In a recent interview for an online journal I was asked about the event that permanently bisected my life so that I now think of things happening before or after it.
My initial response was, “The event? Oh, dearie. I have accumulated dozens, hundreds of those over the years!”
I mean, there’s my meeting Dionysos for the second time. Getting chased and devoured by the Titans. Giving my favorite leather jacket to a homeless man on the bus, followed shortly by Hermes reintroducing me to Spider. Carrying 300 Gods and Spirits simultaneously that night at Horse Creek. PLC. Olympia. The Coast. And bunches more that aren’t for public consumption. Each of these, large or small, set in motion a whole sequence of events that radically reoriented my life and my relationships with the divinities of the Starry Bull pantheon.
There’s another I don’t often think of as part of that category, but I probably should.
I’m going to say it was the summer of 2010, but that’s probably not true. My tiny apartment was swelteringly hot, that I know; especially after an hour of dancing and ecstatic celebration. Sweat dripping off my wine-flushed cheeks, I stumbled out to the designated smoking area by the dumpster and bike rack. Thankfully no one else was around since I was still deeply entheos and having conversations with invisible people as I struggled to light my clove cigarette.
This was not the best of times for me. It wasn’t the worst either, thankfully, but I’d been out of work for a while, my writing plateaued resulting in notebook upon notebook of poems and essays I hated and eventually just threw out, and worst of all my religious life was a muddled, confusing mess. I had gone almost three weeks without even touching my shrines before tonight’s impromptu ritual catharsis. (Which is pretty impressive considering my apartment consisted of a computer desk, a fridge and every other inch was covered in devotional art or shrines. You have to work hard to ignore the Gods and Spirits when you’re as surrounded by them as I was.)
Finished fumbling with my black Bic, I leaned against the rain shelter and enjoyed the cool night air against my hot skin and the cigarette’s sweet smoke. In the harsh glare of the overhead lamp I watched a little brown spider swing and dance in the air, mesmerized as she spun geometric shapes out of gauzy filament. And I envied her, for she was a born artist and killer. She never went through existential crises and wondered what to do with her prodigious talents, for nature had left no doubt in her. She was a maker and a hunter of beauty, nothing less and nothing more.
And I felt lost, my whole sense of self come unraveled.
This was not, as it happens, a condition unknown to me; normally however the whole identity obliteration thing was followed by the emergence of new personae. This time none had stepped forward. For a while I just kind of coasted, relying on habit and technique to carry me through. And it did. For a while.
Even if others couldn’t tell, I could. I saw all the ways I wasn’t measuring up, the imperfections and failures, how I was just phoning it in and my heart wasn’t really in anything. This opened the way for doubt and despair and acedia to step forth, and they brought even nastier friends along with them.
What hurt the worst (and this pain was the goad that eventually enabled me to drag myself out of the swamp) was the thought that I was disappointing my God, Dionysos. It was my own potent fear – he never had anything but words of encouragement for me. And somehow that just made it worse. You only say nice things to someone like that when you think they can’t handle the truth. (Yeah, I know how fucked up that sounds; one of many things I had to work through to find release from the oubliette.) There was also frustration bordering on resentment: I was struggling so badly because I did not know how to honor Dionysos best, which of his forms to focus on, what work he wanted me to do for him in the world. Nothing that had come before – roles or practices – was cutting it, so it had to be something new. He confirmed that that was the case, but wouldn’t tell me what needed to come next. I had to figure it out and choose for myself, he kept telling me. I would know when the time was right.
But I didn’t know, and all my research and experimentation over those many months had only led to fruitless labor and endless dead ends. It was maddening, to say the least. I was almost ready to do the unthinkable and give up.
Until I got a sudden urge to dance that night. I put on one of my random ritual playlists – mostly Dead Can Dance and Vas, with some NiN and Peter Murphy for seasoning – and puttered around my apartment for a while. I tidied my shrines, lit candles and made fresh offerings, prayed ex tempore, spent time quietly communing with them, and it felt good. Like visiting with old friends. Then I sat on the floor a while, swigging wine from the bottle and watching the mask above Dionysos’ shrine grow more and more lifelike. When the bottle was empty I rose unsteadily to my feet and began to dance for him, with him.
At some point my dancing became aggressive, warlike. I furiously tossed my head back and side-to-side, stamped, beat my chest – I would have howled or screamed too, but was already subjecting my neighbors to a thick cloud of incense and Trent Reznor on repeat. But then I forgot about them and everything else in the world, and there was just me and Dionysos, him in me and me in him.
And when I came back to myself, it was like the last eight months and all their scarring had never happened. My shoulders were lightened of their burden and my heart was beating properly again. All had fallen away and been washed clean in wine and the milk of the stars.
That’s mostly what I was thinking about as I stood there smoking, feeling more than thinking. I still didn’t know what I was supposed to do, but in that moment I didn’t care; I was too busy just being Dionysian and chatting with Dionysos to bother.
And then a scene from Oliver Stone’s Doors biopic began playing in my head. The concert where Jim’s hopping around in a whiskey-fueled trance surrounded by Indian ghost shamans. His bandmates are confused at first; he’s gone off script, he comes perilously close to the stage’s edge and his erratic, jerky movements could result in a tumble to concrete or being torn apart by ravening fans. But then they too come under the spell, infected by his ecstasy, and the group start to play as they have never played before. Soon the whole stadium is in the grip of the mad God and dancing with Dionysos like frenzied Bacchanals.
I went back inside and thanked Dionysos for showing me the way.
Three years later the Starry Bull tradition was born.