Fifteen Years in the Wrong Shoes – part five

This is the final post in my ‘testimony’ series. (You can follow the links to parts one, two, three, and four.)

My family landed in Wales in the early autumn of 2009. It was a grand adventure. Husband had never been to Wales before; I had been once for three days two years prior. But the gods said go, so we went.

The rational reason for our moving to Wales was that I wanted to be nearer to my adviser and the academic community while working on my PhD. My area of specialty was the Virgin Mary, particularly feminist Mariology, and the woman at this particular university was one of the few people anywhere in the world focusing on this type of work. My topic was Marian co-redemption.

My husband and I love to travel and thought this was a great opportunity to explore someplace new. We went over on my student visa and our child was small enough not to be disrupted either in his social life or his schooling. But really we went because we felt ‘called.’

After getting settled, into house, into routine, I started work on my degree in earnest. I had an office which I shared at the top of the religions building. I worked in the mornings and my husband cared for our son, and then we would switch in the afternoons.

I began making some friends. It turned out that there were three other Feri practitioners in Wales (one student, one almost initiate and one Reclaiming Feri initiate). All were within an hour’s drive and one lived two blocks from me. Introductions were made by mutual acquaintances online. My first autumn there I had what was my first ‘definitive’ experience with the gods.

I started to sing with the Church of Wales chapel choir. Even though I was more personally identified with Feri at this point I still kept a toe in the Christian world.

But our time in Wales was our time in the desert. It was our crucible. The university I was a part of was merging with other universities and my department was gutted. My adviser was fired two weeks after I arrived. In the spring I lost my office and had no where to work or store my books. First the library, then my kitchen table. I transferred schools to follow my adviser. I ended up at a much better department at university in London, but there was no way our family could afford to move there, so I may as well have been back in the States doing the degree!

We had very few friends. The community we were in was not the best fit for us. This is not to say that it isn’t lovely and the people wonderful. It was a mutual ill-fit and an acknowledgement that Americans don’t easily fit into the British social scene, that Americans don’t have an easy place in a community carved up by Welsh-English divides, and that a family isn’t a good fit for a university culture. My husband and I spent A LOT of time together. Many of our weaknesses were brought the forefront. Our first summer there was particularly difficult. But by not having any other distractions we were forced to deal with things. We were made stronger as a unit.

My husband started his own business right before we moved. Building up his skills, clientele, and confidence while in a new country after having just endured a very expensive move meant we were barely scraping by financially. That was stressful.

And I got pregnant with our second child. One more complication in the mix!

My academic work was slowing down. My enthusiasm for the work was waning. I was tired of reading anti-feminist treatises – both ancient and modern. I was feeling more and more distant from the Virgin Mary. She wasn’t the focus of my devotion anymore. I wasn’t enjoying singing at the church and I particularly didn’t care for all the Lord-ly, kingly, martial language employed by the Bible readings. I felt really disconnected from all things Christian. Personally, I had given up on the term. I don’t know when it occurred but at some point during that first year in Wales I gave up using that term as a personal identifier. But my academic work was firmly and fully embedded in the Christian tradition.

Deep in winter, fully into my second year in Wales and hugely pregnant I started to wrestle with the idea of quitting my PhD program. The work that had seemed so important, the work that kept getting unexpected assistance when it got stuck, the work that had seemed so vibrant to me, went cold. I thought that perhaps this work had just been the ploy to get us to Wales, to force us into the verdant desert. I did a tarot reading about my degree. That reading revealed that for the sake of my greater spiritual growth I would indeed quit my program.

Now, I not only had to come to terms with shedding an old outdated self-identifier (Christian), but I had to wrestle with the idea of letting go of my PhD program. I have wanted a PhD since I was 12. I don’t know who I was trying to impress, but all these years I’ve felt I’ve had to prove something. To some one. Probably myself. What would I do if I didn’t keep going in academia? Would I ‘just’ be a stay-at-home mother? Oh, there was some internalized anti-feminist thinking I needed to unravel!

I spent a lot of time in meditation in the last weeks of my pregnancy. Our family life mirrored the pregnancy in many ways. Late in our second autumn my husband’s business began to take off. We were wrestling with the big challenges in our relationship and life together. We had little to do except ask the big questions and stew in the confusion.

Then the baby was born. It was a beautiful birth – a safe, healthy and peaceful home birth (a million thanks to the NHS). Spring was spent adjusting to this new addition to the family; I had to physically recover. And figure out what to do next.

And really, this leads me up to my first post for this blog. If not a Christian, what is my practice? If not a grad student, what is my work? This blog has helped me immensely with both of these questions.

The Virgin Mary will always have a place of honor in my home. I feel like she was the vehicle for a stronger divine voice (oh Mary, you are so often the vessel for other divine voices) that has been leading all these years. She was the way I could enter more fully into the Christian tradition, and it was through her that I heard the voice of the Great Mother for so long.

Looking back there was no single point where I decided once for all ‘I am not a Christian.’ It’s been a slow, but not unsurprising, reveal. In some ways it was like being in a quiet, safe relationship (Christianity), developing some new friends (feminism and Paganism) and after a while realizing that I’ve been in love with someone else for a long time (witchcraft).

I spent fifteen years in the wrong shoes. I am grateful I had shoes at all for the journey. I’ve learned a lot from Christianity – language, stories, myth, theological tools and insights, personal practices, such as prayer, contemplation, compassion, discernment, textual analysis, etc. But the shoes never fit quite right and I never thought to exchange them for a new pair. But now I’ve taken that old pair and retired them. I’ve got new shoes on. I need to break them in – or they need to break me in. But they fit better and I’m excited to climb the rest of the way up this mountain.

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About Niki Whiting
  • Zeb

    Have you ever had the opportunity to experience Native American religious practice? I only know it as it’s done by one sun dancer who leads a sweat lodge and prayer circle near me, but it really appeals to the same love of ritual depth, mysticism, and authentic tradition that drew me to Eastern Christianity. And it is a lot more explicitly feminine celebrating than Christianity. It can be hard to find authentic leaders who are not just commodifying the tradition or bastardizing it, and I suppose it can be hard for a non-Native American to find acceptance with some of the authentic leaders, but if it is your path a way will open.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/awitchsashram myownashram

      Hi Zeb. No, I haven’t. I am looking forward to exploring the traditions of the indigenous groups near my new home, but I feel no call to adapt or practice Native American traditions. There is a long history of white people appropriating Native American culture and tradition, so I’m wary of taking it on as my own. However, I am open to learning from all that is around me.

      • Zeb

        Appropriation is a concern that seems to divide the community of Native practitioners of traditional religion. My only experience has been of Native leaders who want to spread the message and ethics of their religion through its practice to everyone who is suffering from what they see as our diseased culture. Of course they want to protect it from commodification and misuse, but they don’t resist the interest of humble and earnest seekers of any race. But White people I know who are much more experienced in the practices than I am have met resistance, at least until their humility, dedication, and understanding was thoroughly tested. That said, the person who leads the circle I belong to is a white guy who has been sun dancing with Native people, and who now does prison ministry leading sweat lodges for Native inmates, so I don’t think a history of oppression and appropriation means we now have to keep up barriers. Not that you were saying that – I just know it is a fine line between cultural and historical insensitivity on one hand and letting White guilt get the better of us on the other.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/awitchsashram myownashram

          Thank you for that. It’s true that it’s a sticky subject. I aim to be conscious of it. Humility and understanding are good ways forward in just about any situation.

  • http://blackheartferi.wordpress.com blackheartferi

    This is a beautiful piece of writing. Thanks for testifying, Niki. I’m so glad to hear you are settling in and sorting out and moving forward. Blessings of Love and Power–Karina.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/awitchsashram myownashram

      And thanks to you for helping me on my way!

  • C Wolfe

    Have really enjoyed reading about your journey with Christianity. Fills in a number of blanks for me, knowing you now as long as I have, but only having glimpses of your Christian connection. Very satisfying to read the complete narrative and experience the moments of, “Ah, that makes sense now”

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/awitchsashram myownashram

      Thanks for reading along. Our time in Cornwall definitely inspired me to write this series!


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