Why I’m Pagan

Sometimes the answer to why someone is religious is as simple as knowing what religion/culture they were raised in. The familiar is often comforting, and most large religions have enough to offer people nowadays that there wouldn’t necessarily be big reasons to look for something else.

I grew up in a Christian community, going to a Christian church that was unique in that it was influenced by very eastern ideas. The congregation believed in reincarnation, karma, astrology, etc. We learned all these things side by side with Bible stories. I remember when I was old enough to start going to the “young adult” services (the children were given a more participatory, separate service to keep their attention). The young adult service was the third tier, and the last one before you graduated to the adult services. There’s a particular one that sticks in my mind.

We were performing the normal meditations and prayers, lighting candles and speaking devotionals and so forth. I remember looking up into the corner of the room, near the ceiling. And I asked the Christian God in my head, not in a demanding way, just a curious way…are you there? It was, more specifically, an “Are you there for me?” type of question. And even though He didn’t answer, I could feel Him there. For many people, that’s enough. To know, or to believe, that He exists. Feeling a godly presence is something that can impact your emotions and psyche for a long time. It definitely creates ripples.

I don’t want to sound selfish or demanding, though you could probably interpret this as such. But a divine Presence wasn’t enough for me. I wanted more. I wanted an answer. I wanted attention and visibility and above all LOVE. I didn’t feel like the Christian God was all that interested in me, personally. He’s got better things to do, I guess, though I don’t understand how you can be omnipresent and omnipotent and not be able to divide your attention a billion ways to give each person individual time and love.

It occurs to me that I should probably also write about why I’m religious, which ties more into my writing. But this essay is specifically about why I’m Pagan, so I’ll keep running with that.

I wasn’t even aware I was searching for something else when I found a book at a weekly outing with my best friend. It was at a Borders (makes you feel old, huh? Remembering when they were still around…). The book was in the teen section, titled Where to Park Your Broomstick. It was the perfect intro to Paganism/Wicca. It stressed the religious beliefs, while still touching on the witchcraft and personal acts and rituals of worship. I stayed up most of that night reading it, and then by the next morning I was ready to devote myself to being Pagan. It wasn’t until a few months later that I did a meditation where I actually came into contact with the Goddess.

To give you a bit of background, my relationship with my mother hasn’t always been easy. To say it’s strained doesn’t even describe it well. It’s more like…it’s complicated. I wanted desperately to please her, when I was a kid. I noticed that if I did well, or didn’t upset her, that she’d be happy. And I wanted her to be happy. She invested a lot of time and effort in the care of myself and my sister. She loves children, and still views our young years as the best of her life. I think her identity as a mother is her favorite and predominant one. And as a little kid, I must have sensed that, and wanted to feed into it to make her happy. The problem that I think we had was a sense of imbalance. If I’m her life, and I’m trying so hard to make her happy–where is my life? I got all tangled up in my mom and my sister, until I wasn’t sure where I stopped and they started. Then as an independent, fiery Aries, age thirteen, I was trying to define myself. Except I didn’t have a self.

So I created one. I fought to find the beliefs and passions and motivations that would sustain me the rest of my life. I read some very influential books, the predominant ones being the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman. Humanism, I could get behind. Organized religion? Sure, there’s a lot of potential for corruptness there. The best thing those books taught me was personal accountability, though. You can be a young kid, with no special powers, and the fate of all the worlds can rest on your shoulders and on the decisions you make in innocence and faith.

I want to change the world, of course. I want to make an impact. I think because I have so much gratitude for the people whose creative work, philosophical thinking, or lasting historical impacts gave me my sense of purpose. I think about the men who died recently on a Portland bus and I am heartbroken by it. It does help bolster my faith in humanity, though. There are good people out there. People who will stand up for others. In this situation they were cut down for doing so. That isn’t right, or good, or just. The intentions, though, the actions to protect others–there is a purity in that. A faith, and a decency, that I think everyone should aspire to embody.

So as someone who was largely invisible and had no sense of self as a kid, there I was thirteen years old, reading books that were teaching me how to look at the world, how to be a responsible world citizen. I had English teachers encouraging me to write–prose, poetry, anything at all. In my writing I found much of myself, as well. And then I was introduced to a religion where the God and Goddess were participatory. They were right there. You were allowed to talk directly to them, and they would answer back. All I needed was a faith in the fantastical, a belief in the inherent magic of the world. I had that in spades. I was raised to be religious, after all. Meditations were easy. You mean I just have to see things in my head? You mean that the voices that respond to my questions are actually my psyche’s connection to the divine, speaking through my mind?

It was the easiest thing in the world. To go from playing by myself (I didn’t have many friends as a young kid), creating stories and adventures for my stuffed animals and toys, to move up to meditations and astral travel and spiritual self-discovery. I’ve got imagination in spades, and if a spark of that is all that’s needed to contact the divine, I was more than eager to sign up.

That first meditation where I met the Lady was more influential than I could possibly describe. I had been starving. I had ideas about what a mother should be, and for some reason they didn’t jive with what my actual, biological mother provided for me. I experienced a lot of grief over that, constantly wondering if I just wasn’t good enough to merit her attention and love the way that I wanted to be attended to and loved. Then in steps the Goddess, and She is warm and soft and ever so strong. She is unwavering in her support of me. Her love is legendary and offers me everything I could ever hope for. Here were a Mother and Father who didn’t want me to fit some version of what they wanted me to be. They just wanted me to be who I am. That’s all. Be true to yourself, They said, and remember Us. So that’s what I did. That’s what I continue to do. That’s what I consider being a good Witch, and a good person.

So Paganism, for me, fills the void of feeling invisible and un-important, as well as unloved by a certain kind of Mother.

As far as the Nature aspect goes (since that is a big part of being Pagan, too), I have my grandpa to thank for that. He was in the field of sustainable agriculture, and he loved to teach. He used to take me puddle jumping every time it rained when I was growing up (which wasn’t often, since I grew up in Southern California). Then when he moved to Washington state he had me help him design his backyard garden, and build a pond and waterfall. He sent me across the street to a big pond (which has since been mostly built over) to catch frogs to set loose in the back yard, so he could hear their singing at night and they could bring life to his pond. He took me out to sites that were going to be cleared for new houses so that we could save saplings and replant them elsewhere. One that I picked out specially still grows by that house.

When you put it all together, it’s 0% surprising that I am Pagan. I’m glad I found it so young, of course, so that I could really absorb it and not have to try too hard to adjust my mental processes later on. I would have found it eventually no matter what, though.

If you have any questions about my beliefs or anything at all, you can reach me at annaimber@gmail.com. Blessed Be.

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Celtic Magic

I feel like DJ Conway and I have similar tastes in pantheons and magick systems, so it was a no-brainer to read this book. I really enjoy the simple and accessible format, and the information that she included.

I think the most valuable component of this book for me was the sample ritual components, which I’m excited to adopt and adapt for various uses.

I don’t agree with everything she says, and the correspondences are useful but there are more extensive resources out there. I particularly disagreed with the idea that the Morrigan and Cerridwen are just Irish/Welsh versions of the same goddess. But, that’s the beauty of Paganism—everyone gets to have their own approach and interpretations.

I would recommend this book to any Pagan interested in Celtic styles of religious worship. I can’t speak for or against the historical accuracy of anything in the book, but it’s a fun, quick, and useful read.

Spiritual Drought

I went years after I finished college without participating in any Pagan groups. Mostly it was location and time-availability restricting me. And it figures that just a few months before moving away from Central California, I found the ONLY other Pagan in the area starting work at my company.

The thing is—I’m built for group work. It’s fulfilling and wonderful. I was raised in a very involved church, where members went to services or events at least three days a week. After every service was an “agape” session that was a potluck for mingling and cementing bonds. I was so involved with the friends I had at the church that I had no idea how to make friends at school—and went a few years with only a single friend there.

In middle school after I found Wicca I started a coven with my best friend and some other close girlfriends. That coven was the closest, best relationship I’ve ever had with women. That it fell apart is to be expected—I’m the only devout Pagan of the bunch. Everyone else lapsed or converted to other religions over time. But it was a beautiful, soul-enriching thing for a long time.

When I went to college I had the luck of meeting a lifelong Pagan through a mutual friend, and he quickly brought me along to the Pagan group events at the local Unitarian Universalist church. Then a friend of a friend spear-headed the creation of a Pagan Alliance at our college, and we had those rituals and group events as well.

After I graduated, I moved to a more affordable area, closer to my then-boyfriend’s job. There went my Pagan groups. From there we moved all over the place, and I didn’t always have a car, or the money to spare on gas to get to events I knew were happening.

Then I spent two years in Paso Robles, a very nice area but predominantly Christian (with only one other aforementioned Pagan that I’d ever found). I had a nice Pagan wedding, but it’s different when the only people who are Pagan are the bride and the officiant.

Now we’ve moved to my home, a place that speaks to me, body and soul. And there are Pagans here. More than I thought existed in a single area anywhere. I went to one non-denominational, all-inclusive event. Then I had to miss the next one, since we had family in town. And I’m starving for it. For the sense of community. The peace that descends when you are among people who get it. It’s a different sort of vibe, knowing that you can fundamentally agree with people on that spiritual level. Pagans are as varied as they come, but being around them and worshipping with them recharges me in a way I didn’t realize I’d been missing.

I’ve been in a spiritual drought, and I finally got some water in late February, only for the land to dry up again right away. It was just a tease, and now I’m craving more.

Some day, I’ll have a coven of my own. A small group of people who meet near Sabbats and esbats. People who support each other in all areas, not just in religion and spirituality. In the meantime, I’ll go to big group events as often as I can. I’ll take what small steps I can, on my own. Tomorrow night, I’ll celebrate the full moon.

Dies the Fire

Post-apocalyptic fiction is a big deal for me. I’ve always thought that raising the stakes is the best way to see who a character truly is. On a small scale you could say that’s why I prefer YA over adult fiction so often—because for teenagers things are often perceived as life or death, even if “death” is only social suicide. Why do I prefer speculative fiction over realism? Same thing. Stakes are usually higher. Characters facing magic or new frontiers or intergalactic wars—bigger scale, higher stakes. Frodo can bring down this great force of evil if he just manages to walk to Mordor and throw a trinket into a volcano. One character, making all the difference.

So apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction is great, because it rips away everything a character knows and loves, and we get to see what’s left. What they can make of themselves, when they have nothing.

Dies the Fire follows two strong protagonists who become leaders in a world Changed. Gunpowder doesn’t explode anymore. The laws of physics have changed. No electricity. No electronics, period.

I like Mike because he’s a bit of a hardass, and gets shit done while protecting his people. Juniper is great because she’s strong but yielding enough to be really likable. And, she’s Pagan. How cool is that? S M Stirling gets the details right, too, which really helps. No mis-representation of Paganism for the sake of Hollywood thrills here.

This first novel of the first trilogy of the novels of the Change (say that ten times fast) starts right at the Change itself, which is cool to witness through both our protagonists’ eyes. And for this particular apocalypse scenario, it’s better that we can watch the characters face the Change head on, rather than joining them years after the fact. Still, the novels could all be considered post-apocalyptic because they really deal more with the fallout of the Change than with the Change itself. Empires are built back up and go to war, that sort of thing.

I like Stirling’s writing style, too. He’s got plenty of details in there, writes good dialogue, and knows how to get us invested in these characters by showing us their flaws right alongside their strengths. I’ve read this first trilogy a few times now, and it’s definitely worth it. An excellent read for the post-apocalyptic novel fan, the avid reader who happens to be Pagan, and the speculative fiction reader who enjoys adult fiction with strong characterization and semi-epic storylines (seeing as the second trilogy follows the second generation).

The Witches of Echo Park

I have to be honest and say here that I read this book solely because I was going to meet Amber Benson face-to-face. One of my friends and fellow alums from UCRPD’s MFA program, Xach Fromson, started a fabulous reading series called Shades & Shadows. S&S brings together genre writers to read from their recently published and forthcoming works. Lovers of horror, sci fi, fantasy, weird, paranormal, and mystery stories get together to celebrate genre writing, in a reading series that truly seems to be one of a kind.

Amber Benson, now friend of the UCRPDMFA program, was going to appear at the grad school residency and at S&S. While I would have preferred to meet her at residency, where you get the opportunity for one-on-one conversations and deeper conversations about craft, I couldn’t attend this time. So, Shades & Shadows it was.

When I started The Witches of Echo Park, I was fair confused. Here’s a writer whose last works were middle grade and Young Adult novels, who is writing an at least New Adult novel here. Yet we open with Eleanora, a character who we aren’t sure whether we’re supposed to care about, yet.

As the novel unfolds, the story turns into equal parts Eleanora and Lyse, old woman dying of cancer and young, fumbling woman trying to find out who and what she is, and what that means in the greater scheme of things. For a time, the prose was too dense, the present-day happenings not interesting enough, because I didn’t know enough about the characters yet to care about them. Around 50% (as I was reading on my Kindle), we hit a steamy sex scene that effectively jump-started my interest. It never faltered completely after that, though I was a little annoyed at the too-convenient romance with a guy who just happens to be a complete gentleman, not wanting the woman to enter into a relationship unless she’s sure she’s serious. Because we all have that sort of resolve and forethought as adults, right?

Still, the book is intriguing, and feels like the first part of an exploration of an ensemble cast. It actually made me more eager to read Benson’s middle grade novels, as I have a feeling she might be like JK Rowling, more comfortable writing in her first chosen genre, still finding her legs in her second.

As far as the Pagan references go, there was a lot of emphasis on spirits and blood-bonds, which to me isn’t the most fascinating thing about magick, but which serves a useful purpose in fiction no doubt. The villains’ motives are religious, it seems, which rings true. Who better to pit against a witch than a priest?

Seeing Amber Benson at Shades & Shadows, and taking an awkward selfie with her because I promised a fellow Buffy fan that I would, was wonderful. Her acting is beautiful, and her stage-voice during the reading was theatric but not overdone, which I appreciated. I think her writing is still developing, but makes me excited for what is to come. I’ll check back in after reading some of her other books, and leave more full impressions then.