You may have seen the news by now, probably because of the headline: “Pagan fire ritual gone wrong killed Kamloops woman”. There were all kinds of details that add up to vulturesque media clickbait: it was 2 o’clock in the morning. The incident took place in a public park in a stone cairn with Paganesque spirals on them. You can see purple candles and an offering tray in the video though the report said they didn’t find any. The initial report suggested it was a suicide. A reporter dug up some gory details about her life that made her sound like a weirdo (of course.) But Heather Carr was my friend. I am disgusted by the deliberately provocative language of the mainstream media and even more disgusted by the internet trolls who have chosen to comment on it like they actually know something about the situation. If a Catholic priest has accidentally set himself on fire during Mass, the headline would read “Tragedy in the church: Catholic priest burns to death in horrible accident.” If it had been a youth pastor at a prayer meeting, the headline would read “Horrible accident at prayer circle ends tragically.” But because it was a shamanic witch who chose to pray alone in a publicly owned place rather than a church, it’s a big sensation and people feel they have a right to be rude.
Like a lot of other people Heather and I got busy with our lives and rarely saw each other outside of festivals and rituals but I actively sought out the company of herself and her partners whenever we did have a chance to see one another and we kept in touch on Facebook regularly. Kamloops is just distant enough from Vernon that it’s an effort to drive the distance so we didn’t do it as often as either one of us would have liked. Every so often she would come to shop at the metaphysical shop I owned and we would chat for hours when she did. I miss her already and I’m sorry I didn’t see more of her.
Heather was a devoted wife to her two partners and a fiercely protective mother. Her children were autistic, one severely so; and the other suffered with a series of misdiagnoses. She struggled with the system to obtain the care her sons required and often felt marginalized by it because she refused to live her life as anything other than she was, without apology.
Heather, as the news has said, administered a Facebook group called “Being Pagan Out of the Broom Closet.” She was about as out of the broom closet as you can get. Known in the Pagan community as Kiteria, she frequently wore her ceremonial robes (as the news reported) and her children’s schoolteachers were well aware that she had both a wife and a husband and that all three were actively involved in their children’s care. They never seemed to have any trouble dealing with the school system and their family was accepted and respected in the community. She had an active but sometimes strained relationship with her sister and sister’s family.
She was a social worker who cared passionately about her job. In 2008 she was unfortunate enough to be the social worker who was administering the children’s case file in connection to the Shoenborn murders in Merritt and the trauma from that experience resulted in her leaving work on long-term disability. I can’t imagine that anything else could have happened after that; Heather cared so much about protecting others who could not protect themselves that I imagine it must have been devastating for her. But she never talked about it and she did not let this stop her from living a full and active life.
In her practice, Heather was a shamanic witch. She believed in the spirit world and most of her practice involved journeyworking. She was an herbalist; that’s usually what she was after when she came to my store; along with the spellworking sorts of knickknacks that non-Pagan stores don’t sell. She worked constantly to empower others, and she was also a teacher; she organized a multi-traditional teaching circle that focused on magick, spirit-work, and relationship to deity and the divine which welcomed a wide range of Pagan paths. She regularly taught workshops on spiritual hygiene and magickal self-defense at PanFest, which is a Pagan festival that takes place in Edmonton on Lammas.
That’s where I met her and her family, which would have been 2010, two years after my husband Erin’s accident. I remember one of the discussions we shared was on PTSD and how such a brush with death changes you and makes you appreciate the beauty of life all the more. That’s why I bristled when the initial reports suggested suicide. She’d already crossed that bridge once and come out the other side with her life and her sanity intact. Of course that’s no guarantee – as I well know, often the strongest people suffer the most, and when they finally break, they shatter – but I couldn’t imagine it.
Heather was a fighter. She consistently challenged discrimination and stereotyping anywhere that she found it. She stood up and spoke publicly in defense of Paganism, LGBTQ issues, acceptance of the differently-abled, and polyamory. Often she was blunt and bombastic; this, combined with her clever mind, unorthodox opinions and sharp tongue informed by her voracious literacy sometimes led her into conflicts with people online, neighbours and bureaucracies. A flaw that she and I shared was that she often didn’t have a good “emotional intensity” dial, and so she would come across as exceptionally passionate about something everyone else regarded as a minor issue. But perhaps that because she cared so much that she felt things more intensely than many might understand. She and I discussed how, as children, we’d constantly been chided for “overreacting,” and that as strong-willed women we often felt as though we were not taken seriously.
This isn’t to say that she didn’t come across as a little odd. And perhaps she even was, in the same way that Morning Glory Zell-Ravenheart was odd. Heather didn’t have a well-developed internal censor. And many of her beliefs were unorthodox. And she did go around in her ritual cloak in everyday life; though to be fair, that’s not so odd in Kamloops, which has a huge SCA community as well as a large Pagan one, and it really was an awesome cloak, equipped with pockets for small things such as her cigarettes and lighter.
So what was she doing at a public park at 2 o’clock in the morning? Heather was always a bit of a night owl, and after her disability diagnosis she often kept hours with her husband who has been a night shift taxi driver for many years. Why was she by herself? Well, first of all, why shouldn’t she be? Are women not allowed to walk out alone now? Besides the point, Heather was a large, strong woman with some martial arts training. Anyone who presumed to attack her physically would be in for a big surprise. Where was her husband? people have asked. I would guess at work. Where were her children? Well, they are grown now, and they are in care facilities for autistic adults with behavioural difficulties since one of them punched Heather in the eye a few months ago after a violent outburst. This was strongly against Heather’s desires and she fought the decision.Of course, I imagine that if you go to a park to do ceremony after hours you are less likely to be disturbed and that may have also played a part in the reasoning that led her to that spot. I understand she went there frequently; and based on the pictures I see why! What a great place for a small meditative personal ritual! I imagine by lifting up that rock on the top there – the one that is circled in the picture in this article – and climbing in, she had a perfect little ritual cave. So she lit her candles and went to work. Her separated wife Leesa told me that she and Heather’s husband Steve, known in the community as Bear, figured that she was doing a ritual of healing for her uncle who’d had a stroke and wasn’t doing well. Perhaps, then, it was indeed tied to the holy day of the Roman healing goddess Salus, as one article suggested. They also figured that her choice of location was partially to conceal the flame, since she’d been in trouble for having candles in the park before.
So what happened to trap her in the rocks? I don’t know. Did the rock slip? Did her skirt catch fire and then catch on the stones? Did she accidentally rub up against a pocket with her lighter in it and flick the switch? I can’t say. I guess we’ll have to wait for the coroner’s report. Her lovely former partner suggested that she may have panicked and tried to get out in a different way than she went in, pinning her arms to her sides. She was conscious when found and according to reports, she cooperated with rescuers, but her injuries were too severe and she died several hours later in hospital.
In the meantime the community is probably best described as being in a state of shock and horror. I imagine that the Canadian National Pagan Conference will be more than a little subdued this year, especially since it will take place in Edmonton, which is the community that birthed PanFest.
Since the article broke on CBC News and Huffington Post, “Being Pagan Out of the Broom Closet” has been besieged with requests to join, at the rate of about a dozen an hour. You would think it would be people being vultures, critics, looky-loos and reporters, but we’ve been screening them and most of them appear to be Pagans so desperate to connect to other Pagans when they saw the article that they immediately signed up. It’s unfortunate that it takes something so awful and presented with such sensationalism to make us visible enough that people can find us, but there you are. I suppose that if they are genuine seekers then Heather’s death had some meaning. All the same, we’ve changed the group settings to closed for the moment (it was public) and we’re not intending to approve memberships of anyone we don’t personally know until the hubbub has died down a bit.
It’s a testimony to Heather’s character, I think, that even those with whom she has come into conflict in the past are pouring out their compassion to her family and close friends. And one thing that I can say about Pagans is that we come together when tragedy strikes one of our own. I am worried about her partners, both of whom loved her dearly. I’m not as worried about her friends. Heather’s strength attracted other strong women, and I’m sure they will get by. As Heather’s good friend (and my mutual friend) Charlene Ross, a Druid who was involved in her circle, said:
Dealing with grief is a part of Paganism. As a Druid, I believe that the Wheel has life and death on it. Death is a part of life. inadvertent death….death by disease, age…..does not matter…in that it is death. We know and believe she will be a part of the larger….either as a soul, in the Summerlands, or whatever that life after death belief is. We see our seasons show the cycle of life….all must die to be reborn again. now….. and emotionally, our hearts will struggle. It is a process, not an event, for those who are still alive. We then have to to accept what is, not what we want it to be.
I know that Heather would agree completely. As was reported in yet another article, Heather wrote on her Facebook page earlier this month:
There are no coincidences.
Everything happens for a reason even if you don’t understand why in the moment and even if that moment is painful. It’s all experiences meant to teach us and for us to learn from.
If we are wise enough, we learn the lesson the first time. If not, the cycle repeats until we do…. Better to live with eyes wide open than eyes wide shut any day, at least in my opinion.
I agree with her in that I believe that living with eyes wide open is preferable to living in delusion. It is difficult for all of us who knew her to accept this horrible, senseless and tragic accident. But that’s a part of life, as Charlene pointed out. Mean comments blaming the victim are self-defense mechanisms. If she did something wrong then what happened to her can’t happen to us, right? This same mentality is what leads to insensitive non sequitur comments like, “Well, what was she wearing?” when women are raped. The truth is that no matter how careful and smart you are, you might get run over by a bus tomorrow. You might get hit by lightning (and that happened to someone I know.) You might strike a match and not realize you have a gas leak and blow yourself up. You might choke on a graham cracker. Life is fragile and sooner or later, we all have to face death. So enjoy your life and make the most of it. Face it without fear. Make it mean something. Do something that makes people remember you. I know that Heather will be remembered, because she did all of those things. May she enjoy her well-earned rest in the Summerlands until we meet again.
* Note: I can’t say all the media was lousy about it. Glynn Brothen at InfoNews wrote a well-researched and sensitive article, and I’d like to thank her for that.