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PRACTICING AMONGST STEEL AND STONE: a city witch finds her home

by Misty Bell Stiers

It might seem counterintuitive to practice a religious order that is so closely tied to nature when I choose to live in one of the largest cities in the world—and not just on the outskirts, where small private patches of land exist, but right smack in the center.

I admit that when I first moved to the city, well over a decade ago, I had a passing thought that I wouldn’t be able to practice here in any meaningful way.

I couldn’t imagine heading to Central Park at dusk to try to catch a faint glimpse of a star, or walking to the West Side Highway and standing amid the exhaust trails of cars to see the setting sun.

I had been spoiled thus far in my practice; living among the wild endless fields of Kansas I had always had space and ample nature available.

I knew what it felt like to watch storms roll over the horizon, or to drive small two-lane roads along winding pathways with no destination in mind, just the top down and the wind waving.

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It was easy to connect with the universal divine power where I lived, easy to picture the wheel of life when you’re in the midst of what we all associate with it: grass and sky, birds and squirrels.

In New York City, even when I found nature, it was highly manufactured. I wasn’t sure what to do with that.

I first fell in love with New York City in college, after a road trip with a group of friends over Valentine’s Day in 1998.

It was love at first sight: the energy, the art, the people.

A couple years into my career, I spent six weeks commuting between my Kansas home and a client’s office in Manhattan, and my heart eventually just couldn’t take it anymore. I knew where I had to be. I had to try.

When I was given the opportunity, in 2001, to study for my master’s degree at Pratt Institute, I jumped at the chance.

I fixed up my house, sold everything I had, and landed in the heart of Kips Bay, New York. Yet my first months in the city weren’t easy. Change never is.

There was many a lonely, frightened, tear-filled night followed by a challenging day.

It was the first time I was really on my own, building a home and starting anew in my career. My life felt a bit in pieces, and I struggled for some grounding.

I moved to the city at the beginning of July, so my first real Wiccan holiday here was Lammas, the first of the harvest festivals.

Coming from Kansas, this holiday always felt very much like home to me. It is a time to celebrate the bounty the summer has given, the tall wheat and burgeoning gardens.

In my previous life, you would find me driving small, winding roads with the top down on my convertible, surrounded by the endless wheat fields of the place I was born.

I would often return home that evening to finish off the loaf of bread I had baked in my kitchen, enjoying a nice hunk of it on my back porch beneath my giant fir tree.

All that I had left behind in Kansas was as unreal as a dream once I looked around my newly acquired ten-by-sixteen-foot studio apartment.

I had no idea where to begin.

I peeked out my windows and saw nothing but the buildings across the street. There was no harvest here. I was at a loss for where even to begin. Just when I was finally feeling steady on my spiritual feet, so to speak, it seemed they had been swept out from under me again.

I took a halfhearted walk to Central Park. I freely admit that I did more wallowing than celebrating; I came home no more refreshed and connected than when I left.

I walked to the corner grocery and bought some bread, preparing for my little lonely Lammas feast. I was in full pity-party mode.

I sat on my couch in my tiny apartment and wondered if I’d ever be able to really practice Wicca in my new home.

Looking back now, I can see that a lot of what I was feeling had little to do with not knowing how to practice and everything to do with being incredibly homesick.

I had no friends whom I felt comfortable inviting to help me celebrate my little pagan holiday, and the loneliness was hitting me particularly hard.

I eventually gave in to tradition and decided I needed to at least try to celebrate outside, even if it was on my tarpaper roof instead of a wide expanse of grass.

I packed up a little bag of bread and wine and an old blanket and headed up the two grungy flights of stairs that separated me from the topline of the city.

I tiptoed past the final apartment in the building, inhabited by an old Greek man who adored regaling me with stories of his adventures with the hookers of the Upper East Side, and carefully opened the steel door to the roof, ignoring its warning about an alarm that I knew had been disconnected long ago.

In a perfect story, I would open the door to be greeted by a fresh wind that would remind me of home and a canopy of stars—but this was Kips Bay, Manhattan, and all that greeted me was a somewhat stale smell I was sure emanated from the Greek man’s apartment below me, and a perfectly dark sky.

What the view may have lacked in stars, however, was made up for in skyline.

Above me soared the Empire State Building in its full glory, with a collection of other brightly lit buildings clamoring for attention at its feet.

I stood for a minute, taking it all in.

I had spent the past month unpacking and interviewing for jobs and going to classes and trying to read subway maps and, in general, completely forgetting I was in the midst of millions of people.

In all my rushing around, I had somehow left behind the girl who had visited this place years ago and sworn she would be back to stay.

I had forgotten sitting on a bench in Bryant Park watching the people go by and promising myself that someday that park would be my backyard, that those people would be my neighbors.

I had entirely forgotten the spell that had originally brought me here: the small promise made to myself, the words uttered over worn postcards stuffed into favorite books, the subway token I had kept close in my wallet.

I was so busy running through my everyday life, I had left my heart behind.

Suddenly, all of that overwhelmed me. Here I was, standing on my roof in the shadow of the Empire State Building, in what was now my city.

I looked across at the lights and buildings and thought of all the other people sharing this night with me. I thought of all the people who were, at this very moment, starting on their journeys toward their dreams.

I sat and drank my wine and ate my bread and celebrated a different kind of harvest, a different abundance. I raised my glass to millions of hopes and dreams being fulfilled that night.

I sat on that sticky, somewhat smelly roof and I gave thanks for all that I had — old-Greek-man stories and all.

I realized I didn’t need a forest or a field to feel connected to a divine power. I was in the midst of the divine power here, surrounded by it.

The city pulsed with it: centuries of dream chasers and homebuilders, sycophants and stars, writers and artists, immigrants from foreign shores and dreamers like me. All like me.

The lights in those buildings were suddenly all the stars I needed.

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I took a deep breath and reached out with all I had, to the soil deep beneath the buildings and streets and tunnels, to the heart that beat under it all, holding us all up.

I reached out for the millions of hearts and minds that now populated my space like so many stars. I reveled in all that had come before, in the centuries of footsteps on the sidewalks, the echoes of voices all clamoring for something more.

I suddenly felt part of something great, something powerful and wonderful and revolutionary.

I felt something I truly believe is part and parcel of this place: energy beyond just cars and deadlines and curtain rises and stock markets, a hopefulness and a yearning, a belief in better things to come.

There was a sense of history here, a vitality that remained constant as you looked backward through the years, a promise that something great lay ahead.

It might not have been the way I was used to practicing, but it was there nonetheless.

In the years to come, I spent many a night under the moon up on that roof, watching a city that very much felt like its own dynamic organism, knowing I was as much a participant in it as an observer.

Reminding myself that I was one of millions here in this small place making a home, making a life — one of countless people who had done so throughout history — helped me feel my place on the wheel as much as any field or forest might have.

I still, from time to time, close my eyes as I stand on a busy street corner—the wind blowing my hair back—and think of where I grew up, of the land that shaped me. The yearning to return there no longer haunts me, however, and the feeling of having lost something vital to my spirituality has long since left.

I have found a new kind of connection with the divine, and when nature calls to me I have my sacred spaces to find it, all the more sacred for their scarcity.

I can sit in the community garden on our street watching the magnolia blossoms fall and commune with the great tree that survives here just as I do: roots deep, spirit pointed to the sky.

Like most things about finding my way as a witch, when I moved to the city, it took a little searching and stumbling to find the practice I needed most.

Every time, however — every single time — at the end of my searching and stumbling I have found myself in a place where I feel stronger, better, happier.

When I open myself up to exploring what’s right for me, and not just sticking to what’s been dictated from some book or a preconceived assumption, I find myself exactly where I need to be.

These towers of steel and streets of stone are my home, and they have given me strength just as the trees growing tall through the cracks in the sidewalk give me hope.

 

IN CONCLUSION

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About the Author:

Misty Bell Stiers is the author of the upcoming book Witch, Pleasereleased May 1 by Apollo Publishers. Witch, Please is a touching and thought-provoking account of how a woman explored a spectrum of religions—ancient and new—and ended up, unexpectedly, becoming a bona fide witch. She is also a creative director at Isobar US, one of the world’s leading digital agencies with 6,000 employees across 45 offices. She is active with multiple organizations for business women including The 3% Movement and The Wing. Prior to working at Isobar, she was a senior art director with Ogilvy and a visiting professor at the Pratt Institute. She has a BFA from the Ringling College of Art and Design and an MPS from the Pratt Institute. Misty lives in Hell’s Kitchen, New York City with her husband and two children.

 

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