I don’t have a conversion story. Other pagans always seem to have one – the standard narrative involves the teller seeking a change, either consciously or unconsciously, and stumbling across the book, person, website – some piece of information that solved the puzzle, satisfied the seeker, and created a convert. The standard story involves a conventional upbringing, perhaps some involvement with mainstream religion that leads to a combination of longing and dissatisfaction, or a lack of involvement that leads to the same thing. There’s the revelation, the moment of realization that there are real practitioners of pagan religion and that these practices bring fulfillment.
There’s a satisfying narrative arc to the story. When we first meet each other, the conversion story is almost always a topic of conversation. It’s like our secret handshake or something, and I don’t have one. All I can really say is something like “I’ve always been this way.” I can say something vague about having books by Gardner and Crowley, not to mention Tolkien and Froud, around the house when I was a kid and absorbing a certain mindset as part of my upbringing, though that has led to people imagining all kinds of lurid things about being raised in a coven of witches or something, which is not at all true. They seem to need something more dramatic than that. My lack of a pagan conversion story often confuses people who are looking for some kind of handle for me.
Here’s my story. I was a precocious and voracious reader. If it was text and it was in my house, it got read, whether I understood it or not. The first important book I remember reading was “The Secret Garden.” The Secret Garden had the important idea that nature was the source of magic and sacredness. I wanted to be Dickon and wander the moors and have animals follow me around – I could think of no better life, except for me it was woods rather than moors. I had no clear idea of what a moor actually was – I imagined it as sort of a large field. I would have been maybe five years old when I read that. I don’t recall if it struck me as important because it was a new and interesting idea to me or because it resonated with something I already knew by instinct. I suspect it was the latter but it’s too far back in time for me to be sure. I just remember that it was important and described something about life that I wanted for myself.
As far back as that, I remember being fascinated by the past. I remember being about that age and reading about the evolution of the horse (I did, and still do, adore horses) and trying to wrap my mind around that timescale and having nightmares as a result. It was awe-inspiring and terrifying to me that the very bit of land that I stood on had a history beyond anything I could imagine. That one still gets to me, though it no longer keeps me up at night. That concept was followed by another one, that of an unseen world all around. This idea was reinforced by everything I read of either science or fantasy. Brian Froud’s “Faeries” fascinated and terrified me just as much as evolutionary biology.
In second grade, I declared my intention to be an archaeologist. My grandmother, bless her heart, responded to this by giving me a copy of the “Golden Bough” for my birthday (she was the same one who gave me “The Secret Garden.”) I also read “Lord of the Rings” around this time. They made a great combination.
I was raised by Mother-Earth-News reading, compost-making, goat-milking hippies in the middle of the woods in northern New England. I had total freedom to roam the woods, and I spent most of my time doing that. I had no friends my own age (as you can imagine) so I spent my time out in the woods, reading age-inappropriate books. I loved Tolkien, not so much as a story – the story was much to big for me to actually absorb at that age – but as an atmosphere. I loved the Shire and totally sympathized with the hobbitish love for the land. I longed to be on a quest that took me far overland, on a pony, of course, to go meet elves. So I spent lots of time in the woods doing that. It’s funny what happens to a kid who reads Froud and Frazier and then goes off looking for faeries. They tend to show up. The woods were totally alive. That forest in particular still is. The trees know me and love me. I never had a desire to “get closer to nature” – the idea would have been absurd, like getting closer to my own skin. I still don’t know how to answer people when they say that paganism is about “getting closer to nature.” Um, it’s right here. You can’t get any closer than you are right now.
I mentioned Gardner and Crowley earlier. I wasn’t interested in them yet – the books were around and I was aware of them but did not find them absorbing or even comprehensible. I guess I was twelve or so when they started looking interesting. I read “Diary of a Drug Fiend” and felt as though I had fallen into a different yet keenly familiar world. I read more Crowley, and then found Dion Fortune’s novels, which were even more familiar and gave me an ideal to aspire to. I wanted to be a priestess. That aspiration has also never left me, though it’s worked out better than being Dickon or an archaeologist has. I spent most of junior high school in the Victorian era. I loved Sherlock Holmes, was obsessed with Oscar Wilde, thought Crowley’s poetry was spectacular (ok, I got over that) and tried to figure out how to initiate myself into the Golden Dawn. This was all pre-internet, so I had no idea yet how to find current practitioners, but I never doubted they were out there and assumed that I would find them someday. I got my first deck of tarot cards and felt like I had found something deep, true and useful
Socially, I was a disaster. If I tried to talk about the things that I was really interested in, people thought I was crazy or lying or boasting, and if I tried to pretend to be interested in what other kids were interested in I looked transparently fake (actually, I still tend to have this problem but I’ve gotten a better pool of friends since then). I was okay with that as long as I was left alone, which mostly I was, but by high school I was getting sick of it. Fortunately, by then Scott Cunningham was just on the scene and suddenly I had something I could talk to other people about. I was really good at reading tarot cards and had gathered all this esoteric knowledge from the books I read, combined with my deep experiences with nature. Suddenly I had a very nerdy hook. I went to the larger regional high school, and there were other girls who had read Cunningham and decided that they were witches, and we all got to wear pentacles and drive down to Salem on the weekends and burn incense and candles and play with Ouija boards together. There were kids who thought they were vampires. There were role-playing games. It was fun, and while I still found it kind of shallow and not quite what I meant at all when I tried to talk about magic, it was something, anyway. We were still pre-Internet (we’re talking late ‘80’s by now), so we still had the luxury of feeling daring and unusual.
(part 2 – adulthood – to follow)