Thursday, December 24, 2009

Echoes of a past life: Finding My Way

It's just after the winter solstice, the time in the northern hemisphere when the night is the longest and the day the shortest. It's a visceral milestone of time, and somehow has magically come to coincide with a number of religious festivals (Christmas, Channukah, etc.) that disavow their cosmic timing but are nevertheless festivals of preserving light and warmth in the dark time. The Solstice was a key part of my spiritual journey, and I found an article that explains some of how it made an impact on what I have come to believe.

One of the stories not related here is that when my grandmother saw the name I had put on the back of the Solstice cards I was designing, she was horrified. I was trying to unify the different strands of my life and used a combination of my leftist-era "party" name pseudonym and my birth name: in the process I dropped my middle name which was her family name. She was rightfully offended; and I deserved the scolding. Shortly thereafter I jettisoned the leftist pseudonym completely and not only restored her family name to mine as a tribute to her, but decided I would always use my full three names. (Forgive me, gramma, for "ish" but it's the internet's fault.) The picture above does not include my grandmother, key to the story below, but is instead several generations of women from the Scott and Kimble/Kimball lines; I think the young woman in the center is her mother and the baby her older sister Ruth; it was taken in Michigan in the 1890s.

Forgive my complicated proto-feminist linguistic tics here: I was developing a critique of Neo-Paganism as gender-obsessed and exclusionarily heterosexist. I tended to add "/ess" to any possibly gender-assigned pronoun as an act of subversion. I came, in the end, to reject Neo-Paganism's God/Goddess dualism as hopelessly profane (and inane) in the face of God's awesome unity, transcending such trivialities as gender.

This essay is in fact a bit of a polemic against mainstream Wicca with its questionably orthodox myths and pastoral pretenses. It's worth noting that a bit more than two years after it was published I had left Neo-Paganism behind and been initiated into Santeria. I love cosmic curveballs.


Finding My Way
by Ian Scott Horst
from "Coming Out Pagan," Spring 1994, Vol. 2 No. 1, published out of Bethesda, Maryland.

When my grandmother received one of my winter Solstice cards eight or nine years ago, she asked me what I meant. I explained to her how I didn't find any meaning in Christmas, but that I wanted to celebrate something at that time of year along with everybody else and wanted to send out cards to keep in touch with friends and relatives. The Solstice, I said, seemed to me a miraculous and obvious natural occurrence, not something that one needed to "believe" in and was therefore eminently deserving of celebration.

I was using the word "Pagan" then, even though I hadn't really figured out what it meant or what it meant for my future. Over the next couple of years, I came to explore the meaning of the concept of Paganism. At the same time, before her mind began to desert her, she came to confide in me how she had come to many of the same conclusions I had about religion and nature and the like. She was thinking of herself, in a way, as a Pagan, too.

I remembered how on my childhood visits to her home in California, she had shared with me her love of nature, taking me on walks through the woods and to the shore. And I remembered how I had eventually discovered her probable bisexuality and the definite lesbianism of her sister and next-door neighbor. And together, all these things made me feel close to her, and thankful toward her, despite our small presence in each others' day-to-day lives.

I like to think that my grandmother had much to do with who I am today and with my spiritual consciousness as a Gay Pagan priest/ess, and there is much truth in this statement. And how easy it would be to claim the illusory mantle of heredity, and how near the truth to say that my grandmother was a Witch and taught me her secret ways. But she was just a regular person living a regular -- if extraordinary -- life, passing on love and life's lessons to a young grandson she saw for only a few moments of her full life. Her herb garden was for ground cover and for cooking. Her knowledge of "secret ways" was no more nor less than those all of us regular people discover in the process of playing out the marvelous gifts of air, fire, water, earth and spirit.

The truth is that I am the first of my line (well, at least to my knowledge, say for a thousand years or so) to stand in a circle and call the God/dess by Her name(s). The fact that I have had to find my own way to Paganism undermines its practicable and fulfilling nature not one bit. For if most of the practices of my path are products of my, my friends', and my teachers' imaginations, they are most certainly not figments of our imaginations. The God/desses and spirits who guide us, talk to us, challenge us, teach us, summon us, protect us, listen to us, and bless us are as real and unmetaphorical as the wood of my desk, the purr of the furry cat sitting next to me, and the chill of the winter world outside my window.

After sending out my Pagan Solstice cards for five years or so, I decided that if I was going to call myself a Pagan, I ought to find out what that meant. That was the beginning of an odyssey which has lead me today to being co-Priest/ess of a coven, co-founder of New York City's Queer Pagans which averages forty people at each ritual, editor of a newsletter read by hundreds, and the proprietor of a small graphic design business named after the God/dess.

At first, I read a lot. And went for lots of walks in the park. I have to say that the walks in the park were of more use, ultimately, than most of the books I read. I learned that the winds would come if I talked to them and meant it, whether I called them watchtowers, guardians, spirits, powers, or whatever. The important part was the act of meaning it. I learned that if the books described a ritual situation which to me seemed a violation of my Queer heart, I should follow my heart and not the words on the printed page.

And I learned that if I felt isolated as a gay male Pagan among straight Pagans, I should find other Queer Pagans. And I learned that if most Queer Pagans I met were trapped in a cyccle of powerlessness, victimization, and complaint, or by a narrow view of gayness as just the sexual, I should simply manifest my vision and create a kind of Queer Pagan community I would feel comfortable in. This path has been rewarding beyond belief. I did not learn all these things by myself, and I am indebted to the teachers, Queer or straight, human or divine, who showed me something important and who framed an experience, a lesson, a gift.

Of course the unorthodox and eclectic carries with it many responsibilities. It is not a license to disregard advice or the power of the God/dess. It is, however, an opportunity to experience the real world that is really around you, around me. It means listening to the land we live on: land with no country; and a past not only older than we can imagine but older than the act of imagining itself. It means listening to the memories, voices, and rhythms carried here in the dreams of immigrants and nightmares of slaves. It means singing the chords created by the communities that are our cities. It means dancing to the beat of our experiences as Queer people. It means sacrifices and offerings, commitments and revelations, and rewards. It means standing on the dizzy precipice of now.

My way is to trust my heart, my mind, my spirit, my body. For in these places, the God/dess herself touches me, speaks to me, and opens a path before me, helping me to find my way.

May each of you find yours.


  1. What a beautiful piece of writing. There is much in it I need to remember in my own life. I've become so detached from the Spirit of the Universe that healed me so long ago. I feel a sense of loss reading your words. There is such beauty, peace, and contentment in being spiritually awake. I keep thinking that once I'm on the beach in Mexico, once I'm away from the disaster of US politics, then . . . THEN I'll connect again. But that's crazy, isn't it? Now. I need to practice now. It's as if my connection has withered from lack of use, like the old, frayed wire on a lamp. Thank you for the reminder, Ish, and for the story you shared on my blog.

    "The Solstice was a key part of my spiritual journey, . . ."

    Me too. Beginning to celebrate Solstice changed my life 15 years ago.

    Bless you.

  2. Thanks for dropping by.... I've been snooping about your own blog for a while and I must say I'm so extraordinarily jealous of your impending escape.

    I think your retreat will prove that you can't escape from some things, but you can sure ease the pain. Best of luck to you, lady.