Guest blog by Autumn Barlow
I sorted out my books this weekend. We’d added ranks of shelves to the alcove by the fire, and were able to finally give homes to about 300 books that had been teetering in piles since I moved in with my husband two years ago.
I was struck by how many pagan and alternative books I had, and how many of those I had forgotten about. The number I have read must double the number I own; books borrowed and books given away.
I was seventeen when I bought my very first book that could be considered “pagan.” I had read an article with a witch in a magazine and wanted to know more; the book suggested in the “further reading” panel was “The Complete Magic Primer” by David Conway. I was nervous as I ordered it in my local bookshop, and that nervousness was compounded when I gave my name to the bookshop owner and he stopped me before I gave my address: “it’s okay. I know where you live.”
After that, I went through Rae Beth’s “Hedgewitch” and Marian Green’s “A Witch Alone: 13 Moons to Master Natural Magic.” At university in Wales, I was distracted by other things and thought I lost my way.
Hindsight shows me I found my way. I became immersed in folk tales, culture, stories, myths and nature. But none of that involved circles and candles and spells so it “didn’t really count.”
The interest in magic matters reared up from time to time. Feeling lost and spiritually empty, I’d scour second hand bookshops and gobble up everything from Ly de Angeles to Caitlin Matthews. Alone in a cottage by a canal in the Midlands, I’d spend evenings on the internet, reading blogs that tended towards purple text on black backgrounds. The irony was lost on me. All I needed to do was step outside.
But it was cold outside.
I became an oral storyteller and I continued to grow herbs because my attempts at vegetables and flowers always failed miserably. I attended some moots in pubs and houses. I encountered a rather ill chaos magician and wandered into some online forums where everyone was a guru of their own universe and I was no wiser as to me, my place, or my point.
So I gave up. I stopped calling myself a pagan. I didn’t follow any of these books’ rules and I didn’t subscribe to any group and I didn’t have a membership card or anything. I clearly was one of those “dabblers” that are looked down upon so snootily. I had no path and no teacher and I didn’t even observe the Wheel of the Year with a homemade altar. I was just one of those “wannabees.”
Where Words End
As I moved around the country, I found solace in attending Quaker meetings. Here, the group sits in patient silence. Sometimes, someone might be moved to speak. Their words may, or may not, have resonance for others. Words are recognised as tricky things. Labels identify and deliminate – if “this” is good then “that” is bad. “This” is “here” and “you” are “there.” Marking the boundaries of our own experience with utterances that only really mean any truth to our own ears restricts our growth and our potential for connection.
“But it’s all we have to communicate,” I am told, “so we must make do with imperfect tools.”
I used to agree with that, and grow sad. The authors of all these books are struggling with all they have to share their visions and must be commended. It’s not their fault if we, the unwise reader, takes their words as – well, gospel, God’s spell – and follows them to the letter. They write with assurance but it doesn’t mean it’s true and what we take from them is our own business, right?
What nonsense. Of course we communicate without words and we have all had this, and it can be a truer experience than any poem or song or 500-page book. That glance. That shared sunset. That tear and that breathless panic. You don’t need words when you just know and this opens all communication up with everything.
No one can tell you how to communicate with a tree because firstly, it’s using words to describe wordlessness, like using cheese to make the sound of a trumpet. Secondly, no one can tell you how to communicate with a heartbroken child either.
You feel helpless, in either situation – tree or child – but you find a way. Somehow. Critical in both is pushing your own ego aside.
So I’ve put all those books up on the top shelf. There are nuggets in them; I’m not dismissing them. But I remember how I rushed from book to book, from author to author, searching for the one secret, the key, the wave of the wand that would reveal everything and make my life all wonderful and easy. It seemed easier to read than to do.
Nothing worth doing is easy.
The books on the lower shelf are far more useful. Fiction and non-fiction, here are the how-to books with not a word of confident instruction in them. Yeats and Charles de Lint, Angela Carter and Marina Warner, Alan Garner and the most prolific author of them all: Anonymous, who, through the centuries, has gathered stories and fables, recipes and remedies, in collections and reprints.
I still don’t go to moots. I still don’t label myself with any one path or grade or level. I read, I walk, I dream, I sing wordlessly, I listen, I dream a bit more, I work hard, I ride, I sometimes think a bit. If anyone asks me what I am, I fluster and change the subject – usually to the topic of bicycles.
My scepticism about words prompts my finger to hover over “delete” even now.
But look. This is just my way. Your mileage… as always… may vary.