“Approval neither desired nor required.” –Noxeema Jackson
“This is a sick person. How may I be of service? Thy will, not mine, be done.” -Anonymous
My Minoan brothers were recently trading pictures of their personal altars with each other, which made me unspeakably happy. I love seeing how different people set up their sacred spaces, and my brothers’ all had darkly mysterious aesthetics that were uniquely individual and witchy as all hell. I would gladly smooch the Devil’s buttocks at any of them.
I wanted to play, too, and sent a picture of my own altar (see below), but almost immediately regretted it, partly because next to everyone else’s, mine just kind of read Vaguely European Swamp Catholic. Which is, y’know, a mood. I know better than to rate myself based on comparison, or worry that my friends are going to judge my tastes in religious symbolism (they didn’t), but I still had some funky feelings about it.
I think what ultimately got me was the process of cleaning everything on the altar before taking the picture, which led me to reminisce on each item’s history: The chunk of amethyst was a gift from Douglas when I hit 18 months of continuous sobriety; the necklace on the Goddess statue was a souvenir I snagged from a stage production of Bell Book and Candle. (I played Nicky, which is probably worth a story of its own one of these days.)
The bull and labrys print was the first art I ever purchased from Thalia Took, whom I’d emailed to ask if I could share her image of Laverna on a website I was building. Her response was, “You’re a devotee of Laverna, and you’re asking permission?” Touché, Thalia. Touché. But yeah, that’s how we became buddies.
Every tchotchke has its own story, most of which are feel-good and nostalgic. All of them except for one, which stays on my altar as a memento from a friendship that’s never coming back, and as a reminder to stay true to myself, no matter what.
My friend Lionel had a lot of issues. He’d been a sickly kid and had battled cancer in high school, which I think had a lingering psychological effect on his adult self: It was vitally important to him to be just a little bit better at… well, anything than everyone else, and he worked hard to be perceived as edgy, bordering on dangerous.
He wasn’t dangerous in the least, although he did enjoy his mind games.
Like, he came from a wealthy family and didn’t really need to work, and after teaching for a few years, he decided to take an extended sabbatical, which was great: I would’ve done the same thing if I could have. And I must have mentioned that to him, because he got in the habit of calling me at my office at least once a day to complain about how bored he was, not having to work. Could I even imagine? Did I have time to listen to him talk about it? Oh, I don’t, on account of I’m at work? Pity.
We eventually had a falling out, which was kind of a pattern with him — he’d get really close with someone, to the point of inseparability, and then that person would do Something Unforgivable, and they’d stop being friends. In my case, there was a misunderstanding over something stupid, and once I realized it had happened, I owned my part and apologized, but the apology was not accepted. I made a few more attempts at amends, all of which were rebuffed, so I decided to just let it go, at which point he informed me that I was a terrible person, because I clearly wasn’t sorry enough.
And so I gave up. And then I began losing other friends.
It started with just finding out about parties and get-togethers after the fact, but over time, almost all of our mutual acquaintances distanced themselves from me. I finally called someone and was like, “The hell is going on?” And he was like, “Look, I don’t have a problem with you, but Lionel said…”
Turns out, Lionel had been saying a lot of things, painting me as a heartless predator and himself as the defenseless victim of my psychopathy. And I was done. Gathering together all of the gifts he’d given me over the years, I performed a binding on him, which culminated in me bundling up the presents and ritually tossing them in a dumpster.
I should say something here about the gifts themselves. Lionel delighted in giving gag gifts, but they were always cutting and just this side of sadistic. As an example, I’d once told him that I have an aversion to the comedian Carrot Top, and so, for my birthday, he gave me a gorgeous, vintage, forest green T-shirt with a stylized yin-yang on the front… which was revealed to be a Carrot Top concert tee. “I wanted to find something that would make you hate yourself for liking,” he said. “And I did!”
Anyway, things started improving after the binding. Lionel had another falling out with another friend, but this time other people picked up on the pattern. I started getting invitations again and was able to rebuild my social circle, and while I was wary around him, Lionel and I even became sort-of pals again. And, convinced that everything was back the way it should be, I let my guard down.
Shortly thereafter, I started studying with a Gardnerian coven, and because he seemed moderately interested, if not supportive, I told Lionel that I was working towards becoming an initiate. I called him when I got back from California to let him know my initiation had gone well, and he expressed enthusiasm — it was almost as if he was proud of me. And he was also like, “Oh! I almost forgot. I have a late Christmas present for you.”
And again, my guard was down, so I invited him over to my place, and he showed up quickly and handed me two packages. I unwrapped the first to discover a Buddhas of the World wall calendar. The second package contained a tiny metal censer.
“They’re from all of us,” he said, listing off the names of friends we had in common. “We talked about it, and we decided that we’d rather have you be Buddhist than Wiccan. It would just be more acceptable. Don’t you agree?”
I don’t remember how I reacted — I assume I laughed it off, at least in front of him. But my partner at the time was horrified, and he was visibly upset when, after Lionel left, I went into the guest room where I kept all my Witchcraft stuff and placed the censer on my altar.
“Why would you keep that thing?” he asked. “It’s cruel.”
“Because I have a use for it,” I replied. “And because no one but me gets to decide whether anything I do is acceptable.”
The censer has been on my altar ever since. Sometimes I romanticize it as a miniature Cauldron of Cerridwen, but it mostly functions as a receptacle for used matches. It serves a solid purpose, and despite the meanness from which it came, I’m glad to have it — it’s not something I ever would’ve thought to get for myself.
And it’s also a keepsake from the transitional period of my life when I pulled away from that whole group of friends to focus on the occult, to the exclusion of almost everything else. Which involved making sacrifices, some of which were (figuratively) people — not every friendship is sustainable, and some turn out to have been a lot more toxic than we realized when we were in the middle of them.
On occasion, I have been that toxic friend. Maybe that was the case with Lionel. Maybe I wasn’t a target, or a handy butt of jokes; maybe I was the problem. Unfortunately, I’ll never know.
Lionel and I lost touch years ago, which was more of a relief than I care to admit. He passed away in the Spring of 2020 — the cancer he’d defeated in his youth reemerged and got the upper hand on him — but it was the start of the pandemic, before Zoom had really taken off, and nobody really knew how to put together a memorial under those circumstances.
We all had to grieve in quarantine, however we saw fit. I have never been much of a mourner, and I’m not a big believer in closure, but I can’t shake the feeling that there are unspoken things we might still get the chance to say to each other.
So merry meet again, Lionel, wherever you are. Let’s both try a little harder next time.