Oh, CAYA, I could write of you as a child, birthed from a dream. I could write about you as a teacher, guiding my path. I could write about you as a jealous lover, demanding and greedy for my time and energy. I could write about you as the warm hand of a friend, which you are. In fact, you are all of these things.
Instead, today, I will write of you, CAYA, as a hat.
(Has she gone crazy? Let's read and find out.)
Come As You Are Coven began at Samhain 2005. In the Spring of that year, I attended the Northern California Women's Herbal Symposium. There, I met a woman known only to me as "Tooth Fairy." It was raining, and all of the women were huddled in their tents trying to stay warm and dry. Symposium can be a muddy mess when it's raining. Through the camp came wandering a spry, sassy Crone in a red hat, singing lustily, "Come, come whoever you are, even though you've broken your vows ten thousand times. Come, come again. Journeyers, wanderers, lovers of life, come, come, come! This caravan has love to spare, come, come, come."
Slowly, women crept out of their shelters and assembled together in the big tent, where we warmed ourselves with communal heat, laughter, and sisterhood. That was my first time at Symposium, and for many reasons, that weekend changed my life. Symposium will be a subject of another post. OH HOW I LOVE IT!
A few months later, I was restless. My dreams were rich and confusing. My life felt full and heavy, like I was about to go through one of my countless spiritual birthing processes to attain a new level of Self. The whole world feels pregnant to me when I am on the verge of something. Meditation and spellwork are my versions of psychic Lamaze when I get this feeling.
So, I incubated by dreams. One morning, I woke up and in the still dawn, in that psychopompic place between sleep and wakefulness, I literally heard a voice saying, "You are going to start a Coven. It will be called Come As You Are Coven and it will be a place where everyone can find something they are looking for." In the background, I could hear Tooth Fairy singing the song, "Come, come whoever you are..."
Have you ever seen Monty Python's The Holy Grail? In one scene, a peasant named Dennis challenges King Arthur's authority, saying,
Listen -- strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony...Well you can't expect to wield supreme executive power just 'cause some watery tart threw a sword at you!
I reserve the same kind of healthy skepticism for unbidden moments of enlightenment and revelation. It's not that I don't believe in mystical occurrences. To the contrary, I definitely do believe in them. But I tend to first cast a pretty cold eye of question on something before I go all Lady Fairy Moonblossom all over the place. And, after all, an unsubstantiated voice out of nowhere is no basis for a system of government, which a Coven is (in addition to being a family).
I sat with the dream for two months, and it did not go away. So I brought it to my sisters. I was, at the time, circling around Sabbats and Esbats with a small group of women, all dedicated to the Goddess. We all also belonged to other communities and circles. The other communities and circles we belonged to were pretty established in their approaches. They were already-complete Traditions that had their own structures, policies, and rules: Reclaiming, Fellowship of Isis, Evensong Wicca, Gardnerian Wicca, Dianic Wicca. We were all happy within these structures, but we would gather for "opensource magical playtime" together, with no single set agenda or protocol. Our rituals were free-form, crafty, and homemade: baking bread, going out to howl at the moon in wild places, making corn dollies, etc. We were very eclectic in our work together, which provided a nice sense of cross-pollination and a sharing of our various Traditions and backgrounds.
I brought to these women my idea: what if we opened our rituals up and allowed anyone to attend?
(Recently, Brenda the Spinster Witch and Chieftain Branwen of the Primal Heart had to sit me down and explain how weird we of CAYA are in the pagan community. I honestly had no idea. They told me people spend all day online fighting with one another in blogs about who is "real" or not in their faith. This boggles my mind. I know it shouldn't, but it does.)
Up until this point, I had considered myself a "Peoples' Priestess." Although I have, over the years, conditioned and trained myself to hold the energy of "High Priestess," my comfort zone has always been more in the "Wandering Mystic" category. I had already been offering rituals at my home from time to time before this, "random feasts of the senses." I would post my event details and address on craigslist, and an assortment of folks would show up. It was always a huge adventure, and I met some great people. (I know, I know. She just said she posted her address on craigslist.)
Because I was accustomed to the somewhat chaotic energy that arrives when you post your personal information on craigslist, and because I was innocent enough in my thinking not to know better, I felt like it would be no big deal to open my sisters' and my rituals up to the public. I figured we'd stay a pretty small group. (The "CAYA Voice" returned and said, "No. This is going to be BIG." I had no idea what that meant.) I figured maybe 30 people might show up, at most. I remember thinking, "How cool would it be if 13 people came? That would be perfect!"
My Gardnerian sister looked at me like I had grown a third head. "What do you mean, just invite anyone? We can't just open it up to anyone! We'll get every crazy person in the Bay Area!" (HA! Little did she know, the craziest one was sitting right in front of her!)
Well, we tossed that around a bit and did magic about it, magic that said, "May we only be visible to those who will benefit from this work and approach it with open minds and hearts." That way, we figured, we would be a bit safer, and likely smaller. We held our first open Sabbat at Samhain of 2005, and our first Grove of Artemis open women's full moon in January of 2006. The Grove of Artemis had been in existence for two years before that, as a closed circle founded and presided over by Lady Heaven.
Yes, who are these sisters she is talking about? You can meet them here, some of the most wonderful women I have had the privilege of knowing in my life: The Elderflowers. Together, we created the Wildflower Tradition.
The premise of the Wildflower Tradition is simple: we gather around a shared general community respect protocol, ritual outline format, mission statement, and three core tenets to bring our unique perspectives together in a mutually-honoring way. Our core tenets are:
-We honor one another's unique spiritual practices, and seek to enrich our sense of community with diversity.
-We accept one another's divinity as inherent and non-negotiable.
-We believe that we are each qualified to determine our own personal path, and share our experiences and thoughts in a spirit of generosity, without presumption.
From there, we have established a few other core aspects of our Interfaith community that leave a lot of room for creative and historical interpretation. We have designed a collaborative, self-guided, self-propelled and self-evolving mechanism. Each year, our new crop of Initiates brings us fresh perspectives, new information, affirmation of existing internal mythologies, and, well, gnosis. We are never not evolving. We are always evolving. That's the entire point. It's the call that brought us together around the Great Mother of Many Names, the call that led us to begin admitting Gods and men into our group and inviting them to co-create with us. It's the call that welcomes each new round of Sabbats with fresh approaches. We revise our ritual outlines every year. We restructure and redistribute power as we grow, making certain that our High Council represents a broad scope of views.
At the same time, we need to make certain that all power is earned. It would not do to have someone come in who is uncommitted and throw off-center what we have built, only to then leave us in the lurch, emotionally, spiritually, or physically. So we have outlined policies that hold for thoughtfulness and personal responsibility, clear systems for earning power via thorough, mindful service over time, and conflict resolution procedures that address each conflict individually through a lens of mutuality and commitment to clarity. We have had our share of successes and failures, but many, many more successes. I am ever grateful for this.
Our typical Coven-er is atypical. There are very few things we could say that cover each and every member of our Coven. One might be, "We are all committed to ongoing spiritual growth and learning." Another might be, "We are all, in our hearts, a little bit solitary." In CAYA, we embrace solitary practice as the source from which all the rivers of community service and participation flow. If the plant is not well at the root, it will be unable to flower and seed.
I could go on. I could say more. There is a little bit more about our history here, and a little bit about our view of Pagan Eclecticism here.
So, um, why is CAYA a hat?
Well, fast forward a year or two later I return to the Women's Herbal Symposium, eager to catch up with Tooth Fairy and tell her all about what an inspiration her song was, and how things all played out. There, on the altar, is her hat and a photo with a note, "Tooth Fairy, we miss you." Well, I was crushed.
I went on for the next several years believing that Tooth Fairy had gone on to the Summerlands, and that she was now an Ancestor.
Never trust a Crone in a red hat. They are all tricksters :)
Last year, I was at Herbal Symposium, and there was Nymiah, with that tattered red hat. She was looking to give it away, and she gave it to me. I remarked how sad I was that Tooth Fairy was gone. "Yes, we all miss her," said Nymiah. "But I'm sure she is doing all right." I made some comment about blessing the dead.
"Dead?" said Nymiah. "Tooth Fairy's not dead. She just moved to Guatemala!"
This past autumn, the Clergy of CAYA did a special ceremony on that hat, thanking Tooth Fairy for her inspirations, sending her our grateful blessings in Guatemala. The hat was all tattered and shredded by this time, and we all took turns wearing it, singing the CAYA song, dreaming about the future we wish to build in our community. Then we made it an offering of thanks, to the very-much-alive Tooth Fairy (May she have a long life! She is a Goddess to us!), to the Voice of CAYA, with the wish that the wisdom and mythology this hat has carried will be known throughout the world and experienced authentically and diversely by each, according to his or her own beliefs. Our myths are about gathering together in community, about being willing to re-commit again and again to what we believe in, about service to the greater good, about life after death in the eternal wheel of time, about surprises, about laughter as medicine...and so much more.
So, in short, CAYA is a hat. A red hat worn by a wise and funny Crone who ran off to Guatemala for adventure. A hat that then had an adventure of its own. Fool's cap? Thinking cap? It's both. Voices in my head? It's a dream and a reality. Both. All. Maybe you hear them, too. Maybe, sometimes, something someone randomly says trips a wire in your consciousness that unfolds a new level for you. Maybe you believe that all sources are valid where unverified personal gnosis is concerned, whether you agree with any of them or not. Maybe you enjoy creativity, and still hold for excellence in research and history. Maybe you don't conveniently fit into one box. Maybe you don't want to be told what to think, but you love food for thought. If so, come as you are and be welcome.
(sets hat down and wanders off, whistling)