Mindfulness in magic: practicing the mystical arts on campus
Editor's note: One individual interviewed for this article has had her name changed due to concerns of prejudice, denoted with an asterisk.
“Where shall we three meet again in thunder, lightning, or in rain? When the hurlyburly’s done, when the battle’s lost and won.”
It was a particularly cold evening last October when I received the mark of the devil by a witch. We were gathered, five of us, on her bed, when she lit a candle and pulled out a needle. It was attached to a No. 2 pencil with a piece of string. Sliding the tiny blade beneath the flame, she walked me through the process one more time. So when a pointillism pentagram was stabbed, one needle prick at a time, into the flesh of my pelvis, I was ready. Also, the Spice Girls were playing.
My friend Helena — tall, silver-haired, perpetually wearing black — has many tattoos, most of which are self-administered. When she offered to give me one for my 21st birthday last year, I was totally on board. College is a time for self-discovery, when you make mistakes on purpose. I don’t regret my stick-and-poke tattoo, but to me all it symbolized was a youthful indiscretion. It’s also tiny, smaller than my thumb nail and nestled in a place future employers won’t find fault with. For me, it’s just a tattoo, and I picked a pentagram because I thought it would be easier for her to draw. For others, it means much more.
While many religions are practiced on the University of Michigan campus, Wicca is perhaps the least acknowledged. They aren’t making headlines or causing controversy, but practitioners of the mystical arts are as real at the University as their beliefs, and so are the fruits of their labor. This October, I decided I wanted to learn about this faction of our campus community.
I thought of the first place I could go in Ann Arbor to find witches: Crazy Wisdom Bookstore & Tea Room, a cuckoo-for-cocoa-puffs bookshop located on Main Street and East Huron Street. I’d gone in once before for the coffee, but would have never dreamed of buying something in there.
During my visit, I float past the glowing crystals and bottled incense to reach the shelf of the supernatural. My eyes flick across words on book spines, and I know I’m on the right track — demons, vampires. A small collection of Joseph Campbell. But no witches.
I keep walking, past some intensely tie-dyed scarves and entire shelves of incense, until I find one shelf devoted to witchcraft. I grab two formidable looking texts — “Wicca: The Complete Craft” and “The Everything Spells and Charms Book” — and steal away to the tea shop upstairs.
I place my order and flop the texts on a window table until the barista conjures up a cup of joe. The mug warmed by my filtered coffee bears the phrase “Om Shanti,” which is Sanskrit and is also the store’s slogan. “Om” is the sacred sound of the universe, while “shanti” means peace. This definition is written on an index card behind the counter for the barista’s reference in case nosy customers (such as myself) inquire about it.
The cafe is surprisingly well-lit given the merchandise downstairs. The tea shop takes up the entire second floor, with big bay windows on either side of the room. The ceiling is constructed with faux-foil ceiling tiles, from which elaborate light fixtures drip to illuminate the many comfy chairs and tables. Wall sconces are mounted on the purple wallpaper, which is also adorned with clay blocks painted with tarot card symbols. I see angels and skeletons, castles and devils from my spot by the east-facing window.
The mug also bears the image of a naked woman reclining on the back of a tiger. I think of this as lewd for 0.05 seconds until I recall how the Starbucks symbol is just as mystical and vaguely pornographic.
I tell the barista I’m a reporter from The Michigan Daily writing about witches. She smiles at me.
“You’ve come to the right place.”
Every second Tuesday of the month, Crazy Wisdom hosts a Witch’s Night Out, in which a diverse group gathers in the tea house and drinks one potion — Good Fortune of Dion Witch’s Brew. A blend of hibiscus flowers, blackberry leaves, orange peel, apple pieces and sunflower, it’s a popular herbal blend on the beverage menu. However, it does not tote mystical properties, according to the disclaimer on the bottom right of the menu: “Medical herbs work best in conjunction with a healthy lifestyle.” I was right to order coffee.
I’m flipping through the spell book first, because of its enticing tagline — “Cast incantations that will bring you love, success, and good health.” I plan on getting to the love spells at some point, but with my student loans looming over me, I’m keen to try the Goodbye Debt Spell.
Tools, instead of ingredients, are as follows: one large iron pot or cauldron, the five of pentacles from a tarot deck you don’t use. (I feel as though something terrible is about to happen to this five of pentacles. But what the hell is a pentacle?) Finish it off with cedar wood chips, sticks or shakes. When to concoct it? During the waxing moon, of course.
I’m instructed to put the piece of wood in the pot, light it on fire and slip the card from one of my multiple tarot decks into the flames. On the night before the next new moon, I’m to bury the ashes far from my house. I shut the book hard enough to startle the girl on her phone at the next table.
In the other book I learn the origins of the term Wicca, which comes from the Old English word wicce, meaning “wise” or “wisdom.” This tea house is basically called “crazy witch.”
It’s time to get out of here.
“Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and caldron bubble.”
LSA senior Kit Kelly, who is celebrating her two-year practicing anniversary, tells me she wants to make it known that she, among other practitioners of Wicca, aren’t flighty granola hippies. And she doesn’t have warts, either.
Kelly writes in an email interview that while Wicca may fall under the category of Pagan religions — those that are influenced by worship of nature — being Pagan does not necessitate Wiccan beliefs. The religion borrows heavily from other Pagan practices, like observing Yule and Samhain rather than Christmas and Halloween.
There are more than a few misconceptions about the Wiccan practice that Kelly writes she wants to smooth over, and chief among these concerns is that it’s not some weird hobby.
“First, I think it’s definitely possible to be invested in scientific logic and also participate in Wicca — intention and thought has been studied a great deal, and our attitudes towards ourselves and others have a great deal of influence in the physical world,” Kelly wrote. “Second, there are so many varieties of witchcraft that trying to lump us in under one stereotype is inaccurate and, frankly, offensive.”
Kelly said the end of October is the perfect time to discuss Wiccan faith given the series of misrepresentations that are produced by Halloween costumes. She believes cartoonish depictions of Wicca and witches cast negative stereotypes from practitioners in the Roma culture — often referred to as “gypsy,” nomenclature that has been flagged as less than politically correct — that have equally negative ramifications on those who practice witchcraft.
“We are your friends, your classmates, your neighbors and I encourage you to treat us with as much respect as you treat your Christian, Jewish or Muslim friends — our beliefs are all valid and important and we shouldn't be ostracized or stereotyped just because we believe in magic,” Kelly wrote.
“I was going to fight vampires, and my name wasn’t Buffy — I was so screwed.”
Most Wiccans on campus just want to be left alone — like Art & Design junior Ellen Erikson*, who identifies not as a Wiccan but as a bona fide witch.
“It is a common misconception that Wicca is the only type of witchcraft,” Erikson wrote in an email interview. “While Wicca is most often duotheistic and recognizes two specific deities, the ‘God’ and ‘Goddess,’ witchcraft as a whole is much more open-ended.”
Erikson has been practicing for a year and a half. When she was in high school, her friend’s grandmother, a former witch, introduced her to the craft and lent her a small library of books to get her started.
“At the time, it seemed almost too good to be true, and although I fervently tried a few spells, Witchcraft always felt like something distant and inaccessible to me,” Erikson wrote.
(She describes her sophomore year of college as tumultuous. Deciding to transfer to the University after spending two years adjusting to her previous school, she had found making friends and overcoming the stress and uncertainty of freshman year at her former school was challenging. She was unhappy where she was, but transferring could have easily worsened the problems she was having.)
Over and over, she asked herself: Is Michigan really where I want to be? Will it be worth it? Where do I belong?
“Although my family encouraged me to make the change, advisors, professors and other students cautioned me on the potential mistake I could be making,” Erikson wrote. “I felt stuck at a fork in the road for a long time. At last, I took one of the biggest leaps of faith I have taken and transferred.”
It was still difficult — she coped with the mounting stress associated with culture shock and readjustment by partying and going out more. But Erikson didn’t feel present in social situations and had trouble making her art.
“The first time I called myself a ‘Witch’ was the most magical moment of my life.”
The turning point for Erikson came the summer after her second year of college. She went home and relaxed in the familiar company of her family and friends. After leaving the nest of her hometown with a greater appreciation and deeper understanding of her own spirituality, she threw herself back into witchcraft.
“Developing my practice became a huge creative outlet for me, which both provided me with means of tackling my anxiousness and self doubt, and helped me reconnect with creating art,” Erikson wrote. “Although those years were difficult for me, those experiences helped me grow as a person.”
Kelly wrote that she first got involved with Wiccan practices after suffering from chronic anxiety issues, and feelings of being out of control. A friend recommended she look into the religion as simply a way of exercising control.
“At first the rituals were a great way to ease my nerves, but I found very quickly that intention is powerful, and my casting had a lot more of an effect on my life than I thought it would,” Kelly wrote. “Take it from a skeptic and a past atheist — the brain is an incredible organ and is capable of influencing our paths in extraordinary ways.”
According to Erikson, witchcraft exists on a spectrum of theologies and practices unique to the practitioner.
“I recently came across the phrase ‘re-enchanting the world,’ which I believe captures the essence of what magic means to me,” Erikson wrote. “Practicing witchcraft has revived my sense of mystery and wonder in the world, and given me room to develop a relationship with spirituality, on my own terms.”
For her, whether you’re casting spells, doodling sigils during class or throwing crystals and herbs in your pocket for a little extra support on your way to an exam, being a witch on campus is just plain fun.
“Your average witch is not, by nature, a social animal as far as other witches are concerned. There’s a conflict of dominant personalities. There’s a group of ringleaders without a ring. There’s the basic unwritten rule of witchcraft, which is ‘Don’t do what you will, do what I say.’ The natural size of a coven is one. Witches only get together when they can’t avoid it.”
Erikson said she wishes there were opportunities to network in her community, but as most witches that don't broadcast part of their identity, it’s difficult to get out and meet other Wiccans and witches. When she first came to Ann Arbor, she was disheartened by the infrequency with which local meetups occur — and rarely on campus.
“Asking people if they are a witch isn’t exactly the best way to start a conversation. Personally, I would love to be a part of a witchy community on campus,” she wrote. “I believe that having the ability to practice with others would strengthen my belief in my own spirituality.”
Kelly belongs to a coven of witches in the Midwest called the Coven of Stars, but noted that getting all of its members together can be difficult. The past few years, she’s ventured as far as Kalamazoo to celebrate Samhain with a few of the coven’s members, but the whole of their order has yet to convene at once.
“When we gather, we tend to plan the rituals we do in advance, and these typically relate to the holiday we’re celebrating,” Kelly wrote. “On Samhain, we create a bonfire and do a lot of cleansing and try to cast for new beginnings, because it’s the holiday that marks the end of the harvest season and the beginning of a new part of the year.”
For Kelly, Facebook has been an incredible resource in finding other witches, and to crowdsource ideas for spells. She’s also been part of several groups online that do outreach work with new witches and discuss different factions of witchcraft.
Kelly wrote that she considers herself a moon priestess, and her practice focuses a great deal on healing and cleansing. Last year, she was able to attend HexFest in New Orleans, which is a festival that brings practitioners together from across the country.
“I was able to meet and learn from a few voodoo practitioners,” she wrote. “Voodoo is based in African lore and focuses on making deals with spirits in order to gain power. The origins and practice of this kind of magic is so far flung from what I’m comfortable with, and I think it’s silly to try to group us together.”
“Wisdom is one of the few things that looks bigger the further away it is.”
On my walk to the witch’s house, the road is lined with sorority houses. Erikson has agreed to perform a little something with me, but it’s shocking that she could have possibly escaped identification as a witch in a sea of Canada Goose jackets and pumpkin spice lattes.
Erikson says she’s not sure how much her roommate knows about her status as a practicing witch, but isn’t too worried about it coming out.
“Why would someone suspect somebody else is a witch?” Erikson said. “I think that’s a weird thing to think. But once you do know, I think there’s a lot of little indicators.”
Erikson’s room features many artifacts that I find strange and sobering. Strange would be the colony of crystals on her bedside table that she refers to as an altar, and sobering are the posters on her wall — Blondie, and the quintessentially collegiate “Pulp Fiction” — that could just as easily hang in my room. Also the shoes under her table, black with chunky heels, are the same pair that just came in the mail from my online order.
The spell she has chosen will bring good luck and prosperity — but I’m reminded about an earlier goal and ask about love spells.
“Oh man, those are always tricky,” she says. “I’ve done them too, but I’ve always felt weird about them. I do the ones (where) I’m calling someone, so they come to me, so I don’t feel like I’m manipulating anything. But those are really fun to do.”
Sitting on the floor of her room, she pulls out a small journal and a massive English dictionary. She cracks the cover of the latter to reveal a secret compartment from which she extracts the spell’s ingredients. I watch as she forms a pentagram using three yellow tea candles and a figurine of a black cat. They will represent the four directions — air, water, fire and earth — as well as one for spirituality. Usually she uses five candles, but she’s running low. For the point representing fire, she uses a small cone of incense that she picked up in Santa Fe because of the smell. She ignites the incense with a hot pink lighter.
She pulls out the journal, her book of spells, and flips through the pages.
“I used to keep it just lying out, but my roommate told me that she read it,” Erikson said. “So I was like, ‘OK, I’m going to move it now.’”
She explains each ingredient as she spills it into a clear glass jar the size of my second toe, carefully held over a black bowl that will be taking the place of a cauldron. She doesn’t have basil, so she subs in frankincense. Otherwise, the mixture of pink sea salt, pepper (to force out negative energy), all spice, nutmeg and regular table salt that make up the spell becomes my keepsake.
Because she is so rarely alone, Erikson mainly performs simple spells and rituals.
“In a dorm, there’s always people around,” Erikson said. “Like, I never know when my roommate is going to pop back in. Even if I know she’s not coming back for a certain time, I feel if someone might come in. It just distracts me.”
Some spells have chants, something that Erikson finds a little too kooky. She prefers to perform in silence, focusing her energy on the ingredients that she’s adding. Standing in for a wand, Erikson waves a green crystal in a stirring motion over the concoction.
She blows out the candles, counter-clockwise, ending the spell. She lets the incense burn, and the aroma fills the entire room. Later, as I’m standing on the sidewalk waiting for my Uber, I can still smell it on my jacket.
“Since man cannot live without miracles, he will provide himself with miracles of his own making. He will believe in witchcraft and sorcery, even though he may otherwise be a heretic, an atheist, and a rebel.”
Armed with these fresh aromas and perceptions, I return to Crazy Wisdom. The invisible cloud of herbs which greets you at the door — a combination of sage, rose, sandalwood, lavender and thyme — smells exactly how hugging my grandmother feels. I allow myself to remember for the first time in years a similar store that I went to in high school called Earth Lore, in Plymouth, Mich., not far from where I grew up. There were more artifacts than books in the shop, and I would go with my best friend Gina after class and gawk at the tiny Buddha statues, or look at the rows of incense sticks in a kaleidoscope of colors. I don’t remember thinking it was ridiculous, or looking down on those who would go in. We got a kick out of it in a voyeuristic, indulgent way. Like seeing a romantic comedy with your friends. It was a burst, brief and pure, of joy.
I sit at the same table as last week where the same smiling waitress deposits a cup of coffee in front of me, and I reflect on the utter tranquility of the scene.
A blond boy is lounging on a gray couch scattered with textbooks, tucked beneath a table, which holds a pot of tea belonging to the woman in glasses and a gray sweater. Two women sit only a few feet away from me, bodies bent toward each other over their round table, speaking in tones as smooth and secretive as the light gurgle my coffee makes when I take a sip. Something soft is playing that reminds me of a song by Colin Hay.
I consider the deadlines of the newspaper to which I have sewn my time and lifeforce. I consider unfinished class assignments, how often I’ve talked to my parents and whether or not I’ve disappointed a friend by my constant away status, like an AIM reminder that I’m not as present as I could be in my own life. I think about how over the course of writing this article, I’ve dyed my hair black and started to wear the color more frequently. I look at my tattoo and wonder whether or not it means more to me than I first thought.
Traffic continues to pass beneath the window to my left. A construction crew tears into the concrete of the street with a construction machine that looks like a massive shovel. Children pass in strollers, pushed by parents on their cell phones. And yet I can’t hear any of it. A jazzy tune with a faster tempo takes off in the tea shop. The espresso machine whines. I sip my coffee. This room, this space, is an oasis of peace. It kind of feels like magic.