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.