Shopkeeper Sagas: From the Ashes a Fire Shall be Woken

Shopkeeper Sagas: From the Ashes a Fire Shall be Woken March 29, 2017
The cover of my "Human Library Book" 2017 at ECU Joyner Library
The cover of my “Human Library Book” 2017 at ECU Joyner Library

I am the proud owner of a metaphysical shop that just turned 8 years old. Rather than just bricks and mortar, she is a living entity to me now. We call her “Lady Sojo” and I think of her as my third child. We’ve come a long way together since we first opened the doors in 2009, making headway in this town towards awareness and acceptance of our off-the-beaten-path lifestyles and spirituality. On her 8th birthday, I was asked my the ECU Joyner Library to take part in their Human Library event, and tell the story of how my “Witchflame” was ignited. I spent the afternoon in private interviews with students who asked me the following questions. Here are a few excerpts from that life story.

Were you raised as a Witch?

I was raised in a typical southern, middle-class, suburban, protestant christian way, mostly in Taylors, South Carolina. It was a great childhood full of adventure, that included traveling internationally, as we lived in Saudi Arabia from my 4th-6th grades.

I was forced to go to church with my mother most days of the week; youth group, choir practice, basketball, bible study, and worship services Wednesday night and twice on Sunday.  Even when it was illegal to openly practice her faith, my mom would drag us to the US embassy for services. I’ve been baptized three times, in three denominations; it never quite took.

Why did you leave Christianity?

My mother became increasingly zealous as I got older, migrating through Lutheran, Methodist, Southern Baptist, Church of God to the fringes of cult-ish evangelical fundamentalism: dancing in the aisles, speaking in tongues, hanging on Pat Robertson’s every word. Thinking about the fine points of theology was hardly encouraged, but I had this annoying habit of resolutely disagreeing with our ministers.

Picture a 7 year old actually *listening* to a fire and brimstone sermon and just knowing he had it all wrong, then arguing about it.  Despite being a small child I had a different truth, a stone foundation that was ancient, upon which my brand-new childlike house was sitting. My mother found this quality to be inconvenient.

This was taken in the TV audience of the Jim and Tammy Bakker show filmed at Heritage USA just outside of Charlotte, NC, in 1987. The show/church was known as PTL, "Praise the Lord," or more justly named "The cult in which my mother raised us." When I express deep distaste for TV evangelism, I speak from a front-row perspective.
This picture of myself (left), my sister and mother, was taken in the TV audience of the Jim and Tammy Bakker show filmed at Heritage USA just outside of Charlotte, NC, in 1987. The show was known as PTL, “Praise the Lord,” or more justly named “The cult in which my mother raised us.” When I express deep distaste for TV evangelism, I speak from a front-row perspective.

I began to break with that church around 15 years old because of its “pro-life” obsession to limit reproductive rights of women, their rebuking of interracial relationships, and their heinous condemnation of homosexuality. They were “gay conversion therapy” enthusiasts. I’ve always believed in a Divine Love that knows no barriers, and their brand of hateful religious oppression is repulsive to me. This is another very good reason why I now serve the Goddess of Love, Aphrodite.

How did you first know you were a witch?

My whole life I’ve been “differently aware.”  I can see the world as energy, and as a kid would play with moving that around with my mind. I could see the occasional aura, and am a typical Pisces empath. Psychic abilities were a curiosity that didn’t fit the Christian paradigm. Deja-vu was such a constant problem that I’d lose track of whether we were in the past, present or future. I was not quite “normal” like the other kids, and they never let me forget it!

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Heron Michelle, 1977

When I first learned of reincarnation I had a eureka experience. I’d always remembered flashes and bits like another person’s memories.  I knew that somehow, just around that last bend in the road, I was an adult man. Occasionally, I’d absentmindedly start to go into men’s public restrooms, and have to be reminded that I was a little girl.  There were times when I wouldn’t answer to my name as if it wasn’t mine at all, and times when I’d catch my reflection and be startled to find that I was this blond-haired girl-child, like it was a shock.

Yet, I liked being a girl just fine, and had normal school girl crushes on boys. Remember, that I was raised in a world that offered no possibility for these things to be OK, or even true. At adolescence, you can imagine the gender identity issues this would cause. I intimately understood being a man, a soldier in WWI. I remembered the adrenaline of warfare, the feel of a rifle in my hands, dying when an explosion caused a building to fall and trap me in the rubble. I reacted with PTSD-like behavior when triggered.

I was extremely sheltered from anything that wasn’t G-rated as a child, and yet I would have erotic dreams about having sex with a woman–as a man–way before I had any exposure to what that might look or feel like.  I now recognize those as past-life memories.

Today I have a clairvoyant practice of retrieving past-life information for others, I know that gender is a very temporal thing that can be explored flexibly; however, being raised in a church that tried to “pray away the gay,” I was pretty scared there for awhile that I would be considered an “abomination” and “be sent to hell” for who I was. That is a form of religious psychological abuse.

When did you start practicing Witchcraft?

I have identified as a pagan-seeker since the age of 18. It took me a long time to recover from the wounds of a Christian upbringing, but after many years of walking the spiral path I can now define myself as who I AM instead of who I am NOT–without apology.

At eighteen, I read Marion Zimmer Bradley’s, The Mists of Avalon. In this fictional world, I found the goddess-centered spirituality that felt like home, but I assumed those ways were dead and trapped in a distant past. That book awakened a deep spiritual longing within me and I fantasized about becoming a priestess of the great goddess like those in the book. I found out years later that the author was a modern pagan priestess, drawing on her own experiences.

Shortly thereafter I became friends with a Wiccan priest in my hometown. He opened my world to neo-paganism, sharing his books and talking in generalities. Despite my expressed interest, he remained very private about his Wiccan practice, and downright secretive about his coven. That experience gave me to wrongly believe that Witchcraft was a private club, and that I somehow did not qualify.

So, for the first 10 years I considered myself pagan by philosophy only, and remained tightly locked in my broom closet with a stack of books. I married a scientist who had no need for spirituality, nor a belief in spirit at all. I was successful in my career as a commercial Interior Designer, while lurking on pagan message boards in Raleigh, Houston, and Charlotte. Fear of what my family would think, or that I might be disregarded professionally, kept me mute and isolated.

I once worked at an architecture firm that was one block away from a metaphysical store that I knew hosted witchy events.  Everyday I walked past longingly and tried to surreptitiously peek into the windows, but I did not once step inside.

My first mother's day in 2002 with my 4 day old baby girl. ~Heron Michelle
My first mother’s day in 2002 with my 4 day old baby girl. ~Heron Michelle

Just after my 28th birthday, just as my Saturn return began, I gave birth to my first child. I wanted an all-natural, right of passage and I got it! I’d spent weeks on bed rest reading Raven Grimassi’s Wiccan Mysteries, and Spiral Dance, by Starhawk. During the labor, the pain induced a trance and I had a recurring vision of the Goddess pushing open the portal at the end of a long tunnel. I came face to face to the Mother of us all, and she looked me right in the eyes, turned as though to invite me to pass her, and said “you are ready, come through.” Then she guided me, as a midwife, through the rites of birth into motherhood.

As I pushed that baby into the middle world, I called on strength within myself I’d never dreamed possible. I saw that I was surrounded by all the maternal ancestors of my line before me to one side, and after me to the other side. I knew that it was already done, therefore I could do it!

Childbirth was ecstatic! This was a proving ground, and I emerged victorious! For the first time, I knew why I’d incarnated as a woman, and I had a sense of belonging and connection in the great creation of the Universe where I could be so small, but equally divine and powerful. That was when my Witchflame fully ignited and could no longer be ignored.

After my daughter’s birth, I overcame my fears and through Witchvox.com found an open teaching coven in Charlotte. As a seeker, I joined them for my first Litha Sabbat celebration. Shortly afterward our family relocated yet again. I was devastated to arrive here in Greenville, NC, and find that (at the time) there were no pagan groups in town, and certainly no training circles–no one who meant to be found, anyway.

A few days prior to Samhain, I grabbed the bull by the horns and started a “yahoo group” called East NC Pagans and personally invited everyone who had a listing on witchvox.com within 100 miles to join me in that forum.

Heron Michelle
Heron Michelle

How did you become a priestess in a coven?

During the very slow beginnings of the East NC Pagans group I studied hard and visited open circles out of town. For over a year I would advertise a monthly “Pagans night out” at cafes and bookstores, and hope that anyone else would join me. But every month I sat there alone for hours before giving up and going home.  I couldn’t convince anyone on that board to meet me in public–the fear here was so huge.

In 2004, I finally heard about a new “earth-based spirituality” study group held at the local Unitarian Universalist church. There I met other folks of like-mind, and we are still friends to this day. I invited them to join my yahoo group, and the next month a few of them actually showed up for my “coffee night.” We had a great time. After they reported on-line that I was safe, the next month we had sixteen attendees, and the month after that, twenty five. The fourth month we couldn’t even fit at the coffee house any more. Over the next years, the membership of East NC Pagans grew to almost 200 people, holding large monthly social gatherings, classes, and spinning-off affiliated groups in nearby cities.

From East NC Pagans a circle of friends coalesced who were all seeking the path of witchcraft, specifically, and were hungry for more. Over beers one night, while bemoaning the lack of witchcraft teachers in our areas, someone quoted the old Chinese proverb, “‘Tis better to light a candle, than to curse the darkness.”

*CLICK*

The great, cosmic “Clue by Four” knocked me for a loop. I realized that if we were going to grow, we had to take responsibility for ourselves.

By Yule of 2005, we formed a study group called Wisecraft Circle. It was an eclectic and egalitarian group working through the lessons in published training guides like Christopher Penczak’s, The Inner Temple of Witchcraft, and Timothy Roderick’s, Wicca: A Year and a Day, as our curriculum.

We worked on our own, but gathered together weekly to discuss, meditate, hold rituals and experiment. We turned the wheel of the year together, then began again at Imbolc with new friends. This time we wrote a charter, and held a covening ritual to make it official.

Without more accomplished guides and counselors to help us process the initiatory crises that unfolded for each of us, we didn’t last long. Unfortunately, questions of legitimacy, authority, ego, and sexual tension killed that circle before it’s second summer solstice. I learned a lot about who I was and who I was NOT, and what NOT to do within group practice.

Despite the difficult ending of that group, it did serve as the catalyst that I needed. My awareness expanded, I called and felt the presence of the Divine, and my psychic abilities opened up. I experienced spiritual ecstasy that brought me to my knees, and learned to write and lead rituals for the community that expanded that transformational opportunity to others.

At that Imbolc of our covening rites in 2007, and just after my first self-initiation into the Craft, I personally dedicated to working with the element of Fire. Nothing touched by fire stays the same and all you can do is surrender to that tempering power; all that did not serve my highest good was burned away: In March, my mother passed away suddenly and my fear of her reprisal no longer mattered; abusive relationships reached their pique so that I was forced to confront them; in June the circle disintegrated with all manner of ego-spanking pyrotechnics; by August my failing marriage hit the skids, and by October I’d heard Their call to become a priestess and do Their work full-time. Every breath I’ve taken since then has been an act of devotion toward that goal.

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Heron Holds the Moon ~ Heron Michelle

Why did you want to open a metaphysical store?

I opened The Sojourner as a way to heal the wounds of spiritual isolation I felt as a young seeker, and transmute that fear and pain into a solution for others. The fear of rejection and abandonment by the mainstream religions because of who one is deep down inside, whether that be for their witchiness, psychic abilities, or because they are gay, or a nerd, or different-than-average, can be so crippling, so heartbreaking.

As I emerged from the destructive fires of 2007, my resolve to live authentically outside the broom closet was honed to a razors edge. I realized that I had to live with the dignity and self-respect my mother had instilled within me. But the real kick in the britches came in the form of the life insurance money she willed to me when she died; I wanted to do something meaningful with my life in her memory. By November 2007, I announced my decision to open The Sojourner and the wheels of business development went into high gear.

It took over a year to secure our location in Uptown Greenville. In the meantime, I ran the emotional gauntlet through a move, and the burning wreckage of my separation. To get the extra starting capital we needed, I renovated and sold two pieces of real estate in a depressed market (score two for sweat equity and magick!)

March 28th, 2009, The Sojourner Whole Earth Provisions was opened to the public. It took immense effort, sacrifice, and generous investment by our family and friends. That first day we were open folks arrived by the car-load from great distances and damn near cleaned us out! Since then, Lady Sojo has become our clubhouse and sanctuary, a Greenville institution, and I’m honored to be her care-taker.

Through the shop, I am now teaching the 8th full year of my Modern Witchcraft training program, that I developed based on the experiences born of my time with Wisecraft Circle, and fostering East NC Pagans. From all those who’ve completed the training and self-initiated, The Sojo Circle Coven formed, with a mission to continue the Great Work of teaching new seekers with distinction.

Entrance to The Sojourner Whole Earth Provisions on her 8th Birthday.
Entrance to The Sojourner Whole Earth Provisions on her 8th Birthday.

Why do you call your story “Witch on Fire?”

I am a Witch on Fire, because the sacred mission given to me in one of my “burning bush” conversations with the Gods, was to rise from the ashes of my old life like a phoenix, allowing the witchflame within me to shine brightly. I try to be like a lighthouse on the rocky shores of this society, guiding others into safe haven where their unique spiritual understandings may be validated; where seekers find a welcoming training ground on Main Street USA.

The “witchflame” within us is a catalyst for change, and I intend to apply my fires to the Great Work of human evolution within Divine Love. With all the current hate-mongering in the world today, somebody has to do it, and it might as well be me. My work through “Lady Sojo” makes that possible.

In Gratitude,
~Heron


 

I took the name for this article from The Riddle of Strider that JRR Tolkein included in Lord of the Rings. I’ve previously shared parts of my story on how I came to be a shopkeeper at these additional links.

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.
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