From about 2000 to 2015, I effectively stopped any practices, reading, or art creation that was even tangentially magical, spiritual, religious, or philosophical.
I sometimes regard this as ‘lost time’ and regret it. But mostly I recognize it as a series of life events that just needed to happen on their own terms. And I’ve been profoundly fortunate, for this were all good things. I acquired a stable and fulfilling career, got married, had a child. And tragedies happened too, but the kind that are normal in the lives of most people: beloved family and friends died, and the usual phases of rebuilding after loss occurred. 9/11 happened, there were wars, national traumas and losses – and we all found ways to build new normals. I’m writing this now amidst the global coronavirus pandemic and protests against institutionalized racism and the brutalization of black bodies that has been a fixture of its nation since – well, its creation. Like many, I’m sick of saying “This ends now” only to have is continue.
But I remember my grandparents talking about World War II, my parents talking about the social unrest of the sixties – every generation experiences the sense that ‘things might collapse’, whether it was anxiety about foreign invasion, or a sense that anarchy would prevail over substantive change. In all cases, society did fundamentally change. And we’ve been fortunate – there has been progress. I have to hold hope that the national we forge now will be better than the one we’ve left – that I’m leaving my son and his generation a better society. But time will demonstrate if that happens or not.
Anyway, back to origin stories.
My mom died in 2010 when my son was two and half. She died of cancer, so I was grateful for the time I got to spend with her, knowing that it was short – but her pain and struggles at the end were hard to witness. Her death broke my heart, even as I was relieved that her suffering was over, that our grief could finally begin in earnest.
But her death put me in a crisis with the vague, secular agnosticism I’d gradually fallen into. I definitely started drinking too much. And I remember lying on the couch one evening, vaguely staring at the dark TV screen and recalling a memory of my mom. My brother and I were kids, and we’d just gotten back from visiting museums in New York City. We’d purchased a box kite from the museum gift store and, on a wonderfully windy March day, assembled it and took it to a local park. The clouds were low and fast moving – it’s always been my favorite weather, actually, where everything is cool and rich and green, made greener by the turbulent gray sky. I remember how heavy the kite was. Despite its weight, the kite flew beautifully, and the strong March winds pulling it up and up and up. The kite was this amazing geometric gift inside the sky, bright colored and beautiful. Perfect. My mom, brother, and me — I knew we all shared the same feeling, were experiencing the same beautiful tapestry of feelings watching that kite.
And then the string snapped.
The kite, severed from us, blew off into the low clouds, it twirled and flailed and then disappeared into the low clouds, swallowed up. We’d lost it. Lost it forever.
The animist part of me was in horror for the kite – it was of us, was with us. It was a family member in its way, and now it was utterly lost to us and alone – unprotected and doomed to solitude and a lonely, isolated death.
Losing my mom was exactly like that. Her death wasn’t sudden or unexpected, but losing her was having her disappear from me into – nothingness. To make it worse, she’d passed away while I took a week to go back home and see my family and attend to my classes (I’d been in Florida for six weeks helping dad care for her). The one thing I wanted – for her and for me – was to be there when she passed. And the morning I was supposed to get back to Florida, Dad called to say she’d died that night.
That memory of the kite, though — I think that’s when my crisis of faith really began. But it was another four years before the tearing down of myself began to build back into something familiar, but new.
Not long after my mom was diagnosed with cancer, I took up archery.
Between her illness and imminent death, caring for a toddler, teaching my classes, preparing for tenure at my university, and balancing all that with my spousal relationship, I was emotionally and mentally drowning. I suddenly realized I had very little left to ‘give’ and the usual recipe of eating well and exercising just wasn’t quite cutting it. I realized I needed something to basically sustain and feed me that wasn’t somehow tied to all the other demands of my life.
On a whim (and partly inspired by a character in Salmon Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown), I took up archery. I mostly learned from books and one beginner lesson, but was quickly hooked. It became my go-to meditation and mental quiet, and because I practiced in the woods behind our house, it became a way to be at peace in a non-man-restricted space. It taking up archery, I suddenly recalled things I’d lost as a child. As a kid, I was constantly, doing and making and pursing new things, from writing poetry and fiction, to taking up fencing (I literally used a spaghetti strainer as a mask and a dowel as a sword and books from the library until I finally found a church that offered free lessons) to making falconry hoods from old Arabic texts to teaching myself to sew – it went on and on. I was hungry for everything the world would let me learn, and I dove it all of it with a short-sighted fury. I seldom stuck with things for very long, but dabbled with a martial+jovial+mercurial intensity. I had a renn faire phase too (OMG, are there any pagan witches who didn’t have a renn fair phase? I sometimes wonder) and I got my first dagger there, which I was vaguely terrified of (even then I knew it had ‘something’ residing in it) and adored it. Decades later, it became my athame, and is consecrated to the Craft. It’s a keris, by the way, which is extra special to me. (Gerald Gardner wrote a pretty great little treatise on the keris – I’d no clue about any of that when I bought it at 16.) It’s one of those weird little things that make you realize just how long you’ve been pointed towards a particular path.
In taking up archery, I also realized how vocational (and, to be fair, familial) pre-occupations had shaved away the time I used to dedicate to my one-thousand-and-one ‘hobbies’. While I’d never lost that thirst for New Knowledge, in the interceding years I’d gained something equally valuable: patience.
Everything started revolving around archery for me, but archery re-enforces a quiet patience. You can only fling so many arrows in a session or in a day without losing mental and physical focus. Yet both mental focus and muscles build slowly with practice. Periodically, archers will do what’s called, “breaking down the shot”, where that rhythmic cycle of small steps which has been built into an instinctive dance is stripped down again to its isolated parts. You gradually build it back up again, step by step, each part of the shot cycle becoming a meditation – a series of prayers – that slowly manifest back into the dance – the same one, but somehow also new. Ideally, it’s a better one, but I love the process of unlearning and relearning. There’s a lot of slow observation, there’s an intense awareness of your body and its micro and macro alignments, its balance. Archery coaches talk a lot about chi, and whether you’re of a mystical mindset or not, that language is incredibly helpful.
Archery infiltrated everything in my life. I got all sorts of certifications, became advisor to my university’s blossoming archery club, helped them write (and win) grants for equipment, on and on. I slipped images of bows, arrows, and archery into my artwork where ever I could get it.
After my mom died, archery became a critical anchor in my life – in many ways, it carried me through those first years after her death. My family, friends and colleagues were wonderful and supporting, they wrapped themselves around me. Certainly, losing a parent is something most people will experience at some point, but I’m keenly aware of how fortunate I was to have the social spheres that nurtured and cared for me through that experience. I was definitely alcohol dependent that first year. But my social spheres helped pull me back and kept it from going down the deep end. And archery did that work in tandem.
Anywhere in my life I could fit archery, I did. And my husband – who’d never known me in my intense, flighty, hobby phases, I think was a little surprised by the whole archery thing. But he took it in stride, supported me in it (even as he didn’t share the same interest) and we even had parties where we’d drink his homebrew and take turns flinging arrows in the woods. (Note to the kids: Not a good idea. Nothing bad happened but… yeah, what can I say.) I’m primarily an animator, so it was naturally a matter of time before archery worked its way into animation. The imagery of archery — targets, arrows, bows — very quickly pointed to myths and deities of the hunt. And Artemis in particular.
Lunar deities are actually somewhat of a namesake. In real life, my mom almost named me ‘Luna’ after a Luna moth landed on her pregnant belly. She wasn’t into pagan things at all (to my knowledge), but I think she occasionally saw signs in things, as much as a rational scientist like her was willing to do. She envisioned me as a raven-haired, pale skinned moon-goddess-child. It didn’t work out that way (I was a redhead, but basically blond in my old age) and besides, she was worried mean kids on the playground would call me ‘lunatic’ and stuff like that. But my middle name honors Diana because she wanted to keep that connection. That story was always embedded in the framework I built for myself, but I didn’t much know what to do with it. As I got into archery, I felt suddenly tied to that in a deeper way – the autonomy of Artemis, her fierce defense of the things for which she cared, her wrath at that which incensed her. These features were becoming profoundly important to me as a mom, wife, and teacher.
So, I began working on a short animation that featured Artemis. Animation is a very, very time-consuming process, especially since (in this case) I was working in stop motion. For several years I was developing puppets of Artemis, her hounds, the landscape in which her animation would play out — I even made a puppet of her brother Apollo, their stories intertwining, even as they were each embodiments of autonomy – even sovereignty — to me.
All this together, it kind of makes sense that things that I fell (hard) into paganism and witchcraft at this time. I didn’t frame it in that language at the time, but I was engaging in an intense devotional practice through archery and my art. I wasn’t just sending out a beacon to Artemis, I was sending out a fucking floodlight and bullhorn. So naturally, that opened me up to all sorts of Things – and it doesn’t surprise me in the least what happened next.
I remember the date exactly, because I have an Instagram picture from that day. That photo embodies the cornerstone of my Crisis of Faith, and I love it for that reason, even though – let’s be honest, Crises of Faith suck.
I was at a regional archery club meet and we were all taking a break for lunch. While I didn’t know most of the members well, I did know a few folks from the university archery club who were also there. One was a grad student in religious studies and she was furiously working on notes for something academic looking. I assumed it was for a class or coursework and asked her what she was working on. She said something vague about it being about The Horned God. Unfamiliar with this (remember, I’m thinking religious studies, not Erica Jong) and asked her to explain. In hind sight, I think she was kind of annoyed, actually, because here she was obviously working hard to meet a deadline and I kept talking at her! But she bluntly explained that she was Wiccan and doing a talk about The Horned God for a local witch shop.
Let’s take a moment to assess words that have big impact.
Because this statement, coming from this particular individual, basically fractured in on itself, instantly reformed, and repeated, taking a little bit of my implicit biases and expectations of the world with it each time. My brain could not compute – but computing it was, as hard as it could.
I vaguely knew that Wicca had something to do with witchcraft, but, and I’m really embarrassed to admit this now, I seriously thought it wasn’t real. Like, I thought it had something to do with D&D or Renn faires or LARPing or something. Not, actually, something people really practiced.
You also have to understand that part of this collapsing-rebuilding thing that was happening in a very quick and instantaneous way for me and lot of this hinged on the fact that I really respected this woman. She was (and is) incredibly smart, an academic, took no shits from anybody, had a hilarious sense of humor, and loved archery too – she had her shit together as far as I was concerned. She was a normal person, doing slightly unusual things in a serious and dedicated way – she was autonomous. So to find out that she was also Wiccan was just — the association suddenly changed everything I understood (which was extremely little) about what it meant to be a practitioner of witchcraft.
Because look, those sorts of revelations can go two ways: either your perception of that individual changes (that is, they become somehow ‘less’ to you); or your perception of The Thing changes (that is, your previous understands are revealed as ‘flawed’ to you). The latter happened in my case.
But this kind of revelation about Wicca wouldn’t just happen to anybody, I’m pretty sure of it. I’ve been friends and colleagues with people who I really respect and admire and later discover are devout Catholics or Buddhists or whatever. It’s always helped me appreciate and respect their faith that much more. But it’s never been a ‘conversion’ experience.
This wasn’t an conversion experience either, to be clear. Conversion implies somebody is basically talking you into it, ha. What I was realizing is that this is something I had always been. I’d simply forgotten it.
I instantly needed to know as much as I possibly could about Wicca, like, instantly. So I kept pestering my friend and she eventually told me the name of the witch shop and suggested I visit (because, damnit, she had a deadline and that talk wasn’t going to write itself). After packing up my bow, I went straight to the shop. I shying bought some random books on herbalism, while staring wide-eyed and longingly at the books on Wicca (but not knowing where to start) and then went home, utterly confounded by, well, everything. I spent a lot of time Googling things, feeling even more mystified, and then went right back to the witch shop a few days later. I actually ran into my friend there and was able to beg her to direct me to some ‘good beginner books’ – because I honestly didn’t even know how to parse out ‘good’ in the context of a magical world view. I still prided myself on rational skepticism, and wasn’t sure if they were even compatible. (Short answer: Yes, they are. And I’d argue necessary, for many if not most forms of magical practice.). I knew my friend was a fellow academic and she knew me well enough to know how my own biases would play out when reading, but I went back home with a nicely diverse collection of ‘101’ books.
I read very skeptically at first, having a hard time navigating some of the practice from the theology. The theology I loved, and even when it didn’t quite jibe for me, it was like coming home. People say that a lot, but, at least for me, it really was true. The God of the Hunt – I knew that guy! And while the Goddess of the Moon was a little harder for me to grok (it was the mother figure part of things, personally) things rang true.
Once I had those first books, I also something even better: bibliographies. I devoured books from there on, I was totally obsessed. I finished the animation, but suddenly I understood it as a grand devotional act and I set up my first altars to Artemis. When I shot my bow, it was a devotion. When I ran, it was a devotion. And when I performed magic (which wasn’t often) it was magic as a devotion. And eventually this became magic as theurgy – maybe not in a strictly nonplatonic sense, but pretty darn close.