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'Twas the Rite Before Christmas

Local Pagans talk about pre-Christian Yuletide, and the modern Paganism they practice today

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It's harder to say what modern Paganism is than what it is not: not Christian or Jewish or Muslim, and certainly not Satanist: The devil comes from the Bible, and Pagans follow neither that text nor any single holy book. It's not atheistic either -- in fact it's often pantheistic. And the Hollywood version of Paganism -- from The Witches of Eastwick to The Craft -- makes local Pagans laugh.

It's even hard to say how many Pagans live in the city or in the U.S., since some are still in what they call "the broom closet." One anonymous, self-described "leader of a local Neopagan organization" cautioned: "Remember: being non-Christian is not the same as [being] anti-Christian; we hope someday we might be tolerated by our Christian neighbors ..."

Local Pagans hold mostly small group and solitary rituals. There are no public Pagan places of worship here in Pittsburgh -- unless you count all of outdoors. Most Pagans share holidays each year, four of them based on the solstices and equinoxes. Samhain -- the Pagan holiday honoring the dead that's a Halloween precursor -- is the holiest Pagan day, but it is the Pagan winter solstice festival, Yule, that gets the most attention because of its obvious connection to Christmas.

There are many Pagan traditions (a label they prefer to "denominations"), including the most popular, Wiccan, an earth-centered worship of the God and Goddess. In Wicca as in some other Pagan faiths, witches in covens practice "magick," which sounds mysterious (or frightening) but is similar, at base, to how more mainstream religious congregations pray and cultivate faith in a power outside themselves.

Many Pagans say they are simply "eclectic," a catch-all term for beliefs and gods chosen mostly from European and Mediterranean countries and cultures, as well as, seemingly, from everywhere in the world. But the best way to understand the breadth of Pagan Pittsburgh is to talk to Pagans themselves.

"Maeve"
I truly believe people are Pagan when they are born," says "Maeve", 38 of Wilmerding. "They just don't know it." "Maeve" is her Pagan name; she did not wish to use her birth name. She is an insurance and investment representative for a financial company.

When did you realize you were Pagan?
I was raised Catholic, went to Sunday school. I had to sit in church and I never really felt anything. I talked to God but never felt that connection. One day I asked my mother: "The Goddess Aphrodite seemed really cool to me. Is it OK if I worship a goddess?" She said, "Absolutely not, that's breaking a commandment. Jesus was the only god -- you can't do that."

I had a serious drug and alcohol problem from a very young age. Part of the [Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous] program of getting sober was to find a higher power. A majority of the people in the program were Christian and I felt if I wasn't, I wouldn't be able to complete the program. So I quit after six years and pursued my own spiritual path. I did a lot of reading. One day I saw on the Discovery Channel a special on Wicca -- people who were very in touch with nature and themselves, didn't believe in a devil or heaven or hell, and I thought, "This is me." When I'm outside, in a forest or sitting overlooking a lake, I feel a sense of calm and peace, like I guess other people feel in church, and I feel at one with the universe. So pretty much Paganism found me.

How easy is it to build a Pagan community in Pittsburgh?
It's a very secretive community. The Pagan people that I respect who have been around for a long time, they try to remain anonymous. We do have open rituals, community rituals, and there are a lot of good people who attend them, but when it comes to being with the group, to practice serious spirituality and magick and ritual, it's very closed.

Are there Pagan orthodoxies?
There's no set rules. There's a lot of things I've encountered that I believe are truly made up. But if it helps someone in their path -- helps them get in touch with their god or goddess -- by all means use it. If you believe it's true, it is.

So the act of believing in essence has the power?
Some of us practice magick. If you don't believe in it, it doesn't work. If you believe someone cursed you, you will be cursed. If you don't believe it's going to affect you, it won't.

It makes faith sound like psychology with another name.
It is. And that's why I chose this path. It's very healing. It's very natural. And it's very individual.

***

Amy Mokricky
"This is kind of the irreverent section," says Amy Mokricky, giving a tour of her 7-year-old Dormont store, Moonstones. "Things must be irreverent. You can't be too serious about anything, because that goes into zealousness, and that's scary."

In the basement, a Druid bardic circle meets periodically for singing and storytelling. There are networking teahouses and the Three Rivers Pagan Initiative library. On the second floor is Essential Alchemy, where Daimon Goga sells herbs and oils as "wellness for mind, body and spirit," as his sign says.

In between, the silly -- a bobblehead Jesus, a "parking space goddess" ("wind-up goddess finds a parking space for you") and a Stonehenge poster labeled "Give me that old time religion" -- is dwarfed by the serious.

There are stones for necklaces and prayer beads, books and accoutrements from every religion in the East, as well as candles (for magick or aromatherapy), Aboriginal items and those dealing with shamanism, mythology, astrology, divination, Tarot, numerology, palmistry -- just about everything the West believes it has discredited or discarded.

Mokricky, 41, of Mount Lebanon, was raised Presbyterian but fell away early and turned nine years ago to Paganism after the murder of her sister, Jill Creighton, in Carnegie and her mother's death four months later.

That began your journey?
That pretty much left me reeling and looking for answers. I re-read the Bible and didn't find the answers I was looking for there and ended up reading The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. That made a whole lot more sense to me. It tells you how to live your life the best you can in order to die the best you can. It gives helpful hints on how to die -- or how to help another through the death process.

And how does Paganism work for you, day to day?
I like to get myself balanced. I use a singing bowl in the morning and try to get myself ready for the day. I have prayer beads -- I work with these in the morning and before going to bed. I try to walk my talk every single moment -- finding the sacred in everything. Friends go from thinking I'm an incredibly wise sage -- which I am -- to thinking I'm the biggest freak they've met in their entire lives. I will claim that one [too]. I would like people to get to know us based on us as people, rather than making a predetermined judgment on what they think they know. We're all on the same journey. What I choose to walk is going to be different than what anybody else in the world chooses to walk.

What's your solstice ritual?
Every year I go up to Canada and I check in with the same star. Every year I go out on a dock and I sit down. It's my way of talking to the all, or God, or whatever you want to call it. I just sit there and tell it how the past year has been. It's more for my benefit because I can hear myself talk, start to work things out, hear a pattern in how things went, what's gone badly or what's gone well.

***

Shari Baughman
Shari Baughman, 44, of Oakmont, works in sales in the beauty industry and has coordinated Pagan Pride Days; in 2003, it drew about 350 people. This summer she helped create the Three Rivers Pagan Initiative to offer everything from a Pagan welcome-wagon to social gatherings.

What's the Pagan life like?
It's an every-day, every-minute thing. If I do something that goes against my values, I pay the price right there. I feel personally responsible for every action immediately. I don't necessarily subscribe to some future judgment day.

And what are the holidays like?
Some holidays are more meaningful than others. Samhain is a time to remember your dead ... to light a candle. If I cook that day, I set out an extra plate for them. Most of what I do is on my own. Every faith has a provision for asking for things from the deity or from the universe. We have our version of that. If it's something simple I want to accomplish, it's more like focusing your intent. We can accomplish a lot of things just by focusing. They've proven the validity of visualization in business and sports. It's really no different here. You could create something to focus on; you could use a sacred space, a stone, a crystal, a list. It's really not that metaphysical in origin. People call it "spell work" sometimes, but a spell is very much like a prayer.

Does your family share your Pagan pride?
My mother on paper is very supportive and she trusts me and believes that I am a clear-thinking and rational person and she has said many times that she is proud of me. She comes to events but she won't participate in it, which is fine. She came to Pagan Pride Day. I had asked her to help me do something. She felt she couldn't. But she did come to the event -- wearing a great big giant cross. My brothers have always thought I was a little kooky anyway. My sister's actually kind of curious. My work associates -- I take some kidding but actually most of them, they know me and they know what kind of person I am -- my professional demeanor, my interaction with them. Unless there's something weird that happens in their life -- then I'm the first person they ask.

***

Amber ("Acacia") and Karl ("Bram") Lutes
Sitting in the South Side Beehive, Karl and Amber Lutes mention their 9-year-old daughter Rhiannon, and within seconds a new tune starts on the coffeeshop's PA -- not "Rhiannon," but a Fleetwood Mac song nonetheless. Always happens, Karl says. "She's actually adopted a lot of the traits of the goddess," says Amber. "And she tends to carry on conversations with an old lady who isn't there. She'll ask us about the old lady. We have no idea who she is."

"I like coming down here to the South Side," Amber adds. "It doesn't matter where you come from. Where we live it does. You see a girl dressed all in black in the supermarket and people whisper about the freak."

"We just want to know where she got her clothes," says Karl.

Karl, 32, installs satellite dishes for a living; Amber, 28, is studying for her bachelor's degree, hoping to work with at-risk children. They live in California, Pa.

For the solstice, Karl makes a Yule log from the discarded bottom of the family Christmas tree, which he decorates with nuts and berries. "It's the rebirth of the god -- you're supposed to actually burn the log," he explains. But since it's cold outside and modern lawns don't have room for a bonfire anyway -- nor do many houses have fireplaces anymore -- he burns candles on it.

"I just get a kick out of this Christmas thing," Karl says. "I know it's a Pagan holiday they're celebrating as much as they deny it."

Karl is involved in Pagan Men of Pittsburgh. "Men get kind of shafted when it comes to Paganism," he says half-seriously. "Most of Paganism is female-based."

"I always say they've gone up to the treehouse and put up the 'No Girls' sign," says Amber.

Family, friends and co-workers have reacted well to their Paganism. "Most of them are more fascinated by the haunted house we worked at than that we're 'witches,'" Karl says. He began learning witchcraft at 18, emulating a friend. "He was in it for the wrong reasons -- to get revenge on somebody," Karl reports. "I mainly pursued it to get him straight. I just questioned everything that was put in front of me. No one could ever give me a good answer" -- until Paganism. "Each ritual had a purpose. It was easier to believe the reasons they were celebrating a certain holiday. It was also more personal. You can personalize Paganism to fit you."

What attracted you to the Pagan deities?

Amber: Our gods and goddesses are all fallible.

Karl
: They were at one time human beings. Deeds that they had done elevated them. ... They weren't perfect. Some of them were just lucky. That made them so easy to follow. You can relate to them: If he did it, I can too. It's something to strive to rather than live up to.

What do you do in your ritual life?
Karl
: It's your vision. It's what you need. I can light a cigar, smoke the cigar and talk to my god or goddess. I can get the four elements there. I've got the earth; I've got the air, fire. I can use the water eventually.

Amber
: For me [I'm] happy to go outside in our yard. All I need is a candle, a cup and a plate. There's always a little bread and a bottle of wine I keep for it. That's for special things. Some people like to wear the robes --

Karl
: -- the swords, the weapons --

Amber
: That's fine for them.

I would guess that Pagans are liberals.
Amber
: You can put a group of us together discussing politics, social issues -- we're just as diverse as anyone. I've known some conservative Pagans.

Some Pagans describe themselves as eclectic, but does that mean "anything goes"?
Karl
: We do have some of the younger -- I don't want to say "kids" -- they saw Charmed, they saw The Craft and they liked that. They want to be different. They only have that Hollywood view. Some of the community doesn't want to take the time to explain to them: Maybe you ought to do it like this. We're not all Wiccans.

Can every practice or belief system be right?
Karl
: I'm not sure right is the right term. Everything can be useful. Some people will look at an apparition and say, "That's a ghost." Other people will look at it and say, "That's an angel." Or "Those are fairies."

Or "That's nothing."
Karl
: They would be right too. How can you look at someone's spirituality and say, "That's wrong"? We don't know. Nobody knows.

What do you want non-Pagans to know about your religion?
Amber
: We want people at least to say, "We knew a Pagan once and they were an average person. They had jobs and families. They had love, just like everyone."

***

Candace Cotten, a.k.a. "Little Wolf"
Candace Cotten, 34, of Point Breeze, recalls feeling alone as a Pagan when she came to Pittsburgh in 1988, finding only the Sign of Aquarius bookstore in Shadyside and one local group. She is a professional photographer who also works as an office assistant in the Department of Environmental Health and Safety at Carnegie Mellon University. She calls herself an "eclectic Wiccan."

Why Paganism?
I was raised Episcopalian, and when I was about 10, our school did one of those programs where all the fifth-grade classrooms got into one room [for a presentation] on the Norse gods and goddesses -- all these wonderful myths and stories. At the very end, the woman who did the presentation reminded us they were just myths. I remember feeling in my heart that these were real stories with lessons to be learned. And that sent me on a quest for more knowledge. I didn't discover the term "Pagan" until I was 18.

Do you call on a particular god or goddess?
Sometimes if I'm doing a healing work, I'm going to call on a goddess that pertains to healing. In the springtime I'm going to call on a maiden. In winter it's the crone's time. Sometimes I go to ritual deities, different pantheons, Egyptian or Norse. One of my favorite goddesses is Skadi. She was the [Norse] woman who was forced into marriage, took her marriage bed apart, fashioned a pair of skis and went home. If I'm needing strength and encouragement, she's someone I might call upon for self-fortitude.

You keep referring to myths and stories. Are they just stories to you?
Yes and no. I think that all stories serve a purpose. You can call forth the spirit, the energy of the essence of that goddess and call it into yourself. Do I actually believe they lived and roamed the earth? Probably not. But did Adam and Eve really live?

Many Pagans talk about "magick" work, and some have a "coven." Those words scare some people.
Coven is a family. Long ago it was defined mostly as your blood family -- the people you worship with, celebrate life, mark the passing of time and the turning of the wheel. Magick -- it's what we do. It's a form of prayer. When I say I "work magick" I don't have to have drums and spirits and bells. It can be as simple as quiet meditation. It is taking thought and manifesting it into reality, which takes you back to the four quarters. You have an idea. It starts in the east with new beginnings, the break of dawn. And you take that thought through the morning and noon and you take it into the west and you forge that thought with the fires of the south. Then through the afternoon you temper it in the west and give it compassion, emotion, and then at midnight you give it back to the earth and make it real. You plant the seed and make it grow.

Sounds like a very programmatic prayer.
Sort of. It's the circle of life, to quote a Disney movie.

What's the difference between praying -- or magick -- and hoping or wishing?
Intent. You can wish for something forever, but unless you are willing to do something and make the change, nothing is going to happen.

Now it sounds like psychology. Where do the gods and goddesses come in?
I think there is a supreme deity out there that is neither male nor female. Every Pagan will probably have something different to say. I think we all have masculine and feminine qualities in us and science is proving that. But to make it easier to understand or work with, in both thought and prayer, sometimes you're going to want to call on a more masculine or feminine aspect of that deity. Everything's made up of energy -- this table, you and I.

Energy
sounds so abstract -- but then again, so does the "soul."
If you take a piece of wood it has substance to it. If you burn it, you still have substance -- ashes. That energy mutates into something else, the ash goes into the earth and becomes part of the soil. When we die our physical body goes into the earth but our spiritual energy that resides in us, that causes this inner turmoil and strife and causes us to ask these questions, that part of us I think lives on, because it's made up of energy.

***

Rebecca Lexa (a.k.a. "Lupa")
The nearly unfurnished living room of Rebecca Lexa's Millvale apartment is piled with bits of leather, fur, bones and beads from which the 25-year-old makes jewelry, pouches and other items, mainly from recycled material, and sells them at www.thegreenwolf.com.

In the spare bedroom (her ritual room), the ends of a brass bed lean against the wall, hung with animal heads and skins -- wolves, foxes, coyotes, wild cats -- that she makes into totemic dance costumes.

"Most of my components are from old coats, stoles," she says. "That big bear there used to be a rug. Everything that I make with animal skins I purify ritually and I make an offering to the spirit of the animals -- a prayer that each piece will find the person it is right for." She wishes "to give the remnants a better afterlife than hanging on some yahoo's wall as a trophy."

Lexa, who works at Quest Diagnostics, dances wearing the skins at Brushwood, a Pagan camp in Sherman, N.Y., during drum circles and bonfires held from Beltane (a spring festival) to Samhain. She practices chaos magick -- a complex system that tries to affect probabilities -- and Green (or nature-based) Paganism. "Lupa" comes from her self-identification with wolves -- something she has felt since age 2, she says.

In her ritual room, her altar is her childhood toy box, covered with two green cloths. On top are her ritual objects, reflecting "the cycle of nature in life, death, rebirth -- it's not all sweetness," she explains. "I have little representatives of each animal I use for each quarter and each tool that I use. My matron goddess is Artemis," chosen for her unmarried independence, and represented on a simple plate. In front is a tiny wolf figurine; in the center is "a microcosm of nature" -- plant, turtle shell, and a figure of a young woman: "my little poppet, when I feel like doing magick involving myself," she says.

Around the altar are also a broom for purifying -- literally sweeping -- the room, a sword, a dagger, a carved and painted staff, an unstrung bow and a spear. "I tend to get tools and figure out what I'll use them for later," she says.

What's the purpose of your rituals?
It's the same end as everyone else, whether they realize it or not: the great work, knowledge and conversation of the Holy Guardian Angels. Basically it's using one's will, being able to tap into chaos. Chaos is not disorder. It's purely potential -- the raw stuff.

What does it do for you?
It is a way to make yourself a more whole and healthier person. A large part of what I do is finding a way to deal with my inadequacies -- basically facing your own inner demons. You can read all you want, but if you don't work with it, if you don't practice and find out what works for you, it's no good.

All this stuff? This is nothing more than a way to trick the conscious mind, to let the subconscious mind go to work. These are just focuses ... [Pagans] are all het up about defending this, defending that. As long as it works, I don't care what the true cause is.

***

"Eloria Lightfeather" and members of Evergreen
Eloria Lightfeather is the Webmaster of pghPagans.org and PittsburghPaganPride.org; she also runs the local Pagan Artists and Crafters group; Evergreen, a monthly discussion group; and a study circle for the Sacred Well Group of Pagans, most of whom are Wiccan -- although Lightfeather is not. She is 26 and lives in Monroeville, where she is employed as a computer network administrator. She spoke to City Paper alone, and subsequently with Evergreen members Jill, Kim, and others.

Is that your Pagan name?
A lot of people choose a Pagan name to signify a spiritual name, like when a baby is christened. I chose mine because I was online looking for information and I didn't want it to affect my job or anything I've been doing in real life. That name has stuck.

Are you still as cautious?
It's not a problem in my job right now, but years ago, in Texas, it was a problem.

You became a Pagan in the Bible Belt?
I grew up on a military base -- Fort Hood. My family is Jewish originally, but I was never raised Jewish. I was left to choose. I started dating a guy in high school -- his family said if I wanted to date him I will have to go to church. It was Pentecostal, charismatic ... [After] we broke up things were not the same at the church. That's not the reason you should come to Christianity.

How have your family and friends reacted?
My parents are very open and accepting about it. The rest of my family -- they kind of know. It's never been asked. They attend a synagogue that's right down the road from Fort Hood Open Circle, where I practiced. My husband's accepting of it. He's Presbyterian. We've been married for six years; I think he's sticking with it.

How do you find the boundaries of your beliefs?
Jill
: It's no different than if you're trying on sweaters. Some are going to make you itch and some aren't.

Kim
: I know when I first started I was like, "What am I supposed to do?" My friend directed me to a book ... that went through how the author set up his altar and went through some of his rituals. That was a starting guide. Some of it wouldn't be practical for me -- like if I started burying stuff in the parking lot of my apartment.
Jill: That what houseplants are good for.

Kim
: I have a finger puppet of the Hindu god Kali on my computer at work. I sit there for a few minutes in the morning and ground myself. That can be considered an altar too.

***

Maria
Maria, who prefers not to give her last name, is the purse warden (treasurer) of Sassafras Grove, an 11-year-old neo-Druidic group with 25 to 30 members. It holds rituals at North and South parks, members' homes or borrowed churches. A former Roman Catholic who works for a local university, Maria, 36, lives in Highland Park.

Why did you become a Druid?
I've been a big fan of myth and fairy tales for a long time and I was getting into Celtic spirituality ... going back to source material, finding out what people at the time were doing and how that applies to living your life today.

You considered Wicca, but ...
I was just looking for something a little more organized, more focused, more based on history, anthropology. The one thing that sets [Druidry] apart from other Neopagan traditions is that it does try to base itself in sociology, traditions. Also, I think we are more focused on praise and being joyful than other groups -- just at the sun rising every day being worthy of joy.

What are Druidism's tenets?
The basic idea of honoring nature, honoring the gods, respecting your ancestors. We have a responsibility to the other species on this planet.

Your rites have been portrayed so often in popular entertainment. What are they really like?
We do eight public rites a year, based on the equinoxes, the solstices and the four cross quarters -- the points in between. It acknowledges the turning of the year and how that reflects not only the earth changing but your personal journey through the year.

The main altar is based on an Indo-European, mainly Norse view of three worlds: the water below, the fires above and the world tree that connects between the two. The waters below are the ancestors; the fires above are the gods or the divine. The tree connects us to both worlds -- it is the middle world of form.

We generally start the rite with a dedication to the earth mother. We start with honoring the three kindred: the nature spirits, the ancestors and the deities. Then we do the dedication of intent -- what we're here for on this particular rite -- and usually we invoke a deity for that particular rite. For Yule it's usually the Mabon and the Modron -- the mythology it's based on is the dark mother who gives birth to the light.

Is there ritual garb?
There's nothing really set in stone. Traditionally the priests wear white.

And everyone else?
Whatever they want. Anywhere from jeans and T-shirts to -- some people come with fairy wings.

Just for fun.
Yeah.

***

Promise of Iris
Promise of Iris is a group of Pagans who do charity work -- partly as a means of showing the public face of Paganism. Members, who meet at Tom's Diner on the South Side, include: Andrea Carriker, 25, who works in off-site records storage for a large Downtown law firm; Joseph Manzetti (a.k.a. "Alexius Pendragon" or "Lex"), 25, a telecom/tech support employee of UPS; and Nicky Allison, 30, a musician and filmmaker between gigs. They share a Millvale house.

Among half a dozen others at the recent Promise of Iris gathering is Michael Reber ("Malechi"), 25, of the South Side, a case manager at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic.

"A lot of our beliefs in the Pagan community are looked at as reason for a diagnosis," says Reber. He has a patient who says he was threatened with involuntary psychiatric commitment for professing Wicca. He also has a patient who is devoutly Christian, and with whom Reber discusses theology, when the patient is on his medications. When the patient is off his meds, he thinks he's Jesus. "His perceptions and beliefs don't have to be contradictory to treatment," Reber says. "I want to perpetuate that Paganism is a valid religion." He hopes to start community outreach for Pagans seeking psychiatric resources by themselves. He points to other cultures in which those deemed deluded under a Western medical diagnosis are elevated as seers or shamans. "I'm not saying we don't have our share of flakes," Reber adds. "But I hate to see people hospitalized and thrown into treatment because their spiritual beliefs don't fit into society."

Except for the ubiquitous pentacle on rings and necklaces, the Promise of Iris group looks like any post-collegiate collective. Manzetti stands out only for his trucker cap festooned with computer chips.

The meeting itself is quick: "Solstice Social," says Carriker: "Who do we have as vendors? Decorations? What do you think, you guys? Tree? No tree?" Some object to a Christmas tree. "Why would it piss some people off? It's a Pagan symbol," she says. They vote a tree down anyway, then discuss the deejay.

"He has J.R.R. Tolkien Sings the Songs of Middle Earth on vinyl," says Manzetti, half in admiration. They are relieved to learn the deejay has dance music too.

Afterwards, the group talks about what brought them to Paganism and Promise of Iris:

Carriker
: Movies and television tend to portray us in a negative light, always. You see a pentacle and you know there's going to be an animal slaughtered or a baby killed. People at work say, "Like the Pagan [biker] gang?" They don't know if it is a religion. We are attempting to reverse those stereotypes through outreach and through good deeds.

How do people react when you're out there doing charitable work?
Manzetti
: Mostly curiosity. Or I get, "Oh, my sister's a Pagan." Or, "They just did a croning for my mother."

Croning?
Carriker
: The maiden, mother and crone are the three aspects of the Goddess and they're also the three aspects of womanhood. So croning is when a woman goes into menopause. It's more to celebrate than it's [sad]. A young girl will get the same thing for her first blood.

What brought you to Paganism?
Carriker
: I was semi-Christian. My parents, I get the impression, weren't really much of anything. We just settled on Presbyterian because it was easy. My mom was raised Eastern Orthodox. She got really, really sick -- she had terminal cancer -- and went to this place where, even though she would debate with priests, she would go back to her roots to the point that I found hypocritical. I was 14. I was already questioning the Bible. When she went so Christian to the point that if she believed enough in God he would save her, and if I didn't believe enough in God I would kill her ... I really had this intense hatred of God for a few years. She died when I was 16.

I started hanging a lot with Joe [Manzetti]. A lot of his beliefs that we didn't have a name for at the time made a lot of sense to me. An earth-based religion made a lot more sense to me than going to a chapel. So I joined Pittsburgh Pagans Yahoo group.

When I was 22, [my fiancée] died. He was 25. He had a massive asthma attack. That was when I decided I needed something in my life. The first time I turned away; the second time I went completely in the opposite direction. Suddenly I'm an officer of Promise of Iris. It's my life now.

Allison
: I was raised for the most part Catholic. I went to the Army and I met a Pagan. I watched him make a fool of himself. Some people get into Paganism for the fantasy aspect -- they thought it looked neat. This guy wasn't a Pagan. But another Pagan was the sergeant. He invited me along to classes. A lot of my beliefs were already Paganism: this idea of balance between masculine and feminine, dark and light, creative and destructive. My beliefs are probably Unitarian more than anything. To me, Paganism is more philosophy than practice.

Do you miss the authority of holy books and clergy?
Allison
: It's something you never really shake when you come from a mainstream religion.

Carriker
: I don't believe that. I'm my own authority. I take a lot from other people, but I don't follow other people.

Allison
: There's no shortage of people to learn off of in the Pagan community -- even if they don't know what they're doing.

Doesn't some of what's out there seem simply the product of man, not gods?
Carriker
: That's why a lot of us follow our hearts, rather than what's written on a piece of paper.

Allison
: Looking back, I easily could have stayed in Christianity. I know a lot of people who have morphed their beliefs to fit Christianity.

Carriker
: But again, how can you? You're going off of a book.

Reber
: This is how we got to where we are. Debates like this led us away from blind faith. There's not a day that I don't question what I believe.

Carriker
: I really wish a lot of people who are Christians could feel what I feel, even looking at the moon or at a sunset.

Allison
: A lot of Christians do.

Carriker
: I mean [that they could get that feeling] in church. There are so many followers of Christianity that it's hard to remember that there are Christian people like us.

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