“I joined a coven!”
“Great!” I said, silently praying, Please don’t be Star Garden, please don’t be Star Garden, please don’t be…
“They’re called Star Garden.”
“-ucking awesome, which is definitely what I was going to say. I’m… glad you found a group.”
“Me too!” Radley said. “They seem really nice. Plus they said they’d be able to get me to Third Degree.”
So I don’t know if this was specifically a Houston-area issue, or if it was going on all over the place, but there was a time when — within the eclectic Wiccan community — you were nobody unless you were Third Degree. There wasn’t any kind of understanding as to what a Third Degree actually was, but trust, it was very important.
Radley had always done his own thing, and when he first got involved with the local Pagans, he impressed a lot of people with his knowledge and skills. And they were like, “Are you a Third Degree? You really should be a Third Degree.” After hearing this ad nauseum, he got it into his head that if he was going to be taken seriously as a practitioner, he needed a validating title. And so he went and found a group who would give him one.
The couple who’d founded Star Garden were the Pagan version of serial monogamists: They’d sign up for a Wicca 101 course, take all the handouts, and run; then they’d join a training coven or apprentice to a teacher and do the same thing. Eventually, they collected enough material to cobble together their own tradition, and they set themselves up as (you guessed it) Third Degrees, which, in their minds, meant they were now Elders, with all the rights and privileges thereof. And they set about taking over the Houston Pagan community.
Or at least they tried to. It didn’t quite work out the way they wanted it to — they managed to wriggle their way onto various boards of directors and whatnot, but they’d stepped on a lot of toes on their way to the top, and people were wary of them. And since he’d signed on with them, it was inevitable that people were going to become wary of Radley as well.
Which, much to Radley’s dismay, was exactly what happened. But in the meantime, he completed all of the Star Garden requirements to achieve the rank of Third Degree, at which point he became insufferable: He was, after all, a High Priest now, not a dirt-eating peon like the rest of us.
“So here’s what I don’t understand,” Chester said, after I’d finished relating the Radley/Star Garden Saga. (We’d been playing with fortune-telling decks, and something in a reading had triggered a memory, and I ADHDed the story all over him.) “Why didn’t you just tell him the truth about this group?”
“Because he wouldn’t have wanted to hear it,” I said. “Like, have you ever dated someone your friends hated?”
“Indeed I have.”
“Were you willing to listen when they told you they didn’t like him? Or did you feel betrayed that they weren’t being supportive?”
“Oh,” Chester said. “Okay. I see your point.”
“Plus there was some stuff about Star Garden I really shouldn’t have known.”
“Did you have premonitions about them?”
“I did not. But the treasurer of a Pagan organization once vented to me about how the books never added up when Star Garden was in charge and then was like, ‘Oh. I… probably shouldn’t have mentioned that.’ So I couldn’t bring that up to Radley without breaking the confidence of someone who accidentally broke confidentiality.”
“And then you’d have been the bad guy spreading rumors instead of a concerned friend.”
Chester thought about that for a second. “You know, the last time I dated someone my friends didn’t like, it was because he was horrible to them when I wasn’t around. And after we broke up, all of my friends were like, ‘Oh, thank God, he was a monster.’ I wish someone had told me how he was treating everyone while we were together — I wouldn’t have stayed in the relationship.”
“Well, if you ever date someone I hate, I will be the first to tell you.”
“Much obliged,” Chester said. “And I really like your boyfriend, by the way.”
Which was lovely to hear, on account of I really like him, too.
I lost track of Radley until recently, when he popped up on an introductory thread in a Facebook group, identifying as an eclectic Pagan — no mention of Star Garden or being a Third Degree. Maybe he was one of those people who jumped ship and reinvented themselves in the late 2000s when Wicca stopped being popular, or maybe the Star Garden founders decided they weren’t Wiccan after all: At one point, they’d learned that one of their (many) previous instructors had possibly been a Feri initiate, and they got very caught up in trying to prove that they were Feri, too.
But more than likely, I think Star Garden just sort of went away. Like, they made all of their students Third Degrees and sent them off into the world and stopped practicing, under the assumption that their legacy was securely in place. And then their Third Degrees didn’t take on any students and moved onto other things, and no one was actually practicing the tradition anymore, so it fizzled out.
And now that I think about it, I also remember being at an event one time where someone introduced himself as a Third Degree to one of the reigning Grand Old Witches of the scene, and the GOW responded, “Oh, I’ve evolved past degrees,” And everyone within earshot nodded to each other enthusiastically like, “Yes, yes, definitely, so have we.”
So that was something else I couldn’t say to Radley: “I know it feels like being a Third Degree is the most important thing in the world right now, but in a couple of years, the term will be more out of fashion with the Pagans you’re trying to impress than sandals and socks, so maybe just do you and don’t measure yourself against other people’s arbitrary standards.”
Radley wanted to be a big name in a small circle, and by all accounts, he got his wish. But celebrity within a subculture is fleeting: Unless you’re making consistent, long-term contributions that benefit the community as a whole, you’ll be a rock star one month and elevator muzak the next. And Radley wasn’t able to tune into that bigger picture, nor do I think he had an idea of what he’d do with himself if he stopped being relevant.
And regarding his quest for relevancy within Star Garden… okay, if he’d signed over his worldly possessions to a murder cult or something, then yeah, I probably would’ve tried to talk him out of it. But all he’d really done was hooked up with a questionable group to get some nifty words to add to his name, which was socially hobbling, but not, like, heresy. Hell, I joined the Satanic Temple for less charitable reasons.
Although he did want someone to say he’d made a good decision, and that was yet another thing I couldn’t tell him, because it was a terrible decision that was going to bite him in the no-no zone sooner than later. But what I could — and did — tell him was that I was happy he’d found what he was looking for.
As far as honesty in friendships goes, he could definitely do worse.