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It's Not About What You Wear!
Jack Davis interviews Patrick Dorman
There is a fabulous annual Beltaine event in Seattle, Washington called Ravenna Ravine. It involves manifesting the goddess Ravenna Ravine and ritually traversing an overgrown stretch of Ravenna Park. How do we describe how Ravenna the goddess, Ravenna the event and Ravenna the park are interrelated? Jack Davis interviews Patrick Dorman, who was there when it all began.
Jack Davis: Let's talk about the event, and then we'll talk about the history. Where does it start, where does it happen?
Patrick Dorman: Ravenna Park is a ravine in the north-central part of Seattle. It has very steep sides, and it still feels wild; there was old growth there up through the teens. A stream that runs underground from Green Lake down to Lake Washington surfaces and flows through the park. When we are there in the spring, there is lots of rain so it's bursting into its freshest, juiciest green.
It might be a mile from one end to the other and maybe a third or quarter of a mile wide. It's not a large place physically, but it is a large place spiritually.
JD: This event starts at one end of the park and goes to the other end?
PD: Yes. We gather at mid-day on the first Sunday in May, in the meadow at the west end of the park. It's a pretty amorphous group of celebrants: queers, fags, queens, dykes and more traditional families that have been coming for a long time. Some children who are now fifteen started coming when they were four or five, so the goddess Ravenna Ravine is equivalent to the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus in their childhood pantheon of mythic creatures.
There are lots of different spiritual vocabularies present; mostly it's pagan and Native American derivative. In the early years there were 35 or 40 of us. In 2004, we numbered somewhere around 135. After we cast the circle, ground and invoke the directions, we call the goddess out of the ravine. And when I say call, I don't mean metaphorically, I mean people are hollering for the goddess to please come out of the ravine and join us. We call Her name. We call Ravenna, we call Ravenna Ravine, we call various endearments to Her, to come and be with us. We are aspecting the goddess Ravenna Ravine in a mortal person on that day, but we are also calling to the powers and magick of the ravine. Months of preparation have gone into the moment when She emerges out of the ravine. This is the first vision that most of the celebrants have of this year's goddess, and Her glamour is dazzling. She greets the circle with an invocation and then leads everyone into the ravine. Lots of people are dressed in elaborate costume; there are banners and parasols and drumming. The procession is very festive. Traditionally there are a couple of stops in the ravine. One stop is usually at a boulder that was left by a glacier; it's huge, the size of a Buick, and has a well-situated depression in the top that holds water or other things. In the past this has been a place where the goddess gives a blessing.
JD: How might the blessing manifest?
PD: One year the goddess put nail polish on one finger of each celebrant.
JD: That must have taken forever.
PD: It took a long time. The goddess usually has a one-on-one blessing with each celebrant, and the amount of time spent with Her depends on the goddess. Some years, She's quite aloof and contained. Other years, She's more personable and chatty. She might give small gifts, handmade by the goddess Herself. She might mark people with a splotch of mud on the forehead, a blessing of water and earth from the ravine. It's a physical manifestation that you
carry with you throughout the rest of the day.
JD: Talk about the two dads who brought their son to the goddess in 2003.
PD: Two middle-aged men were coming through the ravine with their son, who was developmentally disabled. They stopped and observed the line of people who were waiting to go through a few stations before being blessed by the goddess. I went over to chat with the dads and saw that they had pentacles on their trucker caps. One of them said it would be really nice to have his son blessed by the goddess, but he was not up to waiting in line, so I ushered them through the express lane directly to the goddess for an audience. Their son loved it, and the dads were grateful.
After the blessing, there is another stop I call the Papal Balcony, where paths leading out of the ravine come together. From one switchback, the goddess usually delivers a statement, overlooking the celebrants on the floor of the ravine. There have been years when the goddess has said simply, "Be with your pleasure and be with the pleasure of spring." Other times, She has not been so amiable. She might let us know She is outraged about the trashing of the earth, both on the grand scale of worldwide nuclear waste and on the personal level of how we each deal with our own garbage. This speech is the last stop of the procession through the ravine. From here the goddess leads us up to a big grassy area on the south bluff where we have a picnic. After feasting, we lie around and socialize. There could be some small entertainments, songs or poems. Then we magickally charge the Maypole, weave the ribbons and end with a spiral dance.
JD: Where and when did the event Ravenna Ravine get started?
PD: It started in the fall of 1988, around a Thanksgiving feast. There were six or eight of us at the home of some friends who lived on the ravine. People were musing about the little known Celtic goddess, Ravenna Ravine. Looking forward to Beltaine, we said that we needed to celebrate this goddess in our own queer way.
In the 1980s, I was on the edges of several queer spiritual circles that came together to help birth Ravenna Ravine. Risk of Change is a giant-puppet troupe that has been around since the late 70s. Most of them are gay men... fags. Two other groups were the Big Hairs and the Drum, both informed by Native American traditions. The Big Hairs were five fags and the Drum included a lot of fags, but also women and men as well. Thrown into this mix was the vision of Radical Faeries: queens, sissies and queers, people who walk between, who embody gender variance. There was an aspect of intentionally creating culture, of manifesting who we are. We needed to perform ceremonies in order to help name ourselves. Witnessing our queer culture becomes more and more important as the mainstream strives to erase us through assimilation. It was queer men who were involved with Ravenna Ravine from the first. We saw our gender and our sexualities as expressions of spirit, eschewing the whole paradigm of gender polarity with the understanding that gender is a fluid cauldron. Our intention was to make a space to celebrate our spirituality by celebrating gender variance. In the process we would be creating a cultural community.
JD: It seems that there is a public aspect to the ritual of Ravenna Ravine. You certainly could have done this indoors with just a bunch of your friends.
PD: We wanted to witness to our faith outdoors in a public space. It is my understanding that being a pagan is not a spectator sport, it's about having an ongoing personal practice and manifesting it in public ways within a community.
JD: What are the aspects of Ravenna Ravine, the goddess?
PD: She is an earth goddess, She is the world around us. Her invocation usually goes something like:
I am the goddess Ravenna Ravine,
I am the goddess alive within you.
I am the earth beneath your wet feet,
I am the wolf, the owl, the egret,
I am the Nisqually River delta.
Who... who but I?
remember with every living cell of my body?
I am the fertile juices of lust,
I am the sensuous swapping of spit,
I am the thrusting deeper and deeper,
I am the crescent moon growing full,
I am the moon sucking the tide,
I am the sucking of newborn lips,
I am the swelling of milk-swollen tits,
I am the sucking of clit and dick,
I am the sucking of mud at your feet,
and I am the suck of your last breath.
Who... who but we
remember with every living cell of our body?
Goddesses come up with their own invocations but She is very much saying "I am you, and I am what is all around you." She is connected to earth, air, fire and water, to the seasonal cycles and She's very much connected to that specific place. You don't do Ravenna Ravine in another province; you do it in Seattle in Ravenna Park. For me, when we call sacred space and walk in a procession into the ravine, we are processing into Her veil, into Her world and literally into the world of the ravine.
JD: Let's talk about the dowagers, the previous goddesses. What's the process for deciding the goddess?
PD: It has varied. When we began, in 1989, it seemed important to have someone aspect Ravenna Ravine. In the first years, the role of goddess was shuffled amongst the core people in a very informal way. After a few seasons of Ravenna, the five of us who had embodied the goddess said we, the dowagers, would consense on the next goddess. Now the dowagers meet every year sometime after Brigid. We have a queen's brunch and choose a new goddess for the coming year. For me, the consensus process is mystical.
Each year, what I hope for is someone to represent the goddess who has a strong spiritual vocabulary. It can be Buddhist, Native American, pagan or something else, but I want them to have some sort of spiritual practice. They've got to be able to present themselves in ceremony, so it helps if they have some experience in the fey arts, drama, dance or drag-queen energy. A sense of gender fluidity is also essential. I want them to have an idea of queer community and queer culture, to be familiar with the three questions from Harry Hay: Who are we as gay people? Where did we come from? Why are we here?
After the new goddess is chosen and before the event of Ravenna Ravine takes place, She has various visionings around the sort of goddess She will be, as well as what to wear. Whoever is chosen is the goddess for that entire year. Being the goddess becomes a part of their spiritual path, and for many it is a door opening or even an initiation. The dowagers are there to help Her through these processes.
JD: So in some ways the dowagers are a support group for the new goddess?
PD: Yes. We are there to explain how we have usually done it but, when we choose someone, we have to trust them, we have to have faith in their vision.
The dowagers are sort of an action committee to make Ravenna Ravine happen. Somebody needs to do invitations, and now there's an e-mail list to monitor. There is the Maypole to organize, ribbons to buy and banners to find and shake out. The dowagers meet with the new goddess several times and do at least one walk-through, taking care to groom the ravine by picking up trash as we go.
JD: Gender can be very fluid, but if we rely on the gender binary for this one question, what is the significance of the goddess being aspected by a male?
PD: When I have been in Reclaiming ritual and been asked to visualize being in the lap of the goddess, what comes to me, in true vision, is a male wearing a dress.
When someone who has a penis aspects the goddess, it says something about the inside of the man, something about his spiritual place in the world. We are not reversing gender roles here; you can only reverse roles when you limit yourself to two genders. What we are doing is celebrating the paradigm of gender fluidity. There have been two women who have been the goddess and several women have been the god; all of them understood that paradigm. This is a queer event, it's not that we are taking license, we are what we are. I don't have the right language to use here because I only have "he" and "she". Neither of these words really work for me and they certainly don't work for the goddess, Ravenna Ravine, although we always use queen-speak and use "She" in reference to Her.
JD: What role does the god play?
PD: The god of Green Lake is a somewhat minor character in this whole drama, usually taking direction from the goddess. Sometimes he is in charge of focusing celebrants and creating sacred space at the beginning. He is the goddess's personal support throughout the day.
JD: The event of Ravenna Ravine started with an intention. Do you think that intention has remained constant over the years?
PD: Yes. Shadings or flavors change every year. But I think the core is still around a spiritual Beltaine event for queers. Anybody is welcome to come, but I don't think this event is ever going to be about the fertility of male and female joining together. It's about fertility and fecundity of spirit and I don't think that has changed over the years.
JD: How do participants prepare for Ravenna?
PD: There is a range. There are those people who jump out of bed in the morning, decide to go to Ravenna and put on whatever is next to the bed. And there are those who spend months preparing themselves spiritually as well as putting together a costume.
Over the years we have had some amazing personas; a snake goddess from Crete, an Assyrian priest, visiting dignitaries from Vancouver and San Francisco, fairies, sprites, leather queens, various frog beings and several horned gods. I was once the Palace Eunuch of the Lost Court. One year someone was inspired by a cat sculpture at the Seattle Art Museum so they made a cat mask. They were channeling that cat deity throughout the year.
JD: How important is spectacle?
PD: It's a festival. It's a celebration. Bring drums and wear something bright! We do spectacle in Ravenna Ravine, but we really don't expect anybody to be watching. We are the celebrants and we are also the observers of our celebration. The spectacle aspect is about beauty, of both being in beauty and observing our beauty at the same time.
JD: It seems to me that how one approaches Ravenna is a personal issue. Even though it's a public spectacle, and people tend to dress up, how you do that is really your own personal work.
PD: It's like any other ritual -- how you prepare nourishes your experience; it's how your practice deepens.
As a child, I wanted to be outside wearing beautiful clothes. And that carries through today. There is this elemental quality that I am doing what I did in childhood, which is adorning myself outdoors, under the sky, creating altars in the woods, being seen by the fairies, being witnessed by earth, air, fire and water, but also honoring the elements by presenting myself in a beautiful way. We are here to give one another courage, whether it's by demonstrating in political protests on the street or demonstrating a love for the earth and humanness at Beltaine. I think that an important reason why we dress up and adorn ourselves is because we look around us and see the world is so beautiful that we want to be beautiful too.
JD: You said people come to you and say, "I would come, but I don't have a costume."
PD: If you saw the pictures, you might think that Ravenna Ravine was a costume epic or a springtime Halloween, when in fact, it's the spiritual intention around Beltaine that's more important than what you're wearing.
People have said, "I don't have time to make a costume, I don't know how." My answer is just put a wreath on your head and come. And more than one person has said that immediately transforms them. They wove some twigs together, put them on their head and suddenly they were at a festival. It's about not wearing everyday clothes to ritual. It's about changing into some sort of festival garb that is a manifestation of your essence and that puts you in a different place and time. It's not about what you wear -- but then fashion is the art of changing consciousness at will.
Copyright © 2006 by the article's author