Opening Ritual. Allison calls together the flotsam gathering of royal blue-adorned women on the patio of the main hall at Piersol Group Camp at Meeman-Shelby State Forest outside of Memphis, Tennessee. The outline forms an amoeboid shape, prompting the traditional singing of Trudy's famous “We are a polygon, within a polygon, and we go on and on... and on and on and on...” (Sung to the common chant “We are a Circle”.) This is Daughters of the Moon, 2014.
On Saturday, a collective of women gather in one of the Triangle rooms, spilling out onto the patio in a randomly wandering circle. It's another amoeboid shape, but a very different one. We sit facing outward instead, and each of us holds a scarf and a pillow. Rootz gently guides us into a place of safety, leading each to turn and face the woman beside her to whisper the assurance: “You are safe here.” Then to the other side... and we rest in that safe space. Pillows become a manifestation of our younger selves, a baby girl, toddler, elementary schooler, teenager, young woman. As directed, I and the others wrap our scarves around the pillows, symbolically wrapping our Inner Girl in care and love.
Then the journey begins. This is Rootz's Healing the Inner Girl workshop. She herself has been on this journey, led there by a trusted friend. Now she guides us to go back to a time when our Inner Girl has been hurt. We all have hurts, of course; some severe, some mild. Because we do not face each other, we can allow our faces to express our pain as we remember those dark times. There are tears which will be brushed away later. There are even muffled sobs, but we do not see from whom. We are all safe here.
I remember a time when my kindergarten teacher put me out in the hallway... and I didn't know why. I only knew that this little brown-haired girl in pigtails was a good child, but something happened and blame had fallen onto me. I was anxious and frustrated. In later life I would feel the same hurt of being misunderstood over and over again. I relive that feeling as I hug my pillow; no tears for me, but the sharp, bitter feeling returns. I AM a good child.
Later when Rootz has deftly brought us back to our strong selves, the healing having begun, we get up and move toward the balcony on the patio to view the bright Spring day, trees leafing out and light glinting on the pond below. We chant softly: “I will be gentle with myself, I will love myself. I am a child of the universe, being born, each moment.” There are smiles now, and much warmth between these sisters who have traveled the path of healing together.
It all started in Trudy's kitchen in late Fall, 1999 with a tendril, a seed, a germ of an idea, really. Surrounded by multi-green, paint-sponged walls, piano to the side, and cats everywhere, three Mothers gathered to recall the successful women's mysteries led by one of them up north and to discuss the possibilities in this area. Hence the idea of a women's spirituality retreat in West Tennessee would blossom voluptuously into the Daughters of the Moon. Over fifteen years of its existence it would see death, birth, tragedy, triumph, and a new age of young Maiden Daughters ushered in just this year. There in the House of Mama Dragon, Amanda Riley, Trudy Herring, and Annie Pelloth would spark a sisterhood into being. Later they would become our core Crones as well.
The treatment of who Trudy, aka Mama Dragon, was would take an entire article in itself, but it will suffice it to say that our Dragon Lady, who followed the Trickster Coyote, was Storyteller, Priestess, and Crone to all of us Daughters and though we lost her in 2010, it will be impossible as long as memory serves to miss her vibrant presence here.
The first Daughters retreat was held in April of 2000 at the Mississippi River Camp which featured cabins threatening to slide into a ravine and a Goddess Tree in the middle of the field, evoking Her image after a lightning strike. There were twenty women meeting in the lodge, including founding leaders Trudy, Annie, Amanda Riley, Linda Gaia Ivorywitch, Virginia Larkin, Nancy McGee Lee and Cedarwoman. Trudy's sister, Annie Pelloth, led the first journey meditation about Healing the Womb. As it was very cold that April night, they'd had to grab their mattresses and sleep in the large common area – the first Daughters slumber party. That was the start of a community that would become home to many women over the years, a safe haven and source of sisterly comfort to be indulged in to completeness every April.
At the other end of this stretch of time, the Daughters of the Daughters have now come to join their mothers in ritual, not merely attendance, the next generation who will carry on our traditions and the bonds and love we have developed in this place at Meeman-Shelby State Forest along the Mississippi River. Six 13-year-olds this fifteenth year have been swathed in green plastic which they gleefully ripped off (cocoons, you see) and then barely stood still while their mothers adorned them with their new wings during their Maidening Rite. To witness the jubilant flight of the New Moons (their chosen group name) was to see the new era of Daughters all ripe to carry on what has been built before.
Zephyr, when asked how she felt about getting her wings, declared, “I feel really awesome; I finally made it! I wanted to be a Maiden for a long, long time!” Her proud mother, Virginia Larkin, is now one of the permanent, core Council members who run this four-day festival of women.
The premise is simple – to gather and communally share in the three Aspects of the Goddess, Maiden, Mother, Crone, in a haven of safety and love, celebrating Divine Feminine Energy in each of us. Each year, a representative is chosen for each Aspect and they are involved in the Council for that year to plan the festival and to lead workshops and rituals for that Aspect. It is a celebration of the passages of life that all women experience, which is why Daughters of the Moon has enjoyed the presence of women of a wide variety of faith traditions.
During my first Daughters eight years ago, we made banners of cloth flags representing many Goddesses. Mary and Sophia flew high alongside Durga, Kuan Yin, Artemis, Inanna, and Asherah and others. This year on our traditional Goddess altar in the main hall, a new entry joined her sisters, the fantastic Goddess of Gaps and Cracks in all her weirdly and strangely feminine bubbliness. The hearts of every Daughter are on that altar, too, our unique and individual Goddess energies blending into an amalgam of sisterhood, shared warmth and trust, and the bonds of friendship.
We wear blue, a royal blue that is universally dubbed “Daughters Blue”. Council member Nancy recalls that founder Trudy started that tradition. “Trudy thought it would bring a sense of unity -- a sense that we were all there for the same purpose and all on the same level. And 15 years later, she was so right. You see how people start posting sales on blue dresses the weeks before festival -- and we all have a few blue things here and there and it seems like during the rest of the year when that color blue crosses our paths we think about each other... and the lessons we've learned over the years. It's a much more powerful thing than I imagined it would become... but of course Trudy knew what she was doing. And it's kind of funny because I think it freaks people out when they wander onto the campsite and there's nothing but women wearing the same color blue.“
When asked what she expected of her first Daughters in 2006, Amanda C. told me, “I was told there was going to be a bunch of women there and from my experiences that's not a good thing. I found the most loving group of people I've experienced in my entire lifetime. They helped me open up to myself and accept me as me, flaws and everything.
I was in a bad relationship at the time – it was a balm to me, a great relief. It helped start the healing process before I even knew I need it to happen.”
Amanda's favorite memory is the Kuan Yin ritual led by Tzaddia Morningstar a few years later. “I made Kuan Yin laugh!” she explained with a chuckle. Though she had been crying going into the ritual, she suddenly laughed, causing the channeling Tzaddia to laugh with her. “Laughter is my healing medicine.” Many remember the Kuan Yin rituals for their powerful healing energies. Paula shares: “One year, I had been particularly beset by health worries, and as I went through the cleansing waters, I started crying as I had not for years.”
(Overheard on the Patio at Closing Ritual - “Who wants to release Air?” - meaning releasing the quarter at the end, of course. Vonnie immediately piped up, “I've been releasing Air all weekend!”)
Council member Virginia shared that the founders' original vision for Daughters of the Moon was “wanting women to connect more with each other, learn about themselves and each other, what it means to be a woman, how we evolve pretty much from the moment we come out, breaking down the barrier between women, being helpful to one another and building community, becoming women to lean on one another”. Many workshops are centered around these things, from this year's Healing Your Inner Little Girl workshop by Rootz to last year's Menopause Tea Party to Trudy's ritual in the third Daughters of the Moon where she “birthed” the community through a Sheila Na Gig.
Allison Hancock, also one of the three permanent Council members, said, “Women come with such an expectation of having a spiritually fulfilling time that they make it happen; it's more about personal growth.” When asked what has surprised her the most, she replied. “The number of non-Pagan women that have come and have a wonderful time! Christian, agnostic, atheistic – and have as wonderful a time as those of us who work with Goddess. They bring neighbors and sisters!”
Inclusivity is important. We are also all colors. We are all ages (after 13 or onset of menarche, though nursing babies are always welcome). We are gay, straight, bi, pansexual, asexual and all things in between. We are cis, trans, intersex, genderqueer: a spectrum of gender expressions and identities. We are all ranges of mobility and mental and physical capabilities. Regarding the ages of the new Maidens, Nancy McGee Lee shared: “We found this year that it's going to be interesting because some are really ready, and some just aren't. But all the girls born after we started the festival are starting to come of age now. And especially the ones that have been hearing about it their whole lives are really into the experience and made us all proud!”
Frequently mentioned as a favorite spontaneous activity at a past Daughters was the Junkfood Picnic. It started with one woman setting out a blanket in the field, spreading out some snacks she'd brought, inviting others to come share them with her... and ended up ballooning to ten blankets, a wide variety of snacks shared by others, and over fifty women! Aliison laughs that they tried to schedule one for the next year, but it was one of those happy occurrences that had to be organic. That brilliance just can't be planned!
Most food for the retreat is brought by the participants – items for sandwich fixings, soup ingredients, breakfast, salad fixings, and this year an item for the Mexican buffet. The staff only has to purchase key protein and other items this way, keeping the cost of registration lower than other similar festivals. At the end of the weekend, those who may be more needy are invited to take leftovers home. This communal approach to meals also serves to tighten the bonds.
And there are Kitchen Goddesses. For many years, Shell was the sole Kitchen Goddess, running a tight ship; many of us have the favorite image in mind of her grilling steaks out on the patio. She retired from that august position last year with much gratitude from all of us. Now Kaedi and Hava have replaced her and have found their stride. With care for dietary needs, they have come up with creative menus and kept all happy. Since it's unknown what items will be donated for soup, for example, it's an adventure to come up with the variety of soups – they came up with five kinds for Friday night supper! An additional Coffee Goddess is assigned to keep the pot going at all times.
Allison Hancock explains more about the organization that produces Daughters of the Moon, a formula which has worked very well for the retreat, honed over the years. “The council is made up of all the women that plan the event every year, including those that are voted in each year. We are the 3 permanent members and the rest function as staff. Annie serves in an advisory capacity, she is on the Facebook group and weighs in on decisions, like Leela, Shell, Flame, Michelle, our kitchen witches, etc. As long as they support Daughters and work they will remain on the list, but if they cease to be helpful or break off from the community, they are replaced by another willing to work. Our revolving council is a beautiful thing, in my opinion. It keeps everyone fresh and active.”
We have seen the death of our Sister Daughters... we have seen births.
In the span of a year and a half, we lost three of our Crones, including DoM founding member Trudy Herring, aka Mama Dragon. Trudy and Tzaddia Morningstar (Crone Representative in 2008) and Mallorie Gareis (Crone Rep in 2009) were lost to us with an incalculable loss to the West Tennessee Pagan Community; all were clergy. At the following Daughters in 2011, the tradition was begun to feature an Ancestor Altar in memoriam to our dear Sisters who have crossed over. Just like the jars that we each put out to receive little notes from our Sisters through the weekend, jars were put out for notes for our lost Crones; notebooks containing those notes from the Sisters to them have been compiled to share in our new Ancestor Room. Since then, the altar in that room has expanded to allow representations of our beloved Mothers, Sisters, Grandmothers who have passed as well.
“There's never too many women to pass around a baby,” declared Amanda C. who had brought her 2-month old baby with her when she first came to Daughters in 2008. This year, “Big Mama” Jess brought her newborn Alexandria who slept blissfully (during the day at least!) in the arms of many Daughters.
During Opening Ritual, the question was asked of the group what comes to mind when you think of the Mother aspect of the Goddess. Responses were called out: “Creation” “Nurturer” “Caregiver” “Leadership”, etc. Then after a long pause, “Sleepness Nights” from this year's Mother Representative Jess who gave birth not even two months ago.
The only Daughters that council member Nancy has missed was the weekend she gave birth to Mairead. She recalls: “ I had a home birth planned, and started having contractions on Monday, so I was sure I'd make it. .. but by Friday I'd had 2 days of 5-minute-apart contractions and the midwives had to transfer me to the hospital. I wore my blue robe and refused to wear the hospital gown. They did the c-section in my robe and all.”
Favorite images of Daughters of the Moon over the years include:
The Goddess flags
Trudy and singing “We are a Polygon...”
The Kitchen Goddesses
The Table of Jars
Altar of Goddess images
Leela and the Breakfast Puja
Triangle rooms decorated
Drumming and chanting around the fire
Wearing of the Blue
Leela's “drive by” croning (2010)
Annie Pelloth recently asked on our Facebook group: “How has Daughters of the Moon changed your life?” Here are some of the wonderful responses:
Alice R.: “DOM is teaching me about service too. The first year I came, I washed dishes for hours on Sunday morning, and I was wet and filthy and so happy. This year, opening up and tending the Ancestor altar was such a joy- I was unprepared for how much I loved it. And I could name 100 other things that DOM has given me- it is life-changing!”
Holly E.: “I have attended 2 DOMs. The first (2013) is where I learned all about shielding. That year was a learning experience for me in many many ways. 2014 DOM changed me. I am a very OCD/anxious person who is more comfortable in my own group. I made the challenge to myself to speak to every single person...not just speak, but learn something about each person. I learned that just a simple self introduction opens the doors to friendships I cherish today. I learned that a group of women CAN be together without the snarkiness and all the judgments. All of a sudden it was OK to feel whatever I was feeling, it was okay to DO whatever I felt. The whole time I felt FREE - free to finally be me. I also learned that women will quietly support you when you are completely breaking down over a hummingbird. These sweet, supportive women will bring sugar water for the injured and kleenex for my tears. I was so comforted by all the support...no matter what. I left this year feeling calm, accepted, and strong.”
Elizabeth McClellan: “DOM taught me so many things but most importantly that the arguments that trans women don't belong in or ruin the energy of women's sacred space are lies, that the Goddess tells people who they are, not us and that our trans sisters make our sacred space better by bringing their unique paths and experience to a place where they are loved and respected.
When I was just a baby witch I had read about women's festivals and couldn't wait to be old enough to go to one. Then I read about a women's festival treating trans women like garbage and intruders and swore a Mighty Oath to the Goddess that I would NEVER go to a women's space where trans women were not welcome. The Goddess provided one that disproves every lie the transmisogynist pagans tell about why they have the right to exclude a woman from women's sacred space. To be a part of that, to know I can invite my trans sisters without fear when there are so few safe places for them in general or in the religion, is so meaningful to me and I'm grateful to Trudy now and forever for having spearheaded that policy when it was nascent & feelings ran high. '
More than anything that makes me proud to proclaim that I'm a Daughter of the Moon.”
Lori Smith Banks: “I have always been afraid to shine, though I long to inside. When I come to Daughters, each time, I shine a little more after I leave. It is like a divine polishing cloth after the fires of life. I am hugged and loved by all my sisters, and each time I come away with a little more courage to show more of myself and to share my light a little more. You all help me remember a little more of who I am, and help me to forget all the things I have been taught that do not serve me. I love you all.”
For myself, and I believe many share this feeling, it's purely the energy. There's something beautiful and sacred and rich and incredible when women gather for spiritual, sacred, or communal intent. It's a bubble, a sphere, a cradle of warmth that penetrates, soothing the scars and fears and pains of daily life in a space of safety. “You are safe here.” Safe, calm descends. Safe, hearts ease. Safe, spirits feel welcome.
And we sing: “I can hear the drums, hear the drums, hear them calling. I can hear the drums of the Daughters of the Moon. I can hear the songs, hear the songs, hear them singing. I can hear the songs of the Daughters of the Moon. I will rise and dance, rise and dance, I am dancing, I will rise and dance with the Daughters of the Moon.”
Rootz tells of the time at Daughters when she'd sought some solitude one afternoon. She headed out to the field with her drum and a blanket. Passing the row of cars along the side of the road, she noted one with the door open. Upon investigation, she found a baby in its carrier in the seat, asleep. So... Rootz took the baby with her, leaving her drum behind in the carrier... and she and the baby had a nice peaceful nap in the shade on her blanket. She knew the mother would see the drum and know who had her baby with her.
That kind of trust isn't built easily in our society. Or in our communities and churches. It's a magic that has its own wonderful power to it. Women believing in women, women trusting women, women nurturing women and each others' babies. Entrusting each other with our true and honest selves, we open ourselves and allow a healing that might not be so easily generated in other contexts.
Daughters... is our happy and chosen context every April.