I imagine how pagan gatherings may have looked in a romantic past. Beautiful rolling hills, fields of wheat, a clearing in the woods. As you call the corners to invoke the sacred circle -- East, South, West and North -- the wind gently rustles your hair and animals softly coo in response. It's a fantasy, no doubt, made more potent by our tradition's inherent reverence for nature.
In 2012 Los Angeles, the scene is less idyllic. Exchange your hills for a freeway intersection, a back alley, graffiti-painted walls and an empty warehouse. That gentle wind is now the rush of racing cars and the dust unsettled by a passing bus. The only animal cooing for miles around is a street pigeon, and his sounds more like a gurgle. The one constant, though, is a group of dedicated Earth-lovers, assembled to make some magic. They can transform a roll of duct tape, an assortment of cloth, and a hundred folding chairs into the most sacred tools of the goddess. LA ingenuity at its finest.
Just so, we goddess-loving, Earth-dancing, eco-faithers of the City of Angels gathered on Dec. 9 for a day-long workshop and ritual with the esteemed feminist author and pagan leader, Starhawk. The event was born of the combined efforts between Reclaiming LA and Evolver LA, two Southern California contingents of spiritual communities founded and largely run elsewhere. Reclaiming is the earth-based tradition founded by Starhawk in the Bay Area with her 1979 book, The Spiral Dance. Evolver was initially founded as an online community by counter-culture leader Daniel Pinchbeck, but has since grown into a network of co-creators who gather in cities around the world. Occupy LA and the Los Angeles Green Festival came out to show their support as well, proving that this city can be a place of collaboration despite our often disparate lives and all the traffic in between.
I arrived early to help build altars, section off the space, set up chairs and label compost and landfill bins. The Vortex, a warehouse and community center just off the 10 freeway, was quickly transforming into a multi-colored cocoon at the hands of about 20 volunteers. We built bright, overflowing altars to mark the four directions, with walkways leading to each one from the central circle. We arranged chairs for the afternoon workshop, taped butcher paper on the dining tables, and made quick work of the dusty floors with our many brooms. In the final moments of preparation, we jumped up on chairs and covered the entry arch -- a portal through which participants would enter the ritual space -- with endless flowers, herbs and leaves. And thus it began!
Starhawk's soft, high voice carried over the crowd with the blessed help of a microphone, reminding me of the ways technology can be a boon to spiritual traditions. The afternoon workshop focused on the power of narrative in shaping our reality. Through discussion, meditation and trance we explored our personal stories with the intention to illuminate and transform patterns that keep us from our highest good.
Consider your own life stories... Are you constantly a victim, a villain, a hero, a lover? Do you fight dragons or retreat to shadows? There are certain tropes we carry with us, themes that inform our feelings about the world and about ourselves. For me it has always been the pride in feeling different from my peers. Being "eccentric" allowed me to believe in fairies and talk to trees without the shame had I labeled myself as "pathetic" or "a loner." The woman next to me told of her pain in being childless. She felt incomplete and resented her partner, she said, not realizing until this moment how profoundly the regret had impacted her sense of self. Shedding light on these stories is like flipping through an unfinished manuscript with an eraser at the ready. It is entirely within our power, Starhawk said, to re-write our stories and move toward healing.
The beauty of a gathering like Sunday's is that regardless of our individual stories, we came together to co-create a narrative of positive growth, moving forward. And this is where the latter half of the day -- the ritual -- took center stage. The purpose of a ritual, at least within the Reclaiming tradition, is to raise spiritual energy within a group of a mutually invested participants. This can take many forms -- calling for personal or global healing, seeking guidance, creating a vision for a peaceful future. It is one of the key moments of collaboration among individuals, many of whom operate their daily spiritual lives as solo practitioners or perhaps within a small group of friends. Pagans generally don't have temples to visit or services to attend on a regular basis. Our rituals bring the traditions alive in a collective embodiment of communal goals.
With the winter solstice just around the corner, and the popularly dreaded "end of the world," our intention behind this ritual was to raise energy for the birth of a new era. Even without this year's end of the Mayan calendar, the winter solstice is momentus. One of eight major sabbaths in the pagan year , the solstice, or Yule, marks the longest night of the year, which after prolonged darkness ushers forth a new dawn.
Through the ritual, we anticipated and prepared for this transition. We danced the spiral dance to weave the way for transformation. Our voices rang from the circle, calling the intention alive through song. As I gazed into the many faces whirling around me, the walls and chairs and city noises melted away. We could have been on that hill, after all, nothing to stand between our joined hands and the sacred earth; the goddess present and revered for miles around.
We pagan Angelenos have quite a task to create sacred space in the midst of traffic and Hollywood and everything else for which this city is notorious. Nevertheless, the community is alive and well, as evidenced on Sunday. Even where people ascribe to a different faith or call the divine by another name, there is a desire for healing, for change. I have witnessed this in the throes of ritual, but also on my college campus, at interfaith conferences, and even among the media and tech circles I now work with every day. Maybe at some point Los Angeles will be known as a city that wields its great diversity and creativity for positive change, as so many of us already know it to be.