Witch at Large: Ruminations from a Grey Perspective

Seeing Paganism in terms of being a movement, explorations of our history, societal context, comparisons to other religious movements, and general Pagan culture.

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Midsummer Behind a Cyclone Fence

Yesterday we (the Wiccan circle at San Quentin State Prison) did a combination Midsummer and Fathers’ Day celebration, after the noisy Juneteenth celebration in the main prison yard.  We have to meet when and where permitted, and with limited access to such things as water for bathing or bonfires.  (There is water for drinking.)

Most times we meet in a little storage room off the breezeway where the Roman Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and Islamic chapels are.  It is literally a storeroom, with stacks of folding chairs and tables and old file cabinets.  Since I’ve been going there the file cabinets were moved.  At this point, it’s been cleaned out enough that we only have two tables and a bunch of stacked chairs.  It’s considered to be the Minority Faiths Chapel.

About six months ago we were given an outdoor worship space, mainly because the Native American inmates have one where they do sweats and grow sacred herbs.  They also have a shelter and a few trees.  Our space, when I first saw it, was a large flat plot of mud surrounded by a chain link fence, next to the NA space and bordering the main yard.  Pretty dismal, I must say.  It remains locked except when opened by a guard for services.

We share this space with the Odinists and the Ifa group.  There’s also a Hawaiian group that shares the minority faiths chapel with us.  Each group has a locker for supplies and a few books.

Anyway, for the first time we used our outdoor space for Midsummer.  The circle has used that space a bit at times when I didn’t come in, but this was my first time.  It’s dust rather than mud at this season.  Now there are three lockers and a picnic table.

Since there is some territorial competition between the Odinists and everyone else, I’ve tried to figure out what we can do, within prison restrictions, to beautify our space.  The CRM (Community Resources Manager), the main person that all of us volunteers interact with, told me that the Odinists had marked the concrete foundations of the poles that supported the cyclone fence with sigils of some kind, and that the prison had immediately removed them.  This didn’t bode well.

I’ve been scheming with the men in the circle and our sponsor, the RC chaplain (formerly our in-house sponsor was the NA chaplain) to get a tree.  Fr. George says that the current Assistant Warden hates anything green and would never permit it.  His plan is to wait until she’s reassigned to another prison administration job at another facility, and then try for a tree.

Anyway, yesterday we brought down some of supplies in order to do a Midsummer ritual.  To my surprise, the Odinists had cleaned up the space, made paths, a pit in the center, hopefully for a small bonfire in future, and planted several flowers, succulents, and shrubs around the border.  What a wonderful surprise!  I noticed that all of the plants were species that were already growing elsewhere on the prison grounds: dainty white alyssum, blue Nile lilies, variegated leaf geraniums, and others.  It’s amazing what inmates manage to do with almost nothing in the way of materials.

I had brought down our flags that we hang around the room to brighten it up and to some extent demarcate a circle.  One has the eight sabbats and the other has five elements.  They’re brightly colored batiks.  So we hung the sabbat flags across the fence on the yard side.  I know that some of the men report disdain from other inmates, particularly the Christians, that they are devil worshippers, so I figured if they saw me, a harmless old lady, and some flags with pretty images like the Maypole dancing on the Beltane flag, that might go some way towards dispelling these mistaken impressions.

Sure enough, soon some Odinists came over to know what we were doing.  I greeted them cordially and thanked them for the work they’d done beautifying the space.

Although we’re not looking to proselytize, we’d welcome a few more men in our circle.  So that was another reason to hang the flags.  I know what we were doing behind that fence was noticed by everyone in the yard on that bright sunny day.  We shall see.

Meanwhile, we did a simplified ritual celebrating the Sun and fathers.  We included an individual salt water blessing of the crowns of our heads, our eyes, lips, palms, hearts, and the soles of our feet.  Plus, we were able to use lots of frankincense for the occasion.  All the men in our circle love lots of incense, as do I, and like to carry the scents of the circle in their clothing and hair for a time when they return to regular prison lives.

We allowed some time for meditation on what the Sun illuminated for us, and for fathers and fatherhood, since everyone has fathers even if they don’t know who they are, as was the case with one there, and most of them are fathers and grandfathers.

After we concluded, I asked one of the men to gather up some of the soil there and wrap it in a piece of paper so I could take it to my botanist friend to help her figure out what is the best kind of tree, the one most likely to thrive, in our space.  Then, I guess, we wait for the current Assistant Warden to move on in the system.

Or I get together with the Ifa babaloo and the Asatru/Odinists to petition for a tree.  I noted there were three trees growing in the NA space and all seemed healthy.  I’m embarrassed to say I couldn’t identify their species.  However, basically, what’s allowed in the way of worship space and materials is permissible for other groups, so I may try to play that card sometime down the line.

Anyone who hasn’t spent some time in prison, in whatever capacity — inmate, guard, administration, volunteer — can have no idea what a strange culture operates within those walls.  I don’t mean someone who got a tour, rather someone who has a view that’s deeper than the one afforded by a tour.  And even those of us who volunteer see only a little of what goes on.

There are plenty of documentaries about prisons, and about SQ in particular, which sits on a prime piece of Bay Area real estate.  It’s really gorgeous out there at bayside.  There was a fine program on CNN called United Shades of America, hosted by Oakland-based standup comic W. Kamau Bell, that aired an episode on San Quentin.  In fact, one of the most memorable people he interviewed is our sponsor, Father George Williams.  I recommend it.

Merry Midsummer, everyone!  And a Happy Juneteenth!

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Aline O’Brien (M. Macha NightMare), Witch at Large, has circled with people of diverse Pagan paths throughout the U.S., and in Canada and Brazil.  Author of Witchcraft and the Web (2001) and Pagan Pride (2004), and co-author, with Starhawk, of The Pagan Book of Living and Dying (1997), Macha has also contributed to anthologies, periodicals, textbooks, and encyclopedias.  A member of the American Academy of Religion, the Marin Interfaith Council, and the Nature Religion Scholars Network, Macha also serves as a national interfaith representative for the Covenant of the Goddess (CoG) and on the Advisory Board of the Sacred Dying Foundation.  Having spent the last eleven years developing and teaching at Cherry Hill Seminary, the first and only seminary serving the Neopagan community, Macha now serves on its Board of Directors. An all-round Pagan webweaver, she speaks on behalf of Paganism to news media and academic researchers, and lectures at colleges, universities and seminaries. www.machanightmare.com


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