My grandmother calls me today. She has seen the pictures of the northern lights that I forwarded her in an email. She tells me that whenever she sees something that beautiful she thinks it is an act of God, or of nature, or of something "up high."
She describes the wings of a dragonfly that landed on her windowsill a few days ago. How when she went outside to look at it, the dragonfly flew to her, and landed on her pant leg. It's so delicate, and beautiful, she tells me through a sudden bit of phone static, which makes me wonder if she is pacing. Straight out of a fairy tale, you know— but she cuts herself off with a soft never mind, then, and asks me how my health has been.
A photo by the author of a rainbow in Aviemore, Scotland, over a small cottage.
I've written about my first two Witches' Sabbats before—the first, which took place in May 2015, and the second, which took place in May 2016. As I was going through my notes and thoughts from the third Sabbat this past May, I realised I was drafting in my mind’s eye a text of a slightly larger scope than the previous two years’ retrospectives, as I revisited the past and reconsidered all the events that have led me to The Witches' Sabbat of Raven's Knoll.
As such I feel it necessary to warn you that this is an intensely personal text which deals with certain realities surrounding mental illness and suicide (by the way, these are the content warnings, please heed them carefully) as well as certain realities surrounding witchcraft and spirit work—which I realise are probably going to sound completely bonkers to some of my readers. Everything I describe in this text is completely real as far as I can measure with my own senses and mind, which I admit is perhaps not the most ringing endorsement.
Honestly, though, I apologize for nothing.
Enjoy this text as fiction or as nonfiction, a story of metaphor or experiences, whatever strikes your fancy. Read this if and as you like. I hope if you do read it, that it brings you joy or some new way of thinking or perhaps even a little bit of catharsis.
When I look back over the last three years, I see progress. There were dark moments: my grandfather's death, certain friendships and romantic relationships ended irreversibly, I spent a lot of time sick in the hospital, and close members of my family got very, very sick. But I reacquainted myself with a different part of my family across an ocean after an almost twenty year period of silence. I started trying to build different friendships. I'm in a stable partnership with someone. I went back to France, and back to Nova Scotia, back to the Canadian Rockies, and for the first time was able to travel to Ireland and to Scotland. I played some good videogames. My health improved, my work situation improved (though as ever, it remains very much a work in progress). I began to return to something like a creative practice again, with writing and photography especially. I started drafting a book. I'm light years from where I was in June 2014, when I tried to end my own life via a drug overdose.
In the early days of 2015, I turned to my atheist partner and told him, my heart beating right out of my ribcage like a runaway freight truck on fire, that I was not only not an atheist, but that I was an animist and a witch, and that I wanted to go to a witch gathering in Ontario. I was terrified that this confession would mean the end of our still-young relationship. This was also compounded by the fact that at the time, he was supporting me emotionally as I was working through some of the nastier aspects of my mental health, and I was extremely worried that he would decide that I was too crazy to be bothered with and that I would lose him. He not only assured me that this was all completely fine and that he still wanted to be with me, he agreed to make the four hour drive west with me. He was perhaps a bit curious about the whole thing himself but, as he later told me: "You definitely don't have to twist my arm or give me any excuses to go camping!"
A photo by the author of a pine tree standing by the flooded Bonnechere river. On the pine tree is attached a yellow road sign, but with a fairy on it.
With one terrifying big life admission done, I had a new anxiety settle in my belly to take its place. I don't know what impulse possessed me to decide to go to a Witches' Sabbat where I knew no one (so I thought) and had no idea what to expect, but despite my misgivings and fears, there was the undeniable urge to go. Tangled within that impulse I was able to discern my own need for community, belonging and acceptance in the material world. I'd attended few public Wiccan-flavoured rituals in my life, but they had left me with the taste of cold ashes in my mouth. I figured that even if The Witches' Sabbat was a disaster, it would be a learning experience.
After my first weekend there, as my partner and I mulled over the events of the weekend, there was something else nagging at the back of my mind. Something specific to Raven's Knoll had called me there, though I couldn't quite articulate it.
I had no answers I could divine but I did have a clue that I turned over and over in my mind: a moment during the main ritual of the Sabbat that was remarkable for its strangeness. When I was completely outside myself sometime far into the ritual, in the middle of the night in the woods, I saw the Horned God across the clearing—and for a moment, I beheld the effigy of that spirit in what I can only describe as mocking mixed with rage. I remember especially the sound and feeling of unrepentant laughter echoing in my mind. I left the woods exhausted from dancing, wondering what had happened: how in a shapeshifting ritual dedicated to connecting with animals I had not only failed to connect to any animal (an outcome I was ready to face) but instead had shifted into something furious and not wholly unrecognizable. As I left the Knoll I realised that the destructive rage and disdain that had bubbled up in my chest, which I suspected had come from my own core and mixed with something in that spiral, was now almost lifted out of me, dare I say that hatred—that self-hatred—was exorcised, if only for a while.
Last year, I approached The Witches' Sabbat with a completely different attitude than with my first. My first year I felt timid and shy and fear. My second year I was running on an almost manic exhaustion, the kind of intermittent hyper energy that carries a student through the last weeks of an interminable exam period, while also attending a funeral and dealing with the stress of other terrifying medical drama all occurring simultaneously.
It was through that harried frenzy that I met the Bonnechere River as if for the first time. I had not really noticed her my first year at Raven's Knoll, but in the blistering heat I was more than happy to spend time with her, as I wrote in 2016:
With a freedom I had not felt in weeks, I threw myself more or less fully-clothed into the sweet-watered Bonnechere river to celebrate. Gliding through the sunlit water was my first victory during a weekend full of treasures. As I swam into the slow, happy current, I felt unbearably glad, even after everything that had happened. I'd felt whittled-down for weeks, to my bare bones, and the Bonnechere—which was named from the French bonne chère, or good cheer—let me float in her light. I followed a few small, adventurous freshwater fish, and dug my feet in the soft river bed for a while.
My second year was all about water: I met the river, and then I met the pond. Under the watchful eye of Sarah Anne Lawless who spat holy rose-sweet wine in our faces and invited us to run in the pitch-dark of night right into the warm waters of a pond-now-a-cauldron after midnight. In both her blessings and in the waters all around us was the warning that in the coming year, change was coming for us, whether we were ready for it or not.
A photograph taken of the author in the Highlands of Scotland, the sky overcast and dark, the mountains rolling away in the background.
On the Cliffs of Moher in early May 2017 I meet Crow who tilts his head at me. All around us we hear the sound of crows and gulls and other small birds flying against the cliff tops, braving a particularly harsh sea breeze.
We climb over a fence encircling the protected area, ignoring many warnings that the path ahead is dangerous. We follow the uneven trail lined with moss and loose stones and small red and blue flowers.
I see Dandelion growing there on the trail. Dandelion is indomitable, growing as easily on a crumbling cliffside as she does straight up through solid concrete.
I notice Dragonfly whenever the wind takes a moment to catch its breath. Dozens of them at a time, circling 'round and 'round.
We walk for over a mile. At the end of that mile, I walk towards the cliff's edge.
I want to watch from the edge, gaze down at the drumming waves hundreds of feet below.
Dragonfly comes with me as I step closer, and only when I am less than a foot from the crumbling white stone lining the edge of the cliffs do I realise I am shaking, and that my heart isn't keeping time right anymore, and there is a very real chance I might fall over. I forget to breathe.
Dragonfly buzzes around me once, twice. Thanks to the whispers of insect wings, I can hear again, something other than the roar of the Atlantic below. As I stumble backwards away from the ledge, I hear Crow behind me, somewhere up high.
A photograph taken by the author at the Cliffs of Moher of a crow looking straight at the camera
A few months ago, I wasn't paying attention on the bus and missed my stop. I ended up getting off next to the General Hospital of Montréal. It was here that the ambulance brought me in 2014. I don't enjoy being near this place. I hurried away from the hospital, heading downhill. It began to rain.
As I walked down the street, I was suddenly struck by a memory. I don't know what flashbacks are like for other people, and I have only had rare instances of them in my life, usually triggered by familiar smells. This one was altogether different, not triggered by a smell but by the echoes lingering on the street right outside the driveway for the ambulances, and I will try to describe it as best as I can.
I don't really know what happened in the first four hours after I took the pills. As far as I could tell, it was over. I was done with myself, and with everything, and I don't know how else to say it but with plain words. I'd taken enough sleeping pills and other medications that I was certain that I would never wake up again.
It was around hour five, in the hospital, that I started to grasp small shards of reality again. I remember that I heard a nurse asking my mother two questions: "Do they enjoy singing loudly to themselves?" and "Has your child ever complained of hearing voices that are not there?"
The manner in which the nurses slowly brought me back after my overdose was through feeding me activated charcoal. I remember staring into space as they tried to convince me to stay awake long enough to swallow it. One nurse was grasping my arm hard enough to leave dozens of bruises I would only discover the next day, but that I wasn't capable of feeling in the moment. I was so unresponsive that a nurse had gone to fetch a feeding tube when another patient from the psychiatric ICU, an older man who was stark naked, walked into my hazy line of sight and started asking me questions. There was an aid running after him, trying to convince him to put on a hospital gown, but he refused to put it on. He was making jokes, and flirting with me, and unabashedly unfazed by his dangling genitals swinging in the breeze.
I laughed at him, or more like I made a weak weak chuckle barely worthy of true laughter. I was able to sustain a kind of semi-consciousness long enough for an opportunistic nurse to shove some activated charcoal into my mouth. The man kept gesticulating and speaking animatedly, unperturbed and quite pleased with himself. I can't remember words, but I remember the vague outline of his face, and I remember the exasperated nurses asking him to please put some clothes on.
But the more of a fool this man was making of himself, the more I was able to hold on to that feeling of chuckling, and I slowly realised that I was waking up, that I was coming back, that I was not dead.
Most of my memories from the 48 hours surrounding that visit to the hospital in 2014 are robbed from my mind, sacrificed to drugs, self-hatred, terror, and exhaustion. I barely remember my exit examination with the hospital psychiatrist who approved my discharge. By the time I departed the hospital into the blinding light of early morning, the naked old man who had made me laugh had fled from my mind.
I never saw that old man again, even when I checked myself back into the same hospital the very next day, afraid I would try to kill myself again. I was bewildered by the memory of the man, forgotten but returned to me almost three years later, when the fury of my self-hatred and rage was tempered a little with hope. Though in the moment I wondered if I had hallucinated the old man who made me laugh, I would confirm with the person who had come with me to the hospital that I did not dream that man's existence. She remembered him too, how he staunchly refused to clothe himself.
When my flashback ended I was staring at my hands while standing in the middle of the sidewalk, my shirt soaked through and through.
And in the cold rain, on the tip of my tongue, I tasted a name: the name of the spirit that had called me back, the name of the spirit who knew to make me laugh, the name of the spirit who wasn't willing to let me go.
A photo by the author of a pine tree standing in the middle of the flooded Bonnechere river.
In 2017, the Bonnechere River and many other bodies of water across southern Ontario and Quebec experienced incredibly destructive floods. As I readied for the Witches Sabbat this year, I knew that there would be several extra armies of mosquitoes in attendance this year waiting for us in the muddy woods and wetlands of the Knoll.
After the shapeshifting and intensity of 2015, and the defensive and offensive workings of 2016, the invitation to the 2017 Witches' Sabbat was a little different. This year we had received an invitation to attend a "Mad Hatter's Tea Party" for Trickster spirits and gods. For an evening, we would party in the woods and swamps with gods and spirits.
I felt a keen tiredness as I walked through the woods that early Saturday morning, thinking about the rituals and dancing and partying ahead of me. Part of me was feeling especially curmudgeony: I hardly like drunken parties in non-ritual spaces, so how was I supposed to handle a night of drunken partying with almost one hundred witches in the woods, surrounded by drunken spirits and gods?
(My weariness was supplemented by stage fright jitters whenever I would remember that the morning after the party in the woods I would lead my very first esoteric workshop. I have wicked stage fright.)
I had to be shaken awake when the call rang through the forest for the party to begin. Groggily I donned my clothes—and my many layers since unlike the year before, it was very cold after sundown—and went out to join the gathering witches. I asked my friend, who was applying makeup, to draw whatever design she felt inspired to put on my face. Half-asleep and walking as if through a dream, I wandered over with the others to the ritual space.
Night fell, and invitations and calls were shouted out to the sky. Spirit after spirit was named, invited to the party. Someone had brought a flute and played like a piper. I raised a flask of whisky and called out to the night to join us. Suddenly, exhaustion wasn't clinging to my eyelids anymore.
And then the party really started—as folks roamed about into the woods and around the fire, dancing and laughing and playing tricks on each other and being truly silly. Twilight finally cloaked herself into night, and the northern lights themselves emerged to join us.
I had never before in my life seen the northern lights.
I began to cry.
I was also laughing.
And I thought of every decision that had led me to this point, and the man in the hospital who had made me laugh, and the spirit who arranged it all, whose shrine lay at the edge of a bog surrounded by birch trees. This spirit who had drawn me to Raven's Knoll one, two, three years later, who drew me out to a party I didn't even feel like going to, who annoyed the living shit out of me, who drew me out to watch the northern lights, who kept me alive.
I'll raise my flask to that.
The best revenge is living well.
The photograph of the Northern Lights over Golden Lake in the beginning of this blog post underneath the title and the tags and at the end of this blog post, is the work of P.J. Leroux as shared with The Eganville Leader on Facebook on May 28, 2017.