Live Through This

Make Believe

My path to Wicca.

OK, yes, I later realized that the purpose of Wicca wasn’t to make my crush magically fall in love with me. In fact, exerting your will over someone else is frowned upon in a lot of traditions. There is no single set of beliefs shared by everyone who considers themselves Wiccan or pagan. Many traditions draw from pre-Christian folklore, but some take an entirely modern view of spirituality. The Wiccan practice that was popularized by Doreen Valiente and Gerald Gardner in the ’50s and ’60s is duotheistic, centering on the worship of the Moon Goddess and the Horned God. Other traditions vary. The main constant is the practice of witchcraft or ritualistic magic, and doing spell-work made me feel in touch with the universe in a way that praying to a higher power never had. I couldn’t just ask for something and expect it to happen. I had to put in the effort. I needed to find it within myself to approach someone I liked and take risks. Kneeling to pray to someone more powerful than me to ask that they grant me strength didn’t make sense to me, but gathering herbs, stones, branches, water, soil—living things from the earth—and drawing strength from them did. Wicca was empowering because magic was enhanced by the surrounding world, but it started with me. And best of all? There was no fear, no threat of punishment or feather-puking. Its core tenet, the Wiccan Rede, is this: “An it harm none, do what ye will.” That was how I lived my life already, and it was a mantra I was proud of.

I was hesitant to join a coven to do regular rituals on the sabbats, or even to commit to calling myself Wiccan, because I hadn’t been raised to worship with other people, and on the occasions I had tried to do so, I felt like an outsider. I was also conflicted because atheism made the most sense to me politically. I was sick of seeing wars fought, women’s bodies controlled, and people’s sexuality judged because of their religious differences. So I felt self-conscious about my need to believe in higher powers and perform rituals in order to commune with them. That still felt a little like child’s play, like the Weirdo Religion.

But when my friend Marcel was killed in a motorcycle accident, I could not come to grips with the idea that his energy, which had been stronger and more magical than just about anything I’d ever encountered, was gone. My life felt out of my control. Marcel was one of three friends who’d died in a six-month period. I’d gotten a book published, but my writing career wasn’t taking off like I wanted it to. There were hurricanes and wars and a whole mess of other things that freaked me out even more than seeing that girl puke feathers.

I confided in a mentor of mine about this, and she invited me to chant with her. She was a Nichiren Buddhist, a member of Sōka Gakkai International. We sat in a room that felt more comfortable than any church I’d been to, focused on a scroll, and chanted “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo” for an hour, our voices becoming a musical instrument, or a force of nature. I felt focused and cleansed afterward, like I was in control again. But the routine of chanting every day ultimately made me anxious. I started to feel like if I didn’t do it, bad things would happen, or good things wouldn’t happen, and that reminded me a bit too much of being in the bathroom at that sleepover, mentally reciting “hate the devil, love God.” Maybe it was that sleepover that made me feel this way, but the notion that if rules or practices aren’t followed, I won’t be able to reap the benefits of a certain faith, or worse, I’ll be punished, always stops me from being able to commit to a specific religion or set of rituals, even if at the core I like the principles behind them.

Still, I need something to believe in. I know this about myself, and I know other people who feel the same way (my dad eventually converted to Judaism after he got remarried). And yet I’m also a superstitious person—or maybe just an anxious person—so if I commit to something that I’m afraid I might somehow screw up, it makes me feel weak. It’s quite a conundrum. My brother, who grappled with the same questions as I did and now considers himself agnostic or “humanist,” says he’s found more guidance for life in shows by Joss Whedon, songs by Bob Dylan, and books by Kurt Vonnegut than any religious text. I thought: he’s right. Why can’t I draw from what inspires me—Courtney Love’s lyrics, Francesca Lia Block’s books, Buffy the Vampire Slayer—or whatever makes me feel understood and safe, like my connection to lost loved ones and even pets, whom I imagine watching over me like angels?

This is what brought me back to Wicca. Of all of the faiths I’d explored or pondered, its symbolism suits me best, and, more important, it feels very open to interpretation. While more traditional Wiccan branches require initiation, there are many solitary practitioners. This year, I reread the work of the major Wiccan figure Scott Cunningham about solitary practice and started writing my own spells and rituals. I base much of what I do on Cunningham’s books and The Spiral Dance by Starhawk, a neo-pagan ecofeminist, but I don’t have a traditional Wiccan altar. My “altar” is a collection of things that I can draw faith and inspiration from, including: a decorative glass ball that my mother gave me, an orchid I bought myself, dried flowers from my husband, water from the river that Kurt Cobain sang about in “Something in the Way,” memorial cards honoring deceased friends, shells I picked up on a beach in Santa Monica, and a glittery card of a woman holding a jellyfish that contains a birthday message from one of my best friends reminding me that “we are strong bitches.” I don’t do rituals on any sort of schedule, only when I need them. To cope with writer’s block I mixe herbs in a purple glass ashtray that belonged to my grandmother and combine them with gemstones in a yellow mojo bag while chanting to the mythological goddesses of creativity (Athena, Ceridwen, and Mnemosyne, among others), and it helps me focus, think about my art, and believe in myself. When my elderly cat was sick, I comforted myself by waving burning sage around to cleanse and heal him while talking to the spirits of my childhood pets. Maybe that’s kind of weird—it definitely confused my cat—and it doesn’t fit precisely with any Wiccan or pagan ceremony that I know of, but that’s OK. I’m a solitary witch, and the sole member of the weirdo tradition. Seems like I had the right idea back in fifth grade. ♦

*All names have been changed.

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19 Comments

  • jenaimarley December 17th, 2012 3:32 PM

    Willow from Buffy the Vampire Slayer is my Wiccan Goddess!

  • Kal December 17th, 2012 3:52 PM

    It is almost creepy how much this reminds me of myself. I too struggled with not finding faith when I was younger. I distinctly remember not being able to go up and get the “flesh” and “blood” of Jesus. It made me feel inferior and just plain stupid compared to everyone else!
    I also explored many faiths trying to find one I believe in, eventually I rekindled my faith in Christian roots but the Tao also really speaks to me.
    Great article, something I have been wanting to cover for a long time-ones personal finding of faith is such an amazing experience.

    zymurgyprocess.wordpress.com

  • marimba_girl December 17th, 2012 3:53 PM

    Yay for solitary witchcraft! The book Drawing Down the Moon by Margot Adler is also really great, it is a history of the modern pagan movement. It is so interesting to read and is very clear.

  • Mary the freak December 17th, 2012 5:12 PM

    I feel quite bad to say this, but before this month, I have never been seriously thinking about the stuff I do believe in. as a child, I did and found out that god was crushed in tiny pieces and to be found in each and every person (which is a beautiful thought, I guess!) but this seems now untrue and it would be amazing to have something,like a faith. I mean, I believe in unicorns (don’t laugh, I really do!)but this just is not enough to really believe… I have been very interested in hinduism and stuff, also occult sometimes,, I think I should learn about those things more. My fav lesson at school is religious education, our teacher is great and we are having great discussions (without the rest of class,, during the lesson.) . She promised we will talk about hinduism soon yay! I am exited how this journey of my faith wilk go on…

    http://birdiewearsatie.blogspot.com/

  • redblueblueberry December 17th, 2012 6:10 PM

    WWBD – what would buffy do? I really do ask myself this in difficult situations. She’s such a kiss-ass gal. Love her

  • sophiethewitch December 17th, 2012 6:34 PM

    So I’m becoming more and more convinced that I have an alter ego named Stephanie who’s a few years older than me and writes for Rookie. I’m having pretty much exactly the same confusion about Wicca that you had before. I call myself pagan, though I’ve never been able to actually go to a ceremony (timing and my own uncertainty) or done magic successfully. And I can’t seem to believe in anything without it turning into paranoia and superstition. And I also have doubts about how, as a logical, liberal person, I should be an atheist.

  • Abby December 17th, 2012 7:06 PM

    I really liked this… thank you. I’ve always felt like I needed something to believe in. It feels weird not believing in anything (I’m an atheist), because I was raised christian, but just never “got” it. I only recently kind of admitted to myself that I was an atheist, so it’s still weird to me. Today my college did a vigil for the victims of the Sandy Hook shooting, and when we had a moment of silence, my mind automatically went, “Dear God…” but then I realized… I don’t believe in a god. And that really hurt, because it hurts me to think that these little kids are just… totally gone. I want them to be angels in heaven, still “there” in some way… but… I just… don’t believe it, and that’s hard.

    • thebrownette December 17th, 2012 8:50 PM

      Wow, Abby. When I read your comment, I was truly struck by what you said. I’m a Lutheran, but sometimes I feel that alot of the traditional worship stuff isn’t for me. I actually haven’t told anyone that yet. Personally, I do believe in God most of the time. I talk to him a lot, and sometimes it feels like there’s no one listening, but sometimes, I can just…feel him. Thank you for sharing your perspective…it really got my brain going!

  • Ladymia69 December 17th, 2012 8:47 PM

    The books of Francesca De Grandis and Starhawk changed my life. I come and go from my own goddess-centered practice. It’s hard to stay consistent with faith.

  • Suzy X. December 17th, 2012 10:07 PM

    Yeah grrrl! Starhawk rules. I spent a lot of time searching for the right coven; but after spending my whole childhood being forced to mediate my spirituality through a large institution like the Catholic church, being solitary is the best thing for me right now. I really enjoyed reading this!

  • Janice December 18th, 2012 12:17 AM

    I am so lost and so confused and so in need of a religion.

    http://figuringthingsoutdaybyday.blogspot.mx

  • pialuna December 18th, 2012 3:26 AM

    Thank you for writing this article, Stephanie!
    I can really relate to the doubts about faith that you expressed, as well as the pull towards Wicca and writers like Starhawk.
    I’m happy to find an article about these things on Rookie, as most of my friends and family are not very openminded towards Wicca and Paganism, in spite of being fairly liberal.

  • LittleMissE December 18th, 2012 10:48 AM

    Perfect timing with this article! I’ve been so lost in the world of religion this past year but this month’s theme and all the articles, especially this piece, have helped me a lot.
    I was raised Christian but it never really clicked with me. I always felt stupid and weak going to church and having to ask someone for strength or blessings, things that I think should come from within. When I was about eleven I started researching Wicca, the occult, etc, and got really interested. I bought a book, some candles, did a ritual, and felt, well, awesome. I loved calling myself Wiccan, but at the same time, I couldn’t help wondering if I really qualified as one. After about a year of practicing Wicca, I started to drift away from it, after hearing some snide remarks about my faith from peers, family, and even friends. I’ve been wandering, all aloney on my owney, through the maze of religion, doing research and talking to people, sometimes doing rituals or attending church. I don’t know what’s keeping me from going back to Wicca, but I want to find it, confront it, get over it, and go back to when I was excited and happy with my choice of religion.

  • chiara_ December 18th, 2012 1:46 PM

    I think am an atheist, but I so envy people who have faith. Most of the time I feel overwhelmed by the fear of death, and I pray again and again my brain to get the concept of the infinity of soul, or just the existence of it, but it simply can’t. I have a well-developed spiritual part though, but each time I think about a god, I realize I do that just because believing in one would make me less scared of death. That’s basically not a god, just an easy answear for the questions I feel bad to ask. What’s the meaning of life? Where did the Universe come from and what is it made by? How can everything exist? And if nothing existed, then how could have ‘nothing’ even existed?
    I feel like ‘giving myself something to believe in’ would be a shortcut, a golden prison. I don’t know.

    (sorry for any misspelling, English isn’t my native language)

  • sleepyschoolgirl December 21st, 2012 5:37 PM

    I think it’s sweet that you tried to help your cat, it’s not weird at all :)

  • Aimiliona December 31st, 2012 7:12 PM

    This was beautiful…and very close to home. I became Wiccan in a very similar way- and I’m still learning; every day. :3 Thank you so much for this!

    confectionsofacreativemind.tumblr.com

  • SwissRoll February 14th, 2013 7:47 PM

    This is a great article! I love learning about Neo-Pagan religions, and I find that the people I know of such religions are some of the nicest people. C:

    I just wanted to point at that the usage of terminology is wrong! Wiccan =/= Witch (if you guys mind me using that term.)

    Everything is right- it’s just Neo-Pagan, not Wiccan. Wicca is an oathbound, fertility-based cult religion, and it is required to be in a coven (no solitary!) to properly practice, because of the secrecy. Cunningham, Ravenwolf and the like are great! They are just selling their Neo-Pagan books off as “Wicca”. I don’t mean to be rude towards you all and your religions, I just wanted to point that out!

  • roxy189 February 15th, 2013 8:31 PM

    Thanks for this. Throughout my life I have been struggling with religion. My parents don’t practice any faith, but my friend is a member of a christian church and I do activities there. However it never seemed right, and for a while I have been unsure about what to believe in. Recently I have learned about occultism, and I guess I am an occultist in belief, however I have been too scared to actually practice it for fear of judgement. Your article will hopefully inspire me to try out some of the occultist rituals without worry.

  • Atalanta February 28th, 2013 5:38 AM

    inspirational & beautiful. thank you for this article