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#Where I Came From

07: Meeting Professor Dark

I was no more than seven, lying in the grass away from my unit and the camp counselor. I wasn’t hiding, I just didn’t want to talk to anyone.

Suddenly a silhouette cut into my view of the sky.

“Are you with them?” he asked, head inclining toward the playground below. I nodded.

“So why be up here?”

I shrugged. He sat down next to me. I should have called out or run — this was the era of ‘stranger danger,’ after all — but I didn’t. He was wearing jeans and a black t-shirt and he had overgrown dark hair that fell in his face. He looked kind of like kidnappers on TV, but I didn’t feel threatened by him.

“You’re different,” he said finally. It sounded more like a statement than a question, so I didn’t respond. He wasn’t looking at me anyway, he was staring far off at the trees.

“You’re too young, really. But someone should, and it might as well be me.”

Then his hand was on my face and it went dark before I realized something was happening.

10: Meeting Aries

Dante had Virgil to lead him through the wilds of the otherworlds, explaining as he went how everything worked. I had Aries.

I don’t know that I could honestly talk about the origins of my practice without eventually talking about Aries, but he’s not a god or a type of spirit that I can put a finger on, so it’s weird and awkward to explain him and I’ve often put it off.

Aries first appeared when I was, oh, probably ten. At this point I’d been working with Professor Dark and Jareth and what I understood to be fae in the nearby woods, as well as made my first attempts at praying to the Greek gods while studying mythology at school. I didn’t know what any of that was, not really, just that my life was full things I shouldn’t tell my parents about.

The first thing Aries said to me when I found him in the woods after school was “You can see me?” He was older than me, probably fifteen or sixteen, and instantly replaced my cousin Becky (who had a leather jacket) as the coolest person I had ever met.

I brought him home, not really thinking about what he said until my parents steadfastly ignored him and I realized this wasn’t just someone who was in the woods. This was Fairy Tale Rules, which is what I called magical things at the time, but I’d never really had Fairy Tale Rules follow me into the house before. Aries tried to explain why I could see him and other people couldn’t, but he wasn’t a scientist and I’d not even had middle school physics yet. I built up a vocabulary from myths and fairy tales and pop culture – one of the terms I used to describe him over the next few years was “cap bearer,” not because he wore a cap but because he could access the doors between worlds.

I'd left before, though I didn't tell him that. I knew the feeling of being outside of myself. What I didn't know, I told him truthfully, was how to choose to leave. I wanted to follow him and I didn't know how.

He nodded. "I want you to sit for me."

"Just sit?"

"Sit quietly, relaxed, not thinking, the way you practice at the end of your ballet lessons."

I did as he said, trying not to think too much about what she was doing.

"Imagine that your body is a hollow space, like a car that you drive around in. Picture yourself in that space."

I nodded and closed my eyes. The image that came to me was of a large, empty space with a high, curved ceiling. There seemed to be lights above and in front of me.

"Where in your body are you?"

I knew the answer without having to think about it. "My head."

I couldn't see him nodding but I heard the acknowledgement that I'd said what he expected. "There are different places you can see yourself. For some people it's the chest or the stomach."

"Should I try to be somewhere else?"

"No. Where you are is just a reflection of where you're comfortable. For now we're just working on something else."

"Okay."

"Now I want you to imagine yourself still in that space, taking a look around. Look specifically for a door, and you should find one. Do you see it?"

I did, at the back of the space, away from the lights. My door, when I saw it, was of carved wood with simple geometric patterns shaped in it.

"Walk over to the door and take the handle. Brace yourself and then try imagining yourself opening it."

The door handle was cut glass like my bedroom doorknob and it shone bright when I reached my hand out to it.

"Now step through it."

Beyond the door was blackness and nothing else, and I hesitated.

Finally he asked, "Is something wrong?"

Too embarrassed to answer, I threw myself into the void.

So, yes, my first “astral spirit guide” was a teenage boy. Maybe that explains a lot, I don’t know. I’d learned the basics from Professor Dark without realizing what I was doing, but Aries gave me focus. He was like a big brother letting me tag along once I got the hang of it. After a few months I figured out the knack of it myself.

He took me to the realms and places he knew, and as I got the hang of it I managed to drag us other places as well. I ended up in stupid amounts of danger more times than I can count, but like a big brother he made sure I got out most of the time. He introduced me, with the best of intentions, to the young demigoddess who ended up possessing me for a couple of years, but that’s another story entirely, and my own fault.

Aris died when I was in college, but I still see him sometimes, through the vagaries of the otherworlds. I owe him a lot, though – he was my introduction to all of it, all the places I could go when I took my body off, and my big brother and my tour guide.

11: Losing Kelley

When I was small I had a best friend. We were the same age and our mothers were friends, so it was that sort of... inevitable relationship, I suppose. We talked about magic a lot, Kelley and I did. We wrote out elaborate magical rituals in my notebooks and talked about how kids can see fairies but adults can’t and we made plans for when we were older and we could do better magic.

Kelley lived in the next town over, so we only got to see each other on weekends, and as we got older and as we and our siblings had more activities on the weekends, we saw less and less of each other. When I went to Kelley’s eleventh’s birthday party, I said something about it.

There was just a blank look on Kelley’s face. No idea what I was talking about. No memory of any of it, except maybe a fleeting reference to the silly games we used to play. The party was terrible and I don’t know what Kelley’s mom told mine in the morning but we didn’t see each other again until late middle school, when Kelley and I happened to end up in the same room at a regional testing center.

We chatted like nothing had broken between us, but it was the hollow chatter where nothing is broken because nothing had been built in the first place.

I think of Kelley sometimes when I’m pulling out this or that thread of childhood experience, and I wonder what all of that looked like from the other side. From the point of view of the one who put away childish things. From the one who grew up.

After that party, I was terrified that growing up somehow was synonymous with forgetting, so I attached myself to the idea of Not Growing Up with Barrie-like zeal. I was certain that if Grew Up, I would have to give up magic and everything I understood about the universe.

Somewhere along the line I lost it anyway, and now I find myself in the position of reclaiming those childhood things even as I launch headlong through the markers of adulthood in society like marriage and upcoming parenthood. I am wondering now how I will teach my daughter what I believe, and what skill I can give her so she will grow up without forgetting. I know it can be done, and I’m sure it can be done better than I did. Hopefully I can give her the information she needs to learn from my mistakes and instead make her own. That sounds like powerful magic, if I can carry it off.

15: Trusting the Tree

When I was younger, there was a tree I loved. It was about half a block from my house. We all climbed, but I climbed higher than anyone. There was a bandana that I tied at my high water mark, a dare to the other kids in the neighborhood. It was pretty much at the top of the tree… in retrospect, I’m surprised it held my weight at that height. In high school, I spent plenty of afternoons sitting up in the branches, talking to the tree, reading, doing homework. I practiced my drama monologues up there.

Thinking about that tree, I’m surprised how much I still miss her.

The day I climbed to the very highest point on the tree, I was angry and I was hurt and I was sad. There was a girl down the street that I’d considered a good friend, and she’d repudiated me publicly (in that high school way, so maybe “repudiate” is too strong a word, but it felt like a huge betrayal) and so I climbed the tree and I took the bandana we used as a marker and untied it and kept going up. I went way past safety, to the very top of the tree (and this tree was taller than anything near it, so you could clearly see the top from the road). I tied the bandana up there in the hopes that she would see it. I wanted her to know that I’d gotten to the top of the goddamn tree, and that she was never going to get higher than I was.

Then winter happened, and in the spring I went overseas for a year. And then I came back. I won’t say I came back more mature or world-wise or anything like that, but for the first time I understood that the world outside of my tiny Mid-Atlantic town (population 397 at the time) was real and I could reach it and soon I would leave and not come back. I’d dreamed of leaving since I was very small, but it hadn’t seemed possible until I was 16 and I did.

When I came back, I had a lot of time to myself. Due to school years lining up oddly, I finished 11th grade overseas and came back almost two months before school let out in my district. That meant days and days wandering around the neighborhood by myself, while everyone was at school and work and my dad was napping or working around the house. I spent plenty of afternoons in the tree with a snack and a book and nothing to worry about, but one day as I was walking toward the tree I noticed the bandana was still there at the top despite two winters in between.

I was a little more careful than I used to be, testing my weight on the branches as I climbed, worried for the first time about falling. But I made it. I could see the whole town, emptied to work and school. I untied the bandana. I brought it down with me. It didn’t matter anymore.

Climbing down was so much harder than climbing up was. Climbing up, I knew where my hands were, I could trust my arms to hold me as I reached. Climbing down involved several places where my foot didn’t touch the next branch down until I’d given up my grip on the branch above me. It required care, and it required faith.

I trusted in the tree then, and the tree supported and protected me, and that has translated into the way I work with both nature around me and the World Tree since.

25: The Time I Promised My Service To The Sea For Dumb Reasons And Lived With The Consequences

I see a lot of general advice about spiritwork, generally of the ‘don’t do it, you’ll fuck it up’ genre, but people rarely seem to talk about what that actually looks like.

When I was in my 20s, my then-significant-other was embarking on a devotional relationship that I believe eventually turned out to be with La Sirene, but at the time she didn’t know who it was. She wanted my support, and as part of that, she wanted me to promise my service with her.

Now, there’s a time and place for making promises to deities who are interacting with you but whose names you haven’t learned yet. However, I do not recommend doing it lightly. In my case, because I didn’t have any real idea who she was working with except what she had told me, I just promised my service to the sea for seven years.

Yeah, don’t do that.

At the time, my work was pretty closely aligned with hers because it made kept happy, so at first nothing seemed amiss. I did the same work she was doing, and it was pretty straightforward. She was overwhelmingly scary sometimes, and so was the sea, but hey, at least we were in this together.

Then the relationship started to get strained and my religious work went off in directions that were not what my ex was doing. I wasn’t getting anything but crickets from most of her gods, so I figured I was safe. I went back to Taoism, and I got a sharp sense that Someone was poking at me. Divination, meditation, and research led me to Tien Hou, a sea goddess.

“You’re already promised to me,” she said.

I’m fairly sure I did the metaphysical equivalent of staring, slack-jawed.

“You serve the Sea. You’ve changed directions, but the Sea is constant.”

Because awkwardly worded promises don’t go away because your interests have changed, it turns out. So I built an altar and burned incense and visited her temple in Los Angeles, and I did as she asked. She’s a merciful goddess, and I was fortunate. I would send someone who needed her help to her in a heartbeat.

And then Odin came back into my life, and directions shifted again. It happens, life is complicated. I can date this one precisely, because I knew I was getting poked and so I sent a request in to a spiritworker for Mabon 2009’s seidhr. I asked the dreaded “who’s calling me?” and was told Aegir, Ran and Njord were poking around.

The sea gods. Well, I felt pretty silly then. Ran ended up with the rights to my “contract” and she was a lot more demanding than Tien Hou. When she wanted me at the ocean I ended up at the ocean – I suddenly had travel obligations for work that landed me oceanfront on both east and west coasts, regardless of the fact that I suffer from vertigo and flying is painful at best. I wrote for her, I sang for her, I gave blood and other offerings in both oceans. When we drove up the California coast I greeted her and her daughters at multiple beaches, like I was on some kind of magical scavenger hunt.

I came to love her. But it was hard, and there was bitterness on my part that I didn’t feel I’d signed on for “this” even though I had. But I did what she asked and while she was demanding she was never cruel.

By the time she released me to the Columbia, I’d all but forgotten service was for a term and not forever. I was pretty lucky, in that respect.

I can’t say I’d choose to do it again, especially blindly. The contract lasted longer than the relationship that prompted it. But in the end, I learned a lot from the Sea, all three of her, and while I went into it completely unprepared, I survived it. My life was not destroyed.

We learn from the mistakes we make. Most of the time, they’re not permanent and not fatal. I don’t recommend that you go promising yourself to gods known or unknown forever without any exit clauses, and I think you should carefully consider a spirit marriage or job the same way you should consider carefully a job or marriage in your physical life.

But eventually you have to take a risk to go forward. Sometimes you do something without thinking it through. It isn’t the end of the world, either. Keep your promises, fulfill your side of the bargain, and be open to the opportunities you have. If you find yourself in over your head, you have an amazing opportunity to learn how to swim.

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