Keep on turning

This week pagans in the Northern Hemisphere celebrate Mabon, or the autumn equinox. To honor the season I’ve been making wreaths using lavender from my garden and the zinnias, cockscomb, and sunflowers I cut at a nearby pick-your-own farm, this having become for me its own essential ritual of the season.

I’m not Wiccan, and in fact I don’t practice witchcraft as a religion at all. I am not interested in worshipping anyone, thanks very much, and when I call myself a witch, as I sometimes-usually-almost-always do, I consider myself a secular witch. But there are elements of Wicca and other pagan religions that I do love deeply, and one of them is the Wheel of the Year. This term refers to the way the 8 seasonal pagan holidays are rendered, and the wheel they appear on symbolizes the idea that time is not linear, but cyclical. It turns and keeps turning, fading and dying and growing anew, over and over again. I find this way of conceptualizing the passage of time quite reasonable, and it comforts me by rendering ridiculous the unhappy sense I sometimes have that I’m living my life along a straight line from start to finish, getting dragged along like in a side-scrolling video game that never slows down and will one day just stop, at which point I’ll drop off the edge and disappear. Much nicer to think of my death as the occasion when my energy will return to the earth, the water, the air. More realistic, too.

This Mabon, as I reflect on what the pagan holidays mean to me, I find myself thinking about healing. I’ve been consulting Llewellyn’s Sabbats Almanac, a book I love dearly and drag around with me all year long, and in an essay for this year’s Almanac, “Nature’s Sleep: The Importance of Dormancy,” Kate Freuler writes about the lessons this coming season has to teach us about the importance (and challenges) of rest. She writes that the period of dark and quiet that we’re about to enter, though it can be boring, depressing, and even scary, is an essential time to “look gently down inside ourselves” and “unlearn some toxic beliefs.” I’m all for that.

As a teenager I was drawn to pagan spirituality because it was cool and dark and different; because it appealed to me aesthetically; because a beautiful girl I met my freshman year of college told everyone she was a witch, and I was stunned by how gutsy that was. All of this is true. But beyond those things, I was intrigued by Wicca because it seemed to offer a lot of the stuff I’d been denied, as though it were the inside-out of religion as I’d known it. Instead of using shame to control people, it worked with the dark side, the hidden selves, the shadow; instead of authoritarian, it was decentralized and collaborative; unlike the crawly woman-hate my Catholic upbringing had smeared me with, pagan religions explicitly celebrated the feminine. What an idea!

You could say that choosing this path was a form of rebellion, but it’s not as black-and-white as that. I think it has more to do with righting past wrongs, healing old wounds. All these years later, I certainly do not reject every idea in Christianity, just as I feel free to bail on any interpretation of witchcraft that feels wrong (dogmatic/exclusive/cultural-appropriatey) to me. I think that in those early days, what I wanted more than anything was to heal from the damage that was done to me in the name of religion, and I’m proud of myself for that. Despite all the pain and self-censure I have tended to carry with me in this life, I’ve always had a perversely strong instinct to thrive. Like the Wheel of the Year, my thriving looks different at different times, and right now it’s taking the form of filling my house with flowers, just because I love them.