The Witches Next Door
When I told my housemates I was interviewing random residents in our neighborhood, one spoke up saying, "Oh, you gotta talk to the pagan house."
That phrase, "pagan house", along with some description given by that housemate, Tom, conjured up images of young adult women living in a secluded, nocturnal, spell-bound lifestyle. Other neighbors, though, brought me back down to Earth, telling me that Hillary, the woman who lived there, liked to walk the neighborhood and was very friendly.
One day I saw her outside in front of her garage, so I stopped to say hello. Hillary is middle-aged--not too old to pull off a look of longer hair, but old enough to show the grey roots of her dye job. She wore plus size sweat pants and shirt, has glasses, and a gradual but precise way of speaking. She is very friendly. Her husband, Ed, standing nearby also dressed casually. He's the same age and grows a nice beard to go along with his balding head. He, too, has glasses, but over a more reserved expression.
After the introduction we set up an interview, and I left them that cool afternoon with a foreshadow behind me--large words painted above the garage door: "PAGAN PRO-TECTION SPIRITS!"
Two days later, I walked over to their house on the corner lot of 4th and 32nd. It was similar to the description my housemate, Tom, gave but without the eerie air. The front yard and deck were busy with chairs, trees, flowers, and crafts that alluded to nature--such as a wind chime with a clanging metal sun, moon and stars. A giant stuffed animal frog sat in one of those deck chairs and a cat--a real one--watched as I rang the doorbell.
Walking in, I noticed they like their domesticity busy with stuff: books and more books, artwork on most the wall space, flowers and other plants, VHS movies.
We sat down in the TV room--her on the couch, me on an easy chair nestled near the door.
Born in 1957, Hillary hails from small town Alton, Illinois. She was a very bright girl, starting Kindergarten at the nearby catholic school at the age of four. But after just two years, her father, the chief psychologist at a mental hospital, suffered a stroke. So her mother took Hillary, her sister, and their disabled father to Blue Earth, MN--her mom's birthplace--to live with grandparents.
Though she started at a Catholic school, early on Hillary remembers rejecting the family faith. This and issues regarding "female independence" roused her grandmother.
Also displeasing grandma, and shaping the spiritual woman she'd become, was Hillary's affinity for connecting with animals. At 10 or 11, she remembers getting in trouble for saying she was "trying to talk to the spirit of animals." Another time she was yelled at for apologizing, on her grandfather's behalf, to the deer whose head he had mounted.
Hillary graduated high school when she was 16, attended Mankato State University, and worked as a group home supervisor here in the Twin Cities where she became close with another supervisor, her future husband, Ed. This all brings us up to the present.
Much of her life's script reads like a pretty normal Minnesotan life--except for her spiritual outlet.
Just by its definition, I don't think too many people would be offended by the practice of Paganism: a system of beliefs connecting humans to the Earth. Heck, who hasn't felt something deeper when walking along a streaming creek in the forest, a gorgeous mountain valley, or a rocky coast? And the truth is, you wouldn't be able to notice anything different about Hillary and Ed upon meeting them.
A social wedge is placed in there, though, when terms like Wiccan, witchcraft, and spells are tossed about. And Hillary does not hesitate to use them.
She is a witch.
When it came time to move into their home twelve years ago, the inside had been renovated following a fire. Arson was the culprit and retaliation was the motive. Turf wars were more common in this neighborhood then, and Hillary knew that that which she was moving into wasn't too welcoming. So even before the renovation was complete, she used spiritual sources to help keep her new home safe.
"From the beginning this house was an occupied territory" -occupied with a spiritual authority Hillary called upon. From this initiative, she declared the property a home to be protected and wrote those large-lettered words above the garage door.
At this point in our conversation, Walt came home from work and we all ate. Hillary and I enjoyed some of her homemade soup. She does eat meat. Ed had a plateful of leftover spaghetti.
Recalling the days they first met, Hillary says, "He was always pagan. He just didn't know it". He agreed, and in between bites of spaghetti recalled when he first heard the tenets of paganism and how it clicked for him. Meanwhile, I had to reflect silently on that uncanny way it is for like-minded people to find one another in this world.
I also had to absorb the newfound fact that men can be witches too--as Ed is. Both cast spells when feel it is right to do so. They filled me in on some pagan specifics: he's neo-pagan and she's pantheist.
But as unfamiliar-perhaps even odd-as all this sounded to me, I also acknowledged that it all stems from a strong relationship with the natural world. "I can't remember a time when I didn't feel a connection", said Hillary, saying her relationship to nature is analogous to a husband or boyfriend. Thus, Hillary and Ed rely on it as their higher authority as a Christian relies on God.
And when it comes to living day to day, these two are just a couple doing the grind. She's between jobs; he drives a mobility van to help handicapped and the elderly get from point A to B.
As concerned citizens (and pagans) they take issue you'd expect: climate change, pollution, urbanization. Hillary takes part in our neighborhood council. And in a less formal role, described herself as the "neighborhood witch".
"Ripples in the greater pond" is how she refers to her involvement here--first as a defender of her house and home, then playing a role in improving the neighborhood, then outward to the city, state, nation, and world.