We gather by the side of the road on the edge of an urban forest. I know the others only because they are dressed like me, in white clothing. We talk amongst ourselves, getting to know each other.
The signal comes at twilight, just as the sun is setting and everything is growing dark. We walk into the woods along a gravel path. We can hear the sound of drumming.
Soon we come to a clearing. There’s a circle made of lit candles and strewn leaves. Inside the circle, an altar and a pentagram. There are two women here, also dressed in white. These two I know, a little. One is inside the circle, drumming. The other is outside the circle, singing. She strides toward us. Her voice is beautiful. She reaches out and takes my hand, leading me and all the rest toward the circle.
We are each in turn ritually purified with incense. When all are within the ring of light, the circle is cast by calling the quarters and invoking the elements. And within this sacred space the ritual unfolds, as the full moon slowly rises.
This is an esbat, not a seasonal celebration, and so something new and unfamiliar to me. The heart of the ritual I might describe as energy work and group therapy. H. Gunaratana Mahathera describes Buddhism as “much more akin to what we would call psychology than to what we would usually call religion.” This is not a Buddhist ritual, but I’m reminded of this nonetheless. We are invited to think of some area in our life where we’ve reached a plateau, some area of our personal or interpersonal development where things have stagnated, where we’ve grown complacent or are just plain stuck. We think about ways to release that energy, and we engage in a few activities to visualize that release. Strategic symbolism, perhaps.
This may all sound very solemn, but there was a lightness to it as well, and laughter. We also drink margaritas.
Later, we sit in the moonlight sharing food, drink, and conversation. I hear a voice through through the trees. Soon it comes again, and again, impossible to ignore because the unseen person is shouting. He sounds angry. Then another voice joins the first. A woman. Their exchange becomes a song. Then instruments kick in: accordion, double-bass, sousaphone. The music is lusty and uproarious. There’s a whole band back in the woods somewhere.
After a few verses and a rousing chorus, the song crashes to a halt, and there is a round of applause. Judging by the sound there must be at least fifty people there. A couple members of our party are dispatched to scout out the situation. They report that it’s a gypsy-punk interpretation of Oscar Wilde’s Salome.
Many strange and wonderful things happen by light of the moon.