This Memorial Day weekend, I was fortunate enough to attend a pagan retreat/festival with SPIRALS. Since our club budget paid for our admission, it was free for most of us, which is quite nice, considering admission is minimum $225/person. It’s even more expensive if we stay for the whole week. Rites of Spring is held at YMCA Camp Hi-Rock on Mt. Washington, outside of Egremont, MA. We were coming from Amherst so it was about a 2-hr drive to the MA/NY border. Needless to say we got lost along the mountain’s rocky road of death (there goes reception) as night fell (cue thunderstorm) and almost missed the registration window. We stopped in front of a creepy, lone mansion at a cliff-side intersection, hoping to ask for directions…Thankfully another car showed up on the road so I ran to them asking if they knew where camp Hi-Rock was. They were a nice, late-middle aged British couple, saying they were also trying to find it. They decided to chance it and go in 1 direction and I wished them good luck. Eventually SPIRALS made it to the camp, but I never saw that couple again…Hope they made it.
SPIRALS goes to Rites of Spring!
Moving on; as soon as we get settled in our cabin and comb the pamphlet, deciding what to do, we figure we’ll start at the dining hall for warmth and free coffee. Since I had the bright idea of wearing 1 of my belly dancing skirts, an elderly fellow in a tunic who was setting up an accordion said “You look ready to dance!” and swiftly grabbed my hand to use me as a demonstration dummy. Minutes later, we somehow found out the man was teaching us Lithuanian folk dances. Hey!—Why not? Boy, it knocked the wind out of me! They’re quite fast-paced male-female partner dances that involve a lot of spinning and running around in a circle. 2 of our SPIRALS member just gave up at 1 point and started improvising. It was rather hilarious! Deer decided to do that awkward, 70s interlocked-hands arm-wave and Grayson was spun around by Deer so fast, he spun out on the ground!
After all that madness, we headed to the bonfire circle that is held all night, every night during Rites of Spring and that’s where the magic happened for me. There are no rules for how to dance, and I took full advantage of that. When I got tired, I allowed myself to collapse at the edge of the circle in the grass and manifest the residual energy to my love.
The next morning, after breakfast, we all went our separate ways to go to our desired workshops/meditations. I went to the tribal belly dance intensive…or at least I tried…several times! I walked all over the damn camp looking for the class until I got so frustrated, I snuck behind the boathouse on a lake-side rock and just meditated to my iPod for a bit. A traditional Arab belly dance song rejuvenated my desire to find the class, so I got up and went back to the dining hall to double check the location—they had moved it. -_- Well, by the time I got there, the women of the class were doing a circle-dance exercise and they let me squeeze in. I picked up the moves pretty fast. The instructor had us partner up for an exercise where we undulated our chests out and up then slowly waved/flattened our backs against each other’s. It was an interesting physical experience.
I had started to feel a little uneasy the longer I was at Rites of Spring until that belly dance class. Sadly, because of how I grew up, I have a lot of figurative walls around me and I often find many pagans awkward and patronizing. Not trying to shit on the pagan scene but I feel as though lots of pagans (as with any other clique in life) come into paganism for not very admirable reasons…I felt more at home with the belly dancers as they/we tend to be very comfortable in their own skins and that restored my hope.
Later, in the afternoon, the ladies of SPIRALS attended another dance workshop about the community dances of Ghana & Cuba. The instructor was something else. She was about 4’ tall and built like a brick house. She was quite firm in her methods and had very funny ways of relating the dances to us. Apparently, Americans stand up very straight, whereas the rest of the world doesn’t really do that. We had to allow ourselves to hunch and become almost animal-like by nearly dancing on all fours. She taught us how to listen for subtle cues in the drumming of when to heighten the intensity of the dance. The 3 of us weren’t feeling the dance after a while so we relaxed on the dock outside of the lodge until the Web-Weaving ritual which was led by the Lithuanian family. The giant drum really set the mood in an eerie way…then the singing started. All of the singing throughout the weekend felt quite dated, like 60s gospel songs. I couldn’t get into it. Although, towards the very end of the ritual, a bunch of wee tykes spontaneously decided to run around the May pole which was the most hilariously cutest thing we saw all weekend. 😀 They couldn’t have been more than 3 years old.
Shortly after the Web-Weaving ritual, Asherah & I went to Sunset Story Time. We heard 3 very good stories around a small bonfire and then, the little ones danced around the fire. The adults were trying to encourage children to have their own bonfire dance, so that’s why such a small fire was made. Watching kids dance is the best! They’re still figuring out how to move their bodies, yet couldn’t care less if that factor made them look ridiculous! It’s inspiring watching how uninhibited and joyful they are by them merely doing whatever they want to the sound of music.
I spent the rest of the evening with Asherah and we got hot chocolate to chat with some of her friends she had met at last year’s Rites of Spring. We went to a makeshift café to listen to some classical Lithuanian music until she fell asleep on me.
Earlier in the evening I talked to Apple & Alex about the discussion they attended for Indigenous Religions of Lithuania. I was really interested in it, but I was committed to the belly dance workshops and schedules conflicted with each other. The gist of it was that the native religions were based largely on farming/fertility cults and they identify as Christian out fear of persecution. The family that was invited as guest ritual leaders by EarthSpirit explained that they were sort of the high priest/ess that was called for extra help in their village in Lithuania. It sounds pretty old school to me, but I like it because it reminds us how paganism was permanently established.
The next morning, I went to the belly dance workshop with Asherah (on time, now) in the field where the May pole/Web of Life was held. After lunch, a bunch of us went to a discussion group about LGBTQ paganism. We discussed the younger generations having a blueprint or set of role models of how to integrate themselves within the pagan community via LGBTQ identity. One elder fellow in neon purple panty hose and leather high-heeled boots brought up a workshop he did in the past called Invoking the Fabulous, regardless of one’s sexual orientation. We all requested he bring that workshop back. You KNOW I’ll be at that workshop! One point he made was “We’re all born naked; everything else is drag.” I immediately thought “YES! This guy gets it!”
After the discussion, Asherah convinced the rest of SPIRALS to watch the Auction. The second half of the auction involves young people volunteering themselves as wenches for the feast later that night. Although all of the money is given to EarthSpirit to help fund the event, the wenches still get very into the spectacle of the auction. People do athletic tricks and most of the men perform parodied strip teases. The wenches are bought by fellow attendees to serve them at their feast table.
After the auction, Deer invited me to go to a Viking blot with her. I initially wanted to go, but when I got there, I realized I would have to wait for opening ceremonial rites to proceed and I just didn’t feel like sitting through that. I’m a hedge witch by nature which means I tend to minimize all the pomp and circumstance. I don’t do cakes and ale. I don’t call the quarters. Sometimes I don’t even cast a circle. Upon explaining it to my boyfriend, I realized all of that ritualized ceremony distracts me from the real magickal workings. It doesn’t help set me in the mood; I’m much better at diving right in. So I retreated to my secret lake-side rock and listened to more music. I noticed beaver dams in various parts of the lake and started to imagine what this place was like before civilization. It was already pretty untouched, which certainly helped, but it connected more to Mother Earth by pondering it.
After about an hour of that, we headed back to the cabin to get ready for the feast! We dressed in our most elegant witchy-wear. We saw some groups had decorated their own tables (we were quite impressed by the vikings’ table. They had evergreen branches for centerpieces and drinking horns at each place.) After we consumed more food than we could possibly shove into our stomachs, some folk music started playing and Deer & Rowan joined in on the dancing. Asherah said next year we should decorate our feast table for SPIRALS and I like that idea!
As the night went on, some of us strayed to the bonfire circle and I felt like I actually DID something! Not that the other stuff was meaningless, but when I dance, I feel accomplished and productive. I guess that’s why I enjoyed the belly dance workshops so much…Anyway, the bonfire was started by one of the ritual leaders from the Web Weaving. He had quite an impressive opening statement:
“Here we stand at the original nightclub, the first theme park, the first restaurant, the first house party. All of these things try to capture and recreate the energy of a bonfire.”
…YES! 😀 I’m so glad someone else could put that feeling into words for me–for us! When the drums started, I slowly started swaying into the music. I built up the energy and manifested that via dance to the music. I let the drums lead my pace and I felt like, for the first time, I was relying on instinct but knowing what I was doing, simultaneously. Not only did I ride the wave, I worked with it. The atmosphere was perfect. I couldn’t have asked for a better way to end the final night at Rites of Spring.
The next morning, we cleaned up our cabin and got breakfast as usual. Afterwards, most people went to the closing ritual, but I was ritualed-out by then. Grayson recommended that we ground ourselves before leaving so quickly. I’ve been hearing that suggestion a lot, lately and my instinct usually tells me “Witches are made to fly.” I never really saw the point of grounding, nor was I sure exactly what it was, until we made our way home. For the ladies of SPIRALS, our grounding process was listening to music while enjoying the scenic drive home.
Upon reflection of this event I can say I learned a lot about myself, which is the driving force behind my pagan practice. Deer and I both came to the conclusion that we are more witches than pagans (although I use the terms interchangeably, some people seem to mean something more specific when they speak those words). We’re both primarily solitary practitioners and not so much into the “Kumbaya” community-gatherings. They were nice, but just don’t do it for me, all the time. I also came to realize I do much better work when there are only females present, preferably ones I know somewhat intimately. There is something spiritually sacred about being a woman and when a group of us come together, on our own, no words can express the intuitive energy we exchange between each other. We don’t need words for it. We don’t even need to look at each other to know. We just feel it when we are in each other’s presence. There is a sense of security we feel amongst each other’s company and we know we are in a safe place. Call it sisterhood, if you will.
Well, before I stray too far from the subject at hand, I’ll get back on track by saying I was very lucky to attend an event like this for free. FL has something very similar to this during Beltane and Samhain (since the weather’s camp-friendly all year round), called Florida Pagan Gathering (that might be the organization running the events…I can’t remember). I’d say I dipped my toe into this experience, not totally immersing myself into the culture of the festival. If I’m able to attend next year, I will be much more willing to interact in more rituals (all ceremonial distractions aside) and meet new people. I didn’t quite step outside my comfort zone, but I’m glad I took it easy. I feel like it was a trial period and I’m ready to do it again, with more drive.