I’ve tried to write this article three different times. The first two attempts weren’t bad articles but they simply couldn’t convey the week I had. It was unexpected, life-changing and beautiful. So forgive me if at times I write emotionally and ecstatically and poetically and in a rather rambling way. Perhaps once I have that out of my system I can analyze the experience more objectively.
After over 9 years as a solitary, over a year involved in local Pagan groups and my Google-all-things-Pagan prowess, I thought I was prepared for my first Pagan festival: Pagan Spirit Gathering 2010. No big deal, I’d keep a journal and then come back here to fill you in on what you missed. I was cynical and my friends can attest I was less than enthused about the trip. In other words, I was completely unprepared to have a life-changing experience and now I feel I lack the language to convey my experience to you.
The feeling of living with Pagans for 8 days is an unbelievable high. Sure, it was also unbelievably hot but for me that was part of the Summer Solstice experience. I expected to camp out at a country fair/psychic fair type event. What I found was living breathing community, in the very deepest sense of the word. There was an overwhelming feeling of safety, harmony, friendliness, reverence and good humor. Yes, I realize that this sounds like a cult or the opening sequence of a horror movie, but trust me, this was the real deal.
There was an incredibly diverse group of participants: GLBT, poly families, nudists, 12-step folks and people of various traditions, ethnicities, shapes, sizes and backgrounds. Imagine 900+ such diverse folks crafting a community of love and tolerance in humid mid-to-high 90’s for 8 days. Imagine this community runs smoothly and events consistently happen on time. Imagine the highlight of the day for quite a few folks is a meeting!
Now imagine that these huge rituals with hundreds of participants run smoothly, are deeply meaningful and leave you feeling like you’ve experienced something extraordinary. The opening ritual featured a bonfire shooting sparks to the stars that made me feel very close to the Gods. It honored every tradition and country present and made it quite clear I was in for a unique experience. The Solstice morning ritual was lovely and funny as we each stepped forward to honor the rising sun, asking him to shine down on us, just a little less brightly. Even I participated by stepping forward to sing “We All Come From The Sun God”. The women’s ritual was intense and the power was incredible. The main ritual left me permanently altered. There are very few moments in our lives that are absolutely perfect. For me, winding into that ritual in a joyous spiral dance was one of them.
Oh and then there were about 130 workshops with on such various topics as New Media, Prison Chaplaincy, Making Dreamcatchers, Bardic Arts, Pagan Ethics, Making Goddess Flags, Devotional Dance, Home Blessings, Public Relations, Didgeridoo Healing, Gemstones, Pagan Academics, Runes, Warrior Blessings, Drama In Ritual and many more!
All of the authors and presenters were very friendly and approachable in a way I had not anticipated. Selena Fox, Circle Sanctuary ministers and PSG staff were warm, welcoming wonderful people.
Did I mention the music? Damh the Bard, Coyote Run, Arthur Hinds, Murphy’s Midnight Rounders, and Shibaten were just a few of the musicians performing. There was music all day long. Generally two shows on the main stage, music at morning meetings and a late night show at The Gathering Place.
Add in the beautiful surroundings of Camp Zoe, the kindness of Camp Zoe staff, and the presence of warm showers and flush toilets, I fell in love with PSG. Adjusting to my normal life isn’t easy after spending a week at PSG.
PSG revealed the lack of the sacred in my everyday life. I miss the drums. I miss my neighbors. I miss rituals by firelight that left me exhausted and whole. Here in this house I don’t have to haul my daily drinking water uphill, or hike up and down a hill to take a shower. I even have working fans and air conditioning, as well as a reliable internet connection. I don’t share a bathroom with anyone and I can’t hear anything from the outside world in my bedroom. My life lacks vitality.
How do I bring the magic home? Can I really dance and chant around the fire ring in the backyard for hours? Of course not, it would upset the neighbors. Can I drum in the morning to start my day? My nightowl roommates would hardly thank me. This life of convenience has no community incentive, no village activities.
The world is lacking in beauty after PSG. There the men and women were natural, colorful, vibrant and lovely. Here we are bland, mundane and uninspired. We awaken to alarm clocks, not syncopated drum beats. We use coffee to wake up, not ecstatic dance. We dress to be acceptable, not to be vibrant and comfortable. We mumble along to the radio, instead of chanting loud and proud in a crowd. We depend on electric lights instead of enjoying the luminescence of firelight and moonlight.
Though I can infuse my own life with the sacred I will not feel that reciprocated in my surrounding community. Though T. Thorn Coyle, who was a fantastic presenter and wrote two lovely posts on PSG at her blog, makes a valid point that the groupthink that produces phrases like “Welcome Home!” and “Our Tribe!” can be a cause of concern, the fact that many of us have no community that even remotely resembles PSG makes that feeling of family, community and homecoming not only understandable, but necessary. For some of us this is the only place we find of pure acceptance and belonging, and it is like water to a parched soul.
One of the most impressive things about PSG were the Rites of Passage for men and women. Even solitaries could be welcomed into the circle of women, take the tests of the men’s rites of passage, be croned or handfasted with the support of a loving community. In fact I witnessed a handfasting and a proposal while I was there, and felt enriched for the experience.
It felt good to be in a community that embraced the masculine as well as the feminine. I’ve written before about how I am closer to male Gods than female Goddesses (although I’m currently trying to strike more balance in my spiritual life), so it was good to see rituals with both yang and yin energy, to see the God honored as well as the Goddess.
It felt good to be in a community that honored many different kinds of relationships. I heard “my partner” far more often than “my husband” or “my wife” regardless of whether or not the couple was married or of mixed genders. It felt good to hear people speak openly about polyamory and to disrobe without concern if they felt so inclined. After a few days at a clothing-optional festival you find the things people wear are far more interesting than the things they don’t. Naked is actually kind of boring.
It felt good to utterly exhaust myself in ritual. The spiral dance at the last ritual felt like an endurance test and I strove to dance and sing and push my body to ecstatic exuberance. From winding into ritual space between such amazing people as Jason and Zan to chanting about the power of women while rocking ecstatically back and forth with Misty, I pushed myself to limits further than I expected in tribute to my Gods, community and my own understanding. I cannot recall the last time I prayed as fervently as I did during that last ritual.
I sank into bed every night knowing I had lived to my fullest during that day, even though I could only accomplish perhaps 10% of what I wanted to do. Oh the things I long to do next year! The redneck ritual, both of Pan’s balls (he has two, you know), more workshops, the Sacred Hunt, witnessing Rites of Passage, dancing ecstatically at bonfire circle, swimming at Echo Bluff and maybe even performing in the talent show!
What did PSG change in me? It gave me a sense of pride and possibility in the wider Pagan community. It gave me the feeling my local community was full of unbounded potential and that my local community didn’t have to bear the weight of all my expectations. My local coven can provide meaningful, intimate rituals and a local Pagan family, training in the deeper mysteries and a foundation for my daily life. Those things are vital and sustain me.
These are things no large festival can hope to provide. Yet, PSG has given me membership in a larger tribe where love comes before praxis and every moment is milked for its sacred essence, in a way that might be exhausting or impossible in daily life. I was immersed in a loving Pagan world for a week and connected to the larger Pagan network in a new way. I now know Pagans across the country that I met in person before connecting with them online.
I’ve spoken before about my levels of Pagan identity, from solitary practice to group practice to the greater Pagan community. Pagan Spirit Gathering has merely added another level to my religious identity. I now also belong to the PSG tribe, not in an exclusionary way, but in that I share a common spiritual experience with these people from across the country and around the world. That’s a powerful thing for a Pagan living in a small conservative town in the South.
I really don’t feel like I’ve scratched the surface of what PSG actually is. No matter how eloquent I rhapsodize, I never can. Pagan Spirit Gathering is something that must be experienced, particularly if you are solitary. Maybe there are other festivals I could have had this experience at, and there are many wonderful large Pagan festivals out there, but I doubt it. There was simply something about Pagan Spirit Gathering that felt like home.