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The Cauldron and the Crone

Everything in their kitchen is new. Beautiful, elegant, coordinated, and arranged in the cupboards with the precision and detail of the Virgo bridegroom. These lovely gifts are the spoils of a big wedding and love tokens of so many friends. It’s such a contrast to the rag-tag collection of household items I possess — the remnants of a crazy family, dissolved partnerships, and more moves than I could possibly count.

The beautiful couple launches into the awe-inspiring adventure of adulthood, and I witness and aid whenever I can. Between Christmas and New Year’s, the newlyweds flew to Mexico for their honeymoon and I got the privilege of overseeing their cats. I did not, however, get the privilege of bailing on my least-favorite holiday, and we exchanged gifts before they left.

I’d told them I wanted a cast-iron Dutch oven from Farm and Fleet, my favorite store. I had in mind the only Dutch oven I’d seen there — basic, sturdy, and not very expensive.

At winter quarter in our Feri training, we had been studying the direction of Below (Nadir), and in Thorn’s training, the tool of Below is the cauldron. The cauldron is the tool of transformation, for cooking away aspects of life that no longer serve us. We know the cauldron is the womb of the goddess, as well as fertility, abundance, and revival of the dead. This tool of alchemy and its attributes echoes how I experience this turn of the Wheel at Beltane.

The cauldron is the tool of the Crone, Ceridwen. I think of the crone who came from California to see my daughter marry. Her presence, while deeply appreciated and valued, was also a challenge for me. I am not accustomed to being around old people. She moves slowly, does not always hear well, and forgets things. The Crone archetype, which I assiduously avoid claiming for myself, was living in my house, sleeping in my bed. And of course, she is not an archetype. She is a beautiful person, my foster mother, who took me into her home when I was a troubled teen. I found myself balancing conflicting emotions the five days she was with me — gratitude and love, exasperation and impatience. And the closest I’ve come to seeing my own mortality looking back at me.

I loved when she told me stories about her life. She’s always been individualistic — seeking a career and then an advanced degree well ahead of her time. She’s lived all over and has myriad interests and a network of contacts the pope would envy. In so many ways we share values. But she strained my tolerance by suggesting I must have been really terrible in a former life to deserve another woman’s incredibly bad behavior toward me. This worn-out, unreasoned brandishing of concepts like “karma” is one of the things that frustrates me the most about new age thinking and its influence on witchcraft and Goddess religion. I think that as Westerners, we simply don’t have the millennium of cultural context for the concept of karma. Filtered through our Judeo-Christian context, karma comes out looking a whole lot like retribution. I tried to disagree with her graciously. That’s the challenge of family, knowing when to keep the silence. And recognizing when we throw these challenges into the cauldron to transform.

So for Christmas, I asked for a cauldron. I wanted a good, sturdy, cast-iron pot that I could use in ritual or take outside and cook in occasionally. I love cast iron, and one of my prized possessions is a set of Le Creuset cookware — the porcelain-coated cast iron pots from France. They really do have a lifetime guarantee, and the company replaced a couple of broken pieces for me a few years ago. They were sad to inform me that the dull grey and brown colors of my original Le Creuset were no longer being made, and did I mind bright red replacements? I laughed. At the time, I was decorating my house with a lot of red — working to get more fire in my life. Red pots? Hell, yeah!

My daughter and her new husband gave me many Christmas gifts. I gave them only cash to take to Mexico, and thought it somewhat silly to be opening all these presents that surely cost them an amount equal to the cash I bestowed. But you cannot suggest skipping a gift exchange when the bride is a Taurus. I could guess the items before opening them, except for the last package, which was big and very heavy.

I unwrapped it to find huge, 6-quart, bright red, enamel-clad cast iron Dutch oven. I know that my surprise and confusion showed on my face. The newlyweds did not know what a Dutch oven was, and when they went to look (not at Farm and Fleet), they found an overwhelming array of choices. They didn’t know really what I wanted. And so they made their best choice, picking a beautiful one and hoping I would like it.

I have spent these last months working with that cauldron. Initiating it into my life — a life that has turned out so very differently than I ever would have imagined. I have cooked many intentional meals, herbal brews, and possibilities in that big red pot, and I have worked on my relationship with this new cauldron.

I can’t take it outside. I can’t burn Epsom salts and alcohol in it. I can barely lift it to take it to a potluck. It’s an American-made pot, clearly not so finely milled as Le Creuset. The lid doesn’t fit precisely and the lines aren’t so elegant. And yet, it is bright and beautiful and in it I can cook for the multitudes. It’s a big cauldron with a big heart.

I’ve cooked several meals for the newlyweds in my new cauldron. And I have spent some time in their kitchen with their beautiful new things this winter when my daughter was ill with a terribly painful uterine cyst and subsequent surgery. I have called upon the ancestors again and again to help my beloved only child heal and aid in the continuation of our line. I also called upon my friends and covenmates to aid in healing and was blessed by their support.

And now we come to the time of year when my coven celebrates the Germanic Walpurgisnacht instead of Beltane. Walpurgisnacht was a custom I made my own several years ago and brought to my new city with me. It captures the energy and imagination of my main spiritual group so perfectly. Yes, we like the idea of Beltane — newness, fertility, and sexuality. But we are Wisconsin witches, and an earthy bunch at that. We know that nobody in their right mind would go make love in a field at Beltane in Wisconsin. As far north as Wisconsin is, I don’t see spring as even beginning until Beltane. And even at that, we have been driven inside by cold, rain, and wind on most of our Walpurgisnacht celebrations.

Across the Wheel at Samhain, we — a bunch of independent, irreverent, iconoclastic Witches with a bent for the ecstatic — held another of our silent suppers. A dozen of us in my living room with the old farmhouse table stretched to its 8-foot limit, we toasted the ancestors and then enjoyed eating family favorites without a word, surrounded by the many ancestors (including dogs, cats, a toad, and pigs) we had called in.

Walpurgisnacht echoes Samhain’s mystery and closeness to the ancestors. And just as the darkest night holds the promise of the lengthening days, Beltane holds the whispers of the winter. The spirit of the beginning of May in our part of the world is captured in the cries of the Canada geese (or is it the Ancestors riding by in the Wild Hunt?) as they migrate above us at Walpurgisnacht. How do they know where they are going? Will they have enough energy to sustain them in the long flight?

How tentative life is. Some geese do not survive the migration. The bride becomes ill. The Crone and I move inexorably toward death — inching slowly or suddenly catapulted, as any of us may be. So many of my friends have experienced illness and infirmity in this, the longest, iciest winter I’ve ever experienced. We reveal our vulnerability and celebrate the ephemeral spring flowers that are finally breaking through the winter detritus.

Beltane’s promise of newness may be cut down by a killing frost, or Lammas’ harvest could end by a killing drought in the middle of the growing season. Our expectations are not met. Our hearts are broken. What we may be or may have been remains in the shadows. Do we intentionally look in those shadows? We are called upon to examine ourselves and throw the dregs into the cauldron and let them burn, making way for a new beginning, yet again.

My new red cauldron has a special place high up in a shelf above the kitchen cupboards. I have to bring a stepstool and all my strength to place it there when I am not cooking in it.

It is not the cauldron I asked for. It is not the cauldron I had in mind. But it is the cauldron I got.

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MatriFocus Cross-Quarterly
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