[intro-text size=”25px”]I hear his voice past the ring of pines that separate us, melodic and ancient. Bearded and draped in thick, rough-spun burlap, he performs Nordic invocations while twirling a silver hammer over his head. The people in the park are beginning to gather and I follow. A woman passes around a horn for the crowd to drink from while the chanting grows.[/intro-text]
Actually… you know what? We’ll come back to that. Let’s start this a few days earlier, in the back of a record store in Tremont.
I’m talking with some local paganists while The Velvet Underground plays in the background. Lou Reed doesn’t make it to the second verse in “Venus In Furs” before we explore the balancing acts the paganists are forced to employ on a daily basis.
“[My kids] like to tell their friends, their mom’s a witch,” Stephanie laughs over coffee. “There are these school events and parties that you’re invited to—I can’t ask the other moms to sit in a circle and talk about the moon.”
A mother of two, Stephanie knows all too well about the need for balance while claiming an identity that is often at odds with mainstream society. With the Bruja culture, which has long honored shamanism, running deep through the maternal line of her Puerto Rican heritage, her transition has been easier than some. She did not receive the same backlash as her friend Victoria when she came out to her parents.
“My dad is super white,” Victoria laughs while sharing a sofa with Stephanie. “I was 16 and I had my tarot cards and my brother was asking about them. My dad heard and threw the biggest shit fit. He called me evil.”
Victoria has since joined an online community of women interested in various forms of witchcraft or paganism along with Stephanie. “You can see it in people’s’ eyes when I try to explain myself. Then I realize, ‘wait a minute, I don’t need to explain myself.’”
When the two speak to the support found within the group, the phrase “safe space” is mentioned more than once. “It helps when you know other women, especially if they’re standing right next to you. You feel a little bit braver…I had no idea how big the community actually was here.”
“Males run the majority of our lives,” Stephanie adds. “We’ve got to be at work with them. We’re engaged to them, we raise them. It’s nice to have a place your own.”
While an ambitious proponent of the lifestyle, Stephanie remains humble.
“I’m still fairly new,” she says. I’m still trying to learn as much as I can and play catch up with all the information and different traditions.” She is inspired in equal measure by her culture as well as trial and error. “I don’t want to assign myself a religion.” Her sentiment is shared by the others around the table. Their beliefs are fluid and reflect their place in the universe at any given time—a self-actualized lifestyle cobbled from the very traditions that would consider such fusion blasphemy.
These pursuits do not remain merely academic for them. You can thank the relative calm on the streets of Cleveland during the Republican National Convention to Stephanie and Victoria’s invocation for peace that they performed downtown with other women from their coven. “All those intentions we set, I feel they really worked because the RNC went off without a hitch,” Stephanie reflects. “That much energy and that many women just thinking about it, putting the protection bubble up. I want to do more things like that here.”
“Yeah, me too.” Victoria pipes up at her side, eager for their next adventure.
Warming to the two, a woman named Lynette slowly smiles from across the table. “We’ll have to connect later,” she decides. She’s been reserved for much of the conversation. Content with observation, she offers glimpses into fascinating past exploits only when invited. “I do miss the physical connection with women,” she admits candidly. “I wish I could be around women that I could be completely raw and uncut with.”
Inarguably well-read and traveled, Lynette has had to discover her own path without the aid of a support group. Her reticence to connect and offer a more public presentation of her belief system is not born of shyness or shame, but of a more calculated, self-imposed anonymity.
“I’m very private,” she says. “A lot of people don’t know about me. I share some of what I know or do and that already shocks people.” Despite being an experienced scholar and practitioner of shamanism, Lynette is still hesitant at the thought of coming out, publically, to social colleagues over her spiritual beliefs. “I’m just not quite there yet,” she demurs.
Standing outside, I hand each my card and thank them for their time. As the sun sets behind us, Stephanie’s silhouette puts out an invitation to the coven between drags off of a Marlboro menthol. She and Victoria exchange numbers with Lynette and make plans to meet again. Her thirst for knowledge, Victoria’s desire for sisterhood, and Lynette’s path toward acceptance may have just met at a crossroads at a record shop. I drive off, content in the promise of their Circle growing all the wider for our discussion.
It’s 90 degrees in the shade and we’re back where we started with the man wielding the silver hammer. I’m at the second annual Pagan Day Festival in Bedford, just in time for the closing of the morning prayers. The fest is running a canned food drive in lieu of admission. A redhead with a pixie-cut can barely see over the parapets made of cans of baked beans and jars of peanut butter when we enter the festival. A good turnout, she says. Vendors line the park, selling gemstones, ceremonial daggers, and other magic baubles. Tents offer shade and seminars from engaging guest speakers. The bustling courtyard reflects the panoply of concepts on display. A shaved ice truck serves bubblegum icees to kids and sun-soaked magazine journalists while others chalk pictures on the sidewalk or strum away at acoustic guitars. It’s hard to find someone that isn’t smiling.
Those generous enough to share their experiences with me have led lives set from very different cultures. Their ages and backstories differ. The core of their beliefs are known only to them, but each recognize that selfsame odyssey, the struggle to find and maintain an identity that runs counter to most of mainstream society.
Fortunately for us local sages and seekers, Cleveland’s magic derives from the sheer diversity of its community. While those coming up occult will do so at their own pace, The Land is becoming increasingly fertile ground. As long as we continue supporting one another in our beliefs and passions—especially those we don’t understand—we can continue to foster a community that encourages open mindedness, compassion, and tolerance. Given the weight of the world at times, isn’t that all the magic we need?