Origin Story Part 3 – The Great American Agnosticism

I’m very slowly building up to some planetary work and part of that is just following my usual M.O. of praying, talking to the spirits, contemplating them – it’s slow, but it helps. This planetary work feels kind of fast-track. I tend to focus on one deity for years (and, in the case of Wicca, two deities for likely the rest of my life!) So rotating between seven based on the day of the week (which felt like a logical start) feels crazy speedy. But I think the planetary gods are also somewhat more accessible simply because we have a lot of literature and writing on them, much of it right into the present day.

Anyway, I’m brought that up just because I was joking with another witch online how Saturn gets kind of a bad rap and how awesome he really is. I get so much done on Saturn’s Day: take the scythe to all the bullshit and focus. I love it. Yeah, he’s scary – but I don’t know too many deities who aren’t a little scary in their own right. Some a lot more than others, of course, I’ll put Saturn there, for sure. But still, maybe I’ll start up a Sisters for Saturday (open to men and non-CIS, of course) and we’ll just walk through the streets stone-cold sober with baseball bats and our sleeves rolled up. Just a thought.

But back to the origin story!

Growing up, my household was militant atheist, mostly because my dad was pretty, well, militant about it and there wasn’t room for discussion. It was another type of dogma, and I think I saw, even as a kid. Still, being any kind of atheist was pretty unheard of in my home town, so I still waived that flag, kind of despite everybody. (Tween-years, what can I say.) But privately I wondered about the nature of life, death, meaning, and the effervescence that just seemed to just pervade everything. I marveled at existence, but I didn’t even know there was such a concept as animism.

My mom’s take on religion and spirituality was a little more complex and, honestly, is still a mystery to me. She took those matters with her to the grave. My mom and I only talked about religion a few times, I think because she harbored regrets and the topic made her sad.

I know a little bit, though. As a little girl, she’d gone to church with her parents and loved it. In fact, she wanted to be a priest when she grew up. At some point, someone (if I recall correctly, it was the priest himself) crushed that hope. She was, well, a girl, so being a priest just wasn’t an option. I don’t know how old she was when that happened. I don’t even know what denomination they were. My mom was very private with grief. She told me that story once or twice, but I could tell it made her re-lived that heartbreak, so I didn’t press her on it. In hind sort, I sort of wish I had.

One day — out of the blue — she came up to me, handed me a bible and said, “You can read this or not. You can make of it what you want or not.” She never said anything else about it.

Humor me for a moment, regardless of your own beliefs and convictions: Imagine someone you love very, very much tells you that their greatest hope was to follow a particular religious path. Then they tell you they were barred from this path because they were ‘the wrong gender’. Yeah, that’s stuck with me, and the desire to somehow ‘shield her’ from harm already done has never really gone away.

But I don’t think I ever felt angry at her church – just sad. Sad for her, but also sad for whatever people certainly lost out by not having her as a spiritual guide and comforter. Mind you, she was an excellent scientist, academic, teacher, and mentor within the context of the career she ended up following. Her life was rich and full. But no life passes without regrets.

As you can probably tell, I loved and admired my mom to no end, and I think I too was drawn to spirituality, to the Divine, to The Thing that connects each of us to each other and to everything else around us – whatever we name that Thing, how,ever we identify It. I wonder sometimes if my mom still harbored a secret love for Jesus and her Lord. Probably, but I’ll never know the nuance of it. I doubt she prayed or read the Bible, but who knows? But mom taught us the Golden Rule and she lived her life to serve others in the ways that best suited her talents and skills – she walked the walk.

Fast forward, hormones happened, and honestly, a lot of middle school and high school is a blur punctuated by a pretty broad gamut of hobbies.

When I got to college, I had a lot of presumptions shattered, walls were torn down, doors opened – I don’t think you need college for those things, but if you can have the luxury of a college education, it’s really one of the key benefits, IMHO. In college I really re-considered — and eventually abandoned – any pretense of atheism and sort of settled into calling myself an agnostic for a while. I also started reading about Western philosophical traditions, dabbled in Buddhism, meditated for the first time, bought my first tarot deck (Waite-Smith), even started studying Jewish mysticism as a study abroad student – at a rabbinical college in Germany of all places and started reading about different branches and experiences of the Kabbalah/ Cabala/Qabalah. I ended up double-majoring in Art and German Studies (specifically studying the holocaust because I wanted to grasp the nature of how things like the holocaust could happen – my early dissatisfaction with concepts of Good and Evil, I suppose). It was a wonderfully, expansive time. But I really saw all of it separate from myself. Things to observe and consider from a cool distance. Not things to ‘do’.

Anyway, those micro-considerations of things connected to the occult, combined with majoring in art (which was/is Correspondences-Writ-Large™ for me), opened a sort of mini-golden age of almost-magical-practices. Maybe they were. But I didn’t think about them in those terms. The art I made, the creative practices I did with my then-partner, where absolutely magical actions, absolutely knotting a thread to the unseen around me into something manifest. But I don’t recall ever used the word ‘magic’. I certainly never used the words ‘witchcraft’, ‘devotion’, ‘pagan’. We threw around ‘unseen’ a lot, and ‘spirits’.

(I need to re-read those journals. Alas, they’re in my office, which is still under lockdown. Thanks, novel coronavirus, no thanks.)

My undergrad program was purportedly in or a near a sort of astral vortex’ (at least, my partner and some art professors talked about it a lot – I’ve never actually heard or read anything about it otherwise). But it sort of got it – it was a very uncanny part of the country. It was also around this time that I lived in a haunted house. We assumed it was a ghost, but I’m not really sure nowadays. At anyway, early on I had a truly horrific nightmare, only to wake (for real) and meet my roommate in the hall who was equally bleary-eyed. She began to describe to me the exact same nightmare. I was a skeptic by nature, but the details she described were precisely the ones I experienced. I haven’t had that happen again since. (Thank goodness. It really was awful.) There were other uncanny things that happened (I’ll spare you details), but somehow we made some sort of truce and more or less got through the rest of the year okay.[1]

When I got to graduate school, I got into alchemy and the art historical imagery surrounding alchemy. I don’t think I really grokked it in any kind of meaningful way, to be honest. Graduate school for studio art is very much about tearing down your own ideas and practices and then (hopefully) rebuilding them before into your thesis. My conclusion is that that works fantastic for some, and for others (myself included) it takes us years to ‘re-find’ a meaningful creative practice.

Despite this, graduate school clarified some things for me. On one hand, a sort of animist sensibility was very vogue at the time (I was particularly influenced by Anne Hamilton, Renee Stout, and Anselm Kiefer). By the time I got to grad school, this ‘gritty’ aesthetic and approach to art was falling out of fashion, and a more formalist, austere, and hyper-conceptual approach was coming into prevalence. In many ways, ‘high’ art is still stuck on that, while ‘popular’ art has evolved and is, frankly, much more dynamic and engaging and, well, alive than a lot of high art. (Sorry, not the soapbox for my rants about art and design, I’ll get back to magic!)

For this reason, I sort of struggled in grad school. But I had one seminar with an old, abstract expressionist painter who was very much a product of the sixties, and that course provided conversations which really fed me intellectually and spiritually for years. We spent a lot of time discussing the intersections of the ‘spiritual’, mental, and material in creative practice. I was a little outside of my classmates and professors even in that course: for them, the spiritual was heady and largely disconnected from the material, and that just wasn’t how I experienced either. But I remember one day we were discussing my work after a studio visit and the professor said, kind of nervously but also with a sly smile, that he thought maybe I was a witch. My friends all nodded knowingly and grinned at me, but I was just oblivious. I’m sure they all knew a lot more about ‘neopaganism’ and contemporary practices of witchcraft (and Wicca) than I did at the time. But I just didn’t know what to make of It at the time. I think I had a hard time grasping what they were saying because I already intuited a truth about it, but it was too deep and intuitive for me to really use in my creative practice (much less a magical one). (Amusingly, the professor went on to describe how he had dated a witch once and it was all rather scary, especially after they broke up, and the conversation wandered on to other topics.) My friends were very supportive and encouraged to dig deeper into what had been said about me being a witch. But, for whatever reason, I wasn’t ready. But that conversation is one of only a handful that stands out to me from graduate school.

One thing I inherited from my dad is a shitty long term memory. While many people can recall all kinds of details from their youth, I can really only recall a few. This has been frustrating at times, but now (at 45) I can take these rare memories and contemplate them like Aphorisms, slowly teasing out interconnected meanings. When I (finally) found Wicca, a cascading crisis of faith and self-historical unpacking ensued. It was discomfiting to the extreme. But it also helped me realize I simply wasn’t ‘ready’ for Wicca before I finally found it.

After graduate school, material life and practical pursuits threw pulled me very far away from anything magical or religious. The pursuit of satisfying employment, getting married, having a kid, losing my parents – the practical pursuits of just living one’s life occupied my brain, and emotional space. Secularism settled back in hard, and – honestly, it was fine for a long time. But the death of my mother unhinged that stability. But I’ll save that for the next post.

[1] Full disclosure, I decided to redact a big chunk of this essay which involves paths I didn’t pursue due to concerns about cultural appropriation. These were paths that were presented to me by spirit-entities but, at the time, I didn’t have a framework to support that kind of social-emotional-magical challenge. It’s still a challenge, to be honest. This redaction includes both a significant Big Dream in which I encountered a ‘god-form’ and a sustained project involving the Qabalah for which I faced some very mundane challenges which spiritually/magically lasted well over a decade. There’s a lot of reasons for this redaction, I’m just not ready to share them in the public forum of a blog. These experiences were highly formative, however, and maybe I’ll come back to them here when I have a better sense of who reads this blog. We’ll just have to see.

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