I just spent a week in the redwoods with more than one hundred witches. We invited along the Baba Yaga, Vasalisa, a dolly, three riders, a firebird and a cat. Part of the magic that makes California WitchCamp so special is being able to hold a myth for seven straight days, to participate in at least one ritual every day, to tease out the nuances at the edges of the story, to practice magic with community and to re-imagine boundaries.
Some words about boundaries – Magical communities work because of boundaries, really exquisite boundaries. Sometimes that looks like holding oaths and pledges and what’s in a Book of Shadows. Other times it’s about checking one’s ego at the door and allowing good personal process to happen. Holding boundaries can be as simple as showing up to do the dishes when you say you are going to and as complex as saying “no” when faced with a difficult situation that pushes all of your buttons and has us wanting to bolt for the nearest door back to the “normal” world where we can be on auto-pilot and sleep our way through life. Violating boundaries can be a devastating thing for a magical community. The past few years have provided we Pagans with lots of opportunities to see what havoc sloppy boundaries can visit on us. Expanding them, pushing them out, testing to understand where they are pliable and seeing just how they do and don’t serve can be an amazing, bonding, and cathartic experience.
And so this is how I entered camp this year – A small leadership role, clear on my own boundaries and the agreements I’d made with loved ones and beloveds, expecting to dive into a favourite story and ready to throw myself into the nightly rituals, you know, a pretty easy and chill camp. But as we all may know, the gods just love it when we come to their house and announce our expectations and conditions…
Almost right away I came up against an edge I hadn’t felt in more than a decade. You know, that piece of work that you’re convinced you’ve dealt with over and over again that is surely and finally in the past – Yep! That one came up and smacked me right in the face. I could almost hear Baba Yaga chuckling as she flew off in her mortar, cackling loudly and exclaiming “Here you go Gwion, sort this shit out for starters!”
Immediately I started looking for my internal file boxes that hold my boundaries and agreements and all of the promises I’ve made to myself. And guess what? It felt as if the boxes were locked in a back room at Baba Yaga’s House of Wonders and the key was buried under a mountain of seeds. And I found myself in the woods, seemingly alone, without my tools and fail-safes and no dolly in sight. And that’s when I really began to collapse.
I had leadership obligations to fulfill. I showed up each day. Did what I needed to do, joyfully, willingly and with as much gusto as I could muster. Inside, I was a mess. The old stories started to come flooding in. “You are not valued”, “Break the rules and damn the consequences.” The incessant nattering of my self-doubt was relentless. “You are worthless.”, “You are not good enough”, and “You’ll just fuck it up anyway, so go ahead and do what you want.” A constant, swirling, unending, unyielding assault on all of the work and magic I’d done for years.
Being lost in the woods brings out my magical survival skills. I looked for higher ground, a place to get some perspective. I ran the Iron Pentacle as much as I could because I knew I was out of balance. I can’t say it restored equilibrium, but it did give me something else to think about and it put the emphasis on my energy and my body. Oh yes, my body! That’s right. When things get out of whack for me I can usually put the confusion and “big feels” into my body. So I grabbed my drums and pounded the skins for all I was worth during ritual and then grounded out anything and everything I could through drumming, into the earth. That helped a bit.
Then came the chance to engage in some deep and profound magic, an opportunity to sink completely into my own skin. I wouldn’t need words or songs or particularly well-formed thoughts. I just needed to be in my body. I can only describe this magic as “primal”, a full description of the work without context wouldn’t do it justice, but the bottom line is that I spent four hours re-learning how to communicate without words.
Touch and eye contact and wordless sounds became the only language available. Slow and deliberate movements lead to permission, understanding and incredibly intimate expressions of my human beingness and my connection to the gods. Phrases like “divine madness” and “ecstasy” seem woefully clichéd but they are about as close as I can come to describing what happened. Connections made in those moments are still so indescribably delicious and precious to me.
A shift had occurred. My edges, my heart, my boundaries were simultaneously blown open and fully intact. It’s not a word we use much in the Pagan world, but I was walking in a state of grace. And from that place I was able to quiet those inner voices. I remembered how to be gentle with myself and saw again those parts of me that I do so value, which need no approval from within or without.
As the final ritual of camp approached, the familiar voice of the Baba Yaga was there again, laughing as always. My easy and chill camp turned out to be anything but that. I’d spent seven days (or what it seven years?) sorting the seeds and completing impossible tasks she set before me, just as she always does. She kicked me out of her house and sent me back to the world and I’d swear that I heard her flying over my house the other night in her mortar, but that’s another story…
Notes: This is the first piece that Phoenix and I have published here that didn’t include both of our voices. Most of the time we write together, but in this case, we felt that telling our own stories was the best option. Both of the photos shown here come from Wikipedia Commons and are labelled for reuse.