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Article Specs

Article ID: 4345

VoxAcct: 257376

Section: festivals

Age Group: Adult

Days Up: 4,320

Times Read: 9,932

Free Spirit Gathering 2002

Author: H. Byron Ballard
Posted: June 21st. 2002
Times Viewed: 9,932
Location: Laurel, Maryland, USA
Event Date(s): June 12-16, 2002

Home Again, Home Again--Processing

I've unpacked, distributed gifts, done laundry, dealt with the e-mail. Now the processing begins.

You see, I just returned from my first Free Spirit Gathering. This was #17 and, as always, took place at a beautiful 200-acre summer camp in northern Maryland. The amenities are very good. No "roughing it" here--hot showers, dining hall, two swimming pools.

The camp really is lovely and I'm glad I had a chance to be on the land before the 700+ participants arrived. The gently rolling hills, large trees and view of the small pond were relatively unobscured and I enjoyed the feel of the land around me.

I arrived a day before the first official day of the gathering because I was traveling with one of the trustees of the Free Spirit Alliance, the host organization--The Witches' Voice's own Diotima Mantineia. She was a delightful hostess--carefully introducing me to all the staff, most of whom are personal friends of hers. It made my first major festival a little easier, knowing so many people. Thanks, Dio!

We arrived mid-afternoon and it was hot. I don't do well with hot so I was relieved when it cooled down toward evening. I slept alone in a cool cabin with eight empty beds and one large mosquito.

The Gathering Begins with a Mouse and Bad Hummus

The next morning, I did my customary morning devotional, then checked my supplies, to find that a mouse had eaten a round hole in the bread and the hummus had spoiled. So I ate an apple and a granola bar and reported for my two-hour community service shift. All Festival participants are required to help out in some way with the smooth operation of the event, unless they choose the option to pay a fee and "buy out" of this chore.

I was assigned to registration but they didn't need me. Then I was reassigned and my community service job was to sign up the incoming hordes service. I was tickled by the irony and enjoyed the opportunity to see so many new faces.

I was relieved after a couple of hours and joined Dio and friends for lunch in the dining hall. The kitchen help are usually foreign exchange students and this year's were from the Czech Republic. I wonder what sorts of tales they take home with them at the end of the summer?

I shopped in the afternoon. I'm not a recreational shopper but I loved wandering through the merchants' area and seeing so much stuff. There were sarongs with Celtic designs, cotton clothing, books, incense, tarot cards. I heard there was a mead booth but it wasn't set up when I first visited. But there was a booth with essential oils and rattles, and the vendors there had wild Pagan hair--one blue, the other orange. Water and fire.

Dio had spoken with great enthusiasm about the sweat village at FSG. I have experience with several different sweat traditions--Norse, Goddess, Native and eclectic. And you already know my heat tolerance problem. Sweats for me tend to be a ritual of physical endurance--I find it difficult to focus on spiritual matters when physically miserable.

So I signed up for a sweat with some trepidation. The sweat staff at FSG, led by a woman called Tyrtle, have accurate descriptions of the heat level of each sweat, and there really is a sweat for everybody. I signed up for the gentlest sweat possible. Cat Castells was pouring the sweat and the focus would be on chanting. It sounded do-able but I was still a little apprehensive. And at the opposite end of the day was a long Norse-working that promised to go on past midnight, making for a long and full day. So the night before the scheduled sweat I turned in early, visited with my new "roommates" and was asleep before midnight.

Heat? What heat? Is it summer yet?

The next morning was cool and moist. I was cautiously optimistic about sweat and patted myself on the back for sweating early in the day before it got hot. Little did I know... I had a light breakfast and, because I wanted to bring back gifts for everyone in my home circle, I went shopping. I did a deep meditation and went down to the sweat village.

The chanting was good, we all sweated an appropriate amount and watched in wonder as the stones cracked and opened, showing their glowing hearts. When the flap opened for the last time, we came out into a continuing cool morning. I made my way out of the sweat village and past the labyrinth, moving slowly up hill. A hot shower and change of clothing left me ready for lunch. And just about anything else. Or so I thought.

The rain started around lunch time. We've had a drought in my native western North Carolina so I always welcome a good downpour. I dug out my faithful rain poncho (which saw me through Ireland in October) and went to a workshop with Druid Isaac Bonewits. I had met Isaac several years ago and was looking forward to his wit and wisdom. I wasn't disappointed.

My second workshop of the afternoon was a drum workshop with a Sufi man named Stream. I play a bodhron (a large Irish frame drum) which tends to get soft and mushy in the rain. Stream lent me one of his frame drums and I learned a lot.

The Drumbeat of Feet on Wood and Rain on Roof

I had agreed to be in a play-reading after dinner that night, so wandered down the soggy hill in the, yes, pouring rain, to reach the dance pavilion. The play reading was over fairly quickly and had a small but appreciative audience.

I left the pavilion while others were setting up for the Bardic circle and made my way to the gym (called the Tin Can) for the Norse-working with wise-woman Jane Sibley. We left our shoes and ponchos at the door out of respect for the wooden gym floor and took seats in a circle around a small altar.

Jane Sibley is a national treasure. She is a strong woman, her throat bedecked with strands of amber. She talked about her personal history as well as the history of her path. And then we began the working under her guidance. It was a breathtaking experience by a genuine Elder. I walk a Celtic path myself but this woman and her work touched me very deeply.

The sound of her feet as she paced the circle during the cast made a deep drumbeat. It was accompanied by the continuing rain on the roof. We finished our working by sharing mead and then went out into the wet night.

Wet and cold. The temperature had plummeted, cold enough to see your breath. I wore socks and a nightshirt and covered myself with a polar fleece blanket. During the night, I could hear the chattering teeth of the young woman sleeping in the bed next to mine. We had all come prepared for hot weather--did we have enough clothing to get us through the cold?

The Circle of Solomon and the Warmth of Hospitality

The first thing on my schedule the following morning--after we lowered the shutters in the cabin--was a tarot workshop with Dio. The rain had softened somewhat but it was still brisk. I arrived at the site to learn that Dio was ill and couldn't do the workshop. Several of us decided to meet anyway and went to the relative dryness of the Tin Can to talk tarot. We shared our favorite decks and layouts and talked divination for a couple of hours. I missed Dio (and wondered how she was) but the tarot group was a good sharing and learning experience.

The next workshop was Ivo Dominguez's Spirits of the Dead. Ivo is one of the most thoughtful and articulate Pagans I have ever encountered and his workshop was full. The group was significantly larger than the pavilion to which it was assigned, but the folks at the nearby ADF encampment showed their warm Celtic hospitality and invited us to move the workshop there. So we listened to Ivo in the comparative comfort of the large tarp enclosure. Go raibh m'le maith agat, ADF!

At lunch I learned that Dio was settled in at the Healers' Hut and I went down to visit her. She was sleeping and warm, which inspired me to take a nap. And it was good.

I met up with Dio at dinner and she did look better. And after a cold and wet (but invigorating) conversation with Ivo, we all went to put on more and warmer clothes. I enjoyed talking to my cabin-mates--two "Egyptomaniacs" who had scored some beautiful (and large!) Bast images. We talked at length about working with an Egyptian pantheon and they were very insightful. Another cabin-mate was an Episcopalian who's learning Irish. We practiced our greetings and went on to discuss one of his passions--birding. With a work shift the following morning at the sweat village, I went to bed relatively early, with sarongs and shawls and capes added to my bedclothes. With the shutters down, it made it a warm and comfy night.

Pull Weeds, Carry Water

I started the next morning with a hot shower and donned dirty clothes to work in the sweat village. Everyone who signs up to participate in a sweat is asked to donate 90 minutes of work in support of the sweat village. I arrived early for my shift and was put to work fanning the fires that heated the stones. It was hot, dirty, smoky. I got into the movement of fanning with a turkey buzzard wing but the heat, well, you know about me and heat. But I was game--the energy in the sweat village is deep and powerful and I was a willing servant. Next, I was asked to refill the small water barrel. Much more my speed, and very Zen. Would I next be asked to chop wood?

Close. After the days of rain (which had mercifully stopped), the paths around the sweat village were, to put it mildly, muddy. I was given a canvas bucket and told to go into a woodland clearing and pick a particular weed to strew the paths.

Could anything have been more perfect for a woman born and bred in the cool wet Appalachian woodlands? I was in heaven, Pagan-style, communing with the trees and grasses, wetting my toes in the rainy weeds. The perfect way to finish up my willing service to this holy place.

Rest and Renewal

This was the last full day of the gathering for me and I took advantage of an intentionally free afternoon to talk to other Gathering-goers about their impressions. I also noticed a subtle shift in energy that had begun the night before. The Gathering was winding down in some ways and heating up in others. Lots of new faces--weekenders and day-trippers. And the rush of energy that was leading to the main ritual.

The Amber Rose School of Witchcraft and Wizardry held their graduation in the afternoon. We had been watching these young Witches all week, as they decorated robes and pointy hats, learned potions, created Books of Shadows. As onlookers, we cast the circle with them and watched as they concluded the ritual by blowing kisses to the directions. Very touching to watch the next generation, hyped with Harry Potter.

I took some time in the afternoon to rest and ready myself through deep meditation for the coming ritual. I love rituals. I love to see how other people do it and I love the shot of energy. After dinner, I got dressed in my formal black robe, stole, filet, the works. I loaned the officiants (Dio and Duck) the little journal I'd been keeping my notes in for the gathering, to hold their crib sheets.

The main ritual featured thirteen archetypes (enacted by various people in the community), strong toning, and prayers that were burned in the fire. It was moving and beautiful. And afterwards I walked through a part of the camp I hadn't been in. Smart organizers divide the sleeping accommodation into "Larks" (early risers) and "Owls" (fairly self-descriptive, I think). As an affirmed Lark, I hadn't really been to the "Owl" camp and felt I should at least walk through. They seemed very jolly, gearing up for a last night of drumming, dancing and carousing.

I changed from my formal robes and put on some warm, comfy drumming clothes. I took my frame drum down to the fire circle and had a good time, though I tired fairly quickly. I took myself away home and talked with several more cabin-mates and other Larks, who were settling in for the night.

I slept the sleep of the pooped and woke in the morning to pack everything up and face the ten hour drive home. The packing didn't take nearly as long as I thought. I made some photos of my cabin-mates and new friends, loaded the car and went to brunch. Hugs, kisses, a few tears. Then home, with the blessing of "safe journey" whispering in our ears.

This gathering shows what a committed group of people can do. The organization seemed flawless to me, the result of years of experience. The workshops were well-thought-out and well-attended. The food was good, the company stimulating, the weather endurable.

And I saw the real face of modern Paganism. Not "Big Name Pagans" whose faces peer out at us from their published works, but garden-variety folk who follow a Pagan/Heathen path with simplicity and great love. They are the future of this movement--these ordinary citizens who happen to follow an alternative spirituality. They--Pagan/Heathen families, clans and solitaries--are our chiefest treasure and we would all do well to remember that.

My thanks to the FSG staff for a well-run, entertaining and joyous festival. I felt welcomed and supported, and had a really good time.

But, next year, I think I'll bring our entire circle...And I hope it'll be warm enough to swim.

H. Byron Ballard

Bio: H. Byron Ballard has deep roots in the mountains of western North Carolina where she is active as a priestess of Inanna, Pagan activist, playwright and mom. She holds an MFA in Theatre from Trinity University and circles weekly (and occasionally weakly) with an American Tribal Pagan group. She is a member of WARD, an elder of SerpentStone, an affiliate of the WHISPER community, a founding trustee of the Coalition of Earth Religions for Education and Support and a Willful Harpy. Her interfaith affiliations include the United Religions Initiative and the Interfaith Council. She is also a board member of the local chapter of the ACLU. And in her copious free time she is still learning Irish Gaelic and to play the fiddle. And gardening, for the sake of her sanity.

Photo Credits: (from top to bottom) The Amber Rose School of Witchcraft and Wizardry Graduating Class, Wendy Sheridan of Music for the Goddess and her friends Rowen and FireHawk, The Clan, Kalabran and Byron, Sarah of 'Leather, Feather, Bone and Stone' (she is the henna artist), Caroline's altar to the Norns, Byron and Ganesh - All Photos taken by Diotima.


H. Byron Ballard

Location: Asheville, North Carolina

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