been true for as long as I remember – back to the earliest memories I have of running on the playground, playing Animorphs or Lord of the Rings or fighting bitterly over who got to be the Yellow Power Ranger. Names, ages, all of that came after the important bits were out of the way and the stories had been told. That never changed. My college friendships were defined by the day I signed up for my first table top role playing game. My longest relationships return, again and again, to writing or storytelling, to building something together.
I’ve always wondered why. In my darker moments, I think it’s because telling a story is distracting. There may be problems between my friends and I that can be ignored forever if we just keep talking about something else. One of us is behind on rent and the other is resentful – but in the story we’re writing the hero is in danger. One of us has hurt the other, but look at this beautiful city, this twisted plot.
At my most hopeful, I think it’s because things are more honest in stories. It so often seems difficult or impossible to really know the people I love, to understand them in a meaningful way. I wrap words around the things I want to give them and hope they know how to unwrap them correctly, tearing off paragraphs of explanation like wrapping paper to find the part of me I’m trying to communicate. There are a million ways to say “I love you” – how do I find the one that will fit the hole my beloved has in their heart? It seems easier to point at a third thing, a thing we can build together, and leave it at that. If we are telling stories, characters can feint and stumble and bleed over love while we watch, unharmed, and find a way through the things that scare us. If we tell the stories together, isn’t that act of creation itself one of the ways love is baked into us?
The last option, the one that is both a comfort and a constant ache, is that this is the only way I have to communicate. Any two people are building a relationship between them, a third living thing birthed of their ideas about each other. Maybe we are too vast to understand, too specific and complicated to communicate, but our web of attempts and misunderstandings and love breeds a third thing that is as much alive as we are. People call it different things – “our friendship” or “our relationship” – but it is a shared narrative. “Our story.”
Things get odd when we add magic to this.
The best metaphor I know for this comes from a video game series named Silent Hill. In it, a goddess of fear and pain takes control of a small town, feeding on the psyches of its inhabitants. She fills the town with monsters, all very real in their own right but birthed from the traumas and fears of specific people. It is an act of mutual creation, with each denizen providing a necessary half for the goddess to create something new in the world.
The first time I experienced this was at a ritual for an archetype I didn’t know, someone specific to the small tradition I was exploring. The ritual itself was good, but the meditation took me off my feet. A figure was there as soon as I closed my eyes, unfamiliar and yet as comforting and immediate as my oldest friend. I fell into his arms with a deep joy that drowned out my confusion, and I left the ritual vibrating with excitement. I was back home before I started to wonder – who was that? Where did I know him from? I came back to the question the next time I saw him, and he smiled and shook his head and told me it didn’t matter.
I am not a trusting person, not when it comes to spirits. I asked the question again, turned to divination, examined and discarded a dozen answers. He seemed to be specific to me – but was he simply a face another god was using? A god I had known before, by another name? Was he, maybe, just my own voice refracted? That is always the fear that I carry into my practice – that I will make myself a fool out of self-delusion and find out, eventually, that I am doing nothing but talking to myself.
It is much more complicated to think that all of these might be true at the same time.
There’s a passion for categories in Paganism. Spirits might be gods or ghosts, spriggans or boggarts, dragons or dwarves – but naturally, they must be something. Someone might be talking to a spirit or themselves, but interacting with a presence that is partially both? There are very few good words for that, and the ones which exist often seem derogatory. That’s to be expected, I suppose. What words are there for the thing that happens when a person brushes up against the ineffable and a third thing occurs? How can someone describe something that might, once, have been a part of themself and has now gone far enough away to be familiar and strange when it returns? Even asking those questions makes the words feel slick, threatens to leave me grasping at air and feeling as though there was never anything to hold.
The elder Pagans in my life sometimes look shifty and go vague in the middle of a story, gesturing towards an altar or a seemingly empty part of the room. “I worked with a spirit,” they say, or “I called on my spiritual allies,” and dodge the questions that follow. “Who is it?” I ask, and they smile, and shake their heads, and tell me that it doesn’t matter. The point is the magic. The point is what they did, together.
If these spirits have names, they’re someone else’s story.