By Elizabeth C. Creely
On Saint Patrick’s Day, the sun came out, but just barely. After three months of below average rainfall for San Francisco and California, the rain came, finally and all at once, in short staccato bursts. A secluded meadow in Golden Gate Park, affectionately called Magic Meadow by local pagans, was wet. A series of puddles dotted the meadow, pools of water that reflected the sky like silvery mirrors. Water—the elemental quality of the West, beloved by pagans and witches for its radical powers of transformation—inundated the turf and the surrounding areas of the park. A red-tailed hawk sailed through the air and settled on a tree branch, cocking his head and surveying the clearing with his mad eyes. No one noticed it. They were waiting for Tarin Towers to arrive. “She’s on Pagan Standard Time,” someone said.
People walked through the meadow, greeting each other. They were there to participate in a ritual that marks the equinox the twice yearly moment when a truce is called between day and night. “Hi, Moss! How are you?” someone asked a woman wearing a red velvet hat. “I’m great! Happy Equinox!” Moss replied ebulliently. A tall man named George walked into the crowd. “Welcome!” he said, projecting his voice slightly. “It’s great to see people here.” He conferred with Moss briefly, who took her hat off and handed it to him. “Does anyone want to help craft the intention?” asked George. Slips of paper were produced, and pens handed out. People wrote rapidly on the scraps of paper and dropped them into Moss’s hat. Some held the wishes to their breasts, closed their eyes, and breathed deeply. A dog pulled away from a passerby and trotted over to investigate.
At 2 p.m., Tarin strode into the meadow, wearing a loden-green coat that brushed her ankles. She looked harassed. Tarin had run into the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade on her way to the park. “They closed down parts of Van Ness,” she told George breathlessly. “It was really stressful.” Moss took Tarin by the hand and led her over to the edge of the meadow. The two stood together, holding hands and breathing in unison. Moss ran her hands over the periphery of Tarin’s body, “grounding” her—settling Tarin’s rattled nerves and energy. Tarin had a ritual to lead. There was work to be done and magic to be performed.
On this day, ritual participants would contemplate the rhythm of the natural world: morning and night, fallowness and fecundity. The season of spring would be a metaphor to leave old hurts and disappointments behind in winter to allow new growth to come thrusting through their psyches. In this meadow, something—hopefully magic—would happen.
Tarin Towers—witch, poet and ritual planner—has cherubic cheeks and a penetrating gaze, an odd but compelling combination. She laughs easily and has a quick and often bitingly sardonic wit. She’s organized more than fifty public rituals with Reclaiming, the sprawling and eclectic pagan collective founded in San Francisco in 1979. Tarin practices magic: the art of working with energy and intent in order to change consciousness at will, a definition attributed to Dion Fortune, a British witch.
Tarin was born in Maryland, in a semi-rural town inside Appalachia. She was one of roughly 500 inhabitants. “Western Maryland is different from the rest of the state,” Tarin said. Small churches with no names dotted the landscape, all of them Protestant, except for one, the one that Tarin’s family went to. It was the only Catholic Church for miles. This marked Tarin with difference: with the proximity to the Appalachian region also came the suspicions of the rural Protestant South. Tarin’s town harbored deep suspicions towards Catholicism. “When I was a kid, people thought Catholics had horns!” says Tarin. “There was still some kind of counter-counter Reformation bullshit going back to the fifteen–hundreds that people still believed in the middle of nowhere, where I lived.”
Things got still weirder after Tarin’s parents stopped attending church. Her parents had no issues with Christianity or its God; they were firm believers. It was discontent with fellow parishioners that stopped Tarin’s parents from going. Tarin was annoyed with her parents for stopping, and confused as to what it meant, but certain about one thing: if their attendance wasn’t compulsory, hers wasn’t either. “I remember wondering why should I go if they aren’t?” She stopped attending in the second grade. “My classmates thought it was just horrible that I didn’t go to church. They would say it was a shame I was going to go to hell, in these very sad voices,” she says sardonically. “Yeah. First I was weird for being a Catholic, and then I was weird for not going to church. It was inconceivable that both could be true.”
Tarin had liked church. “It was like school. You learn stuff. I loved learning stuff. When I was a little kid, I really wanted to see Jesus, or angels or something talking to me. I had this strong desire to see God, to see miracles and signs. But when I was in sixth grade, I told my parents that I didn’t believe in God anymore. And that was because I was pissed off that we didn’t go to church anymore.” She found herself in an in-between space, disillusioned, and aware of her spiritual need. The Christian god got dethroned and no angels were speaking to her. And witches were the stuff of childhood stories and Halloween nights. “I thought witches were fairy tales. I did not know that there was such a thing as living, practicing witches.” She would find out later—much later—that there were people who called themselves witches practicing what they called magic, after she moved to California in 1995.
March 6th: It is ten days before the ritual. Tarin is meeting her fellow ritual planners to discuss the upcoming ritual. The planners—Tarin, George, and Thibault—meet at Thibault’s home, a newish condominium in downtown San Francisco with a fortress-like façade. Once inside, the grey exterior gives way to warmth and color. The walls are painted ocher-red and sulphur-yellow. There is a small alter in the northern section of the room, the cardinal direction that rules the element earth. On the top lies an athame, the ritual knife used to summon the forces of the east, which rules communication and thought. Earth and air, two elements needed for ritual planning: practicality and inspiration. Tarin plops down on the sofa. She looks sleepy. “I fell asleep on the bus and had really vivid dreams coming over here,” she says. “They were crazy!” The rest of the witches arrange themselves around the table. Thibault, a slender man with alert hazel eyes and a gentle French accent, makes mint tea and serves it. They sit, sipping tea and eating almonds. There is a set group of people who plan the rituals and they’re all here. It’s a small group. They explain a few things.
They expect about 100 people at the ritual. The spring equinox gathering tends to have fewer people in attendance, maybe because of the tempestuous March weather that has rained on the ritual for many years. Even during a dry year, rain is still expected. “If it gets bad, we may have to have it in the parking lot,” says George. “That’s what we did last year.”
They look at each other inquiringly. Tarin rubs her eyes. “So…what’s the intention?” she asks. This is important. It’s difficult to come up with an intention—a sort of mission statement for the ritual—that everybody can invest in, be inspired by. “Why don’t we ask people what they want to do?” replied George, a tall, grave man with a quiet manner who is also a Reclaiming teacher and writer. Tarin demurs. “I don’t think that’s a good idea. We have a lot to get through. That might confuse things.” Tarin likes what happened last year. There was an Easter egg hunt for the children, among other things. “And we made egg salad, too. It was good.” She smiles at the memory. “The Equinox is neither here nor there,” she continues. “We’re all at a turning point. I want to make that a part of the intention.”
Later, Tarin says reflectively, “When I was at college, I knew some pagans. I thought they were a bunch of Dungeons & Dragons–playing dorks. A bunch of drama queens and poseurs. I used to think, what the fuck is your deal? What do you get out of all this?” She laughs ironically at the memory. Things happen; ideas change.
Things were changing for Tarin in 2005. She was in the early stages of shaking off a years-long drug habit. Formerly, she had been a computer textbook writer by day and a published poet the rest of the time, performing with Sister Spit, a poetry collective that established itself as a cultural force in San Francisco’s Mission District during the ’90s. “I was doing massive amounts of hallucinogens for a couple years and having really spiritual experiences,” she said, ruminatively. “I’d stay up all night.”
Some mornings, very early, she would take advantage of her nocturnal habits and bike to Heron’s Head, a tiny spit of land in San Francisco’s southeastern Hunters Point neighborhood, which is polluted with industrial and nuclear waste. Tarin would stare at the stretch of the San Francisco Bay which swerves to the south, the direction of fire and passion, and marvel at the glassy flatness of the water and the great curve of the planet implicit in the horizon. “I really like Heron’s Head. It’s got all this broken industrial stuff poking up everywhere. The elements are doing their work on the buildings and reclaiming the matter that humans put there and making them into different forms.” Heron’s Head is a liminal space belonging neither to nature or the city—neither here nor there.
Tarin was going to Narcotics Anonymous meetings looking for something other than drug-induced illusion. “I wanted to figure out how the universe could be benevolent,” she says. “I was looking for some guidance. I believed spiritual power was out there. But I was aware that I could be taken advantage of.” Wary of would-be cult leaders, she went to Witchcamp, a weeklong teaching and ritual intensive, held in the Mendocino Headlands each summer. The planners pick a story, a myth—the death of Osiris, maybe, or the transformation of Taliesin. Each night a new episode is staged with participants reenacting the myth.
Witchcamp is clean and sober. “That was the first week in six months that I didn’t do drugs,” she says. Her first few days there were spent in the margins of the activity of the camp, watchful and wary. “I wasn’t sure about what was going to happen, or what I was getting into.”
George remembers seeing Tarin one night. “We were around the campfire. Tarin joined us. I hadn’t met her yet, but I knew she was a performance artist. She took a seat across from me wearing this big pendant, like she was Flavor Flav from Public Enemy. It was blinking on and off like a bike light. This is at a campfire in the middle of the redwoods. I’m trying to play guitar and sing. Finally I told her it wasn’t working for me. She turned it off. It inaugurated a habit of us speaking plainly to each other, which has served us well in planning rituals.”
The ritual myth that year was “The Loathly Lady,” an episode from the Arthurian cycle, which is an allegorical tale of the restoration of sovereignty. The story spoke directly to Tarin. “I was so lucky. If it had been any other story, it wouldn’t have rocked my world so deeply. I realized, as a result of going to Witchcamp, that I could have mystical experiences without having to drop anything.” She was asked to become a ritual planner thereafter, based on her experience speaking to crowds with her poetry and her skill with words in general. “I’m good with words. The magic I feel comes out in really beautiful words. What I say is heartfelt.”
Members of Reclaiming honor the natural cycle of the living earth and can, if they wish, participate in eight public rituals every year. Each marks an agricultural or astronomical event. When the very first events of spring commence, pagans celebrate Imbolc, called Brigid in San Francisco, because it is held on the feast day of the Irish saint. When the earth tilts neither toward nor away from the sun, it is the spring equinox. Some witches and pagans see an inherent gesture of peace in this moment of stillness. The growth of grain in May marks Beltaine. The summer solstice is June 21. After this day, the sun travels south. Lammas is in August. It is a day to bake bread and to celebrate the gift of John Barleycorn, the grain king. Then the fall equinox, spring’s dark shadow, in September. That’s it for the grain: it is tapped, run out. Humanity prepares for winter. The days get shorter, and in California, temperatures spike one last time before the autumn. Samhain, held in October, is next. It’s the pagan New Year, the day that the dead are honored. The winter solstice on December 21 completes the ritual cycle. It is the shortest day of the year and the moment when the tilt of the earth’s axis begins to bring the sun northward. The new sun is born and the tremendous cycle of death and life, fertility and fallowness is reset.
The astronomical events described above apply to all of humanity. But the agricultural events don’t. Tarin is quick to acknowledge the absurdity of urban city-dwellers appropriating long-forgotten agricultural phenomena of farm, field and pasture to situate themselves meditatively in ritual. “In California, we have a year-long growing season,” she said. “When we talk about these things at ritual they’re more metaphorical than literal. In a region where we don’t have a growing cycle we need to take the metaphorical content and work with that. ” Tarin’s role is to work with the happenings of wheat fields and pastures, the doings of the sky and the earth, using ritual thought, language and movement.
Tarin continues, “In ritual planning, someone will have an idea that is really audacious and totally not feasible. ‘Why can’t we erect Stonehenge energetically?’ People will totally argue over that. People get attached to their ideas and have to be talked down. You want to shoot for the moon at first. And then you have to shoot ideas down! But the current group can handle it,” Tarin says and laughs.
The gaze of the participants adds another radical element in ritual: sometimes simple attraction slides into outright worship. “If you’re in a public role, like a teacher or a planner, people want your attention. They think of you as an authority, which is funny, because in Reclaiming, we tell people clearly that they are their own authority. Reclaiming specifically does not have a high priestess. Anyone who attends a ritual is a priest or priestess.” But Reclaiming’s preference for devolved spiritual authority doesn’t always prevent hero(ine) worship. “Some people see a person who’s taking a visible role, and power gets projected onto them. Some of the power is real. I have power in terms of having responsibility to carry out a particular role. But most of it is perceived status,” says Tarin, who has a sort of rough-hewn charisma that comes from her habit of plain speech and obvious confidence. She has seen its impacts on her students.
“The first class I taught was surprising. Some of the women had stars in their eyes as I was talking to them. It was jarring.” It is up to the witch to prevent this from going too far. The ritual intention, not the witch, should focus the participants. The intention is the leader.
Back at Thibault’s, it is taking the planners a while to figure out the intention for the equinox ritual. “Maybe someone could pull a word out of a hat,” someone suggests. Others look thoughtful. “Maybe,” replies Tarin, looking thoughtful. It’s a simple idea. They hold onto it. Someone suggests handing out ribbons, each symbolizing the four cardinal directions: north, south, east and west that are invoked at the beginning of all rituals. Others want figure out which songs to sing, which goddess to invoke. “Well, we have to invoke Kore,” says Tarin. “We invoked her in September at the fall equinox. We gotta bring her back up! It wouldn’t be fair to leave her down there.” Kore, also called Persephone, is a chthonic goddess who returns from the underground to bring spring. Tarin suggests the song known as the Kore chant, the lyrics of which are simple. “‘She changes everything she touches, everything she touches changes.’ It’s simple, and the kids can do it and dance,” she says. “Usually, they can sing or dance, but not both. They’ll be able to do this.” She laughs.
It is decided that people will put words into a hat, and then pull the words back out. When spoken together, the words will assemble themselves through association into an intention. Kore will be invoked and brought up from the barren underground she descended into last September. Children will hunt for Easter eggs that have first been blessed by adult participants in a sacred space and then hidden. At the end of the ritual, Tarin and the children will crack the eggs and mix up a large bowl of egg salad on the spot. “We gotta make sure we get the eggs back from the kids,” says Tarin. “Last year they wanted to keep them. And can someone remember to bring the mayonnaise?” asks Tarin. “And a bowl?” She strokes her forehead, looking relaxed and still a bit dreamy. She is, perhaps, walking through the ritual in her mind, step by step, trying to remember or trying to see how it will all pan out. They agree that the ritual sounds great and that the presence of the children will be welcome, as always, and that the use and consumption of hard-boiled eggs fulfill the ritual’s mandate of welcoming spring.
“Ecce ovum,” exclaims someone. Behold the egg. They bless the notes, thank each other, and leave.
“Does everyone have an egg?” calls out Tarin, projecting her voice to the circle of people around her. Mist blows in her face and frosts her glasses, causing her to squint a bit. The ritual participants nod and look at their eggs carefully. The eggs are dyed in traditional Easter-egg colors—lavender, yellow, sky blue, and unreal shades of green. Tarin stands in the center of the circle between the worlds, and turns slowly, looking at everyone, her gaze intent. Her movement is that of a clock, measured and precise. “It is bittersweet,” she says, “that chickens lay eggs that will not become chickens. And it is bittersweet that human women produce eggs with our bodies every month that will not become children. In some cycles of life, eggs do not come to fruition. Yet they maintain their symbolism. They represent fertility, new beginnings. Look at your egg.” The wind gusts as the people drop their eyes and study their eggs once more. All around them the shrubbery of the Magic Meadow is flowering and drawing pollinators. Bees and hummingbirds dart around gathering nectar and distributing pollen.
“Everyone take a partner. Just turn and look at the person next to you,” Tarin says. The people do so, some giggling, some somber. “Today is a day of new beginnings, new endeavors. We’re all here to support that and each other. Say these words to your partner: Today we begin.”
“Today we begin.”
“Today things are changing. Today things have changed.” They repeat this, all of them serious now.
“As we celebrate the ritual of flourishing spring, we burst forth in new endeavors. Welcome spring!” Tarin cries and steps back. She looks expectantly at the others in the circle.
“Welcome spring,” they yell out.
Tarin smiles. “Okay, it’s time to hide the eggs for the kids!” she says. The grownups scatter around the meadow and tuck eggs into bushes or at the roots of trees. The children are called to start the hunt. The eggs are found and with the help of adult volunteers, are made quickly into egg salad. People crowd around each other, heaping mounds of egg salad on crackers and talking somewhat giddily. The clouds darken and a few drops of rain fall on the assembly. They do not notice. They are too busy welcoming spring.
Elizabeth C. Creely received an M.F.A. from San Francisco State University in 2005 and has been published in The New Hibernia Review, the Dogwood Journal, and The Mississippi Review. Her essays have also appeared in three anthologies: Manifest West: Eccentricities of Geography, New California Writing 2013, and Extended Family: Essays on Being Irish American from the New Hibernia Review. She authors a blog entitled Dinnshenchas and lives in San Francisco with her husband.