Home to Me The development and growth of a magical family

EarthSpirit LogoEarthSpirit Newsletter Fall 95
Home to Me
by Deirdre Pulgram Arthen
The development and growth of a magical family

You could send me away and I would go,
I would go but I would not go too far.
You could send me home but you would know,
Home to me is anywhere you are.

The first time Sarah sang this song by Tom Paxton in concert and invited us, her family, up on stage to join her on the chorus, I was so close to tears that I could barely voice the words. It so acutely expresses the depth of feeling I have toward the people who have become my chosen family… Ironically, it was written by a man for his wife. I say ironically because our family is about as far from that model as one can get – yet the commitment is so much the same. In the deepest part of me I recognize that my life is meant to be lived in close and intimate connection with (at least) these nine adults and five children, drawn together by magic, who share my name, and make-up the core of my extended family of choice – my clan, my coven, my tribe.

I grew up in the South in a liberal, Unitarian, upper middle-class family of six; mother, father, myself and three brothers. One grandmother lived in the same city we did, other relatives were scattered around the US and overseas. Many, on my father’s side, had died in the Holocaust. We had a fairly “normal” lifestyle – single-family house, friendly with the neighbors, in touch with the cousins a couple of times a year, etc.. I don’t remember ever feeling deprived of company. Everything seemed fine. Each nuclear family was self-contained, and now that my brothers and I are grown, each of us has a separate life and we see or talk to each other only a couple of times a year. In contrast, the lives of the members of the Arthen family are intricately intertwined. This unusual family has come together because of a shared perspective on the world. Not because of bloodlines. We have created a different family structure which includes many alternative relationships and living arrangements and a very deep and intense emotional atmosphere. So the question arises, why try something this different? Why create a family structure so challenging to the norms of the society we live in that we are not understood by most of our neighbors?

We have chosen this lifestyle not in reaction to the restrictive, arbitrary mores found currently in our reactionary society (although my feelings about those may be somewhat obvious here). We are not out to make a political statement – although it is clear to all of us that our choice is also a political one. We are not the embodiment of a philosophical viewpoint, or even an example of the benefits of a “polyamorous lifestyle”. The adults within our family are witches and we have come together as a part of our commitment to living our magic.

In our practice of Glainn Sidhr witchcraft, magic has to do with reaching beyond the accepted bounds of ordinary “reality” and touching what lies on the other side. It has to do with seeing more than humans routinely perceive, with hearing more than noise or music or language can communicate. For us, living magically means learning from what we see, touch, and hear in those non-ordinary experiences and using that knowledge to inform and transform our lives. Our decisions about matters like career, relationships, children and finances – all of which seem like the most mundane of topics – are made based on our non-ordinary perspective, often appearing completely illogical to someone viewing them from a societal perspective. The further we pursue this work, the more we also open psychically to each other, generating an intensity of connection that has us dreaming the same dreams and communicating without words.

Living our magic puts us in the position of living between the worlds – neither separate from general society nor fully within it, in much the same way that tribal shamans simultaneously were and were not a part of their communities. Unfortunately, while the tribal communities of traditional shamans were respectful and supportive of the position of those individuals, our experiences isolate us from those around us because our culture not only rejects the validity of magic but essentially denies its existence, thus conflicting in every possible way with a lifestyle based around the practice of magic and making it even more essential that we create community around ourselves to validate and support each other’s experiences.

We find ourselves in a position not so different from that of the witches who suffered under the persecutions all those years ago in Europe. The visible dangers may not be so great, but the hidden threats intrinsic in the cultural mindset around us are equally real. Many years ago in Scotland, a family of witches was created to hold together the magic of its members in the face of adversity. The Arthen family has come together with a purpose, as did that family from whom we are descended, to honor and support the magical work that we do – in the process building, among eight to a dozen people, deeper levels of caring, trust and intimacy than are found in most two-person marriages.

The process of building our family began fifteen years ago when Andras Corban Arthen and I first found the connection between us. Part of this connection was in our shared dedication to our spirituality and to creating change. We worked together to create The EarthSpirit Community as a means of developing Pagan community, first in the greater Boston area, then across New England and now with a national focus. In the mean time, our covens grew and the structure that is now The Glainn Sidhr Order developed.

As we worked together, one at a time the people who now bear the name of Arthen came into our lives, along with many others. Relationships grew deeper as time passed, and in 1983, when Andras and I were handfast we took on the name Arthen, from an Anglo-Saxon root meaning “of the Earth”, as a way of opening to the conscious building of a family – with both children and other adults. It was a few years before any others took the name… children were born, marriages came and went, but one at a time, as friends delved deeper into their magic, they began to become family – Sue, Walter, Aine, Sarah, Paul, Eric, Leona and Adair. Intimate connections developed in a wide variety of configurations, and as each of the deep psychic links was recognized, we ritually committed ourselves to each other, to our magic, and to our children.

Our choice in lifestyle, of course, affects our children. They are not witches and may never choose to be, but our decisions now, in the time when they are growing up, are a major factor in the shapes of their lives. From a social perspective, I see innumerable advantages for them in this family structure in contrast to the mainstream standard. Since my adolescence, I have not bought into the fantasy “Ozzie and Harriet” life that American culture has established as the desirable norm. It simply does not exist.

When I look around – at my birth family, at my neighborhood – I see isolation and alienation where there could be love. I see fear and indifference where there could be community. I see people struggling under the mistaken impression that they have to “pay their own way” and “look out for number one”. Even without the urgency generated by my practice of magic, I would want more than that for myself and for my children. I don’t believe that one person – a husband, let’s say – can be my whole support system, or even my primary one all of the time. I don’t believe that two adults are enough to raise a child, much less the two I have. I don’t believe that a nuclear family is the most efficient economically – especially not these days.

I want to surround myself with loving, committed relationships as deep as anything I am capable of. I want my children to grow up with loving, committed adults, who I trust, around them. People they can rely on in times of need or dissatisfaction with their parents – all role models – all different. I want to share the exhausting responsibilities for maintaining a household with more than one other adult. I want a family in which I am not only a care-taker, but someone who is cared for as well. I have lots of love to offer, and I want to give it freely to the people I choose, regardless of their sex, their birth family or their legal obligations to me. I want my children to grow up knowing that they have choices.

Our children range in age from 4 to 19. (At 19, Buffy’s not really much of a child anymore…) They are an essential part of our family. In order to include their viewpoint, while preparing to write this article I asked several of them what they felt the advantages were, if any, to having a family like ours. Merlin, who is 16, described it this way: “There are more people to talk with about your problems, you can call anyone whenever you need to. Also, if your parents want to go off and do something, you have another set of parents to rely on while they’re gone….and besides, you get more presents!” Donovan, who’s eight, said, “You have a lot of friends so you’ll never be sad because there are so many people who love you and care about you and will be around as long as you live.” Buffy, our eldest, replied simply, “More love. There are more people to love and share with”.

It was encouraging to hear their responses. They are growing up with what I feel are some distinct advantages, but the differences they experience between themselves and their friends and classmates can be difficult at times. The word “witch” can be hard for young children to relate to in any context other than the fairy tale one. I generally explain it to both children and teachers by comparing it to the “Indians” in the Disney movie, “Peter Pan”. I say that, of course, real Native Americans aren’t at all like those silly cartoon characters, and real witches aren’t at all like the ones that are in the fairy tales, and follow that with a little more information about what real witches are like. That seems to work well, at least so far. It’s sort of like telling children about sex; you give as much information as they seem to need in the moment, and not more. As they get older, of course the questions are more complex, and require more in-depth responses, but by then, the kids are able to answer them themselves – and do.

We have been very open with our Paganism at the schools. (Most of us are public anyway and have been in the paper or on TV, so it would be hard to be otherwise.) When I filled out Donovan’s forms the very first time and they asked if there were any special things that were important to him, I answered that our Pagan spirituality was a key aspect of our lives, explained a little bit about it, and offered to provide reading materials to his teachers if they would like them. Their response has been great. Each year they ask us to come in and share who we are and what we do with the class, they ask me what to do about the “witches” found in Halloween stories, and respond with a great deal of respect to my feelings and ideas. Buffy and Merlin’s teachers have often responded the same way.

I acknowledge that we are fortunate to live in Massachusetts, a very liberal state, where alternative spiritualities and lifestyles are not unusual, but we have found that clear and open discussions about our spirituality have enabled the children to be in school without having to keep secrets and hide who they are.

It takes courage to create a family like ours. Many people whom I talk to wish for the same things I do, and want to create a different way of life for themselves and their family, but cannot seem to reach it. This process is not easy, and it involves giving up some degree of some things that we Americans are loathe to part with – control, independence, self-suffiency and privacy. For me, the trade-off is worth it, but it takes a lot of hard work, both inward and inter-personal to adjust to sharing your life with this size of a group at such an intimate level.

Our family is still evolving. We are currently looking for a place where we can all live together, or at least in much closer proximity, rather than in the several clumps we are now. At some point there will probably be others who join us. The vision we have been building on for all of these years, for how we want to live is surprisingly similar to what has recently been described in the books “Being in Dreaming” by Florinda Donner and The “Sorcerer’s Crossing” by Taisha Abelar – our magical practice is similar and our connections with each other are very much like the relationships described there. We are guided in our process by our magic, taking the risks required and relying on each other for support, since so much can be so misunderstood by people with a more conventional perspective. It can be frightening to step into the unknown as we forge ahead without any real models, but we find again and again that if we trust our magic, we move in the right direction.

Deirdre Pulgram Arthen is a Director of EarthSpirit and one of the Artistic Directors and a performer with MotherTongue, EarthSpirit’s ritual performance ensemble. In addition to three recordings with that group, she has released a duo cassette with Andras Corban Arthen entitled We Believe. Deirdre is the author of Walking With Mother Earth, a magical book for children of all ages and is the mother of Donovan and Isobel Arthen, whom she loves fiercely along with the rest of her family.