I guess I missed the “come wearing black” memo. Everyone seems to be adorned in black silks, black leather, black velvet, black cloaks, black feathers, black face painting. I stand out in my favorite elven green outfit and my new pointy Witch’s hat with its big yellow flower.
I shouldn’t have been surprised by the choice of color (or lack thereof) – this is a Samhain ritual. But I’ve been feeling so bubbly since the Parliament of World Religions, I might as well have worn my Beltane Best. For the briefest of moments Imposter Syndrome, my companion of old, rears its self conscious head and demands my attention, but I refuse it. Not today. Maybe not ever again. Today I know where I belong, with my tribe, with this tribe. Had I shown up naked, or worse, in corporate attire, I would have still belonged.
This is my fourth Samhain and the first time I feel completely at home in my tradition and my community. And yet, as the ritual begins, I find myself drawn to the edges. Normally I love jumping right in, dancing the spiral, raising the energy. Today I want to hold space from the outside and look in. I notice how everything here feels like home, the space, the altars, the energy, my tribe.
My time in the Pagan community hasn’t been long, only three and a half short years. I’ve gobbled up books, read blogs, listened to teachers, gone to rituals, classes, discussions. The more I learn, the more my mind and heart open to how much more there is to learn. This Samhain, I feel the need to reflect on my journey, to compare the three previous years, and take a step back from all of the head knowledge I have gained in order to feel into what Samhain means to me personally.
Samhain, year one
My first Samhain I was nervous and scared. I didn’t have any local Pagan friends yet, just a burning desire to pursue this path. I didn’t know where to turn for resources but had heard of the Spiral Dance choir by word of mouth. I auditioned and was accepted, Imposter Syndrome and all. When everyone arrived at Kezar pavilion in San Francisco, I was so intimidated by the crowd of over a thousand that I wanted to run.
Instead, the stage coordinator asked me if I knew how to play a conch shell. I nodded, had a conch pressed into my hand and was told I would be blowing it to announce the opening of the ritual. Before I could protest, she ran off to talk to someone else, and a few minutes later I was pushed forward, toward the middle of the crowd.
And suddenly I stood in the center, surrounded by some 15-hundred Witches and Pagans, looking around me in awe and fear, raising the conch high above my head, and then blowing it and feeling hundreds of voices seize and countless pairs of eyes turn toward me. This unexpected opening of the Spiral Dance ritual became a rite of passage for me. After maintaining a certain level of anonymity and invisibility after losing my Christian faith I had allowed myself to be seen again.
Samhain, year two
After the Spiral Dance I maintained contact with choir members, attended more rituals, signed up for classes, and slowly became a part of the community. I discovered resources like The Wild Hunt, Witches and Pagans, and Patheos Pagan and spent countless hours reading and learning.
By the time my second Samhain came around, my household had become a Pagan community. We carved pumpkins together, decorated the front porch, and stocked up on candy. Then we sat in the living room and talked logistics. The air felt thick with magic. My friend asked where and when the ancestor ritual we had registered for would be. I remembered the Facebook event page and searched for the time and place on the image in my mind.
“Ah, 6:30pm in Berkeley, thanks,” she said. I stared at her.
“What?” I replied.
“6:30pm” she said. “Thanks for the info.”
“But I didn’t say anything!” I protested.
“Yes, you did. I heard you. 6:30pm in Berkeley.”
I looked for help from the two others in the room. “Did I really say that out loud?” I asked.
They shook their heads.
“But I heard you!” my friend insisted.
“I didn’t open my mouth,” I argued.“She really didn’t,” both of my other friends said.
“Didn’t you just look it up for me on Facebook?” my friend asked.
“In my mind’s eye, yes, but I don’t even have my phone or computer with me.”
We repeated this argument a few times, she swearing she had heard the words and seen me open Facebook, the rest of us insisting no words were spoken and no electronic devices had been available to me. Then we took a breath together, reminding ourselves that we were Witches, and that we believed in magic, and that weird was part of what we do.
On Samhain Eve we held a fire gazing divination in our newly established ritual room. As the flames grew, I sunk into a place deep within and nearly an hour passed. I came to appreciate the reality of sacred space beyond regular time. As we sat and reflected on our odd conversation this afternoon and our experiences during fire gazing, we discussed our belief in magic. I recounted a story I had heard from T. Thorn Coyle in which she described spirits that caused glass to explode, not as a message per se, but as a warning that the supplicants had not properly prepared themselves for spirit contact.
We discussed our desire to learn, grow and be prepare ourselves for magic, but I was aware that deep down inside I wanted to see glass explode, because, I had to admit, it would be pretty spectacular and cool. I felt sheepish and immature, but chose to reveal this side of me nonetheless. I wanted to be seen for who I was rather than pretending I was beyond such childish desires. I spoke the words, saying “I get that. But I do have to admit, I would love to see glass explode like that. It would be kinda cool.” The others nodded and smiled, thankful someone had spoken our secret thoughts. No sooner had I spoken than our heads toward a startling sound coming from the altar. We stared at each other.
“For real?!?” my friend exclaimed. For real. The glass on our altar had exploded. We tried to reassure ourselves by telling each other there was a perfectly rational explanation, seeing that the flame of the candle had gotten too close to the class. But none of us ever thought of spirits and of Samhain as casually again.
Samhain, year three
Another year went by and my third Samhain was one of turmoil. It felt like my community was breaking apart. We had just lost a beloved community member in a painful parting of ways. In the coming days we would ask a different person to leave us. The weeks and months that followed became a time of grief, loss, and questioning.
Again, we spent Samhain Eve gazing into a fire. C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces, a retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, was working in me. My relationship with power was called into question. The weight of a calling into leadership rested heavily upon my shoulders. I was forced to look into a mirror I didn’t want to see. The myth, the fire, the magic of the season caused me to stumble and refrain from running any further.
In a Rites of Passage class I came to trust in a magical container stronger than I had imaged possible and opened up to transformation. I allowed myself to be turned upside down, to have my identity challenged. Through pain and break-ups we grew stronger and closer and formed bonds that have been blossoming and flowering ever since. My respect for Samhain deepened into awe.
As I reflect on my fourth Samhain, I notice how profoundly my relationship with my community and Witchcraft has changed. While I had hoped to find new friends and power, I received more than that. I found loved ones whom I trust with my very life and I found empowerment. Each year I have grown more deeply into who I am. When I look back upon the desperate, abused wife wanting to end her life seven years ago, I hardly recognize her as my younger self.
This year I am allowing myself to fall in love with Samhain. It’s not an easy season, but it carries within it the seeds of new birth. I take time to reflect on its gifts, the awakening to my sexuality just a few Samhains ago, finding a house on Samhain Eve that would become my intentional Pagan community two years later.
This year, too, new paths are opening up. I don’t yet know where they will lead, but I can feel transformative magic within, and I see changes all around me. Living in the San Francisco Bay Area, I eagerly await the first rains of the season. As the sun dies on the horizon, I look toward the golden hills turning green once again, dry creeks filling with water, mushrooms growing out of the dead stumps. I know this Samhain will bring changes, expected and unexpected, joyous and painful, death and rebirth. I welcome another turn of the Wheel. I welcome the new year. Blessed be this Samhain.