It took more than half a year from the day I lost my Christian faith to the moment I stepped into my first circle. I didn’t anticipate that it would change my life, on the contrary, I didn’t even realize that I was stepping into a magical circle. And I certainly didn’t see any connection to the day I covered the floor in circles since I had been too busy surviving and had forgotten about that day.
For months I cried myself to sleep every night. But as time went by I sometimes found enjoyment during the day and had an occasional night without nightmares. And then there was my experience at the Easter Vigil in my hometown’s medieval church. Ever since that night I wanted to be around a fire again. I thought about bonfires all the time and developed a craving for them. I dreamed of gazing into the flames and feeling the heat on my bare feet and maybe letting myself forget about my sorrows.
Many of my fondest fire memories came from rainbow gatherings. Every year tens of thousands of hippies gather in a national forest somewhere in the U.S. around the fourth of July, dubbed InterdepenDance Day. A wild and colorful hodgepodge of philosophies and religions, and the freedom to drop out of normalcy for a few days or weeks. It was just what I needed, and I discovered a regional rainbow gathering in Germany near the Belgian border.
I was venturing out more these days and had even taken to driving again. I was hoping that a trip to the rainbow gathering would feed my hunger for bonfires. I might find healing by being among society’s castaways, and spiritual renewal in the potpourri of religions. But I was about to find even more than I was hoping for.
The gathering was held in a deep valley in the Eifel mountains. After a long and steep hike through budding trees, my traveling companions and I reached a lush meadow nestled against a crystal clear stream. A couple hundred hippies were just forming a dinner circle when we arrived, waiting for the communally cooked food to be ladled into their bowls, cups, or make-shift dishes. They turned as we approached and shouted “welcome home.”
I smiled and felt a stinging in my eyes as I held back tears. The last few months had been so lonely. When I lost my faith, I didn’t realize how much of my community I would also lose and how many friends would turn on me. This was a group of misfits, society’s outcasts, broken and rejected, and yet coming together with a vision for a kinder world. It felt right that I was welcomed into their midst. I was now an apostate, no longer fit to be counted among the Chosen, and so I was coming home. Welcome home. Welcome home to humanity.
Living with post traumatic stress disorder had left me unable to work and my parents were providing for me. I was grateful for their help, and yet I lived with a constant tension, living as an apostate in their Christian home, feeling guilt and shame for my inability to return to their Christian faith. Here at the gathering it didn’t matter, all paths were welcome and I was free to doubt and disbelieve and explore myself.
When it became known that I came from the U.S. and had been to several of the big national gatherings, I was asked to tell stories. Suddenly I stood in the spotlight. I had become used to my invisibility and it was disconcerting to be seen, but it was also empowering. My experience with larger gatherings was valued in the kitchen and after navigating through a panic attack, I succeeded in leading a small team for dinner preparation. I felt proud and learned that maybe there were some things I had to offer, that maybe I mattered.
And the fires were all I had hoped for. Each night as I gazed into the flames, I allowed the warmth and the singing to fill me and push aside the pain. The world that was awaking to spring all around felt like a lover when I took off my shoes and held out the soles of my feet to be touched by the heat. Such hope and stirrings of love existing alongside my eternal grief and depression. I was grateful to be in a place where I could feel both, to let them carve me into authenticity. I was feeling a little more like myself, and if that had been the only gift of the gathering, it would have been enough.
But then I entered my first circle and experienced the wonder of magic. Unlike American rainbow gatherings, our time here was structured with morning circles, lunch circles, dinner circles, evening prayer and song around the fire, and afternoon workshops. And even more astonishingly, in Germany even hippies start on time! Scheduled on my last day was a workshop on ways to deal with anger, grief, and other difficult emotions. Unfortunately, I showed up a little late and there were already more people gathered than could be accommodated. The interest in the workshop was overwhelming, and a woman stepped forward offering to take some of the group and lead a similar workshop.
I followed her to a grove near the riverbank, not knowing that she wasn’t planning a talk on transforming emotions. Instead, she told our group that she was a shaman and would be leading us in a ritual. Rainbow family has a tendency to appropriate Native American spirituality, but I didn’t know any of this. For me the word shaman conjured images of Christian documentaries showing tribal men piercing themselves with spears and being possessed by demons.
We were standing in a circle and our shaman began leading us in exercises aimed at relaxation and the gathering of energy before I began to panic and almost left. I watched her turn around in the circle, face different directions and say things I didn’t understand, but by the time she was done, I no longer felt like I could leave. For better or worse, I was trapped inside of this circle. She explained that she would be working with energy and was going to call us into the middle, one by one, and then work with whatever emotions came up.
When it was my turn I was terrified. I knew what would come up for me, agony and terror. I didn’t want to have a meltdown here, a series of flashbacks and panic attacks. We had met earlier, so this shaman-naturopath knew some of my trauma. I clung to the hope that she would spare me, for my sake, but also for everyone else’s. She didn’t. She had just given someone messages from their deceased grandmother, and I was pondering if this was real, and if it was, whether it was safe, when she suddenly focused on me. I was beckoned into the center of the circle, and so it began.
I stood in front of her and I waited. The shaman closed her eyes and stretched a hand toward me. I surrendered, closed my eyes, and waited for the rush of pain and fear, but the emotions didn’t come. Nothing was happening and I worried I might have to fake something just to make this less awkward. I focused inward and gave permission for the sadness to take me and put its heavy yoke around my neck. Something was really wrong. Nothing was coming up and instead I felt an increasing sense of lightness.
“There’s something coming up, can you feel it already?” she said.
“I’m sorry, I just feel light,” I mumbled.
“Yes, but there’s more,” she insisted.
I wanted to enjoy this feeling of lightness, but I needed to focus on summoning the pain. “Don’t fight it,” she said. “Allow it to come up. You don’t have to fight this. Let it be.”
I felt pain all the time, carried it around everywhere I went, and this one time when I needed it to show up stronger, it retreated? Was I failing her, myself, and everyone else? It all seemed so ironic and silly and made me want to laugh.
“Well, OK, let’s make it physical then,” she said and chuckled, softly, expectantly. And suddenly it became overwhelming, the need to feel the lightness and to laugh and to lose control.
“Let it out,” she said, “come on now, it’s coming up, I can feel it, now let it out!”
And it came, it bubbled up, it rained down, it rushed in from all around, and with no thought of dignity I belched it out, I exulted, I screamed, I lept into the air, I swung my arms wildly, I whirled in circles, and I laughed and laughed and laughed. My shouts reverberated through the valley, my feet carried me across the moss covered bank of the river, my hands reached for the rays of sun breaking through the trees, and my laughter rung through the forest and found echoes of itself.
On and on it went, a feast of reckless abandon, of being delightfully alive, right here and right now. Time ceased to exist. Then, eventually, my body grew weak and my laughter quieted to a chuckle; I returned to stillness and fell into the arms of the shaman. “More often,” she whispered in my ear. “Let it out more often!” I nodded. I had been so busy working through pain in hopes for a better future that I had forgotten laughter in the here and now.
Even after I returned home I remained free from a burden I had been carrying. The imaginary arguments with my ex-husband, the brooding, the haunting nightmares, all lost their grip on me in that circle and they never came back. It would take time before I’d find a community of people with whom I could circle and even longer before I would learn to cast circles of my own. But in this, my first circle, my feet were set on a new path and I walked out transformed. And to my amusement I learned that while I was busy shouting and dancing, a nickname had been given to me. And even from those who didn’t know who I was, I heard rumors and snippets of a story told around the fire, of The Woman Who Laughs In The Forest.
All images were taken courtesy of the author.