Beginnings (Festival Experiences from Pagans with Disabilities)

This is a response to a call for essays about festival experiences. Please read the original post if you would like to participate.

Beginnings by Breyonne Blackthorne

My disability led me to Paganism in autumn of 2009. I so badly needed to feel a connection to something, and found myself frantically searching for a way out of my situation. I needed something, anything, to tell me what I needed to do, where I needed to go. Nothing in my life was working anymore. Nothing made sense to me.

One day while I was in a small, privately owned bookstore, I picked up the first book I could find, which happened to be Wicca for Beginners, by Thea Sabin. The first paragraph of that book summed up, for the first time ever, the way I experienced the world around me. It had nothing to do with my disability, which at that time was my world, but it opened a door for me.

I began reading anything and everything I could get my hands on. I didn’t have any resources for networking at that time. I didn’t have the money for a computer, so online researching and community building was out of the question, and I wasn’t entirely sure what I was doing on my own. But I definitely felt something when I cast my circles and called the directions, when I read my Tarot cards those first shaky weeks. I remember walking home on chilly fall nights, gathering dried leaves and pieces of twigs for my altars at home, feeling excited, like I had a secret world that was mine alone. After dabbling a bit, though, I put it all off to the side for a few months. I experimented with other things, still desperately, urgently seeking that contact with Other – humans, Spirit, you name it. Inevitably it all spiralled back to the centre which was my Pagan path.

In the spring, worn out from my efforts, I re-embarked on my journey. By this time I had a computer so I was better able to situate myself with other Pagans. I was still buzzing with the electricity of post-psychotic anxiety, panic and dissociation, but I had promised myself that I would try to reclaim my life. I discovered an ecofeminist tradition that held its rituals publicly, along with a few other traditions that were more, well, traditional and didn’t appeal as much to me.

I also discovered, in my online wanderings, BC Witchcamp. I thought to myself, Get out. You can’t be serious. Summer camp? For Witches? I felt I’d stumbled upon my secret world again, only this time it was out there in the world somewhere, a hidden door beckoning to be opened.

I found out about a Tarot workshop and registered immediately, though I was anxious and nervous about my lack of ability to read the cards without referring to a book. My concerns were put to rest the moment I walked in the door. Everyone was so laid back and welcoming. When we created sacred space in that little yoga room, tucked away in a healing arts building two floors above the bustling city street, I could feel the power. It was no longer some arcane idea for me, some vague assumption of what it MIGHT be like to work magic with other people, or the little tingles and apprehensive quivers of excitement I felt when I had practised on my own. It was vivid, burning, throbbing reality, full of life, full of raw energy and connection. I was hooked. When we all went out for lunch at a nearby vegetarian restaurant, I asked if anyone had heard of Witchcamp. Wonder be! Most of the people there had not only heard of it, but said they would likely be attending that summer. I got another thrill of excitement. What were the odds? It all seemed like a dream.

I continued to attend workshops and public rituals. I was offered roles at some of them, and volunteered when I wasn’t asked. I instantly fell in love with the tradition and the community. I had found my tribe. This was it for me, what I’d always been looking for.

I still had so much fear about mental illness taking over my life again, as it had the previous year when it had disabled me and, in effect, completely dismantled my life. But I talked about my fears here, with these people. I talked about the things I was facing, and people didn’t turn me away. They welcomed me. They shared my tears and witnessed my pain. They related their own experiences and struggles, and I came to learn that I was not alone, however isolated I may have felt. We laughed together, ate together, enjoyed tea and conversation and worked magic together. We shared stories and I began to heal.

When registration opened for Witchcamp I snatched up the opportunity immediately. I was still working at the time, thankfully, so I was able to afford it; the low end of the sliding scale was around $500 for the week, including cabin accommodations and all meals, which were cooked for us by camp staff. It would be held at Evans Lake, which I had never heard of. I had been meeting and connecting with other Witches who I knew would be there, so there was a small level of familiarity, but this was way outside my comfort zone. I had so many fears. What if I had an episode while I was there? What if something bad happened to me? What if I embarrassed myself or someone else? What if I had to leave? I didn’t drive; I would be getting a ride with another Witch from the city and if I had to leave, someone would have to give me a ride back out, two hours or so to where I lived, interrupting and infringing upon their own camp experience.

I shared my fears with the woman who offered to give me a ride up to the lake. Her response was that she understood completely and if I happened to need a ride back, she would be more than happy to give it, as likely would several others. I was flabbergasted. I still felt shame over the fact that I had so little control over my own mental and emotional health. It was hard for me to grasp that someone could be so understanding and accommodating about my condition. I believed it, but there was still fear. I still needed to feel like I could keep it all together, despite everyone’s efforts to assure and comfort me.

The day finally came. I was nervous as all get-out. I packed my things into my new friend’s car and off we went. The drive was beautiful: a clear sunny day, driving up the west coast, a part of the province I’d never seen before, through Lions Bay, Squamish, so many beautiful places. I was introduced to Michael Franti which was the soundtrack to our trip. We drove through wooded roads after the turnoff and finally up a twisty, bumpy, narrow path to the lake. Cell phone service cut out. This was it: the real deal. I was more excited than scared by this point.

When we arrived there was a lineup at the gate, which hadn’t opened yet. The woman I’d gotten a ride with already knew some of the people there, and they were exchanging hugs and greetings. I was greeted – and hugged – warmly as well, and I felt like I belonged already. I loved the laid-back attitudes, the joy, the excitement, the language people spoke. It was so personal, so open-hearted, so inclusive. I loved the way people dressed, the way they smelled. I didn’t have any ritual gear but others were already wearing robes, ritual jewelry, sequins, beads, tunics, halter tops, all kinds of things. I felt self-conscious at being under-dressed, but I would soon come to realize that the fashion sense at this event ran the gamut of full ritual attire right down to sweatpants and graphic t-shirts.

Once camp opened we drove down to the site. I registered and dragged my things out of the back of my friend’s car to one of the coed cabins, then wandered around a bit. It was beautiful: a tiny lake surrounded by land, half managed by the conservation measures of the camp organization and half managed and protected by the Indigenous people of the region. I was assured that there would be plenty of time for swimming, and over the course of the week I would, in fact, come to swim in that lake skyclad, under the beginnings of a full moon night, feeling the cold water on my naked skin, feeling like I was born anew.

The spirit of the place beckoned to me. I could hear the rustle of the leaves, stands of trees talking amongst themselves in hushed voices, the call of the wild woods surrounding the camp, that quiet little spot in the middle of nowhere. There was a great weeping willow at the edge of the property, near where the sand met the grass, down by the lake. I loved to look at it, to sit near it and absorb the ancient energies rolling off of it, graced by a canopy of slender branches that seemed to reach back to the Earth. I took a picture of it with my camera, took many pictures of it in fact. I realized when I returned home that in one of the pictures there are brilliant globes of light all around and in the tree. Faerie lights, I believe.

The Lady of the Lake reflected back to me an image of perfect peace, perfect harmony. I often went down and sat on the logs near the shore, near the reeds, looking out across the glassy surface as day broke in the valley, my eye drawn here and there to the ripples caused by invisible insects and the fish who jumped to catch them. I felt once more like I was connected. I felt like a piece of that long-ago child who had once been so firmly grounded in Nature and Mystery and imagination was free to come out of hiding, to look out there with me. I felt, in the closest sense possible at the time, free. I recall one morning in particular, having arisen just after six, dressing in a sweater and jacket and pants and heading down to the water. I sat down on the log and surveyed the scene around me. The sky was perfectly clear, a dusky rose-grey, the sun still behind the mountains, and the full moon still lingering high in the sky, the mirror opposite reflected on the surface of the misty lake. It took my breath away.

I was freaking out pretty bad over dinner the first night, and had to leave the dining hall. I went outside where a woman I knew was sitting at a picnic table near a great cedar. She looked just like Mother Earth herself, with her long silver-blond hair, beautiful blue eyes, round face, body wizened and more beautiful with age. Just seeing her calmed me. I mentioned to her that I was freaking out and not sure what to do. She talked me through it, asking if I’d had a chance to check in with my camp buddy yet, the woman who was assigned to work with me to make sure I got what I needed and answer any questions I might have. I admitted that I hadn’t, in all the pre-dinner chaos. That night before the opening ritual my buddy approached me for the first time and we had a talk about panic attacks. She said she had a family member who used to have them really bad and that she would be more than happy to help me in a panic situation. Once I heard that I was good to go for the duration of the week.

The opening ritual was incredible: one hundred and some-odd Witches gathered in a circle, with roles and themes, with the casting of the larger circle for the remainder of camp, the container to hold the week’s magic. That year the overarching theme was Avalon, and healing the Great Wound. It was beautiful. A lot of it went over my head, but I was enraptured nonetheless. I was amazed by the diversity of people at the camp, by the ages, the genders, the bodies, the abilities, the openness, the inclusiveness. And the attire! Feather boas, sequined pants, mesh shirts, women with breasts exposed through chain links, cloaks of various colors, patterns and fabrics, cross-dressing, costumes, masks, face paint, oh my! I was in heaven. I was at once excited and self-conscious; I had nothing to dress up in. I felt so plain. But among all the flash and flamboyance of some of the attendees, there were also those of us who wore everyday clothes. So I felt somewhat reassured.

Halfway through the week there was a talent night and live auction. I opened up the talent portion by offering a sort of story I had written, a piece of short prose. I encouraged everyone to make sound effects at the appropriate moments, and it gave me a thrill to hear people hooting like owls and howling like wolves and making crackling sounds with their hands and fingers and thighs, hissing noises for the fire. So many people applauded. And the whole evening was amazing. The laughter, the incredible creativity and talent, the love and support, the generosity, the warmth and openness of the people there, were almost more than I could handle. I remember on more than one occasion that evening looking around that room, wondering how I’d been lucky enough to get there, wondering how I’d managed to survive a lifetime without the quality of interaction I was witnessing in that little lodge. I was full to bursting with the energy of this place.

One of my cabin mates gave me a shawl of hers. I still have it. My friend, the woman who encouraged me to talk to my camp buddy, entered my name – and won – in a raffle for a beautiful ceramic bowl, which I still have at home. It’s filled with all of my stones and feathers and shells, things that I use on my altars and in ritual at home. A lot of people were checking in with me throughout the week, asking how I was doing, making sure I was okay, and did I need anything? Was there anything they could do for me? I wandered through the field barefoot many times, walked the trails around the camp, sat in the nuclear free zone, the amphitheatre, on the great stairs leading from the field up to the cabins. Watching people, watching trees, the sky, the clouds, and life unfolding before me.

I learned how to craft ritual at camp. Each night we’d do a camp ritual and each night I was inspired by the creativity, the power, the energy of the magic we co-created. It motivated me to invest more in ritual when I returned home, both publicly and privately. I learned that I have an important place in the world, even if I don’t always see it. I learned of the generosity of the human spirit, what we are truly capable of. I found a group of people who were willing and able to show me just how much I’m worth when I forget, to include me in things and not keep me on the outskirts. I found an actual community.

No matter how long it’s been since I’ve had contact with them, I am always remembered. I still keep in touch with some of them in letters and emails.

I will always remember how I felt then, so scared of everything, having such a terrifying life but surrounded by so much love. I remembered thinking back then that maybe, just maybe, I could get through it, could actually manage my disability. Maybe I could survive, or better. Maybe I could really live again.

Writing this piece is powerfully emotional for me. It reminds me of how far I’ve come, even though it’s easy to overlook that part as I continue to struggle daily with aspects of my illness. It’s a reminder of how much I’ve been through, how strong I am, and how many people have helped me. The covens I’ve been in, the camps I’ve been to, the workshops, the rituals…all of it. It’s a celebration of life and vitality. It’s a reminder that even though I can’t always participate in life at the level I’d like to, there is a place for me. There is always someone holding space when I can’t be there. Even though I’ve been out of the running for most of the last year due to various circumstances, people still call and email me asking if I’ll take roles in public ritual. Paganism has allowed me to finally, for once, just be where I’m at. It’s not about perfecting myself, sculpting myself into some image, some ideal that I can never possibly live up to. It’s allowed me to integrate a lot of the healing work I’ve done, become more intuitive, compassionate, sensitive, and open to Mystery and Spirit. It’s helped me to create a place within me that is open to receiving joy.

And today I AM reclaiming myself, one step, one day at a time. I am reconnecting with my roots: Nature, gardening, writing, art…the rituals that fill me up and sustain me. I love being Pagan. I love the celebration, the recognition that everything we do or encounter is in communion with the Divine, whatever our concept of that happens to be. Because really, it’s what I’ve always believed, long before I could put it into words, long before I felt safe enough to embody my beliefs. The taste of good food, the feeling in my body when I move it or connect physically with another person, the turn of the seasons, myth and story, creating art: all are sacred. Being uncertain, afraid, indecisive, sad, angry, depressed, anxious: all are sacred.

All I’ve ever wanted, my whole life, is to be free. I remember being a child in the tiny town I grew up in. There wasn’t much to do there, but the gift in that was that, as a family, our time together included many forays into the woods and other wild places. Oftentimes we would find ourselves at a site beside a river that tumbled down cold and clean from the glacier, the sounds of birds and other animals echoing back to us from the trees as we tended our small fire and cooked our meal. I would often bring my musical instruments and sit by the water and play, feeling transformed. Or I would wander the woods by myself, picturing myself in a different time, communing with the Fae and the spirits of the place. I lived in a world of imagination and spirit. I feel like Paganism is allowing me to reclaim that.

I love that there are so many Witches out in the world, creating change, making the world more liveable for every being. Workshops, camps, rituals, festivals, retreats – these are the things that build us up so we can be strong enough to do that work. These are the things that keep hope alive for me and others like me in a world that can be so incredibly difficult to live in. I thank the Goddess, the God, the Universe and Mystery for bringing me to where I’ve been. I needed ritual to help get me out of myself, out of my head and the paralysing fear and anxiety. I wasn’t bargaining for the friendships I’ve made and the experiences I’ve had.

References:

Sabin, Thea. Wicca for Beginners: Fundamentals of Philosophy and Practice. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 2006.

About Breyonne Blackthorne

I am a soul-seeker living in Canada, inspired by all things wondrous: nature, the cosmos, everyday life events. I was raised the eldest of four children to a working class family in a small town. We gardened and lived modestly, active in the community we lived in. My life is ever-changing: I have been living with mental illness and addiction most of my life. However, I believe all of this has given me a broader perspective and allowed me a window into magic which others are afforded. I am interested in social and environmental justice and devote my time and energy to doing what I can to leave the tiny corner of the world I occupy better than I found it.

Note from Masery – Breyonne’s has another essay (“Blessings”) in the upcoming anthology Rooted in the Body, Seeking the Soul: Magic Practitioners Living with Disabilities, Addiction, and Illness. It will be released in late 2013 or early 2014. Email me if you would like to be notified of its publication. tara.miller21 (at) gmail.com

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