Emily tells me that she won't be going to Free Spirit Gathering because of her new work obligations; no one is allowed a break during the summer in an industry dedicated to volunteer vacations. While some of her clan will be at the gathering, the majority will be going to Starwood in July. Her absence reduces the barrier I have to Free Spirit and I'm sorry to admit that. I'm in the spirit of reclamation lately, I need to start owing things that were once ours so they become mine, and I wish I could already consider Free Spirit mine.
I'm usually apprehensive when it comes to Pagan events, but Free Spirit has filled me with a feeling of what the Pagan community should be. Loving, compassionate, united, and caring. In some ways - and I likewise regret to say this - the festival would be nicer for me without an attachment to Emily. I wouldn't spend so much time outside the tattooing tent, giving all my energy to one clan member after and thereby neglecting the classes and rituals I truly wanted to attend. Previously, part of my pleasure there was having a concentrated dose of Emily in a spiritual setting, something that had otherwise been rare. She wasn't explicitly spiritual with me. I think she undervalued my spirituality because it didn't match up with hers. (At least, what we both assumed was her spirituality.) Still, I imagine most of Emily clan would actually be nice to me, since I have done nothing to them aside from keep their friend safe and happy as long as she would let me. I could find comfort there this year.
It's so rare that I feel the pull of sacredness. I was willing to let this opportunity pass from me because I could not handle balancing that holiness with seeing my ex-fiancée for a solid week. It could be mine, it could be blessed. If I found a Pagan friend who said they would go, I would do it in an instant.
Melanie and I attended the Beltane festival at the Center for Symbolic Studies in New Paltz. I had last been to here eight years ago, just days before meeting Emily. Then, it was not advertised as related to Beltane in any way, just a fair. I brought Zack and a girl who was then my friend and wanted to be more, Nancy. Zack quickly became annoyed as we were all told, not kindly, to shut the hell up while they spontaneously had a cloying Wiccan ritual in the middle of the fair. This embarrassed me utterly. I apologized, pleading my ignorance, and bought them ice cream out of contrition after we left.
This one started out on the wrong foot, both because the girl taking admissions stole ten dollars from me and because Melanie was mortified at the prevalence of Renaissance Faire grab. Having spent all of my decision-making years as a Pagan of one stripe or another, I have long found it condescending at best to assume one cannot worship the old gods or believe in magick without breaking out the leather bracers, wings, or broken Ye Olde English. Some Pagans practice completely nude - which is also not my prerogative - but I can support that more than playing dress-up as a pretty, pretty princess. Any divinity that can't see me as a good witch in street clothes has no business hanging up a shingle as a godform.
Melanie was well apprised of what this event might be and came anyway because it was important to me. The Center is a sprawling field with a stone circle, but nothing special enough to warrant the price of admission. Beyond the slightly overweight guy on the dirt path wearing a kilt and playing bodyguard (as though hippies are hard to intimidate), there are parallel stalls selling typical wares of cheap jewelry, blunt weapons, vegan cuisine. Past that, people sit and listen to some women read the sort of poetry I would have outright rejected from my high school's literary magazine but which earns their adulation because it is goddess focused and accompanied by a harp. I already feel the creeping reminders of what put me off eight years ago.
Melanie passes through the crowd, though I stop her when I see a woman I know hesitantly smiling at me. I give a half wave before my brain registers that this is Lynn, a member of Emily's clan. I had been told she would be here and at one point was asked to participate in the fire ritual with her, an offer I declined because I thought I would have to drive Melanie back early and was not comfortable concurrently being around a large fire and people who advised Emily to leave me for Tim. Lynn and I do not exchange words nor, to my sadness, do her usually affectionate children Mason and Morgan greet me in the least. I tell myself that they probably did not see me and let myself be pulled away this angst by Melanie.
We've been here twenty minutes and Melanie already seems antsy to go. We sit in a field and watch a small child of indifferent gender play with a kite. Around the kite flying child, girls in princess costumes wander. "This is about the only age where it is acceptable for people to dress like that in public. After that, it either looks pathetic or completely ridiculous," Melanie says. I dare not ask what she would think of people donning shiny purple polyester to invoke Hecate but I can guess her opinion would resemble mine, only without the apologist's hesitancy.
After ten minutes in the field, I am able to persuade her to try to get her money's worth (or my money's worth, since she is a poor college student). We can and will sit in fields for free. However, there is still little to do, even were we captivated by mishmash Paganism. We watch and critique the women hula hooping in the stone circle, our intent more carnal analysis than kinesthetic or spiritual. This only keeps us amused for a few more minutes, their efforts more entice to the throng of young boys being rapidly thrust into puberty by the hula MILFs.
I keep her there through a deft folk singer, my hope for a kindling of the sacred diminishing. We discuss how singing gains a woman a three point advantage until such a time as she is no longer singing, but my eyes search the crowd for something more. It isn't Lynn and her brood. It isn't the stone circle. It isn't even the man who invited me to participate in the ritual, though I find his absence queer given that he swore he could get me in for free. I'm looking for something to keep us there, something we could not gain on our own, something undeniably sacrosanct and I don't find it.
The singer leaves the stage and the absence of her voice is grating. I realize how good she was only when she is no longer the center of our attention, but that tends to be the way. In her stead, an older man mounts the stage and begins speaking into her still live mic. He pronounces himself the organizer of the event and rambles on about this festival and how he threw the I Ching and spoke to various gods with a casualness that suggests they have coffee every Tuesday. Finally, he admits that there won't be any Beltane fire tonight because the real fire is in our heart and stomach and we certainly don't literally require a fire given that. For those of you who do not understand why that is obnoxious, try telling your kids next Christmas that there is no Christmas tree because the tree is in their livers and see how they react. The organizer takes no blame for any of this, soundly crediting gods who aren't about to contradict him and a forest fire that no one else seems to have heard about, but it really comes down to the fact that he didn't bother to get the appropriate permits and won't own up to this. Again, and not for the first time, I wonder into whose coffers my admission went. The lack of a fire was certainly not mentioned before those gathered forked over their cash and I can't imagine this was a coincidence. This oversight is enough reason to leave, according to Melanie, and I do not have interest in disagreeing.
As we leave, I ask Melanie if she, in her surrealist atheism, looks down on me for being spiritual.
"Yes," she surprisingly answers, but revises it. "No, I really don't. Not for being spiritual, but for having spirituality that involves this Wicca silliness." She had experimented with Wicca eight years ago, found that her spells did not produce the desired results, and threw it in the corner of her soul as effete and impractical, as she had with a series of other theological outfits.
This may be the closest I get to a Pagan gather this season, if I can't find a companion for Free Spirit, and they didn't even bother to get the permits for a bonfire for the fire ritual.
Soon in Xenology: The prom. Melanie leaves.