Today, I Name Names about the First Coven I was in. #timesup #metoo

Content Warning: Emotional and physical abuse, gaslighting, financial abuse, mention of kink abuse

I’ve been reading a lot of blog posts in the wake of Moira Greyland publishing her book about her life and the accusations she made against Isaac Bonewits. You’ve got the usual spread of folks who don’t believe it, folks who do, and folks who are somewhere in between. There are also getting writings about what leaders and groups should do about harassment, and about preventing these types of things from happening.

This isn’t about what folks should or shouldn’t do. You need to follow your own moral compass in that regard. This post is my #metoo post about a cultist, abusive pagan leader and how he flourished in the East Coast pagan community for a time, and what I did after when I started my own tradition. It’ll be 20 years at Yule since I first stepped into that coven, and in all that time, I’ve never really named names, especially, for a long time, I was afraid of my ex-coven leader. These days, I look back on a lot of that time with a mixture of sadness, regret, and sometimes joy. Not everything was horrible, but the bad things outweighed the good.

I did write a good deal of the details about what happened with my first coven on LiveJournal when I first moved out to California in 2005. The posts are still on my Dreamwidth journal, or you can read the whole thing via Google Docs hereI must admit, it was strange reading those posts again, especially since I’m in a very different, and much stronger space.

It was several years before I stopped jumping at red jeeps (because he had a red jeep) and large, bald, mustached men. And I didn’t necessarily feel completely safe from him in California, either, since I knew he had lived in the Bay Area before and could have come to visit. Even in my writings about what happened with my first coven, I even avoided using his name because I was afraid of him coming after me, magickally or legally.

But, #timesup. And it’s time that we named this for what it is: abuse, harassment, and cult behaviour.

Micheal Desplaines owned Tribalways Body Piercing and Tattoo in Boston, MA. Attached to that was a pagan shop called Spiritways. They were located on Massachusetts Ave at the beginning of Newbury Street. Micheal was a nurse as well, but quit nursing to do body piercing (to be fair, he had one of the best body piercing shops in the country). He ran a coven called the Earth’s Children coven, which I joined in 1998 and left, under duress, in 2003.

Micheal was charming to those who weren’t close to him, and emotionally abusive to those of us who did get close. I also think he was physically abusive (under the guise of kink) to his husband at the time, Stephen, but I don’t know it for sure. Micheal claimed that our coven was part of the Feri tradition (with lineage via Starhawk), but in doing some research later, I found that this wasn’t true. In fact, all of the rituals, especially the initiations, where straight out of Alexandrian and the Witches’ Bible. We did, as a group, interact with folks from some other east coast groups, such as Earth Spirit and Pagan Pride Day. However, what they knew of his abusive and cult-like ways, I don’t know.

If you were in his coven, especially if you were an initiate, it was expected that you were there for every full moon and holiday, regardless of your own plans. He basically told us that he expected us there unless we were in the hospital. You had to do what he said or else he would because he was The Crone. If you messed up, at minimum you’d get yelled at, in the worst case, you’d be kicked out. You also had to keep everything that we did a secret, nor could you work with any other group or tradition (well, you could, but only with Micheal’s permission, which he never gave).

I witnessed him kick out a straight man just because he was straight. I received a “black circle” because I challenged him about behavior. I witnessed him and his family members dealing and using illegal drugs like cocaine. His husband came to me several times saying that he was going to leave him and that he was worse when the rest of us weren’t around. When I lived with him, I was treated as an idiot, gaslit, told I was a bad priest, and treated as a servant to his whims. He insisted that I was strictly a lesbian, and tried to convince me that I was delusional about my identity. He never touched me sexually, but I have a good suspicion that he was sexually abusive to his husband..

I was witness to a lot of things that I didn’t know what to do about at the time, but which I still regret not speaking up about. But like many other folks in this situation, I didn’t do anything because I was scared of him and scared of losing the community I had in the coven.

In 2003, I made the mistake of agreeing to move in with him and his husband. During those six months, he tried to separate me from family and friends by suggesting that they would never understand me, or that they were being bigoted about me being a witch. I got to a point where I lost my own identity because it was subsumed by Micheal’s assumptions and ideas about what my identity should be.

And as I wrote in my earlier description, the Goddess gave me a choice: I could stay and die or leave and live. I chose to leave.  He tried to extort money from me after I left them. I had to get a lawyer to get Micheal to stop harassing me and demanding I still pay rent and utilities to them after moving out. I moved to a nearby town, and since I was still close enough to run into them on the street, I spent nearly a year in near seclusion when I wasn’t working. Because of all of the drama with Micheal, I eventually got fired in November 2004.

In early 2004 I had reconnected with my friend Patrick, and when I got fired in 2004, he convinced me to move to California. I took him up on that, and he came on the road trip with me to Oakland. When I got to the Bay Area it took me nearly 5 years (2009) before I felt up to doing anything publicly as a priest again. It took another year of work, and the help of my now wife, to undo the magickal ties that I had to that coven. When my wife and I started our own tradition and coven, there were several things we new that were important to establish at the beginning so that we didn’t end up like my first coven. Many of those ideas ended up reflected in our tradition’s founding principles:

 

  • Our degree structure is based on Sanders’ original version as reported in Farrar, What Witches Do, and Farrar & Farrar, A Witches Bible, with some clarifications and modernization. 
  • It is a fundamental founding principle of our line that magickal polarity is unrelated to gender. Our rituals are not gender specific, nor are separate roles ascribed to a High Priest or High Priestess. People of any and all genders, and none, are welcome. 
  • We regard sexual preference as entirely irrelevant to one’s ability to practice magick. 
  • We have no secrets. All of our rituals, where practical, are published for the benefit of all, regardless of their initiatory degree or lack thereof. We have no oathbound material. 
  • We honour all gods, and no gods. There are no gods that are specific to our line, nor do we preclude working with gods, spirits, angels or daemons from any other tradition. 
  • We do not, and shall never, charge for teaching or initiation. 
  • We have no founding myths. The material stands on its own merits, and requires no invented justification or falsified lineage. 
  • We practice open-source syncretism. Though we have utmost respect for others’ privacy and for the integrity of all systems of magick and religion, we operate on the principle that, if a technique is openly described, it works, and it serves our purpose, we reserve the right to use it and, if we so choose, to teach it. 
  • We do not use a prescribed Book of Shadows. All rituals are our rituals. All gods are our gods. 

We have never tolerated harassment in our coven, and we have tried our best to be as open as possible about our decision making. We try to use consensus as much as possible, too. We consider that having no secrets and having our rituals, especially our initiations, is our way of doing informed consent. We will also modify rituals to the needs of coven members, especially if there is any for of PTSD around a particular element of the ritual.

I have strived to not be like Micheal. In fact, he is the model I use for what NOT to do in a coven, and I’m glad that there are people in my life who won’t let me go down that road. I absolutely know that I haven’t gotten it right all the time. I know I’ve screwed up more times than I can count. I’ve had to make decisions as a leader that I wish I hadn’t had to make which skirted that line. I know that our coven isn’t perfect, but we strive to do the best I can, and to be as inclusive as we can.

The worst part of being in the coven with Micheal was that, for all that he was horrible and abusive, he also knew a great deal, which taught me a lot of good things about being a witch. He taught me a lot of Craft skills and ritual that I still use (even though it took me awhile to be able to reclaim them as my own). In some ways, this makes me pity him more than hate him, since he was on the way to becoming a lonely, bitter old man. He could have been a good teacher, but wasn’t. 

I don’t know where he is now, and frankly, I don’t much care to see him again. Last I had heard, his husband had left him and he had moved to Connecticut, and then to Maine. He’s disappeared from public pagan life. I’m actually kind of relieved by that, because I hope that he’s not abusing another coven full of people the same way he did ours.

One final thing: If you were in that coven with me between 1998 and 2003, I’m sorry if I didn’t stick up for you or didn’t believe you. I regret that, but to be honest, I’m happy for those of you who left quickly, and I hope that you found a better spiritual teacher. And if Tracy ever reads this: you were right about him and for getting out when you did.

 

The pagan community tends to see itself as “better than those horrible Christians [or other mainstream religion]” but, to be frank, we’re not. We have our abusers, harassers, cultists, fundamentalists, bigots, racists, and so on. While I totally agree that we need to fix our attitudes towards harassment, I also think we need to let go of the idea that paganism is somehow more enlightened than any other set of religions out there. We’re human. There is no “better than” just “different from.” The more that a sense of entitlement and superiority is asserted, the more evil that can be hidden behind that superiority. #timesup for us, too, and we need to get our shit together.

That Question That Everyone Asks Me

The biggest question I get as a pastor and priest, and a multi-faith person, is “How do you reconcile your Christianity with Wicca?”

The quick and confusing answer is: I don’t.

The more detailed and hopefully less confusing answer is this:

When I was in seminary, I came to a point where I realized that I hadn’t really ever given up on the whole Jesus thing, even though I was definitely Wiccan and not likely to give that traditions up any time soon. It did take a bit of time of the idea rattling around in my brain to really get to the point where I accepted that I was Wiccan Christian. It took a lot longer to really figure out how that worked and what it meant to me.

About halfway through my time in seminary, my wife and I were chatting a lot about truth, theology, radical inclusion, and the meaning of belief (I think this was around the time I was taking Systematic Theology, but I digress…). Something clicked in her brain and she ended up writing a paper about a concept called metafaith.

Metafaith looks at religion from a different point of view and is based on mathematical principles. (Although, there are some of you now who are probably freaking out that I said that math is a part of it. Don’t worry, hear me out.) The mathematical principle it uses is the axiom, which is a basic, fundamental belief that stands on its own as basic to the person holding it to be true (Sarah Thompson, metafaith, 2013). In other words, these are the basic principles that you understand to be the foundations of your worldview. The axioms that I hold dear, and the ones that you hold dear may overlap, but they definitely won’t be exactly the same. Beliefs, on the other hand, stem from our own set of axioms, but are changeable. I can be persuaded to change a particular belief, but it would be much harder to convince me to change one of my fundamental axioms.

Metafaith accepts that my axioms and beliefs are true for me, just as your axioms and beliefs are true for you, and that “Truth” is relative to one’s point of view. In other words, all of us are right from our own point of view and that whatever “Truth” we perceive from this is real and all of these truths can exist together in the same time and space.

So how does this help me reconcile my Wiccan and Christian beliefs? Well, there are axioms and beliefs from both traditions that inform my own spiritual practice. However, there are some aspects of Wicca and some aspects of Christianity that just don’t, and can’t, overlap. Now, I could try to turn my brain into a pretzel and attempt to mush the traditions together, forcing them to become one thing. But, that could be really damaging emotionally and psychologically, and it wouldn’t necessarily come out with something meaningful for me. I could try and justify things in the Bible about my Wiccan practice, but who’s got time for that? Letting go of the need to force all of each tradition to play with each other lifted a great deal off my shoulders.

Besides, as someone who does a good deal of interfaith work with folks from many traditions, I think it’s important to recognize that the differences between religions aren’t bad or evil, they’re just differences. And there can be beauty and peace in the differences. I also think that having this realization has been really important when doing interfaith rituals. In some groups who attempt interfaith rituals, people try to mush things together so that the ritual works for all traditions. Unfortunately, in my experience, this tends to water down the impact of the pieces of ritual you are trying to put together. When I do interfaith or multi-faith rituals, I let each piece of the ritual stand on its own merits. The Christian parts are Christian. The Wiccan parts are Wiccan. If I want to try and put something in from one tradition, and it doesn’t work, then I figure something else out.

What it boils down to is that I don’t really “reconcile” as such. I accept each tradition as they are, and I put together what will go together. If there’s a Wiccan ritual that doesn’t work in Christian circles, I don’t do that Wiccan ritual in Christian circles, and vise versa. And if there’s stuff that doesn’t work for me in either tradition, I let it go. I take what I need and leave the rest (you 12-step folks see what I did there?).

In many areas of our lives we try to make others see what we see, or think like we think. But I’ve found, even when I make the mistake of trying to make someone see my way, that it’s ok for people think differently than I do. I remind myself that a person’s truth is important to them, and that I don’t have to make them give up their axioms. I can be an example of a different way, a more compassionate way, that follows my Wiccan beliefs and the teachings of Jesus. No one has to accept my axioms as truth, just I don’t have to accept other’s axioms as truth. (This does break down, however, when one person is trying to stomp on my, or my family’s, human rights, but that’s when you have to try and work around someone’s axioms to find compassion. That, though, is a whole different post.)

But the one thing I know, believing the way I do, is that I will NEVER have the ABSOLUTE TRUTH, and neither does anyone else. And, really, I’m ok with that.

The weather is changing

The weather is changing.

The weather here in Chicago is much different from the Bay Area. The cold actually surprised me. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt real cold. This is the beginning of the cold that bites your cheeks, making you run for the covers and some hot chocolate.

The cold also brings back body memories from when I lived in New Hampshire and the Northeast. Like the smell of tobacco reminds me of my grandfather, the cold reminds me of growing up, among other things.

The shorter days makes me want to hibernate, but I know that’s not what people do anymore. It really helps me remember that this time of year is the time to go in, to reflect, to introspect. I do plan on doing more introspection here for the winter. I’m resurrecting my blog to do this.

There’s a lot going on here, and I have some ideas about future ministry, but for now, I just think. I reflect. I look at the past, think about what I want to do for the future, and then put the plans in motion to make it happen.

I do miss all my friends in the Bay Area, but I also know moving here was good for me, good for us. Change is hard, people don’t like it, but it’s also part of life, and usually necessary.

I wonder: what thoughts this cold season will bring me? What will Spirit tell me in these days where the Earth sleeps and things are quiet?

 

Weaver, Weaver

I know it’s been awhile, but I’ve been sucked into my new obsession: weaving! I’m still spinning, for sure, but crochet wasn’t always as satisfying as weaving seems to be. So, now I’m spinning to weave, and it’s awesome.

I used cotton yarn that I wanted to get rid of for my first project, and I ended up making a very nice cross body bag that fits my tablet, kindle, etc. I first did the strap on my inkle loom using self-striping orange/brown/white cotton for the warp and a dark brown cotton for the weft:

Then, I received my rigid heddle loom and using the same brown cotton and self-striping cotton, I made the body of the bag. It started like this:

And this is when I took it off the loom and washed it:

Initially, I used the same cotton yarn to sew it up, so it looked like this:

Which wasn’t excessively horrible, but didn’t look as finished as I wanted it to be. So, after that I used some upholstery thread, and now it looks like this:

It’s been awesome, I’m really loving it, and people seem to really like the bag!

Here’s another project I did:

Which ended up becoming a long lap blanket for the wife (and cats):

I have a lot of ideas for more projects (and Christmas/Yule presents) and I’m getting more heddles for the loom this week so I can use finer threads! 🙂

So, if you don’t hear much from me, this is what I’m doing! 🙂

I got interviewed!

When I started to train for open water swimming again a couple of years ago, I decided it would be in my best interest to become a US Masters Swimming (USMS) member. This was mostly because a lot of open water events are only open to USMS members (for liability/insurance reasons), but there are a lot of perks that come with the membership that I like, especially the forums where I can ask other swimmers questions, training programs, and their magazine “Swimmer”.

Well, a few months ago, Swimmer Magazine had an excellent series of articles about diversity in swimming which mostly focused on race, but did mention other diversity issues, except body diversity.

So, I wrote a letter to the editor, Laura Hamel, and told her as much. I basically said that while I thought their articles on diversity were really awesome, they forgot to talk about size diversity. I mentioned how hard it is to get good training swimsuits. The major swim companies don’t carry suits past size 24 (maybe) and the places where you can get suits in my size have maybe one style of suit that is suitable for swimming laps. (Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for cute swimsuits, but I’m not lounging by the pool when I go swimming, you know?) I also mentioned that I was nervous about going to a Masters training session because I wasn’t sure how I’d be received, or if they would take me seriously, or if they’d just assume I was there to lose weight.

The editor and I had a nice exchange of emails, and they published an edited version of my letter in the next issue. She was really awesome, and said that she hoped that any Masters event I went to that they would take me seriously and welcome me. (To be honest, I still haven’t gone to one yet.)

But color me surprised when a few months later I get an email from Laura about wanting to interview me! The journalist, Elaine, and I had a great discussion when she interviewed me on the phone, and a later I got pictures done with a very nice and body positive photographer named Mike Calabro in Lake Michigan (literally in!).

The online version came out a couple of weeks ago, but I finally got my initial hard copy a couple of days ago. I created a PDF of the article, which is below! The article belongs to Swimmer Magazine and US Masters Swimming, so, if you are going to share it anywhere online, please make sure to give the appropriate citations.

I’m still going “Holy cow! Someone thought I was interesting enough to interview!” but this is awesome!

swimmerarticle

Hanging out in Malkuth and other Witchy Things

Hello again.

I know it’s been awhile, but settling in here in Chicago has taken some time. I’ve also been doing a lot of discernment and thinking about where my ministry is going, which is, as those of us who are clergy know, an ongoing process.

Lately I’ve been working on an initiation series based on the magickal Kabblah, and recently wrote the first of the initiations, which is based in Malkuth.

And apparently, I’m also there until I start writing the next one. (This is where all the witches say “duh!”)

What’s been interesting about this, though, is that being in this sphere has made me really look at this plane of existence and just how much we really do live here. Or, at least, how much I can really live in the here and now.

How do I explain this?

There are times where I can see and feel everything: all the sorrows, all the joys, all the fear, anger, happiness. The present, past, future. It’s as if it’s all laid out in front of me in a long line, or like a film reel. Sometimes it’s all of the possibilities, too. All of the futures, all of the pasts. So my spiritual practice allows me to be here, in the present. In my present.

Then, sometimes, I become too “stuck” in the here and now, especially is something emotionally bad is happening, and can’t see beyond where I am.

I know that clinically, this is my anxiety and depression, but there is a magickal component to this, too. Being stuck magickally generates a lot of the same symptoms.

So, being stuck in Malkuth isn’t a great thing for me, even being the Earth Girl that I am. Working on it, though…

***

The other night I was talking with the wife about the latest pagan blogosphere things. The first being that paganism is dying (not really true), theist pagans telling atheist pagans that they can’t be pagan (totally not true), and people getting it in their heads that all paganism has to be Earth Centered Spiritually (not always true).

Here’s the big point: “Paganism” is an umbrella term that is a really really REALLY big umbrella. It’s not really dying, it’s just changing, especially away from excessive dogmatic paganism, or any paganism that is exclusionary in its practice. I know I’m pretty tired of the witchcraft/paganism that is of the “I’m a real witch/wiccan/pagan and you’re not!” variety.

Seriously, it’s 2017. It’s time folks got over themselves about that kind of crap. Yes, an atheist can be a pagan. Yes, someone who’s Christian can also have a magickal practice. Yes, someone can be pagan without being Earth Centered.

If someone says they’re pagan, then they’re pagan, whether they have a lineage, or a teacher, or are just reading from books. This is true for any religion, regardless of what I, you, or other practitioners, think.

Some folks don’t consider me a “proper” or “real” pagan because I practice both Wicca and Christianity. So what? These days, the wife and I think of ourselves as sorcerers more than “Earth Based Spirituality” because we focus a lot more on magick and magickal systems. It’s not that we don’t care about the Earth, or honor the Earth’s turning, etc., it’s just not our primary focus. And if it is someone else’s primary focus? That’s all good. We need witches and pagans who have that as their focus. Again, so what?

Seriously, people need to stop expecting that all paganism should look and practice like theirs. That way lies the very thing many pagans say they are running from when they talk about Fundamentalist/Evangelical Christianity (or other oppressive religious traditions). Just like those traditions, specific pagan traditions don’t corner the market on truth and enlightenment.

(And IMNSHO, if your social justice demands that I have to do my spirituality a particular way, then your social justice isn’t very inclusive, is it?)