Our line of Shamans was a line of misfits. My teacher was the first teacher to have multiple students. His teacher was the first one taught outside of the family line. But the fundamentals of the teaching remained the same. “As a Shaman,” he once said, “we get to play ‘fast and furious’ with the rules.” That thought stuck with me, and I thought I had some idea of what he meant. I was an apprentice now, so I was determined to learn everything I could.
“When does my training start?” I asked, expecting a schedule of lectures, workshops, and hands-on training. I was surprised by his answer.
“Now. Ask Questions,” he replied, grinning like the Cheshire cat. I could hear the capitalization of the word ‘Questions.’ So I delved a little further.
“When does my training stop?” I asked, half-guessing the answer.
“When you run out of Questions,” he answered as I expected, but when he did, and I could sense that to be a half-truth.
“So it takes about three years to run out of Questions?” I asked slyly, hinting at his earlier remarks that training lasted three years. I could feel him bristle under the Question, and made mental note: he does not like to be cornered.
“Just about!” He laughed nervously, so decided I to drop that line of questioning. “Just ask questions? Okay, what are the Rules?”
“The Rules of Shamanism… You know, what are the Rules I’m supposed to follow?”
“Where?” He repeated, and I finally caught what he was saying.
“Everywhere…. The BIG fundamental rules. The Universal ones.”
“There are Universal Rules?” he asked as though he was surprised, and his flippancy was starting to get to me, however, I figured it was a test. Everything was going to be a test for the next three years. I swallowed my pride and soothed my irritation.
I knew he knew what I meant, and I knew there were some Rules that I should know if I wanted to do what he did. Apparently this wasn’t going to be as straightforward as I hoped.
“Aren’t there Universal Rules? I mean, like ‘Ask Questions’ is your teaching Rule. if I don’t want to be obliterated and I want my work to be successful, what are The Rules? And am I going to have to be lawyer-specific with everything I ask?”
He openly laughed at this, and realizing he had perhaps pushed me too far, he indulged me. “First, you have to realize that The Rules change depending on where and when you are. The Rules for sitting here at this table are not the same as the middle of the street, so it really depends….”
“Yeah,” I contended, “but surely there are some rules like gravity… Rules that are the same whether we’re inside on on the street.”
“Don’t stay in the Between.”
“Huh?” I blurted.
“Don’t. Stay. In. The. Between.” He emphasized, as if repeating the same words made it any clearer.
“Look around you,” he said not taking his gaze from me, and I took a glance around the restaurant.
The scene was typical: people having meals, laughing, joking, talking. Around the edges of the shadows where the light met the darkness, I could see a sort of concentration of darkness. As I gazed around me, I could see that no one was paying attention to us, not even with my obvious “looking around” body language. Usually at least one person would glance my way or look at where I was looking. That’s the way it always is. People affect one another, even if only slightly, but this was like we weren’t even here. Or if we were here, we didn’t appear to be doing anything that required their attention.
My head snapped back at Shaman and I regarded him critically. He sat grinning with his hands interlaced in front of him, trying for all the world to look innocent, but missing the mark by far.
“Wait a minute…” I said, suddenly catching on what he had done…and what he was doing. “What would happen if I yelled at the top of my lungs right now?”
“I’d prefer if you didn’t.”
“I bet you wouldn’t! But would they even notice?”
His grin grew wider. “They might… But then they would forget.”
“Where are we?”
“Where’s here? And you know I don’t mean the restaurant…”
His eyes sparkled, and he regarded me with what I could only guess was pride. “Here is somewhere where I’ve made. We’re still in this reality, but I’ve placed us within a pocket of our own reality as well. That way we can talk about these things without attracting unwanted attention. We do the same thing with our ritual space: that’s what drawing the quarters and putting a guardian at the door is the same, regardless of the ritual. Occult means hidden. We create a pocket space in which to work, and once that work is done, we unmake that space. I’ve made a space for us here, so that I may teach you safely.”
“I’ve got a story for you, and I’d like for your take on it, if you don’t mind?”
“This is when i first realized magick was real, and not just something I was making up on my own, or some shared group experience among friends.”
The air around us seemed to grow a little darker and the noise around us grew louder, though the space between us seemed dead still. He hadn’t moved, but he seemed to be closer, as if he were leaning forward with his presence.
“I was with a group of friends of mine dancing at a new club in the Central West End. We were all roommates and all into the occult. We had even come up for special hand signals to communicate wordlessly on the dance floor.
“We’re all enjoying ourselves when suddenly this man shows up, and he’s not dressed in club clothes, he’s just wearing normal street clothes. He’s smiling and walking across the dance floor, and as he does so, he places his hand gently on their chest, right above their heart.
“And I can ‘see’ that when he does that,” i said using air quotes, “that he’s leaving his mark on them: a black palm print. And I know immediately that whatever it is he’s doing is Wrong, and has to stop. Whomever he touched was changed in some way, and it was not good.
“In St. Louis, the way it worked was you could harvest all the energy you wanted, as long as you were harvesting the ambient energy given off the crowd. If you started sucking on a person’s energy without their permission, that was considered psychic vampirism, and that shit did not fly in my hometown. We were one of the groups that helped enforce those rules, though not in any official capacity, don’t get me wrong.
“So I signal to my friend about this guy, and I ask him to confirm what I’m seeing. He looks over at this guy and I can tell he’s seeing what I’m seeing, because his eyes grow big as saucers. He goes to find my boyfriend at the time, and I start going into defensive maneuvers.
“I first used my energy to gently push him off the dance floor and once off, I raised a wall of energy so he couldn’t get back on. He circled around to get to the other side, so I pushed him off from that side and raise another wall on the other side. He turned around and wend back to the other side, and this time, he tries to pierce through my wall. It doesn’t work, he still can’t get on the dance floor.
“Now mind you, this is all going on and I’m still half thinking to myself, “This is all bullshit, you’re making this up in your own mind. This is all a story you’re making up and it just happens to match what he’s doing. You’re not really using magick to bar this guy from walking into that area. That’s impossible! It’s all a coincidence, and you’re just delusional…”
“Then I ‘see’ him summon a loa right into the club. Right into the dance club, as if this were his own ceremonial ground! I was furious. That was really going too far! I use my fury to create a blast of energy that blasted the loa from the building. As the loa is leaving, the man reaches out his arm as if to ask, ‘Why are you leaving? I just summoned you!’
“Remember, this is all taking place in a dance club, and this man is standing a good 50 feet away from me on the other side of the club. I’m not doing anything out of the ordinary, I’m not attracting any attention to myself, I’m just another club kid on a Saturday night. But as the loa was leaving… Or at least, as I think I’m imagining the loa leave… The man demands his answer from the spirit, and it turns, points directly at me and tells the man, ‘Ask her…’
“Now I’m sure I’m making all this up in my head, but I shit you not, when the loa said, ‘Ask her,’ the Voodoo man looked straight at me…
“I was floored. It want just me. I was having this shared, invisible experience with a complete stranger! There was no, ‘this is what we’re doing, this is the magicak plan for the night.’ There was nothing at all to connect us. No reason at all for that man to look at me. No reason for him to not be able to get on the dance floor, even as he tried… No reason for me to believe he’d actually summoned a loa in the building and that I’d seen it…
“And yet… And yet, there we were. He looked right at me right after the loa said it. There was no reason any of that should have happened unless it was actually happening as I thought it was happening. Unless it was actually real, there was no reason for any of it! I was having a shared, magickal experience with a total stranger—it had to be real.”
Shaman didn’t say anything. I didn’t expect him to… I hadn’t asked a question yet. What was more important to me was that he hadn’t reacted to my story, at least, he didn’t act shocked or disbelieving in even the slightest way. He never flinched or moved uncomfortably in his seat. He didn’t disagree with anything I was telling him or hesitate with skepticism. This story was not unusual to him, and every fiber of his being told me so.
“Is there a question?”
“Yeah, my question is this: how is it there seems to be a set of rules in St. Louis that everyone understands, but out here in Seattle, people are clueless! Not just about those rules, but about what’s okay! I was trying to throw around some energy, just for fun, and everyone on the dance floor slammed me down, like I was attacking someone. Why couldn’t they tell the difference?”
Shaman sat up and the darkness that seemed to envelop us dissipated.
“St. Louis is a very old city, and the rules there are very entrenched. Seattle didn’t always have rules. Those came as a result of the Witch Wars that happened here in the 70s. You may have already noticed one rule: you weren’t allowed to tap into any of this area’s energy until after a year and a day of waiting.”
“I remember that! I almost starved!” I laughed, but not completely at ease.
“Yes, but you also passed,” he said, with more than a little gravitas. I got the feeling that the people who didn’t pass didn’t fare too well.
“When everyone knows the rules are made of stone, the boundaries are clear, and the open spaces are clear. When the rules are more fluid, it can be difficult to know where the shore it.”
“But whether the fish swims upstream or down, the river doesn’t care.” I said without thinking. It was a saying I had picked up in AA, and in that context it meant you can go against the flow, or you can float with the current, the force that is carrying you will oblige you either way. Or, basically, you can be stubborn if you want to, but there’s an easier way. However, Shaman didn’t see the saying that way.
“Exactly right! You can test the boundaries if you want, but either way, you’ll be carried to your destination.” I should have heeded his explanation more. It proved more true for me than the way I learned it! I, of course, told him of the AA interpretation, to which Shaman said, “You can take it like that if you like…” with the sort of detached sentiment that made you finish the sentence in your head, “…but my interpretation is better.” And in my heart of hearts, I couldn’t disagree. Life is a River, flowing ever towards the Ocean.
I knew I had more questions, but our time was up for that session. He gave me homework for my next session: Bring a white, blue, and red candles and a box of wooden matches, and specifically wooden matches. I would find out why next time.
We hugged heart-to-heart and went to pay the bill. My head was swimming, but in a good way. I had started down the path…