Finally I am back online after spending more than a week mostly bedridden with a nasty head cold, and then – just as I recovered from the illness – another week dealing with the worst computer issues I’ve ever faced. The power supply for my old desktop PC died, and my motherboard went kaput right along with it. It was my only computer; I had no backup. I had to start over from scratch and get a whole new system, buy a new copy of the OS, download all new software and drivers, troubleshoot everything with the hardware and software, etc. Even with a friend’s help, it was almost a week before I was set up as I had been before the crash happened.
Fortunately, my hard drive was unaffected – though even if it had been, I’m pretty good about regular backups, so I wouldn’t have lost much. I lost no data at all, and I was able to transfer all of my files over to my new hard drive. And now I have a spiffy system with a much faster processor and more memory, which is a delight.
It occurred to me that this is the first time I’ve ever actually bought a computer just for myself and my own needs, even though I’ve been using computers regularly since the early 1980s when I started using my dad’s Commodore 64. My ex was a software engineer, so for 14 years while we were together, every time he upgraded – which was frequently, since he was a really hardcore gamer and always bought a top-of-the-line machine – I inherited his old computer. The last computer I inherited from him is dead and gone, and now I’ve acquired a nice one on my own. This feels very significant to me, in a way that affirms and strengthens my sense of self.
In fact, there is much of significance going on for me lately, especially in terms of my creativity and my inner life.
One of my friends recently remarked that, at long last, I am finally coming into my own. I held her observation in my awareness for quite awhile, and felt the truth in it. Now, in my early forties, I feel more like my authentic self than I ever have before, if that makes sense. I feel mostly at ease in my own skin. For the most part, I like what I see when I look in the mirror, even the crows’ feet around my eyes. (After what I’ve been through in the past few years, I’ve earned every wrinkle several times over.) My spiritual life is robust, my relationships with my gods and spirits feel more authentic, my writing has a sense of fullness and ripeness that it once lacked, and I find endless sources of inspiration all around me – even in the darkest corners and through the most trying of times. And I feel a stronger sense of confidence about how I make my way in the world.
Back in the mid-1990s, when I was a fledgling Pagan who wanted to dress like a “real” goth/rivethead but didn’t have much confidence, I remember looking at some of my friends and thinking things like, “Wow. I love her look. She looks so incredibly pulled together. I don’t think I could ever be that cool. I’d love to wear something like that, but I doubt I could actually pull it off. I don’t even know where to start!”
Then, later on when I discovered tribal, dark fusion, and gothic bellydance, I spent many hours studying dark fusion dancers on YouTube and blissfully absorbing every nuance about their performances – costuming, colours, choreography, lighting, music. I developed crushes on dancers whose performances enchanted me, and put them on a pedestal. They were glorious and magical – and far, far out of my league. Nerdy ol’ me could never, ever hope to be as cool as one of those bellydancers.
Yet when I look back, I also remember that the 11-year-old version of me was in the gifted and talented program at school, and was also voted most artistic by sixth-grade classmates who liked the drawings I had done of horses and the Looney Tunes Road Runner.
Graduate students often suffer from something called “imposter syndrome” – feeling like they just don’t measure up, and fearing that they will be found lacking. I sometimes struggle with a variation on that theme in my spiritual and artistic life. I’ll call it spiritual imposter syndrome, otherwise known as “What, me? A Temple Keeper?” Despite my newfound confidence and strengthened sense of self, I still feel like I just do NOT know what I am doing, and that I’m just making a lot of it up as I go along, even when I get confirmatory omens and various other clear-as-can-be affirmations. But even so, the responses I am getting from people around me these days are very encouraging, so I’m going to keep it up. I’m getting fan letters, new Facebook friend requests from fascinating people, even small monetary donations through my Rethinking the Job Culture blog. People I admire and respect are telling me they appreciate my writing style and my dark bohemian decorating aesthetic. Even complete strangers are offering unsolicited compliments on my look, especially when I go out dressed in black velvet hats and scarves and wear lots of black stone jewelry. It’s an entirely new thing for me, a bookish nerd, to be appreciated in this way for my style. I could definitely get used to this.
So here I am, years later, still no stranger to doubt and fear, yet feeling like I have somehow managed to stumble into the boots I was meant to wear all along. And they fit perfectly, because they were designed just for me! I’m certainly no celebrity, and I’m nowhere near performance shape, but I’ve been bellydancing for almost six years now, and my Shrine of Skaði devotional dance project is proceeding apace (even if it’s a glacial pace at times). When I put together a costume and choreograph a dance piece to industrial or dark ambient music, I feel like I am doing one of the things I was always meant to do. When I do devotional dark fusion bellydance, I feel that I am giving physical form to an amorphous vision that came to me long before I had any idea where all my yearnings would eventually lead. I feel exactly the same way when I write, when I serve tea to my guests with reverence, and when I decorate the Hermitage in my favourite dark Bohemian style, among other things. I am doing What I’m Supposed To Do. It doesn’t even matter if anyone (including me) thinks it’s cool or not, because it’s just Right.
I am a Temple Keeper. The Black Stone Hermitage is my home and the temple for which I am caretaker, humble though it may be. Black Stone Arts is the name I’ve been given by my Serpent Muse to encompass all the creative and service work I must undertake to sustain the Hermitage. This seems to be the role in which I can best serve the divine, and the role in which I will find my fullest expression of self as well. In the future, as I understand it, it will also provide a vehicle through which I will serve my community.
In recent months – and especially after the shift to the Chinese New Year (2012 is a very auspicious year, the Year of the Black Dragon) – I have noticed that the people, skills, and material things I will need to support Black Stone Arts and the Hermitage are appearing in my life at an increased rate. This is encouraging.
For example, silver jewelry pieces with black stones and serpents on them seem to be coming to me – often as unsolicited, unexpected gifts from friends. I wear this sort of jewelry with pride, especially when I dance, because it embodies my commitment to my Work and strengthens my link to my gods, my spirits, and my Serpent Muse. I rarely leave the Hermitage anymore without wearing my favourite onyx ring; if I do, I feel a sharp sensation that something important is missing.
This takes some getting used to for me, because I’ve never been a heavy jewelry wearer (which makes sense for a lifelong introvert who doesn’t enjoy drawing excessive attention to herself). In the past, while certain understated pieces of jewelry I occasionally wore felt more meaningful than others, I often selected my adornments for more prosaic reasons – just wanting to enhance my look. Now it’s reaching the point where I only want to wear jewelry that furthers or is connected to my Work, and I’m quickly losing interest in wearing jewelry that is “just” for display purposes.
The links among all my various endeavours seem to be strengthening, too. They are all part of this fledgling entity called Black Stone Arts.
There is so much about what I do – and who I am – that goes against the grain of the culture in which I was raised, and will probably never meet with general acceptance. It’s funny…for years, I greatly feared that if I were to actually put myself “out there” – if I were to write openly on this public blog about the deep interconnections among my passions for industrial and dark ambient music, my devotional dance project, my reverence for the Tea Spirit, my interest in serpent wisdom and devotion to the dark divine, my fascination with spiritual rock and moss gardening, my interest in gift economy and radical homemaking, my desire to live in a small hermit-friendly ecovillage, and my critique of wage labour and vision of alternatives to conventional employment – I would be mocked, dismissed, made to feel shameful, criticised for Doing It Wrong, or otherwise harassed. This was a completely rational fear, I might add, since I had already experienced this sort of wholesale rejection and criticism from people I once called friends. (They are no longer my friends, thank gods.)
Therefore, to reveal all of this felt like a giant emotional risk for which I was not prepared. I will readily admit that “thickness of skin” has never been one of my strengths. I needed years and years of retreat, creative incubation, and experimentation (in complete privacy, thank you very much!) in order to develop the courage necessary to put Black Stone Arts out there in the world, naysayers be damned, and to speak out publicly about the connections among my various projects and what they mean to me. Furthermore, I needed time and space to grieve the loss of a 14-year marriage I cherished, and to heal from a profound betrayal of trust. Without a great deal of support, silence, and solitude – not to mention big chunks of unstructured time and leisure for contemplation and extraordinarily painful, dark emotional work – I doubt I would have been able to accomplish this. The Black Stone Hermitage might never have come into being.
But it did. Here I am, at long last, accepting my role, putting myself out there, and giving up the notion of trying to be someone I’m not. I still struggle with feelings of loneliness and isolation, but I know – deep in my bones and flesh – that I am on the right path for me. It might be a twisting path, and it isn’t likely to be met with general approval, but nonetheless, it is mine, and I claim it. I am a Temple Keeper.
Thank you to everyone who has offered me support, encouragement, friendship, appreciation, and camaraderie. Especially for those of us on a dark and solitary path, it means a great deal.
Danica Swanson is a freelance writer, dark ambient music nerd, dark fusion dancer, and amateur polytheist nun. She is CEO (Creative Endarkenment Overseer) of The Black Stone Hermitage, co-admin of the Pagan & Polytheist Monasticism discussion list, and a co-founder of LANMIPP (Loosely Affiliated Network of Monastically Inclined Polytheist Pagans). Her first forays into Paganism began in 1995; she has been a devotee of Skaði and other Holy Powers of Yggdrasil since 2004. She also writes under the name D. JoAnne Swanson for her other main project, The Anticareerist (formerly known as Rethinking the Job Culture; originally known as whywork.org). Her life of contemplative solitude is made possible only by a web of thriving community relationships, human and non-human. She lives by the hands of the deities and spirits in all of her endeavors.