It was the Winter Solstice, I was home on winter break during my sophomore year in college. I was still learning to create a life that was different than the one my family and schools had dictated. I had become more open about who I was, created a life that had nothing to do with my childhood home.
I went for a walk alone in the neighborhood where I grew up. A few blocks from our home, there was a cemetery called Valhalla. It was a modest affair, in spite of the rather grand associations of the name. It is the kind of cemetery where most of the headstones are flat to the ground so they can just mow right over them. There was a section in the back that was undeveloped and unused. It was an empty field with a chain link fence on 2 sides and a line of trees separating it from the main part of the cemetery. The ground was rutted and uneven, the grass was scrubby and there were a few scattered trees and shrubs. Since it was December, it was all brown and leafless.
As I walked into the field and farther from the streetlights, I began to feel a presence in the trees. There was a woman – an older woman in a dark, hooded cloak. She didn’t speak, but I understood that she was communicating with me. She was letting me know that she was there. That she would always be there. Always watching. Always knowing. Always waiting.
I did not know her name. I did not know what she was there to show me. She was a presence in the dark, just beyond my reach. She felt like a strange dark comfort, a point of knowledge of something hidden, a fascinating mystery. With the Pagan readings I had done at the time, I thought of her as The Crone – one of the faces of the three-fold Goddess archetype. But in retrospect, and to my current way of thinking, she seemed more real, more concrete than an archetype. She was a Goddess, but one I wasn’t ready to know.
For my first year and a half in college, things had gone pretty well. I had come out as gay and felt the support of my college community. I had kept up well in classes, and I was fascinated by the study of eco-feminist philosophy under my first-year advisor Karen J. Warren. I had a number of great friends there.
But I was cracking, and I knew it. I had a desperate restlessness. I had begged my parents to help me take a semester to move to the UK and work. I had found a program where I could get a short-term work visa. I just needed them spend some of the money that they would have spent on my college expenses to get a plane ticket and some initial living expenses. They were against it entirely, and in retrospect, I can understand why. But they didn’t know that I was cracking. Something was going wrong in my head, and I wanted to try something radical to try to shake it off. In retrospect, traveling to a different country and being in unfamiliar surroundings probably wouldn’t have helped, but I wanted to try something, anything to shake it up.
What was coming was that I was about to have the first of several deep depressive episodes that I experienced during my college years. It was the kind of depression that caused me to sleep 20 hours a day for a month, lose touch with friends, and fall disastrously behind in my classes. I had no idea at the time, of course. I had never experienced anything like that before that time. I still have no idea why it happened then, and several more times over the next few years. I have a couple theories, but they are really only guesses.
As you may know, depression is not “feeling sad”. In the depths of it, it’s not feeling anything. Music isn’t enjoyable. Food is not interesting. Friends don’t seem important. Friends who desperately try to “cheer you up” seem irritating. And for me, I was tired, overwhelmingly tired. I slept long hours, got up, showered, unenthusiastically ate a little something, and then went back to bed. Nothing engaged me. Nothing brought me out of it.
When I finally started getting myself back, I realized everything that I had neglected had turned into a serious problem. I was in trouble in all my classes. Many of my friends were angry with me for my neglect and rude avoidance. Fortunately, I was living in college housing, so paying bills and such weren’t an immediate problem. I was still not quite right, and not feeling capable of digging myself out of the hole I had dug. I tried to reengage in my classes, but didn’t have much experience with being a struggling student. I had always been a good student, or at least a competent one. I really didn’t know how to recover when I had messed up. I tried to revive friendships, but some relationships never recovered.
Before that time, I thought I knew darkness. I even thought of it sometimes as friendly, useful. I had lived so much of my life not revealing myself, allowing myself to be a mystery to people. I knew cynicism, I knew that the world was full of lies and betrayals. I knew that people’s generosity had a limit, and even those who seem kindhearted could harbor prejudices. I thought I understood the world.
Of course there was so much more to learn, and much of it through painful experiences. The bouts of depression were bad. It took me a couple years of delay and some significant maneuvering to finish my degree after the academic challenges it created. Then, my parents began to experience health problems. My father had a heart attack and bypass surgery. My mother began her slow steady slide which eventually ended with her death. Financial setbacks and some unlucky choices also have challenged me.
I have come through it transformed in many ways. I have gone from being an extrovert to being very introverted, or put differently, from being dependent on the presence of others to being happy with my own company. I have rediscovered my spirituality, and as this blog attests, I have been growing and exploring that path. I have been shaped by dark forces, as I think we all are.
I still wonder what that Goddess wanted, what she wanted me to hear that I was not ready to hear. Perhaps she appeared as a warning of things to come, a warning that I could not understand. Perhaps she was trying to see if I was someone who could do her a service. Perhaps I was just randomly stumbling upon a place of the dead on the darkest of dark nights and I glimpsed a rare gift from the divine.
She touched me, though, in ways I don’t entirely understand. Until a few years ago, that night was one of the closest brushes I had with a divine presence, and it opened a door within me. It took me years to walk through it, though, and accept my relationship with the Gods and Goddesses. Perhaps I still don’t truly understand what it brought and what it will mean.