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Samhain in Arlington National Cemetery

Moving into the Dark in Loving Kindness

by Reyasdottir

Last year, for the first time in nearly a decade, I spent Samhain far from the spectacle and splendor of San Francisco's Spiral Dance. It was quite a passage for me; before this year, I couldn't have imagined what it would mean to spend Samhain in any way other than organizing, schlepping, or helping to priestess the largest ritual of post-modern Witchcraft in the world.

I began studying magic with Reclaiming in 1990, and from the moment I commenced my studies, I found myself volunteering to work on public rituals. The Spiral Dance at that time was a fairly modest event: four hundred of us crammed into the Women's Building, trying like hell not to step on each other's toes as we tranced to the Isle of Apples, or later in the ritual as we moved through a sardine-like spiral dance. I was there when we moved to the Hall of Flowers at Golden Gate Park, a long and uncomfortable room in which we were able to jam nine hundred people, once again squeezed shoulder to shoulder throughout the ritual. And I was there when the decision was made to move to Fort Mason. I cheered when Madrone invited other arts and Pagan communities to join the celebration, taught myself how to priestess through a microphone (sort of), and learned to enjoy the revelry of more than a thousand ritual celebrants.

Up until this year, the only thing I knew about Witchcraft was San Francisco's Reclaiming tradition and its celebrations. But at Winter Solstice last year, my partner and I moved to Washington, DC, three thousand miles away from everything I knew about my religion. In San Francisco, the Reclaiming community and my spiritual life had been one and the same; here I didn't know what would happen. This entire year has been, in certain ways, a test of my faith.

I felt a lot of trepidation when I looked ahead to Samhain, worrying that I'd end up watching TV alone instead of properly observing the holiday which meant so much to me during my years in San Francisco. But I shouldn't have worried. As the days grew shorter following Summer Solstice, the Dead began arriving in droves, whispering, whispering in my ears about what I might do to celebrate. I had enough faith to realize, even at the height of last summer, that the holiday itself would inspire me to create some kind of ritual.

Right around Lammas, the thought came into my head that maybe I could do some kind of ritual at Arlington Cemetery — an odd thought, especially for me. I grew up in a family of rabid pacifists and literally have no way of imagining what it would be like to be a soldier. (My parents discouraged me from joining the Girl Scouts, for instance, because they thought of it as a paramilitary organization.) But I had visited some of the war memorials on the National Mall, and was moved by these tributes. Also, I couldn't help but notice how many dead soldiers there are roaming through Washington, still fighting whatever fight they were involved in when they died. There are ghosts everywhere! It's my opinion that these dead and limping soldiers contribute in a big way to the paranoia and claustrophobia that are central to the mood of the White House and Capitol Hill.

Initially, I imagined a Reclaiming-like ritual — a public ritual of transformation, maybe cutting a portal the way Patti Martin taught me, so that the troops, still marching, still fighting, still serving their country, might cross over to a place of peace and healing, from where they might advise those of us who still think it's a great idea to wage war. It was quite an ambitious plan — Arlington has 250,000 graves, all of them for members of the military and their families. The Dead from every national conflict are buried there.

One visit to the cemetery put my delusions of grandeur to rest. From the moment I walked through the gate, I was almost knocked down by the confusion, disorientation, fear and anger I felt coming from the neat and orderly lines of headstones. I left in a hurry, and it took the rest of the day to calm myself down. I thought to myself that my idea had been crazy, that maybe I could find another cemetery in the area where I could do some kind of Samhain ritual.

But the whispering in my ears continued. And so, a couple of weeks later, I found myself again emerging from the Arlington subway stop into what is called "our nation's most holy shrine."

This time I quickly found a place to sit down — to keep myself from being knocked down — and tried simply to tolerate the intense sensations of discord and strife that fill the air and earth of the cemetery. I didn't try to do anything, which was very un-Reclaiming of me, don't you think? We are a tradition that was born from activism. We make magic to heal the world, right? And speaking of being un-Reclaiming, what the hell was I doing at a military cemetery? My head was spinning, but I sat there anyway, as long as I could. Finally, the mist began to clear. I was able to have a drink of water and make it back to the subway without bursting into tears.

September came, and dusk arrived earlier every day. The first few leaves began to turn gold and the air felt crisp and dry. I felt homesick for San Francisco, wondered how the planning was going for the Spiral Dance, and built an autumnal altar in my East Coast home. I made a couple of other trips to Arlington. Each time I was better able to sit without feeling dizzy. Each time, I became a little more tolerant of the energy, and perhaps a little more compassionate for those who were buried there. I even found that some of the rigid ideas I've held about the military as an institution were softening so as to allow me to think of the soldiers as something more than "troops." They were human beings, after all, each one of them joining (or being drafted) for various reasons, dying in radically different ways, and finally being laid to rest in this very respectful — though not very healing — place.

By this time, it was inevitable that something had to happen at Arlington. The idea came to me that maybe I could go and simply sit, as one would go to sit with someone who is ill, for instance, or as people used to sit vigil with the Dead — something quiet but potent, like the old fashioned funeral Anne Hill had for her mother-in-law a couple of years ago.

I guess I could have gone alone to sit at Arlington on Samhain. But I was trained to create public ritual. And through the years I've reaped the rewards of the ways in which a group of people can become so much more than the individuals involved. I put out the word, asking people to come only if they were called to do so. I was careful to explain my own reaction to the energy of the cemetery, so people would be prepared.

The day of the ritual was beautiful — the weather was perfect, the trees were at their peak of autumnal color, the sky was a shocking blue. As with all magic that is meant to be, just the right people showed up. It was as if a delegation had been chosen, representing various communities I've connected with in this area. There was an ad man and a school teacher from Pennsylvania, a psychotherapist from North Carolina, one of the most delightful radical faeries I know, a construction worker from Baltimore, a devotional math whiz from Virginia, a couple of members of Dark Flame (the most famous coven in the mid-Atlantic area — kind of like the Wind Hags of Washington), someone I'd never met, two of my favorite computer geeks, and me. We were a group of thirteen, including myself. We were large enough as a group to gather energy and support each other, but not so large as to be seen as disruptive. It was clear that no one was going to interfere with our work. Strangely, the cemetery felt incredibly peaceful that afternoon. I didn't feel dizzy or overly emotional, as I had during my previous visits. I felt welcomed and encouraged. It was an astonishing sensation.

After a brief purification at the huge fountain that marks the entrance to the cemetery, the group walked together in silence to a hill where the chaplains are buried. We sat together for the better part of an hour, looking out over the sea of headstones, some of us praying, some of us simply sitting, in comfortable silence and stillness. Busloads of tourists and cars packed with people roared past, people walked by, but everyone left us to our work. It was surprisingly respectful. Every few minutes one of us offered a prayer of loving kindness out loud. The prayers were brief, thoughtful and deeply moving. After a little more than forty-five minutes, we all agreed it was time to go. We went back to the fountain to purify again, organized an aura carwash, and finally went our separate ways.

For days afterward, I was radiant with loving kindness. Good thoughts about everyone and everything kept rising up in me, quite unlike the energetic letdown and inevitable respiratory ailment I've often experienced following the Spiral Dance. Don't get me wrong — the Spiral Dance is a rush of energy that almost always catapults me into the dark quarter of the year with hope, inspiration, and a joie de vivre unlike anything else. It's a wonder to partake in that huge energy, to cast the spell of healing for the coming year, and to travel in trance with so many fellow passengers. But to cross into the dark in loving kindness, in silence, and with compassion for that which is most bewildering to me was the most amazing, healing — and revealing — thing I could have done.

I'm finally getting some hints about how I, Reyasdottir, a Bay Area-identified Witch, can follow the faith from far-flung regions. I'm learning about creating holiday rituals that aren't anything like the public rituals in San Francisco, but instead are the rituals that work best where I am. I'm finally getting it — I'm not in San Francisco anymore. I have to start from scratch.

Happiest New Year to all. May it be a year of beauty! Blessed be.

Reyasdottir is a Jewish, bisexual priestess of Feri/Reclaiming tradition, bodyworker, and friend to the Dead. Since last year, when this article was written, she has continued to sit with dead soldiers. She is currently planning a ritual to be held on the Fredericksburg battlefield on the anniversary of the 1862 battle in which 12,000 Union soldiers and 3,000 Confederate soldiers died. "Our intention is to open to compassion for all who were a part of the battle, to listen, to honor and to learn." For more information on this ritual, contact