A-co-lyte: n. a person who assists a celebrant in a religious service

We’ve come to part 3 in our 3 part series on the Week With All The Things. As much as I love talking about that week, I am a really slow writer, and I will be excited to move on to  other topics. For now, though, let’s talk about Vadalna Tribal Dance Co.‘s very last performance, Temple, and how it effected my art and life. Be forewarned, this one is not as cheerful as the others.

Temple poster
The poster for Temple. It was somehow even more awesome than this looks.

Frankly, I don’t even know how to begin. It was a very long, very involved process that lasted multiple days in multiple locations with many, many people. The whole thing is something of a blur. A wonderful, very emotional blur. I know I won’t be able to capture the experience in this post, but I will try my very best not to disappoint.

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Vadalna has been a group for about 7 years now. They have a long history together with lots of pictures and memories and in-jokes and all of that. I have only been dancing with them for a few months, and I was just a guest dancer, so I was unable to share any of those common memories. I was not technically a “real” member of the group, and I spent most of the experience unsure whether or not certain “Vadalna-only” activities (such as putting together the scrapbook, signing the guest book, group photos, or even going up there early) were open to me. Let me make it perfectly clear, though, that they tried their very best to make me feel cared for, welcomed, and loved, but due to my mental illnesses and my own personal insecurities, I found it very difficult to really feel like I was part of the group. I only mention this because it factored into and somewhat colored my experience of the event, and I wanted to clarify that it was through my own failings, not through any direct action on their part.

An older photo of them
We Are Shangri La
A still from the video for We Are Shangri La/Echoes, to which our Temple choreography, Wise Enough, was the sequel.

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The whole thing actually began on Thursday night when a few of the Vadalna ladies, Naraya and Sam/Belle, went up to the site as early as they could to start preparing, and also because group sleepovers are fun. I had an editing meeting that night with Wendy and Pedro, a few of the folks behind the Highlands History Project and also some good friends of mine, so I couldn’t go until Friday morning. I packed up all of my cool little knickknacks, carpooled up there with two of the Vadalna ladies, Kali and Katie,  nerded out just as hard as we could, and soon (not nearly as soon as we expected, traffic was a monster) we were at the cabin we would be staying in, a town over from the venue. The cabin was apparently owned by the same people  who owned the venue (K and Natan of Star & Snake in Center Harbor, NH) and it functioned as our “home base” of sorts while we got everything set up. We did the scrapbook work (Katie and Kali did that, actually) and I took inventory of all the things we brought (which essentially means I put stickers on everything with people’s names on them and I wrote it down in my notebook) and then we were able to go see the space for the first time.

The plan was to set up the space all day Friday and most of the day Saturday, do the show Saturday night, have a party afterward, and then I wasn’t sure what was supposed to happen after that. If I had even a little bit of foresight, I would have known that the plan was to stay Saturday night, break down on Sunday, and then spend the rest of the day hanging out before eventually leaving. I didn’t figure that out until midday Saturday. My version of the plan was to do all of those things and then leave right after the show on Saturday night. That is how I planned my whole weekend out, going as far as to make podcast editing plans for Sunday. I blame myself for not being able to piece that one together, because everyone else seemed to know that’s what was happening. It was still frustrating. But we’ll get more into that later.

[In the interest of saving time, I will attempt to not go overly into detail about the Star & Snake, but that is a task that will prove somewhat difficult for reasons that will become apparent.] After receiving us and our stuff at the cabin, Naraya and Sam took us to church. Because that is indeed what the Star & Snake is: a former (what I assume to be Catholic) church that has been renovated such that it is now a performance venue-slash-artist retreat-slash-Pagan spiritual center. It’s even intimidating from the outside. We came around the back and entered through what I guess you’d call the back doors (which were flanked with stone statues of what I thought were supposed to be hooded monks) and we entered the main performance space, the sanctuary.

I’m a little embarrassed to say, but I was kind of underwhelmed by that part. It looked exactly the way I pictured it. Wood floors and walls, with all the pews and everything cleared out, and currently full of all our stuff. It wasn’t super impressive to me, because that’s exactly what I would have thought an empty church would look like. The stained glass was gorgeous, of course, but I wasn’t immediately struck with its beauty like I had been led to believe would happen, for which I felt kind of ashamed.

Star & Snake sanctuary
The sanctuary and the choir loft, after the 5 altars were built.

But then they took us through the rest of the space. I found that my infatuation with Star & Snake crept upon me very, very slowly. So slowly I almost didn’t notice it. They took us through the parlor with the stone fireplace, the divination room with the shrine to Kali Ma to whom the space is devoted, upstairs to the shibari room, further down into the healer’s room in the basement, the tattooing room where Natan could do ritual tattooing, and then they showed us the firepit and the water shrine situated on top of their actual wellwater source outside. Everything was so overwhelmingly beautiful and intricate, and somehow more so than the last. There were so many interesting things to see that I worry I’ll try to list them all and be here all day. After we had seen more or less every space we’d be using for the show, we were brought back into the Kali room so we could eat some of the food we brought. I remember sitting there on the carpet between the two indoor flower gardens (which I still haven’t been able to figure out…), looking over at the locked up shrine, looking up at the vaulted ceiling from which cloth curtains were hanging to decorate the divination table, and thinking one thing only:

“My life plans have changed.”

Which I’m sure I’ll get to in another writing, and has been on my mind a lot lately. For now, let’s move on.

The Shrine of Kali
The shrine of Kali, next to one of K’s paintings. One of the flower gardens was located to the right of the shrine, and the divination table to the left.

In any case, to speed things up, we spent much of the rest of the day building. There was lots of actual construction still underway that needed to be masked for the show, and we also had to build the five altars (for the four cardinal directions/elements and one in the middle for Spirit/Ether) in the sanctuary space. Vadalna assigned people to build specific altars, but I never wanted to be confined to just one. I owned a lot of really cool stuff, but I didn’t own anything that was cool enough to build one cohesive idea. So I bounced around between all of them and helped out where I could, and I’m incredibly proud of the way they all came out. That, by which I mean my taking pride in helping out, proved to be a theme of the weekend, but I wouldn’t figure that out until later.

The Fire Altar
The Fire/South Altar, built by myself and Kalidasi. And I think that person in the blindfold might be my friend Rebecca!

After a long day of building and organizing, we retired to the cabin for the night. And I do mean long. I think we all settled in to bed after midnight. In any case, the next morning, we had a ton of work ahead of us, so we went to a local café for a caffeine-fortified planning session. Which spawned one of my favorite photos from the whole experience:

Middle Finger
Naraya and Kali were very ready for the day.

Center Harbor is fucking adorable, by the way. That café was just the beginning. I would love to go back up there soon. Hopefully I’ll have the chance, because the Star & Snake will have plenty more events!

In any case. We spent most of the day of the show doing the little things. Sweeping, mopping, polishing, all the things that didn’t seem like they would be that difficult or necessary, but they took all day and really would have been missed if they hadn’t been done. Mind you, I didn’t like doing them, but I really felt like I was doing a Good Thing here by doing the little things that suck so that other people could focus on the Big Picture. The feeling persisted, but I didn’t pay too much attention to it.

Like I mentioned before, I was having a really hard time with feeling like an outsider at this event, and the more time ticked by, the deeper the feeling felt. After doing several menial tasks (that needed doing!) all day, I found myself cleaning one of the many mirrors. It was on the Fire Altar, and it was incredibly smudgy from being handled all weekend. I polished it. When I was done, I must have looked at it just right because I felt like I was looking through a window. It was really, really clear, and I was looking at an angle so I wasn’t reflected at all. It was kind of a bizarre experience, if you’ve ever had it.

When I finished with that one, for some reason, I needed to do another one. I wasn’t sure why, but I immediately grabbed my wash and my microfiber cloth, went over to the the Air Altar, and started polishing that one, too. That one was stubborn, though, so I had to do it two or three times just to get it to stop being streaky. And that’s the weird thing. I needed it not to be streaky. I needed to clean it. And then when I was done, I moved on to another one. And then another one. At one point, someone asked for a set of hands to go do another task, and I actively ignored that request so that I could keep cleaning mirrors. I can’t really describe it, but I viscerally knew in my heart that I needed to stay here and do this. To do anything else was unthinkable.

I should interrupt myself for a moment and give you a brief introduction to my history with religion and spirituality. I would consider myself to be an agnostic atheist at the moment, but that wasn’t always the case. I was raised in a Christian family, though my immediate family was terrible at practicing. I was baptized Catholic when I was 8 because my mother married someone who was Catholic (but, again, didn’t practice), but our family’s church is actually a less-crazy offshoot of the Mormon church (long story). Much like everyone who grew up in the 90’s, I started learning about alternative religions when I was about 11, and I was heavily studying witchcraft (specifically Wicca and Paganism) throughout my teens. Eventually, I decided that, even though I thought that some forms of Wicca were the set of beliefs that fit me the most accurately, I decided to stop practicing. It became clear to me that no one really has the answers, and I was frankly shocked at how many people who participated in such an open-minded belief system would regularly use definite and specific vocabulary to define the gods, magick, and the afterlife. When I made that decision, I thought of Wicca/witchcraft as being just like any other religion: a moral code to live by, a set of beliefs to make sense of the world around us, and ritual and tradition to make our brains happy, but ultimately unable to hold up under scrutiny. Which made me very, very sad and I don’t like talking about it, to the point that I am actively squicking out writing about this right now.

So fast forward to me in a Pagan spiritual center, building religious accouterments, serving as a Priestess in a “witchy-poo” show (as Naraya would call it, and being surrounded with the normalization of something that, when I practiced it, would have had to be kept very secret or hidden away. And then this feeling hits me, where I need to clean these mirrors. And I was fighting this notion (that I felt must be correct, but I was trying as hard as I could to ignore it) that maybe what was happening to me was a return to my old faith, and that feeling that something that used to be missing wasn’t missing anymore. But I was ignoring and ignoring and ignoring until I suddenly realized I was repeating the word “acolyte” to myself. Which was weird, as it’s a word that I know and have used before, but not a word I’m known for using often.

I thought the word meant “one who is training up in some art form or religious practice.” And I thought to myself, “Is that not what I am, in a sense?” After all, I was training as a dancer under the much more experienced, much more technically advanced than me Vadalna women. And after all, I was here in this temple taking care of the space before performing a sacred act in it, just like they do in monasteries and abbeys and temples from all over the world and all that I knew of religious orders from everything I’d ever read. Was I not basically, as I eventually called myself, the Work Study Priestess?

Shinto priestess sweeping
According to the Wall Street Journal, this is a Shinto priestess sweeping the grounds at Fujisan Hongu Sengentaisha shrine, Mt. Fuji’s main shrine.

From that moment, it clicked. I ran around and compulsively told all the Vadalna ladies this revelation I had (and it did indeed feel like a revelation) almost ad nauseum, but they put up with it like champs. The rest of my experience that night was seen through the eyes of the Work Study Priestess.

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The time was drawing nearer, and the preparations really kicked into gear. Performers began to arrive and I was becoming a little star-struck because they included people like Aepril Schaile and Matt (Em) Weston. We were all getting into costume and makeup (I had nothing special to put on my head in terms of jewelry or hair ornaments, which I had been feeling self-conscious about until I realized that I, as an acolyte, didn’t need to be as elaborate as the other priestesses) and doing a tech run-through and everything was running about as smoothly as anyone had any reason to expect.

After tech, we had about an hour until we expected to be able to start. I had brought two bottles of Viniq that someone bought me for my birthday but that I had never opened and I intended to share it as a toast with the Vadalna chicks. On a whim, I decided to go around to all the altars with the wine (I thought it was wine; I didn’t realize until later that it actually had liquor in it, and boy did I feel silly when I figured that out) and have it blessed, all the while kicking myself for how stupid an idea I imagined that to be, being an atheist. In any case, I called together the Vadalna women, I poured us all a very sparkly toast, and then I took the opportunity to invoke the god Dionysus (god of both wine and the theatre) before we drank it.

Viniq GIF
Literally us.

And then before I knew it, the show was ready to begin.

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First, the guests were led through the front door to the donation jar, then led through a set of sheer curtains and blindfolded by priestesses in order to participate in the opening ritual. They were then led through another set of curtains and walked, still blindfolded, to each of the five altars, where they would be able to remove their blindfold and meditate on the meaning of what they saw. Some of the altars were even interactive.

Opening Ritual
Writing down wishes to hang on the Tree of Life at the Spirit altar. With special guest appearance by my friend James!

After all this, they were led to another priestess who took their blindfolds and asked them to draw a card which would have a symbol on it. She would cryptically tell them to find their symbol and off they would go on their own. They would be led to one of the three rooms I already mentioned, where there would be a practitioner waiting to receive them. After roughly an hour, a priestess came around with a drum to lead them back to the sanctuary space for the dance performance.

The show was structured in the same way that many Wiccan rituals are: There was the consecration of the space which we had already done before everyone got there, Aepril’s invocation of the divine, and Aria Michaels Paradise called the corners and began to raise the energy. The energy and power would continue to be raised through the next few performers and then culminated with Vadalna’s performance, which was more or less all spinning, meant to evoke the spiral dance and be the spark which would ignite the world. Our song is also one of the only ones that used lyrics in English, which in my opinion would also make it the intention part of the ritual.

Are we not wise enough to give all we are?
Surely we’re bright enough to outshine the stars
But humankind gets so lost in finding its way
We have our chance to make a difference til our dying day

I do want to say one notable thing that happened to me during our performance. There was one segment of the song where we were supposed to “strike a pose,” so to speak. The lyric was “no one else can play your part” and we were to take up a pose that represented our priestess. In all of the rehearsals, I had been doing this kind of abstract tree thing because, where many people have adopted a “spirit animal,” I have apparently adopted tree imagery. But during our performance, I was all of a sudden struck with new imagery. Instead of going into my tree pose, I leaned over and held my hands as though I were holding a broomstick. Work Study Priestess struck again, and it felt really, really correct.

Wise Enough
The only Vadalna performance shot I have seen so far.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, but unlike the ritual observance and silence that followed every other performance, Vadalna received a few light “woo”s, one woman saying “we do, we do,” and one notable and poignant “Amen.”

Our performance was followed by Jaylee, who, like us, spun and spun and spun until she couldn’t spin no more, followed by Aepril Schaile one more time. This time, she was formally invoking the goddess Kali, and in doing so, she actually stabbed herself in the leg with her own sword. We all worried for her, but at the same time none of us were really that surprised that blood was shed during Kali’s arrival.

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When the show had officially ended, everyone was invited to party. There  were enough libations to go around, and we all ended up staying well into the night. I got to try K’s homemade blueberry mead (which was awesome!), watch some more shibari bondage, and watch everyone else have a great time. I ended up missing out on a lot of the fun social stuff because I went into a mental valley, but I stuck with it as long as I could. After all, I was a priestess and this was my temple. But around 1:00AM, I had kind of reached the end of my spoons, so my fella and my best friend, who had come all the way up just to see the show, helped me gather as much of my things off the altars as we could find, and then helped me find people to say goodbye to. It was at that point that I realized that they had mostly all gone back to the cabin already, and no one had told me. I was a little upset by that, but they were all adults, so independence is expected.

We left and made our way to the cabin. When I got there, only Katie and her dude were in sight. I hastily gathered up the rest of my things and packed them in the car. I had hoped to say goodbye to the Vadalna ladies before I left, but they were nowhere to be found. I awkwardly said goodbye to Katie, asked her to give them my love, got in the car, and went home.

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I would like to just say some final thoughts on the matter before I close the book on Temple for good.

  • The experience, quite literally, changed my life.
  • I learned that I’m not as well-adjusted as I thought I was, and that I have a lot more work to do.
  • I am a person who is full of fear.
  • I hope I can find another group of people as loving, talented, tight-knit, and visionary as Vadalna, and then swindle them into letting me hang out with them.
  • The world needs more beauty in it. Sometimes, beauty is painful.
  • I ended up looking up the word “acolyte” later and learned its real meaning. An acolyte isn’t a total novice who is lucky to be sweeping the floors. An acolyte is one who assists. I am not unworthy. I am that which makes things possible.

A presto,

JW

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Part 1: The Wizard and 14 Year-Old I

Part 2: 6 Things Never to Do as a Film Extra

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