[NOTE: This is a very long personal entry. It doesn’t really reveal any new information about North American Witchcraft. If you regularly read the blog for its information content, please feel free to skip this entry. Thank you!]
Yet, ah, my path is sweet on either side
All through the dragging day,—sharp underfoot
And hot, and like dead mist the dry dust hangs—
But far, oh, far as passionate eye can reach,
And long, ah, long as rapturous eye can cling,
The world is mine: blue hill, still silver lake,
Broad field, bright flower, and the long white road
A gateless garden, and an open path:
My feet to follow, and my heart to hold.
Edna St. Vincent Millay
If you’ve been a long-time listener and/or reader of New World Witchery, you probably know that I have significant trouble remembering my dreams, or even gaining access to them at all. I’ve gotten plenty of great tips to help me with dreaming, particularly when it comes to the type of dreaming I crave most—dreams infused with magic and witchcraft. I’ve tried herbal pillows, a cup of mugwort tea before bed, mirrors under my pillows, prayer, and dreamcatchers. I’ve kept a journal by my bed to record the few and far between dreams I receive as best I can in the dark—a technique that does at least yield some results, though inevitably I wind up with gaps of several months from one page to the next.
I haven’t tried everything, of course. Deep breathing exercises, focused and guided relaxation to pre-recorded visualizations, Lunesta, and other options are still open. But I have attempted a number of methods to get into the dream world and really use that space, only to find my marginal successes frustrating in their inconsistency.
Up to this point, I’ll admit, dreaming has bothered the hell out of me. I can’t seem to do it right, or to get what I really want out of the experience.
What I want, of course, is probably the big problem. I have seen for several years now a tendency among witches and magical practitioners to encounter their gods, daemons, spirits, fetches, fairies, and otherworldly entities of choice in dreams. Sometimes the dreams come unbidden—even unwelcome—and seem to be very nearly disastrous for the one having them. I recall Peter Paddon talking about an encounter with the Dark Mother figure which involved a series of terrifyingly bloodthirsty dreams that left him shaken to his core. Which was the point, yes, but it was also unnerving for him. Other very close friends have shared their dreams with the community involving scenes that could come from fairy tales or horror films or an amalgamation of the two. And always, always, I read with envy their experiences and wonder when it will be my turn. And ever I sense somewhere there’s a voice saying “Patience. You do not understand, yet.” Those gods, those spirits, those fairies, those beings of that Otherworld, they simply do not want to meet me in dream space. They have given me little fragments of dreams to appease me from time to time, but always I find myself holding me an empty plate, husks, shells, seed pods, or splinters.
Recently, Laine & I went out into the midnight woods to work a little witchcraft. As always, we high-stepped and staggered our way past the outermost portion of the dense tangled wall separating tightly-mown lawns and garden pavers from shin-deep undergrowth and the scratchy whisper of treetops moved by the lightest wind. We lost our way, though we’ve traveled the paths beyond the thicket several times in all seasons. We expected to lose our way because our destination in the woods is an old stone chimney in a small clearing carpeted with periwinkle vines that we both take to be enchanted. Every time we go visit—especially at night—it seems to move in time and space. This visit was no different, and we found that even though we were sure we were close, we couldn’t see the chimney until we turned off our flashlights, took a deep breath,listened to the woods around us, and turned our lights on again. Rising up before us not ten feet away we saw the chimney, waiting patiently. Had it been there all along?
Shortly after Laine and I started working together, we did a guided visualization in which I read a pathworking to her and she attempted to relax and go into a trance-space. For my part, I found the experience calming and pleasant, but not terribly magical. Laine, upon coming “back,” more or less confirmed the feeling. It had been a fine exercise, but not terribly resonant. I have had past-life regressions done by a professional hypnotist several times, and only one seemed to ever click. I’ve tried pathworkings from other magical workers—some of them brilliantly written and full of symbols and keys to spiritual insights—and found that they don’t strike the chord that simply reading a fairy tale from an Andrew Lang or Grimm’s book does.
I’m a very cerebral person, someone who enjoys being in my own headspace tremendously. On any given night when I finally get ready to go to bed, I’ll wash my dishes in the sink, put a few things aside for the next day, and then start thinking about something I’ve read, or seen, or experienced in the past day or two or twelve. I start muttering, framing a discussion with myself—ever a Devil’s advocate, and deeply in love with that role—until I’m finally at full-tilt and thirty minutes or an hour have slipped by. What was to be a midnight bedtime has suddenly slipped to 1 a.m. or later, just because I can’t stop talking to myself about some idea that won’t let go.
I dream of being a teacher, a professor particularly, and helping students make sense of folklore and stories and mythology in their own lives. I dream of making a living with words, of thinking about them and about how people use them. I dream about stacks of books piled high by my bed, poring over papers from pupils which contain threads of brilliance buried beneath mounds of “proper grammar,” and “technical skill.” I dream of carrying my 1 a.m. conversations into a classroom, a room full of young devils waiting to catch me in a mistake, or catch some respectable author in a mistake, or catch themselves in a mistake. I dream of devilish intellects and diabolical minds which are hungry for new ideas, just as I am.
When it comes to witchcraft, however, the life of the mind falls short for me. Dreams are not the place where my witchcraft works. They help me from time to time, but mostly they only make me confident that I don’t really need dreams. I need real experiences, ones I can’t rationalize away, ones that happen and that jar me out of my perceptions of reality. Experiences that scare me a little, and remind me how much of witchcraft is just overcoming fear.
I’ve told the story before—probably several times—about my accidental meeting of the Black Man of the Crossroads. I had gone out to work a ritual for a completely unrelated entity, and after I emerged from behind my hiding spot, I was startled by the presence of a man in dark shadow, standing directly under a streetlight. I didn’t address him, and instead pretended not to notice who he was. I often look upon that experience as a failure of my own will and a giving in to fear, but at the same time it made me aware of something very profound: it’s all real. Witchcraft, magic, and sorcery are not simply psychological operations for me—they are true, actual experiences that can be fraught with physical danger and which can completely unhinge my notions of expected reality in a split second.
The night not long ago when Laine and I went to the woods, we worked our magic and prepared to go. At the last moment, we decided to do something else, a very particular bit of witchcraft which involved asking for a sign when we finished. Almost immediately the ground just around the chimney started to rustle with the sound of skittering feet. Some of the stones on the chimney started to glow—possibly with the faint moonlight, though I think something else was behind it. And a firefly, the only one we saw at all that night, came out of the dark forest straight towards us. It circled over our heads a while, then flew off again into the dark woods. The experience was immediate and real and we both recognized it as it happened, then continued to be awed by it for hours afterward.
I’ve heard from a number of folks lately who write regularly in the magical community—particularly bloggers—about how they see their experiences and practices being co-opted by casual readers who then turn around and write about the exact same incidents with nary a nod to their witchy progenitors. I understand that frustration. Many people in the magical community work incredibly hard to establish a functional practice of their own. Jumping in feet first without doing all the work of establishing such a practice, without making that journey independently, can lead to a shallow type of witchcraft. Something which may look mysterious and magical on the surface, but which ultimately crumbles when poked and prodded by more experienced and knowing fingers.
But I also understand the other side of the equation. For those who are—more or less—plagiarizing witchcraft from other witches, it may be because they finally found something that works for them. Or in many cases, it may be that they’ve found something that they think finally works for them, and in their enthusiasm they wind up stepping on a lot of toes putting this new-found practice into place. In those cases, however, I think what the new folks are really finding is their own starting point, a launching pad into deeper witchcraft. One day they may discover that they have gone in a completely different direction and now they are writing about practices which other newbies are co-opting to form their own loose foundations. It doesn’t make the plagiarism right, but it does put it into perspective.
I leave in a few days to continue the pursuit of a dream. I’ll be studying and reading and engaging in linguistic deviltry. I’ll be spending time in one of my favorite cemeteries anywhere (this article is peppered with photos from this gorgeous graveyard). I’ll be going into woods and waiting at darkened crossroads to see what turns up. I’ll be carrying mojos to help with study, personal mastery, and prosperity. I won’t be putting mirrors under my pillow, burning incense to help me astrally project, or playing pathworkings on my iPod. I will be looking for passionflowers and sassafrass roots in the woods. I won’t be invoking four elements, calling on a nameless God and Goddess, or using an athame. I will be asking my ancestors for help, and using my playing cards to find out what they say.
I will be practicing my witchcraft, which comes from my experiences. It involves meeting a Man in Black at a crossroads, physically fighting my way through brambles and poison oak, looking a coyote or a buck dead in the eyes at twenty paces. It relies little on dreams, which I have only recently come to understand. It doesn’t bother me anymore that I don’t have dreams rife with witchcraft, because that doesn’t fit who I am. It works amazingly well for others, but not for me. What works for me is going to real graveyards at midnight, real forests under the light of a full moon, real crossroads where unexpected visitors can turn up at any moment. I’ve still got the kind of witchcraft that lives in my feet and hands, my eyes and breath, and it is my own brand and it is beautiful to me and it works for me and…
And if someone takes what I do and runs with it, if I see half a dozen blogs on North American folk magic appear in the next six months, if I read about people going into forests which seem to shift and change as in fairy tales, well that’s okay. We’re all making our way, and I’ve got miles to go before I sleep, too.
Thanks for reading, and I’ll talk to you all soon…
[Special Thanks to those I consider my teachers. They have influenced me profoundly whether they know it or not: Sarah Lawless, Stephanie Palm, Morgaine, Janus, Mrs. Graveyard Dirt, Robin Artisson, Peter Paddon, Gar Pickering, Vance Randolph (& dozens of other folklorists), Cat Yronwode, Juniper Cox, Zora Neale Hurston, Concha, Brujo Negro, and far too many others to mention here. Without them, I wouldn’t be here today.]