by C. Don Jones
Knoxville Center Mall (once known as East Towne) was slowly dying. It would take several more years. Now it was losing another store. There was only one person working in the store that night. She was laughing but concerned about the upcoming event. “I don’t know who is going to be priestess,” she said. “I did it the last couple of times. I want someone else to do it tonight.”
She didn’t see me. I was among the free-standing shelves at Disc Jockey. When I was a teenager it was a “record store” that sold more cassette tapes than anything. Entertainment technological change was beginning. I went there often searching for Talking Heads, Rush, Devo, or Ozzy and hoping I had enough cash to buy something. Now I was approaching forty. The nineties were over. And the records and cassette tapes were gone. I was looking for bargains on the remaining DVD’s and maybe a few decent enough T-shirts. The store would be closing soon for the evening. It would not belong before it would be shut down permanently.
I found a copy of Gandhi and looked at my watch. The store had a few more hours left for that day. If I remembered the protocol correctly, she would shut the doors at 9:00 PM and then take some time to count the cash tray and tally the credit card receipts. She may even fill in a bank deposit slip for the next day. She would be leaving at 9:30. The ritual she was planning to attend would start around 11:00 presumably.
Here I was, a Christian minister, thinking about the timing of a neo-pagan ritual. I thought about the calendar. Is there a major sabbat taking place? I wondered. Yes! It was the time of Imbolc (sometimes called Candlemas). The chain store had gone through Christmas (or Yule) and was closing for good the first week of February. If I wanted to get back to browse the videos again before the shutdown, it would have to be soon.
I took my purchase to the cash wrap after she got off the phone. She smiled. Despite being about to lose her job, she seemed happy. “Find everything alright?”
“Yes. Too much,” I joked.
She sighed. “It’s the way it always is.”
I wanted to ask about the ritual. Was it Wiccan? If so, was it of the Alex Sanders type, Gardnerian, or another type. I didn’t ask though. I could be conversant on these matters. But, striking up a conversation could lead to an invitation to take part. It was not my world. But, spiritually speaking, I was her elder brother.
In the late 1960s, the Baby Boomers who looked for alternative spiritualities looked east. They explored Zen, Taoism, and the hodgepodge of spiritualities that came to be known as “New Age.” They redeveloped the practice of syncretism. For some, this would include attending Church on Sunday, then some other time during the week attending a Sangha, as in “My faith is Christian while my practice is Buddhist.” My father read Jiddu Krishnamurti and took us to the Church of Christ where he grew up.
Generation X is known for having been left alone. When it came to spirituality, we were expected to absorb something. My own high school student body was heavily influenced by Christian fundamentalism. Young Life met one morning per week for prayer and Bible study. The Fellowship of Christian Athletes consisted of a much larger group that met every Thursday immediately following lunch. Apparently, one did not have to be either Christian or an athlete to take part. It was open to everyone. I briefly attended one session and watched some of the biggest jerks “give their testimony.” The meetings were summed up best by a friend of mine who said, “The first liar never has a chance.” Testifying about how you were a sinner and then saved (or fallen and restored) was one thing. Trying to make your story more dramatic was another. It often fell into competition.
Since my family were Church of Christ, my parents did not expect me to participate in those school clubs. I was glad I didn’t have to. I resented the ambient fundamentalism of my town. To make matters worse, the Moral Majority was in its ascendency. Jerry Falwell was on television every Sunday and on talk shows during the weekdays. I saw and heard way too much of him for my taste. It was my first exposure to the idea that The United States was intended to be Christian, have a powerful military, and make sure the students never learned anything that threatened those ideas.
I discovered Michael Harrington’s book Socialism and atheism at about the same time. But atheism is difficult for people to comprehend. For many people, thinking there is no deity is contemplating nothingness. I needed to look for something to believe and that would nurture a spiritual side, if I had one.
I looked in the strangest of places. I chose “the Occult.” Somehow, I discovered that wonderful forgery titled Necronomicon supposedly translated by “Simon.” The rituals were interesting. But the long background story of the magic was more impressive. I was a reader of Fantasy and Science Fiction. I played and was a Dungeon Master for a few Advanced Dungeons and Dragons campaigns. But it was not until the Necronomicon that I heard of the author H.P. Lovecraft and the Cthulhu mythos. In addition to that I was reintroduced to the occultist mage Aleister Crowley. I once read his story in a horror comic book when I was younger. And then there was the song Mr. Crowley by Ozzy.
A friend and I began pursuing “the magickal path.” I was the more voracious reader. I read anything I could find. There were works by Sybil Leek, a biography of Alex Sanders titled King of the Witches (I copied the Book of Shadows that was an appendix to this book), The Book of Law and Magick In Theory and Practice by Crowley, and Raymond Buckland’s Complete Book of Witchcraft and Practical Candle Burning Rituals. I studied folk magic, parapsychology, and demonology. I bought a set of Rider-Waite Tarot cards after my friend told me they could be found at Waldenbooks. We mispronounced the word as “taa-rot.” Honestly, we were weird.
I learned how to read the Celtic Cross method of tarot. I practiced ritual magick. I continued to study occult history and the stories about medieval sorcerers Albertus Magnus and Cornelius Agrippa. I even read about John Dee. I was never interested in astrology or playing with Ouija boards. They never interested me. But what got the attention of my circle of friends and acquaintances was my reading on Nazi occultism, including the hypnotic effect of Adolf Hitler and the Satanism of Anton Szandor LaVey.
I watched Ghostbusters in the theater four times. Dan Akroyd’s character Ray Stanz appealed to me. He was excited by what he knew and could find out. He could scare the living hell out of himself and analyze it later. He was my kind of guy. I had friends who fit the other characters somewhat.
Could I ever say I was truly Wiccan? I am still not sure. But the natural focus and the balance of the goddess and the horned god appealed to me. Being outside was my idea of heaven. The spirituality of Wicca helped me understand the concept of ecology better. It was pantheistic which made everything connected. The difficulty was explaining this belief to my peers.
Jon was a friend, a conservative Christian, who wanted to know more about the stuff I was reading. We began the series of conversations on Senior Day for the class of 1984.
“So, what is it?” He asked.
We were following a trail in the woods near the park where the other seniors were enjoying the day. We were able to goof off. I chose what I liked to do during such times. I walked the woods.
“Well, it comes from an old word meaning ‘wise’,” he said. “The words wit and witch are somehow related. The craft would be about using nature the way a woodworker uses wood.”
“Okay. What do you believe?”
That question was tricky. “Well, some believe in the god and goddess and a balance to all things. Sybil Leek believes in cycles of reincarnation.”
“Why?” The idea of reincarnation touched on what a lot of people considered the ultimate concern of their evangelical faith. It was summed up by the evangelistic question, “if you died today where would you go?”
“All of nature is in cycles,” I began. “There’s birth and death, which is also a balance. The seasons change Fall, Winter, Spring, and Summer. The cycle of being goes from birth, life, death, to rebirth.” I stopped talking when we topped a hill. There was a break in the trees that allowed us to look over the park where our classmates were.
“Do you believe we reincarnate?” He prompted me, after giving me a moment.
“I think so.”
“Were you always human or some other animal?”
“I’m not sure about that. Do animals and humans have the same essence or soul?” We started walking again.
“Don’t ask me.”
“In church, they say we don’t,” I said. “I don’t really care either way. I can’t remember any past lives.”
“Don’t some people?”
“Do you believe them?”
I said earlier that I didn’t believe the testimonies of my classmates when they offered them in FCA. But I knew some of them were honest enough for there to be some truth in the stories. I felt the same way about some of the stories from people who claimed to receive information about their past lives.
“Do you mean that I believe everyone who claims they were a King or Jesus in a past life? Then no. I don’t believe those,” I said, finally.
I can’t tell you every position on a football field. I am not sure how I managed that growing up in the South. But I did understand that I knew something my peers didn’t.
I was not completely out of step with my world though. Folk magic has been practiced in the Appalachian Mountains for centuries. Members of my family practiced it too. My maternal grandfather and my uncles located their wells by dowsing. The used a divining rod made from the branch of a hardwood tree. Some bystanders said they could hear the stick twisting downward in their hands. I never watched it being done. But I could picture the bark scraping against the calloused hands of my grandfather as the end of the rod pointed downward. He never moved his hands. He always found a good spot to dig a well. But that wasn’t all. He told me about working by the signs
“Do you know when to stack lumber by the signs?”
“Stack lumber?” I knew he planted his gardens by the signs most of the old people in East Tennessee did.
“Mmmmhmh,” he began. “You never stack lumber on the full moon. If you do that it will rot faster. The best time is to stack it at the new moon. It stays dry longer.”
“Really?” I asked.
“That’s right.” My great-grandfather had a sawmill. He cut railroad ties for the ALCOA’s rail lines between the three plants in what became the City of Alcoa. Aluminum was smelted at the South Plant and taken either to the North Plant for sheeting and molding or the West Plant to make foil. The finished product was sent to the major railroad station from tracks dedicated for the use of the company.
I could not imagine how long cut lumber was to be kept before it could be used. I knew green wood had to dry to be used and had to be kept flat. But what did the signs have to do with anything? I was driving home when my education kicked in to explain it.
The phases of the moon affect the tides of the oceans and other large bodies of water even the human produced lakes of the Tennessee Valley Authority. There is also water in the ground. As Barbara Kingsolver points out in High Tide in Tucson, there are tides in the ground too. The phases of the moon, I realized, either brought the water up or kept in lower which affected the dampness of the lumber. The “signs” were not as much astrology but astronomy and geology. Agricultural work is determined by such natural wonders. Spirituality is not divorced from the everyday world. It is part of the rhythms or cycles of living.
Eastern Tennessee can be described as the limestone capitol. We have a lot of limestone caves. It is because of all the water we have. There are springs everywhere. Grandpa’s divining rod was always going to find water because water is everywhere. When one of my uncles, Mike, could not find water using the rod, he claimed the others were faking it. They weren’t. But Mike is the youngest and the only son to graduate high school. The others trusted the practice of dowsing. He never “found” water like they did.
Generation X in the South searched for a spirituality that did not reflect the work/school schedules that made us latchkey kids and left us alone for a few hours everyday after school. Our parents may have believed we should do our assignments, designated chores, babysit younger siblings, or be babysat. Very few of us did any of those things. Some of us explored whatever forbidden fruit was available. Many of us went off the beaten path and found new plants and old uses.
Fundamentalist youth often went out to sow wild oats and prayed for crop failures. Some of us went into other things. And some of those, like me, returned to their fundamentalist roots for a while, at least. But something different was happening. The churches started changing.
“I don’t know understand, Christian rock,” one friend said to me. “It seems like so many of these guys want to play Rush or Blue Oyster Cult. But their parents will let them if they are talking about Jesus.”
Rock was once the enemy of Christian fundamentalism. Terms like “backward masking” and the “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” were part of the scare tactics of the preachers of our childhood. “Faithful Christians do not compromise with the world,” we were told. Unless, of course, if it would “win souls” for Jesus. Then it was not compromise. It was being “wise as serpents and harmless as doves.” The selling point was stealing the kids back from the Devil.
Churches that made such changes tended to double-down on doctrinal expectations of their members. Believing remained the important issue. Acting out one’s faith had little to do with living life. Acting out one’s faith was doing special acts of short-term missions, special gatherings or rallies for youth, and “soul winning.” There was a grand failure in the works for the churches. The great turning off was beginning for Gen-X and later the Millennials. Congregations putting on better programs drew members from smaller churches. A better show attracts more people. Messages preached often lacked nuance because the listeners were prepared by music that used very simple lyrics and repetitive phrases. This appealed more to fundamentalist-raised Gen-Xers than the non-fundamentalist ones.
Gen-X had two important and contradictory goals. We wanted to be accepted. And we wanted to be different. A young woman said to me once, “Our church is very open and progressive.”
“How so?” I asked.
“We use all sorts of instruments in our music. We don’t have pianos or organs for our worship.”
“That’s not what progressive means.” I had hung out with Unitarians at one point.
“It doesn’t? What does it mean?”
“Progressive means upholding gay marriage and female clergy with liberal doctrine.”
“Oh.” She wrinkled her nose. “Really?”
Her claim was a good example of Gen-X attempting to fulfill incompatible desires. It is who we are. By the time of that conversation, I decided acceptance was not all it was supposed to be. I began to liberalize my own faith. I had the background. And the internet helped me review works I no longer had immediate access to.
The young woman in Disc Jockey brought it all back. I decided to find out about the alternative spiritualities some more. I had left it behind. But more people over the years joined and began new schools and approaches for new generations. Still, the desire to stand out is strong. The new methods and schools of pagan thought are evidence of that.
The misfit aspect continues to be a part of alternative spiritualities too. Outsiders and misfits tend to find each other and form other communities. The internet makes that easier. Technology increases the availability for connections in nature-based spiritualities. It is ironic but Gen-X and the Millennials learned to adapt. So far it is working. After all, I am a fairly open Christian.
C. Don Jones is a United Methodist Minister. He publishes a blog on Progressive Christian Philosophy and Practice titled Glorious Life. He still lives in East Tennessee.