Longtime Denton CUUPS member and my friend Olivia Pettijohn died yesterday. She was 41.
I first met Livvy when she came to one of our CUUPS circles in 2005. She was a very active member for many years. Later she became more of an occasional participant, but she was always a friend, and someone who would do her best to help out whenever we needed her to take a part in a ritual or a Sunday service – or to give a ride to someone who needed it.
Livvy loved poetry and was very good at reading it. If there was an important but difficult reading in a ritual, it went to Livvy. She could recite “The Genealogy of Brighid” at any time and often did. She was good at writing poetry too. She would roll her eyes anytime someone said something was “only a metaphor” – Livvy said metaphors are some of the most powerful things in the world. Even someone as literal-minded as me has to admit there’s great wisdom in that.
There were a couple of times in the social hour after a CUUPS circle when I could tell that some clueless young man had mistaken Livvy’s friendliness for flirting. I told them “um, you’re hitting on the gayest person in the room.” She laughed when I told her afterwards, and was especially proud that I described her as “the gayest person in the room.” Though to be honest, I may have heard her call herself that and I was just repeating it.
In 2006 Denton CUUPS’ Samhain ritual featured a journey into the Cave of the Oracle – it was our reimagining of the Oracle of Delphi. Livvy was our oracle. The participants gathered in one part of the building, then after the preliminary ritual we processed into a different part that was set up with an altar, a tall stool, and a scrying bowl. The script call for Livvy to stay secluded until time for the Oracle to come out. Livvy took that a step further and stayed secluded from all of us, and she spent the day fasting in meditation.
It’s been 17 years – I don’t remember what Livvy said when the priestess asked for her visions. I do remember her voice was soft but her message was clear. It wasn’t acting – her words were completely unscripted. Livvy didn’t just play an oracle, for that night she was an oracle.
Livvy was there when I had my first ecstatic experience of Cernunnos. I remember very little of what happened after it was over, but I will always remember Livvy saying “when you were on the ground, I saw antlers growing out of your head.” We tend to rationalize our ecstatic experiences away once they’re over – this helped me to remember that what I saw and heard and felt was very real. I will always be thankful for her affirmation.
The word “shaman” gets thrown around too casually in our wider community. A few years ago some of us argued about whether it’s right for any of us to claim “shaman” as a title or if that’s cultural appropriation. My take then – as it is now – is that we need to focus on the work we’re called to do and not on the title. Many of us do some of the things that shamans do, but few if any of us do all the things shamans do, because “shaman” isn’t a set of skills and activities. “Shaman” is a role within a community.
[Whether we should use “shaman” as a generic term for a spirit worker in an indigenous society or if it properly applies only to the Tunguskan people is a different topic for a different time, and one I am absolutely not interested in debating right now.]
Livvy should have been a shaman.
She had many of the skills. She had some of the markers, or at least, some of the markers I recognize as the calling of a shaman in many cultures. She had a community that loved her and a family that supported her unconditionally.
But she couldn’t be a shaman because she lived in a culture that has no place for people with her skills and calling… and limitations. Still, she lived her life as best she could, and she made her community better as best she could, until she couldn’t.
This is what I mean when I tell people not to wish to be a shaman. You will live a life that is difficult, painful, and most likely, short.
Livvy was devoted to Brighid and to the Morrigan, and I trust with all my heart that They are caring for her now.
But this much I know: that which is remembered lives. Olivia Hope Pettijohn will live on in the thoughts and memories and stories of those of us who knew her, and loved her, and are already missing her.