Every so often in life something happens which makes you stop and take stock of life. An event, perhaps small, perhaps large, comes along and forces the mind to take a pause from daily concerns, to reassess priorities and to re-evaluate ourselves.
The most recent of these pauses for me was not driven by one of those life-stopping events such as the death of a loved one, nor even my relatively recent separation and hopefully anticipated divorce. It was something far simpler: the decision to clear out the spare room. You know the room, the one which should be set aside for the invited guest, or in my case as a small study for writing, but which in reality is the place where "stuff" ends up. The place where old bits of computer and cables wait for me to find a home or use for, the place where retired rugs and unused curtains quietly rest gathering dust and cat hairs, the place where all the I'm-sure-it'll-come-in-handy-one-day things wait patiently for their day to come. All but the most organised of us have such a space be it a loft, room, cupboard, or outside shed. This was the space my mother used to call the "messy space," a term that really doesn't quite capture the quantity a whole room can hold.
My messy space specialises in paper. Folders, files, specially designed paper storage boxes, and even plastic carrier bags full of old book drafts, incomplete book proposals, notebooks I've used (with notes taken at meetings and conferences, or even just to record my thoughts), you get the idea. Now of course if I'd been sensible I'd have either dusted them off and put them back, or sorted them out with the same vigour you use on odd socks. After all, this paper hoard has been with me through eleven house moves, growing with each passing move and year. Whilst everything else has been whittled down to make moving easier, the Papers have grown and multiplied (I think they deserve a capital letter out of respect for their age and quantity). So instead of being sensible I sat down, handkerchief bandit-style over my nose and mouth to prevent asphyxiation from dust, to have a little look. Just a quick one you understand. Apart from the usual household stuff, historic bank statements and so on, most of the Papers come from over 30 years in the Craft and a fascinating peek into the past they are, too. In some ways old documents, especially those you yourself generated, are almost as evocative as certain scents and smells. Whilst the scent of fresh baking might take you back to your childhood, scribbled notebooks can also take you back to the place, time, and the people around you, even to the thoughts and feelings you had but didn't record. I suppose my next comment isn't going to come as a surprise to anyone, but, as I discovered, things have changed in the Craft!
As Witches, we used to be far more secretive; no wearing our pentagrams and Goddess symbols openly. No celebrating our Craft in our homes and lifestyle. We did wear long skirts, but that was the fashion. Visit the home of almost any Wiccan or Witch today and even the most discreet will have many clues to their path on display. I'd have counted myself among the discreet until I took a good look around me. Without moving from the keyboard I can see God and Goddess statues, decorative Witches and bats, and even a glow in the dark rat (but that's got more to do with having a 10 year old than the Craft). There's a crescent moon hanging in the window and a Horned God plaque over the door. My altar is not hidden, or even sensitively placed in the bedroom. There are witchy books stacked on nearly every step of the stairs (which can make coming down in the dark entertaining), and even the doormat says Blessed Be!
Our secrecy extended further than appearances; many of my close friends (let alone my neighbours) lived in blissful ignorance of the Witch in their community. Now not only are my near and dear aware (and as at it happens, mostly supportive) but only the other day my nearest neighbour said how nice it was to hear us "enjoying our pagan parties" in the garden. It was only a summer barbecue, and I'd thought we'd been fairly discreet! We used to live with a fairly keen level of dread at being discovered: it could mean your job or even having your parenting skills examined by authorities with the power to put your children into care. But now my son's school is not only aware that we're not Christian, they've had my books into school to show to the children. Of course, secrecy had some advantages: requests for magical aid and assistance were relatively infrequent and almost always came from other Witches. Today they can come from anywhere. Don't get me wrong, I'm happy to requests for help from my friends and neighbours, other mums from the school and the people I run into in the corner shop, but I can be fifteen miles away in the supermarket, musing over which type of cabbage to buy, when a total stranger will tap me on the shoulder to see if I can recommend a spell to get their niece, nephew, great aunt or whoever a new job. I've even had a letter delivered addressed only to "The Witch, Norfolk!" Such requests can make our full Moon gathering a really hard working session.
Another little batch of the Papers gives instructions for making and improvising magical tools, because that secrecy also meant that there were no shops selling wands, athames, chalices, and so on. And no, we couldn't just go online (as there was no online back then) in a time my son refers to as "when dinosaurs roamed the earth." We spent hours combing second hand shops and those places in back streets that claimed to sell "curiosities," a euphemism for other people's unwanted junk (they obviously did clean out their messy spaces!), in search of suitable objects to grace our altars. There were advantages: we spent a lot less, our tools were unique and, because of that, more personal. But there were definite disadvantages; I have been across the circle when someone's athame blade and handle parted company at speed, leaving coven members to dive for cover! Or when the "beaten copper" lining of a wooden thurible turned out to be foil, leaving the red-hot charcoal to set fire to the inadequate base that then cracked, spilling said charcoal onto the carpet. But then, of course, we didn't have to sprint upstairs with a chair to stand on to disconnect the smoke detector whenever a bit too much of the incense clearly marked "outdoors only" sent up great fogs of smoke.
Rituals were never interrupted by neither the strident ping of a computer announcing incoming mail nor the dulcet tones of the latest humorous mobile ring tone. But we missed out on the whole online community: the shopping; the contacts; and the information, both the accurate and the less so. We missed out on the conferences, gatherings, camps, and open rituals where we could meet new people, make new friends, or renew old acquaintances. As I say, things were different; not better nor always worse, just different.
For me this has been a journey to have a look at an aspect of my past, and being able to see where I've come from has given me a clearer view of where I'm heading. Like any of these life pauses it's enabled me to clear out some mental clutter, giving me places yet to be filled with forthcoming memories. It's turned out to be more than just creating space on the physical; I feel mentally refreshed and spiritually reawakened. Ready to step out, hopefully a stronger and wiser me, into whatever the next challenges will be.
And the "messy space?" Needless to say, that spare room is now a greater mess than it was when I started. After all, mental and spiritual cleansing is far more important than having an organised home, or at least that's my excuse!
The author of over a dozen books, Kate West (United Kingdom), has become the U.K.'s most successful author on Witchcraft. She is the recipient of a Lifetime Contribution to Witchcraft award and has been recognized as the ...