This was unexpectedly hard to write and took far more self-examination than I thought it would. I was reluctant to post it because it all seems a bit too personal to be exposing like this. I’m not sure why I feel that way. Anyone who knows me well enough to know me as the author of this blog already knows most of this, at least as a broad outline. Anyone who doesn’t know me that well is welcome to all of this; there’s nothing here I can find any reason to want to conceal. I have actually concealed a great deal, as far as details go, and there are some very important life events that go completely unmentioned here. There’s nothing here that is dishonest or untrue, just some None of Your Business bits that have been left out. So if I’ve left out all the parts that are too personal, why do I feel weird about having this all in one place? I have no idea. It’s long enough that only a small number of people will read it through anyway, and you all know me already, so – so what? Here’s My Life Until Now.
All through high school, I worked at various stables and for private horse owners doing all the kinds of chores that need doing around horses. All I really wanted was to be around horses all day, and as someone with absolutely no money, the only way for me to do that was to shovel a lot of poo. I didn’t mind; horses were the best thing in my life and I like doing barn chores, even the difficult messy kind (except haying. If you ask me to bale and stack hay I will grumble and whine like a five-year-old. I’ll do it, but everyone will know that I don’t like it.) I like the simple rhythm of farm work and the company of animals.
After leaving high school I continued with that. There’s a form of indentured servitude that is common among horse trainers that I went to wholeheartedly. In return for my room, board, a very meager cash pittance and five lessons a week from an international-level dressage rider, I joined the staff of a boarding and training stable in Vermont. This job, or others like it (I didn’t always get that quality of instruction, alas, but I did eventually manage to get paid a little more) was my life for the next six years. I call it a “job” but it was more than that; it really was my life. That’s part of the deal. I lived it full-time, from morning feeding at six am to final night check at 10 pm. Any emergencies that arose at any time, I was there for. I had one day off a week, which sometimes I took and sometimes didn’t.
Some might wonder at this point why I went into pony-slavery rather than to college, considering the fact that I enjoy academic work. The short answer is money. I had none. My parents had none, and were not inclined to assist me in any way. I got the clear message once I turned eighteen that I’d gotten my share of room and board and that it was time to move on. It’s not possible to get financial aid to go to college unless you can get your parents to sign the paperwork, and they wouldn’t even do that (yeah, still a little bitter about that) and the high school guidance counselor let me know in no uncertain terms that I was “not college material” in spite of my good grades and spectacular SAT scores because I had no money and no potential for family support. I put college on the shelf of things I wanted but couldn’t have, like perfect skin or middle-class privilege, and let it go in order to do the things that I could do. It wasn’t all as smooth as the last paragraph might have made it out to be; there were times when I had no home to go to and no idea where my next meal was coming from, and my commitment to farm life was at least in part a flight to a form of security. If I worked hard, I would get fed and housed, and that was a good-enough bargain for me.
When I was living on the farm, I had no TV and a limited social life (I had one good friend and a few boyfriends during those years but nothing that lasted or proved all that absorbing) and total access to my trainer’s personal library, which was heavily weighted towards Enlightenment-era philosophy and eighteenth-century literature, which was a new genre for me, and the public library, which in that town was very good. I read my way through all of it. I think it was the closest I have ever come to monasticism, and it suited me very well. I continued studying nineteenth and early twentieth-century occultism. I actually read parts of “The Secret Doctrine,” and, really, who actually reads Blavatsky? I did! I read all the Dion Fortune I could, which was a surprising amount considering how limited my resources were. I also discovered some of the more modern strains of occultism and for the first time started to think of myself as having a religion. There was a limited sort of pagan scene in town, and while I didn’t have the time or the inclination to get to know a lot of people or involve myself too much in their work, I got to go to a few public rituals and bounce ideas off of adults who were involved in a serious religion, rather than the kids playing dress-up that I had known up until then. It was refreshing. I think they saw me as a goofy kid, which I was, and didn’t really know what to do with me because while I was genuinely interested in learning from any elders I could find, I was usually better-read than they were and managed to be both awkwardly naïve and gratingly superior at the same time. (I still do that a little. Maybe.) So I mostly kept my path to myself. I was outdoors all the time and knew the acreage of the farm where I worked intimately – I knew where the brooks and springs and ponds were, where the birds nested, where the deer ate – intimacy with landscape is something that I do by habit. I read Michael Harner and figured out that what he called a shamanic journey was something that I had been doing all along. I remember taking breaks from work to lay in the grass with horses munching all around me and the flies buzzing and going on little trips into the green. I studied tarot. I deepened my inner connections. I found Marija Gimbutas and through her, the modern Goddess movement. All these threads and connections seemed to run parallel for me, rather than linking together. I was learning and experiencing constantly, and yet the whole thing felt confused to me.
I am a very self-confident and self-aware person by nature. I’m quiet and sometimes shy around people I don’t know, and this can be mistaken for a lack of confidence, but it is absolutely a mistake to think that the fact that I am terrible at small talk means I am in any way timid or fearful. I like me. I trust me. I trust my knowledge and my instincts. While this habit of personality has generally been a good thing, it made it hard for me to find a coherent pagan identity. It’s a well-known fact the 90% of everything is crap, and I refused to accept the crap, even if it came from Big Names (like, oh, Harner or Gimbutas.) I had the natural arrogance of youth, and I could back it up with citations. I desperately wanted to find a group or a path or anything that corresponded with what I knew in my heart I needed my religion to be, but all I kept finding were people doing something completely different from what I was looking for. Instead, I continued to make it up from my own experiences and research. It worked, as it still does, but I wanted community and I had none.
On my 21st birthday, I started to find it. My horsey career and some weird machinations from my incomprehensible family eventually led me to rural Pennsylvania, where I met a girl who was to become one of my closest friends (Hi, if you’re reading this!) We went to the PA Renaissance Faire as a treat for my birthday, and that’s where I met the gypsies.
OK, they weren’t really gypsies and I know it’s not a polite term and all that, but that was their shtick. They were like a mini psychic fair in amongst the actors and jesters and dazed, wandering patrons. Their leader, the boss of the concession, was a real tarot reader. Instead of being all intuitive over the pictures on the cards and rattling off some vague impressions picked up from Eden Gray books, like most of the readers I had known up until then, he had actually studied and applied serious knowledge of the underlying system. He knew what he was doing, and he was picky about who worked for him. His gypsies were an unusual bunch, to say the least, but one thing they all shared was a commitment to the work they were doing. They really wanted to help people and saw what they were doing as a craft and a service. All of my current really close friends came as a result of my contact with that group. I immediately started dating one of them (not the one I eventually married, but that’s skipping ahead) and they became my social circle and my teachers.
After a few summers of hanging out with the gypsies and absorbing what I could from them, I started to take a look at my own career path and realized that horse-girl was not a long-term career. I looked at people who did what I was doing, who like me had no family money behind them, who were ten years older than me, and realized that I didn’t want to be that. No security, no health insurance, and multiple physical problems from too much hard work with large animals – they usually had some kind of substance abuse problem and lived dysfunctional lives. I had noticed this before, of course, but was young enough to think it didn’t apply to me. I got old enough to realize that it could, and that scared me. I decided to change course.
My (not really a) gypsy boyfriend lived in Philadelphia, and I decided it might be time to give urban life a shot. I was also old enough by now to be able to sign my own FAFSA, so I moved to the city, got a job at a bookstore, and enrolled part-time in the Community College of Philadelphia. I had no clear goals with school except that I liked taking classes and could do so almost for free at CCP. I still believed in some part of myself that I “wasn’t college material” and that classes were nothing more than recreational.
Being in the city allowed me to do some exploration on my spiritual path. There was a Tibetan Buddhist center near my house that I began attending on a regular basis. I loved it and started to think of myself as a Buddhist. Buddhism offered a level of depth and tradition that was missing for me in Paganism. I loved the meditation practices and the colorful art and the rituals of the Tibetans. I can still rattle off a hundred-syllable mantra to Vajrasattva.
I worked for a short time at a New Age bookstore. I was mildly curious about New Agers with their angels and crystals and channeling and all, and the store was associated with a yoga center that allowed employees to attend yoga classes for free. I loved the classes and enjoyed some of my co-workers, but the months that I spent there were enough to sour me on the New Age for good. Pagans could be wacky and Buddhists could be too serious, but New Agers in general were the shallowest, most self-obsessed, horrible people I had ever known (which is saying a lot, considering the wealthy equestrians I have worked with). Orthorectic yoga queens who nurtured their neuroses like beloved children. Sensitive New Age Guys who wielded their vulnerability like a club. Noveau riche social climbers who thought that spirituality could be bought and sold. Acid casualties who thought impassioned self-indulgence was the same thing as art. The opportunists who clung to and fed off of all of them. Unfortunately, this also tainted my experience of Buddhism. I tried to dissociate the two, but I couldn’t help noticing how pricey the various retreats and such were and how superior the people who had been on the expensive retreats and could afford to buy all the Dharma toys marketed to American Buddhists acted towards me. I was a young, poor and earnest seeker. I wasn’t looking for anything more than enlightenment. It was like being the girl who goes to the superfancy gym in old sweatpants because all she really wants to do is work out, while all the other women there knew that it was really about showing off who had the most expensive gym clothes and the tightest butt. The Tibetans themselves never for a moment made me feel this way and my teacher was always encouraging and complimentary towards me, but I found myself feeling more and more distanced from the other Westerners who attended the center.
By now, I was just confused. I kept up my Buddhist practices because I liked them, but I didn’t find the deep sense of connection with those gods that I felt with the Western deities. I found modern Pagan practices, which in my experience at that point were mostly Cunningham-style pseudo-Wicca, to be shallow and ineffective compared to what Buddhism offered. I still thought of myself as Pagan but felt frustrated by the limits I experienced in actually doing Paganism. I think, in retrospect, it was a social rather than a religious problem. I knew the gods. I knew how to look to them and how to create a practice for myself. I just didn’t think of it as real or significant because it didn’t match what I saw other people doing.
Then I went to Starwood for the first time and started to figure it out. (We’re up to 1999 now, for those keeping score at home.) Starwood is a big Pagan festival that happens every summer the week of my birthday in upstate New York. By this time, I had parted ways amicably with my boyfriend and taken up with another from the same social circle, the Tarot master from the Ren Faire. We had both been through all sorts of ups and downs in the years we’d known each other and stayed friends through it all, and suddenly it just occurred to us both one spring equinox that we belonged together. So we were. It’s still working. Anyway, when we started going out he insisted on taking me to Starwood. I had perhaps the most fun I had ever had in my entire life up to that point. More importantly, I finally met the “real” Pagans that I had been convinced were out there all along. I experienced rituals, both public and private, from various traditions. I met people whose names I only had known from books, heard lectures, asked questions. Intelligent, down-to-earth, fun, wise, silly, spiritual, gorgeous Pagans. And I was one of them. When we went again the next year, we got handfasted.
Around the same time, I discovered the work of Susun Weed and finally got myself a spiritual teacher that I could relate to. The Tibetans were wonderful but alien. The writers were all just words on pages. Susun is someone I could be when I grow up, if I was more badass and wise. She taught that herbalism is all about getting out in the sunshine and the rain and getting the dirt and the sap under your fingernails and smelling like earth and dandelion milk and getting stung by nettles and caught on raspberry thorns. It’s not pills in jars or standardized extracts or something that happens in a lab; it’s what you do when you get out there and make friends and allies with plants on their own terms. It was a kind of wisdom I knew from my time in the forest as a kid, but brought into adult awareness.
My new man owned his own house and, though not exactly wealthy, was financially secure enough that I could live with him without working. I continued to work for a while because I wasn’t comfortable with that, but the retail book trade is not a career and I still wanted the college thing. One day one of my professors asked to meet with me. He asked me, “What do you want to do with your future?”
I hemmed and hawed and said something about wanting to study psychology since it seemed interesting and was a steady career. He gave me this raised-eyebrow look that I adore him for to this day and said, “No, I asked you, what do you want to do? Really want to do?”
I said, without even thinking, “I want to be an archeologist.”
“There,” he said, “was that so hard to admit? OK, there are a couple of good schools in the area for that, which one do you want to go to?”
Remembering the raised eyebrow, I told him the truth. I thought it was far out of my league academically and financially, and that he would laugh and suggest something a few notches down. “OK,” he said. “Get the application materials together and I’ll write you a recommendation. That’s exactly the right place for you.”
So I applied to go to my dream school to study my dream subject. I got in and I got the financial aid I needed. Between the good words from my CCP profs and the stability of having a roof over my head and food on my table provided by my husband-to-be, I was finally able to go to school full-time. It happened just like that, just from finally telling someone who was in a position to help the truth about what I wanted. I didn’t actually major in archeology. Within two weeks I changed over to classical studies because then I could just take Greek classes all the time, and we had a classics professor who was an expert on ancient magic and Orphism and I wanted to pick his brains more than the archeologist’s brains. Archeology was more technical than I wanted it to be. What I really wanted to do was read, and I got to do a whole lot of that. I spent some very happy years at a beautiful school for rich nerdy girls and eventually graduated with a degree in classical literature and an archaeology minor.
In the meantime, I started taking belly dance classes and wound up forming a women’s spirituality group with half of my class. We met once a month for ritual and study. It was my first experience at facilitating a group like that, and I really liked it. It helped that we all were in the same dance class (and the teacher was a member as well) so we often did movement-oriented ritual. It was great. It broke up after about a year in the way that I was to learn these groups tended to do, not with any great drama but just with quiet drift as people’s lives changed. It set the pattern for what I came to look for in a spiritual group. Small enough to be intimate but large enough for diversity, with leadership as a constantly shifting role shared throughout the group rather than a central authority, and true earnestness of spiritual seeking without egotistic competition. This is what I still see as the true heart of Pagan practice – small, personal, honest groups of people working side-by-side with respect and patience with one another. This personal creation of religious practice, constantly evolving and shifting and changing, but centered around a basic equilibrium of love for “earth our mother and all goodness.”
I’m getting a bit close to the recent past here – this is still five years ago, but I’m getting close. There were two other groups after the dance group before I found Druidry, both with similar patterns of forming and un-forming though each with their own unique focus, one specifically focused on the Greek pantheon and one that became a sort of a teaching group, though I refused to call myself “teacher.” I kept going to Pagan gatherings and finding a stronger identity within the community each time. Finding Druidry gave me a name for my path and led me to my latest group, Darach Dubh, but that’s all chronicled within the time frame of this blog.
In the comments for the first half of this story, a couple of people noted that “conversion” wasn’t the right word for what many Pagans describe. “Homecoming” was suggested as a better term, and I have to agree with that. Most of us have known all along what we were and wanted to be, but like I often was, didn’t know how to go about it or what to call it. I’m getting more comfortable was the years go by with not calling it anything in particular, but I’m really glad to have found the Druid community and to be part of them.