The taxi pulls up to the New Orleans Airport to let her out. She left her husband and daughter asleep at home. It’s a school day and they will be up about 45 minutes after she takes off. She checks her large bag and makes her way through security. She has a straight forward face, high forehead, high cheekbones and eyes so brown they may as well be black. She has a mane of fine gently curly hair and today is wearing it loose around her face. Her movements can be leonine. Not so much graceful like a cheetah or even a house cat but physical, strong and smooth. There are times when she moves with sensual appreciation. She is 40+ years old, simply dressed with an odd charm, an Italian cimaruta, around her neck.
A large, tall man perhaps a little younger, perhaps the same age, there is just a touch of gray at his temples, finds the seat next to her. They shuffle around. He settles into the aisle seat somehow folding his frame into the seat and leaving only some of his long legs in the aisle, then smiles and says hello. She smiles back and says hello.
She slides her purse under the seat and holds her book, “The Witch of Portobello” by Paolo Coelho in her lap. He takes a look at it and but says nothing.
It is 6AM she is traveling from New Orleans to Charlotte NC and has a 2 hour layover before her flight to Allentown/Bethlehem PA. She closes her eyes and leans back in her seat.
Old Ones hear me. I thank you for the wonderful experience I had in just a few short weeks ago. Please allow me to retain the link I have made. Please allow us to find the partners we need to worship and experience you fully and completely.
The man looks over at her and wonders what she is thinking. He feels an energy he doesn’t quite understand and wonders about the strange charm around her neck.
She opens her eyes and realizes he is looking at her and they smile politely at each other again.
The flight attendants prepare for take off and the plane moves onto the runway.
Old Ones. Tago allow us to leave the earth, push us into the air. Bellaria lift us into the skies and Settrano, build the power safely in the engines and speed us to take off. Meana protect us as we travel. It is a strange mental ritual, but comforting. She doesn’t really remember when she started doing it. But somehow she feels closer to the Old Ones when she flies than in other mundane situations. After 9/11 the ritual solidified and now she does it without even thinking. Perhaps it is because, aside from the occasional travels for her job, these days she most often flies to be in the company of others like herself.
As the plane takes off she looks down at her recovering city and the surrounding swamps. Please Old Ones protect this place. Let the powers that be realize that they must work with the forces of nature to rebuild the wetlands…. Ugh, And stop wasting the sediment of the Mississippi River by dumping it off the shelf into the deep Gulf of Mexico instead of using it to restore the wetlands! Help us, Old Ones, to find a way to restore the balance.
Even as a kid she was interested in science and nature. She learned at 15, when forced to do an interview for an English assignment and ended up talking to someone from the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries, that wetlands were key and that the Corps of Engineers’ belief that they could control nature and protect the city with levees was only a partial solution and flawed. Her later training as a geologist only reinforced this. But what could a struggling girl from the 9th Ward do about it at 17 or 23 or …. There were many scientists who knew and what had they been able to do? Who would listen when the Federal Government had a plan and the politicians and businesses had power to wield and profits to make? Thanks to Katrina more people were listening. And more people were speaking out, about a lot of things. Perhaps there might just be time to restore the balance.
She had ended up studying geology in college because it worked with her desire to learn everything about everything… and her mother had said that she needed to study something that could get her a job. The oil business was big business in New Orleans and she eventually got that job. She’d spent more than 20 years in the oil business and knew corporate America, had lived through the largest oil company merger ever and had managed, despite the mass exodus of the business from New Orleans to Houston, to stay employed. Geology, science, computers, technology, information…. Now she worked at a Refinery ensuring that documents necessary to operate the facility and comply with OSHA and EPA requirements were accurately and consistently maintained. Quite a career arc. It’d kept her in New Orleans and paid the bills. It put a roof over her family’s head, sent her daughter to a fine private school and held the promise of full medical retirement and a nice pension. It also gives her the means to follow her other dreams and desires.
As the plane turned north she thought: What a long strange trip it’s been. She smiled. Here’s to the next phase.
The man next to her looks at her small smile and feels that energy again.
He is strangely drawn and curious. He looks over to her and says: “Boy I’d really like a cup of coffee.” She says: “I would too, but as a New Orleanian my coffee standards don’t let me drink airline coffee.” He says “So you only drink coffee that respects the growers and the environment?” She raises her eyebrows. An interesting question. She laughs lightly, smiles and says: “I only drink good coffee and I’m a café au lait girl. It’s just not the same without the warmed milk.”
He says: “Oh so you're a native?”
“Yes, umm humm.”
“Do you still live in the city?”
“Yes, it will take more than Katrina to blow me out. And you?”
“No, I mean yes.” Those eyebrows again, over those incredibly dark eyes. There’s something that makes him want to be truthful and open with this woman. “I mean, No, I’m not a native. Yes, I live in New Orleans.”
“Ah. Post-Katrina migrant?”
“Good, we need folks to help with the recovery. You are helping and not a Post K carpetbagger?” He sees the twinkle in her eye and smiles and says:
“Well, I hope not, although I am from the north…”
Yes she thinks, you don’t have a typical New Orleans look about you. You look like you grew up outdoors, somewhere cool, green with topography and seasons. Tall, brawny men and the compactness typical of French and Spanish heritage don’t go together. And those nice, smiling, blue eyes.
“I’m in construction …”
Ah, so that explains the ruggedness and the bit of appealing burliness…
“… and there’s a lot of that in New Orleans right now. But I’ve always loved the city.”
“Yes, New Orleans is a magical place, with luck you will have work there for a long time. Viva La Recovery.”
Magical…, he thinks, what an odd word to use at 6:30 in the morning.
“What do you do in the city?”
“I work for very large corporation at a refinery.”
Hmmmm he thinks…. a woman working at a refinery, it doesn’t fit the vibe she seems to give off. “Really, a refinery?”
“Yes, really. My degree is in geology, but most of the geology work is in Houston now and I wanted to stay in the area. It’s harder to move a refinery.”
“Well, yes it would be.”
She is so plainly direct and forthcoming. She has answered me so completely that we could end this conversation right now. But he decides to ask “Where are you headed?”
“Pennsylvania, I’m meeting friends there for a long weekend.
He shifts slightly in his seat. “Interesting, Where in Pennsylvania?”
“Well, my friends and I are meeting in Allentown but we’re driving to a cabin in the woods a little less than an hour away.”
“Well then, we’ll be on both flights together. I’m headed back to Pennsylvania for a visit as well.” Then for some reason he adds: “It’s my mom’s 65th birthday.”
She smiles at him and thinks, how odd to sit next to a man who can have a conversation at 6:30 in the morning. Perhaps working in construction and having to be on the job early helps. Old Ones, it would be so nice if I could find men like him interested in learning about the path I walk. We need more men in the tradition. And she smiles remembering the amazing ritual she had on the new moon not quite 3 weeks ago. Yes more men would be good. But that was a once in a life time experience, you only go from 2nd to 3rd once.
The flight attendant comes by and asks what they would like to drink, coffee, juice,…?
They look at each other and smile. “Coffee, please”, he says. “Club Soda”, she says.
After they get their drinks he looks over to her book again and says: “Interesting title. I’ve read ‘The Alchemist’, how is that book?”
OhhhhKaayyy, he can have a conversation at 6:30 in the morning and he has read ‘The Alchemist’. Old Ones are you sending me a sign? My teacher said that especially now post 3rd degree initiation I should be more aware of and aligned with my intuition.
“'The Alchemist' is a child’s parable compared to this book. This is more complex, more human. I like the way it talks about teachers and learning”.
“Teachers and learning, with a title like ‘The Witch of Portobello’?”
That light laugh, “Yeah…. It’s about life learning not book learning. I’m actually rereading it. I plan to give it to my teacher this weekend.”
“Yes, my teacher and friend. We’ve been working together for a little over 13 years now”.
“13 years? What do you study for 13 years?”
Now it’s her turn to shift slightly in her seat. How in the world to answer that question? How did I end up having this conversation? He is still looking at me. I have to say something.
“Spirituality, Nature, learning to listen to my intuition.” There that’s vague enough not to offend, I hope, and truthful as well. Please Gods, please don’t let him be a Christian trying to convert me. Religion is like a toothbrush, it's yucky when you ask me to use yours. I hope I don’t have to use it to shut him down.
What a strange and fascinating woman. Then he finds himself murmuring out loud:
“Magical, Spirituality, Nature…” and looking down at the book says, “You are not a Witch yourself are you?”
Great, just great, me and my big mouth. Toes for breakfast. But well, O.K., he is a total stranger. No one on this plane knows who you are. What can it hurt to tell the truth?
“Well, ….” She hesitates.
He finds himself looking at her closely and knows she is going to say yes.
“Yes, actually, I am.”
Of course, she thinks, I’m from New Orleans so I must practice voodoo. Wait, a minute. He didn’t even blink or miss a beat. What is going on?
“No, no not voodoo. I’ve studied many paths but voodoo is not mine. My path is Italian, Stregheria.”
“Santeria is not Italian.” Again he didn’t miss a beat. Who is this man and what is he doing next to me on this plane?
“No, not Santeria, Stregheria. Italian Witchcraft.”
“So you are Italian? My great, great grandmother was Italian.”
Gods, stop the world from spinning, please. “No, I’m not Italian. I’m a German, Scotch-Irish, Spanish, mutt American. I was adopted into the Ways”. And then, trying to find a way to create some room to breathe, “So you are Italian?”
“Well, no not really. I’m primarily northern European stock: English, Dutch, German, but my great, great grandmother was a Boston Italian, when she married my great grandfather he moved her to Pennsylvania. What are “The Ways?”
“Wow, Do you mind?” She reaches over and touches his arm. “Yes, you are real.”
He smiles at her again and she thinks again, nice blue eyes, even when he isn’t smiling, he is. He seems harmless. Charming, guileless. Probably another lost soul who made his way to New Orleans. Unusual folks seem to fit there better than many places. If she thought about it long enough, despite her corporate job, it was why she still lived there. The place just felt right in a way few others ever had even with the post-apocalyptic vestiges of Katrina and the damn flawed Corps of Engineers and the inept politicians…. Wait, hold on, focus…... “Don’t you think this is a rather odd conversation for 2 strangers to be having on a plane at, what is it now, 7AM?”
“Well, actually yes it is strange. I don’t usually strike up conversations on planes. But something about your vibe, drew me in”.
“Yes, am I showing my age? Too sixties/seventies for you?”
She smiles and shakes her head. “No, I just have never been told I had a vibe before."
Wow, she thinks, I’ve only had an experience like this once before. American Association for the Advancement of Science, in New Orleans in 1990. Gods that was more than 17 years ago. Those same stupid scientists talking about the Louisiana wetlands and how hard it is to model them and how difficult it is to know if some of the solutions (the same solutions that have been shown to work today!!!) are viable and damn it! She could barely wait until they asked if any one had questions. So she asked about the full model of the Mississippi River that the Corps had in Vicksburg, MS. Couldn’t that be useful in modeling flow and sedimentation rates and potential solutions for best times and locations for river diversions that could be used in rebuilding the wetlands? Well, yes she was told there was that model but it had never been used to connect the wetlands to the river it just modeled the river. Oh yeah she thinks, the river has absolutely nothing to do with the wetlands, idiot. Then the idiot condescendingly says, there is no full model of any wetland any where in the world. Oh, excuse me but what about the full model of San Francisco Bay and all its surrounding wetlands. Didn’t that count? I know that model has been around and has been used… since the 70s. Well, I’m not familiar with that model says the scientist who is supposed to be an authority on the subject. And then this young blond fellow pops up and says well she’s right it is a full blown model of an estuary and there may be applications to Louisiana’s wetlands. And their eyes met and she was so grateful just to know that there was at least on other person on the planet who got it. The lame session leader and speaker muttered on for awhile. But she got up left because she couldn’t take it any more. She was still breathing deeply and trying not to want to kick shins, when the young blond fellow walked up. She thanked him for backing her up and asked how he knew about the model of the Bay. He said he was from San Francisco and had seen the model work. He was here visiting friends in the Bywater and would she like to go to lunch with him so they could talk some more. She was sure that he was gay. San Francisco, ByWater, earring in his ear. This was before everyone had earrings or tattoos. He couldn’t possibly be hitting on her. But he wasn’t gay and he absolutely was hitting on her and they had an instant connection mental, physical, emotional and they stayed friends for years from across the country and even after they both got married. I wonder how Bob is these days. Snap back to the present, the experience I’m having right now is strangely like that…. I think. Focus. He’s looking at you. Say something, buy yourself some time. Make him talk.
“You asked about Voodoo and Santeria, have you studied them?”
“No. Well I know just a little bit about both of them. I read and talk to people. I don’t just swing a hammer. I’m interested in a lot of things. So tell me about these Italian Witchcraft Ways.”
How could she know, that he’d always felt connected to nature and the universe? It was one of the reasons why the book title caught his eye. He was interested. He had hooked up with some folks who were witches, pagans. But they seemed so confused, rootless, uncentered. Perhaps it was his very practical, northern European, protestant upbringing. As much as he felt at home in New Orleans because it was strange and different, magical as she had said, he just wasn’t weird enough for folks he’d met that practiced Voodoo, Santeria and whatever eclectic version of Wicca they were trying that day. And here he was 43 years old, unattached because his girlfriend of some years had NOT, repeat NOT, wanted to move to Post Katrina New Orleans and something in him had not been able to resist it. But this woman, seemed very centered, practical, hell she worked for a refinery! And she said she was of German stock, they’re practical, if his mom’s side the family was any indication.
Her mind wandered in a million directions at once. This conversation on a plane and so soon after her initiation to 3rd... Maybe she was giving off a vibe. Should I say Thank you, now Gods? What in the world was the right thing to say? Oh well, trust your instincts and dive deeply, it’s just a plane ride. How long can this conversation last? We're strangers on a plane. “Well then I’m guessing that you have at least a cursory understanding of basic pagan concepts: Gods & Goddesses, duality in deity? He nods and she goes on, “Well Stregheria, the tradition that I practice, has those basic concepts, but it focuses more thoroughly on the balance of male & female and learning from Nature.” She smiles “It’s a very heterosexual religion. So many vocal pagans are women who have rejected the patriarchy of Christianity but as a result have ended up swinging the pendulum too far and essentially removed the God force from their practice. Stregheria is not like that at all. It is this balance in the rituals and the teachings that made me know that this path was the right path for me." O.K. shut up now, see if that was all he was looking for, be polite. “What tradition do you follow?”
He was still thinking about the term heterosexual religion. What did she ask? What tradition do I follow? What tradition do I follow? I don’t practice any tradition. I wander from book to book, thing to thing, job to job. And I have the nerve to say others aren’t centered. How do I answer her question? Well try it her way, plainly direct.
“I guess so far all I’ve figured out is what I’m not and I’m definitely not Christian. I just follow my instincts and nature and go where the wind blows.”
That sounded so lame. But she is shaking her head and saying “Yes, Nature is the Great Teacher.” “But” tapping the book, “as Coehlo says : ‘learn but always learn with other people by your side. Don’t be alone in the search, because if you take one wrong step, you’ll have no one to help put you right.’”
The pilot makes the announcement that they will be landing in Charlotte soon. The flight attendant is sweeping through picking up their cups. Again they are at an easy stopping spot in the conversation. As unusual as the conversation has been, there are many strangely intimate conversations held on planes when people know they will never see each other again. Chalk this one up to that and hope that the folks around them are still sleeping and not listening.
But he is thinking, What in the world do I have to do with the next few hours? In addition to the layover we have the plane ride to Allentown. I have definitely spent time with less interesting women. So he leans over and says: “How about if I buy you a real cup of coffee with warmed milk and we see where else this conversation goes?”
And she thinks, O.K. Gods, I’ll say Thank you now. “Thank you, that would be nice. I’d love a good cup of coffee. Just as long as it isn’t Starbucks, they burn their beans. At Starbucks I get the Earl Grey, just like Jean Luc.”