This week, my wife and about 60 fellow members of the Reclaiming tradition traveled to rural Wisconsin for Winter Witchcamp. Staying behind is hard for me, despite knowing I need the year off. Winter Witchcamp is a spiritual home-away-from-home, and many members of my home community will be there, as well as friends I only see at that time. I miss them fiercely.

What is witchcamp? For many, it's integral to the Reclaiming experience. It's part summer camp (even in Winter), part symposium, part family reunion. For several days, we learn together in groups small and large, eat together in a lodge and sleep together in cabins (and tents, in Summer, but this is February in the Upper Midwest, and we're not crazy) , and make magic and ritual together.

There's really no wrong way to "do" Reclaiming (folks sometimes use this as a criticism of the tradition, but I count it among our greatest strengths). But sometimes, if we're doing our thing on our own, without contact with others, we risk losing track of our principles, even the very practices and beliefs that first drew us to the tradition.

In his play Doubt, John Patrick Shanley writes:

A cargo ship sank one night. It caught fire and went down. And only this one sailor survived. He found a lifeboat, rigged a sail…and being of a nautical discipline…turned his eyes to the Heavens and read the stars. He set a course for his home, and exhausted, fell asleep. Clouds rolled in. And for the next twenty nights, he could no longer see the stars. He thought he was on course, but there was no way to be certain. And as the days rolled on, and the sailor wasted away, he began to have doubts. Had he set his course right? Was he still going on towards his home? Or was he horribly lost…and doomed to a terrible death? No way to know. The message of the constellations - had he imagined it because of his desperate circumstance? Or had he seen truth once…and now had to hold on to it without further reassurance?

Shanley uses this parable to extol the virtues of doubt; I use it as a reminder that, when we can, we should check in with whatever stars we can find, to see if we remain true to our own courses. In the early days of the tradition, I'm told, Witchcamps were often the only times Reclaiming folk from geographically scattered communities saw each other and could reassure each other that, yes, we're still here, walking this sometimes dark and pitted road together.

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Unlike in many lineaged, initiatory traditions, one needn't belong to a coven or community to be a Reclaiming witch. You could live your entire witchy life without encountering another member of the tradition. Nothin' wrong with that. But sometimes, having a touchstone has inestimable benefit. Sharing ideas with others on the path, hearing about their practices and beliefs, can be our stars, provide a mirror to our own beliefs and practices, showing places where we have room to grow or valuable insights of our own to share.

I'll not deny that it can be hard. These sorts of mirrors can show unkind reflections. In past years, I've arrived at Camp sure of my course--and my ability to speak passionately yet coherently about it--and departed utterly shattered and unsure of whether I even belonged in the tradition anymore. But like a bowl that breaks and is glued back together stronger than ever (I seem to have a lot of metaphorical plates in the air here; let's see how well I can keep them spinning), I picked up the shards of my understanding, bandaged my ego, and used the reflection the Camp mirror had shown me to refine how I perceive who I am and what I believe, and how I speak about it. It was, for instance, after one such devastating year that I began seeking out fellow Naturalistic Pagans, a search that ultimately led to my becoming, rather unexpectedly, a voice for nondeists in the Pagan community.

Of course, Witchcamp isn't all world-shaking self-reflection. The profound Mystery of connection transpires a thousand times each day and is one of the most amazing parts of the experience. Two women practicing therapeutic massage in neighboring cities meet for the first time and form a partnership of education and cross-promotion, deepening their spiritual expression within their chosen profession. Groups set ablaze by the energy of a week's pathwork return to their home communities and launch monthly song circles and groups for their teenage children. We do deep work at Camp, but in many ways it is only the prelude to the sustaining work of home.

Witchcamp may be a retreat from the world (I'm never entirely sure, even when I'm there), but it is, ultimately, a retreat that fortifies us to be more fully in the world. Even when I'm not there, the mere fact of its existence reminds me: be present. Connect. That is the lesson, and the promise, we will carry with us long after the last sleeping bag is empty.