Every year over a hundred Witches gather at California Witchcamp
, a weeklong Reclaiming
event in the redwoods. When I first heard about it, I thought of it as something like Lothlorien, a fantastical place completely separate from my own reality. But a few years I found myself crammed into a tiny car with three red-headed Witches and way too much luggage, en route to Witchcamp.
I arrived in high spirits and found a wonderful site for my tent, right by the river, the stars were out, and the trees were beautiful, and so many people came and hugged me, dinner was delicious, and all the paths sounded amazing, and then I got depressed.
I don't mean that I came down from my excitement and felt a little bummed out; I became depressed. I have been struggling with depression for years and have been working with doctors and blood tests to determine the cause. Recently I started seeing improvement, but the day I arrived at Camp, I descended into the darkness.
The all-camp ritual on the first night was everything I had hoped it would be. Beautiful people circled around a big fire, drumming, chanting, hugging, laughing. There were powerful invocations and the circle was cast. I stood in wonder of its beauty and resolved to participate and be fully involved, depression be damned.
I don't remember much of the ritual, just the general feeling of exhaustion and fighting depression. I was so miserable, I almost opted out of the spiral dance. I forced myself through the motion and figured I would be feeling back to normal tomorrow.
Sitting in the beauty of the forest before breakfast promised improvement and I felt excited about the Witchcamp path I had chosen. My group met in a beautiful spot by the river, surrounded by giant trees and ferns. But instead of the bubbling of the brook and birdsong, we were surrounded by the sounds of chainsaws, heavy equipment, shouting loggers, and falling trees. The forest on the other side of the ridge was being logged. The sounds were awful but I tried to remind myself that logging wasn't always destructive, some sustainable tree cutting was necessary, and for all we knew this could be an environmentally conscious project.
But in our path emotions were raw. Some shook angry fists toward the ridge. Some uttered swear words at the loggers. Some had tears running down their cheeks. Some spoke of the pain of the trees, how they heard their cries, felt them shake, felt them die. Overwhelmed by waves of sadness and anger in sunk back into depression.
Later we met with our affinity groups which are meant to support us in our experiences at Camp. My group discussed crossing the ridge to confront the loggers or maybe even dumping sugar into their gas tanks. I was lost in depression and despair, feeling isolated, powerless to ask for the support I needed. My last hope was the big ritual, I planned on dancing until I pulled out of this darkness.
The ritual was very beautiful - I think. I threw myself into the circle, stood close to the fire, focused all my attention, invoked along with everyone, sang at the top of my lungs. I opened my heart as widely as I could to let it all in and be filled with magick and love. I sank deeply into trance and listened to the words being spoken.
It was a guided meditation on the distorted mirror of our culture. Oppression. Poverty. Patriarchy. Destruction. Logging. Rape. Cruelty. I sobbed and I wasn't the only one. Maybe this was necessary to transform our pain and could be my path out of depression. But the trance went on and on. More pain. More despair. More sadness. More darkness. More depression. There came a point where we were all going to transform the deception and pain by rising up. Rising up to be healers and changers, but I couldn't rise. I was lost and trapped at the bottom of depression and watched everyone else proceed into dancing and chanting, and raising energy or something - it all felt a million miles away.
There was some sort of cone of power, I guess, and then there was more dancing and more singing as I sat on the cold hard earth in pain. The ritual ended and there were cookies and the sugar helped a little, temporarily, and then there was so much celebration around me that I couldn't take it anymore and went to my tent.
And there I sat alone in agony. I used to be an activist and world changer but I was burnt out and had ruined my health. I felt pressured to go back to the front lines, guilty for not doing enough, not being all I should be. And then I felt angry, furious, and started cursing to myself, screw this Camp, screw the rituals, screw all of this, I am not accepting the guilt, I am not going back to the front lines, I am not going to be a world changer, I am not going to invite more pain into my life!
The next morning I showed up at path ready to give up and leave before we even got started. We had a round of check-ins where everyone talked about their experiences so far, and to my surprise I found my pain and anger echoed by many. I decided to stick it out for a bit longer and actually enjoyed my path work, despite the logging.
In the afternoon I surprised myself by changing affinity groups. I had heard about a writer's group and joined them. I spent the afternoon by the river and skipped my path homework. The next day I skipped homework again as well as my new affinity group. At night I showed up to the Blue God ritual wearing red clothes. I had fully planned to wear blue and didn't understand how I somehow forget to change and was now the odd one out. Most everyone else was wearing blue. I gave myself permission to leave the ritual and climbed up on a hill to watch, even taking some pictures, not knowing if there were rules against photography.
I left groups, broke rules, skipped homework, and stopped taking my supplements. And I felt better. It turned out that my supplements were actually worsening my depression, which my doctor called to tell me as soon as I came back from Camp. I told everyone at Camp that I wasn't doing my homework frustrated that no one understood how big of a deal it was. My nickname in College was Hermione, I made color coded schedules for all my close friends, and I never, in four years of College, handed in a homework assignment late. I walked around Camp in a state of disconnect and confusion. What was happening to me?
I've always been the committed, loyal type. I was so committed to my wedding vows that I fought to save my marriage even after my husband threw me against a wall, threatened to beat me, and told me that his own vows had become invalid, that he didn't love me anymore and had earned the right to be with other women. I always stick things out, regardless of the cost. I am the person who gets annoyed at the inevitable trouble makers who think they need to make a point about being different. If we decide wear blue for the ritual, why do they have to wear red? Is it really too much too ask? Wouldn't it be so much nicer if we just all stuck to the rules? If we all showed up prepared, having done our homework? Rebel against the overculture, but for goodness sake, don't make things difficult for our community by being different for the sake of being different!
So here I was, wearing my red dress on Blue God night, without my homework, having skipped my groups, feeling utterly disconnected and left out and wanting so badly to fit in and belong.
I consoled myself with attending an initiation salon that afternoon since initiation had been on my mind for a few months. I went to the salon and sat for a couple of minutes when I felt the overwhelming urge to leave and be by myself. I plunged into the river, hoping to shake this odd feeling of disconnect. I tried a grounding exercise. I hugged a tree. I sat in meditation.
When it was time for dinner I asked my friend about the initiation salon. They really liked it but informed me that it was "so not going to happen" the way I had imagined it, that's not how it worked in the Reclaiming tradition. I argued that it would. They said that no, it wouldn't, it couldn't be done that way. I argued that I was my own spiritual authority and I would find teachers who would do it the way I felt was right for me. Another person in line chimed in and told me that I was wrong, it wasn't going to happen.
My brain hurt. Everything felt wrong and I wondered what I was even doing here. Maybe I should just leave and find a different Pagan group. I didn't bother getting dressed, grabbed my dinner and sat down naked at a table. My friend came and sat with me and asked me if I was OK. I shook my head and that's when I fell apart.
I sobbed. I mumbled about not belonging, and wanting to belong, and not being a part of it all, and it being all wrong, and being my own spiritual authority, and who the hell was I anyways? I cried and cried and then someone called my name and I ignored them, they called again, and then suddenly a whole bunch of people were calling my name, and then someone came and stuck a book on my bare lap, apparently I had won it in the raffle. I kept weeping and heard my name again and soon another book appeared in front of me. I returned to my misery when another book appeared.
I looked up and cried "why does this stupid raffle have to be happening right now? I need a moment to fall apart here!" and my name was called again, this time for an item I hadn't bought any tickets for. Naked and sobbing I stumbled into the middle of the crowd and was handed a candle opera. Dozens of Witches staring at me, I turned to flee, when they called my name again, this time I had won a hair piece, and from what I could see through the curtain of tears it was beautiful. Someone had purchased tickets in my name, seeing how perfectly it matched my hair. I stumbled back to my seat and heard my name again and finally started laughing.
Here I was sobbing about how I didn't belong and didn't know who I was, standing naked in the midst of a community that had gifted me with raffle tickets, winning one ritual item after another. I was surrounded by people who loved me, who held me, who listened to me. And the fates were smiling on me and bestowed me with more raffle prizes than I knew what to do with.
After my meltdown I felt empty and calm, in an exhausted but pleasant way. I sat among the "chair tribe" at the end of the ritual circle, ready to participate or not, free to choose. I was starting to believe that I was accepted while being fully myself. Delightfully different in all of my idiosyncratic ways. A part of the whole, without being at the front lines. Loved, without having to conform. Welcome in red clothes at a Blue God ritual, free to leave and still belong.
We called in the Green God and I chose to aspect him. I put on the veil and felt a quietness and peace descent upon me. I sat in complete stillness, then walked to the edge of the circle and laid face down in the grass. Images of forests, ferns, moss, and grasses entered my mind. All was green, all was quiet. The phrase "stillness is" impressed itself on me. I thought about getting up, but my body didn't move. "You don't have to" I heard. "I don't have to what?" I thought. "You don't have to", I heard again. "Stillness is". I lay in the grass for an hour and a half and enjoyed the stillness. I felt like a tree for the rest of the night. You don't have to. Stillness is.
On my last day I felt whole and happy and participated fully in the final ritual. We were honoring the Red God and I sensed heat circulating through me even when I was away from the fire. My blood was pumping with passion and life and I skipped through the forest in trance, dodging obstacles with perfect nightvision, listening to the sounds of Witches drumming and howling. When it came time to speak our commitments in the fire circle, there was only one thing I could say:
"I commit to this path and to this community"
The sense of empowerment I felt in that moment came as a surprise. I had made a choice from a place of my center, I had chosen a path and community dedicated to exploring my own spiritual authority. A commitment to this path, to this community, was different than other commitment I had ever made, for it was a commitment to myself, first and foremost. I came away from Witchcamp with many new experiences and thoughts, but the words dancing in my mind on the drive home, were the words of the Star Goddess:
"And you who seek to know Me, know that the seeking and yearning will avail you not, unless you know the Mystery: for if that which you seek, you find not within yourself, you will never find it without."