Iwas doing the thing I swore I would never do. I was already covered in someone else’s blood, there was graveyard dirt in my ballet flats, the taste of tears was in my mouth, and I was gingerly feeling around a dead goat, getting goat’s hair all over me.
Hecate. You and your damned ring quest.
And I, the mistress of your charms,
The close contriver of all harms,
Was never called to bear my part,
Or show the glory of our art?
—Hecate, Macbeth, Act 3, Scene 5—
Experience Happens in a Warehouse
The closest to that Greek theater/initiatory experience that I’ve gotten in life is seeing Sleep No More in New York City. First, you’re wearing masks and you’re not to speak. Second, each room is amazingly detailed as it took more than four hundred volunteers to put the rooms together. Third, they separate you from whomever you came with so that you can have a solitary experience.
Mash up a silent, super sexy modern dance version of Macbeth with Rebecca, put it in a huge warehouse that you’ve turned into a world from the 1930s containing a hotel, infirmary, insane asylum, graveyards, and woods, and you’ve got the performance, more or less. Each performance lasts about an hour and then (mostly) loops three times to give you a dream-like experience. There are smells everywhere along with music and dramatic lighting. You’re allowed to follow whatever characters you like and ransack the rooms at your leisure (they have stewards/guides watching you, masked and silent). If it gets to be too much, you can hang out at the bar which looks and sounds like a club in an old movie where they have actors and musicians singing and you can remove your mask. Sometimes, a celeb du jour will sneak in and sing “Summertime” at the club while the performance is going on.
All during the production, rooms are opening and closing (and locking and unlocking) so you’re never sure where you’ve been or what you’ve seen. If that wasn’t enough, there are rooms that only a few people will get to see a night because an actor has to take you to them. It’s been estimated that anyone who goes only sees one-sixteenth of the show in a night.
That particular night, I saw Hecate and followed her back to her lair. She ate raw meat from a locked container and coughed up a ring from it as delicately as a cat coughing up a hair ball and gave it to her chosen ghost-girl (ghosts refer to the audience). Zhauna Franks was playing her that evening. She seemed to envision Hecate as Marilyn Monroe as she was off the set from a movie. She flirted, she played, but she had a razor’s edge underneath her and an obvious intelligence about her, and it was one of the most glamorous things I had ever seen. When she was playful, it was so genuine and sincere which made her performance that much more nuanced because it also made her sharpness that much sharper.
She then took the stage in the abandoned club and proceeded to give her performance of “Is That All There Is?” As I watched Hecate morph from all of those life change moments, sometimes laughing, sometimes smiling sardonically, sometimes filled with joy, sometimes crying her heart out only to laugh again, something inside me just broke. Was this all there was? Would it ever feel like enough, no matter how much I succeeded? I started sobbing behind my mask, my hand unconsciously clutched at my crow skull necklace and the other circled around my stomach. It was too loud for anyone to hear me. I was masked, and it was too dark for anyone to see me. I turned my face from her and brushed the tears from under my mask as surreptitiously as I could. I felt wrung dry and I wanted to be a ghost in the sea of ghosts, following quietly behind so I could process everything.
Hecate immediately zeroed in on me as she sashayed to the other side of her den. She put her hand on my shoulder, as if to give me comfort for a moment, and I relaxed under her hand. As soon as she felt me relax she got very close in my face and laughed mockingly. My shoulders slumped. If I’m being completely honest, even though I can’t say what Zhauna’s personal intent was exactly, my exact thought was, “the goddesses can be such jerks sometimes.” I also knew that she was looking to see what I would do. I straightened my shoulders resolutely and looked her dead in the face, my gaze steady and resolute. She grabbed my hand, led me to her secret parlor door, and told me to wait outside it—she had something for me.
I waited. Only a moment later, she came for me.
She drew me into her private rooms and immediately took off my mask. I was scared down to my toes because being unmasked in the McKittrick (where everything takes place) feels like taking off your clothes in the middle of a church, but I was also grinning like a lunatic. I wondered if my makeup was smeared from crying and from sweat. She got very close to me and touched my face where the tears had been. She then gently but hopefully pulled underneath my eyes, possibly hoping to collect more tears. When there were none, she opened my mouth and poured a vial of tears onto my tongue. I swallowed obediently.
She started telling me a faery tale about a ship at sea, an arrogant boy, and a lost ring. She spun me around and dragged me into a pitch-black room while I was off kilter. She told the story while my breaths came in gasps and my heart raced in terror and excitement, sometimes whispering in my ear, sometimes howling it from a few feet away. While she was built like a dancer (small, slight, delicate) and I am not, she threw me around this pitch-black room like a rag doll, letting my body thump against the walls. She put my hand to one of the walls, which felt like grass, explaining how this foolish, vain boy had lost her ring. I tried vainly to find it in the grass even though I logically knew from the fandom-verse it wasn’t there. She spun me again and hissed in my ear, “Find me my ring.” She put my mask back on me and pushed me out of her room. I stood there gasping for a moment while a steward (the black masked attendants who are there to make sure we don’t step too out of line) watched covertly.
My shoulders slumped again. My exact thought was, “The ring quest?! Is she serious?! WHAT ARE YOU TRYING TO TELL ME, GODDESSES?”
The ring quest, in case you’re not familiar, is the Holy Grail of quests in the McKittrick, and not in a good way. Is it possible to complete? Yes. Are you about as likely to complete it as you are to win the lottery or get struck by lightning? Yes. The ring is hidden somewhere in the McKittrick. They move it every night. The McKittrick is roughly the size of almost a full city block. The ring is the size of an actual ring for your hand. Vaya con Dios, sport!
Previously, I swore never to look for the ring. It seemed like a colossal waste of time to me when you could be eating purloined candy and frolicking with Witches. Also, from what I had gathered from the fandom-verse, if you did find the ring, you’d be given another even more impossible quest, which would make me flip a table. Thanks, but no thanks!
I caught my breath. I dully tried to consider what it could possibly mean to me on a Witchcraft level (the game within the game for me at Sleep No More), that I would be sent on a quest like this. Even if I was able to complete it, I knew I would only be sent on a much harder quest.
Later, when recounting my tale to Jow over Indian food, he remarked, “So your reward for completing really difficult work is to be given even more difficult work?” I closed my eyes and briefly considered dashing my brains against the glass encasing the restaurant’s sweets case as that has indeed been my life experience, and it’s just as frustrating as it sounds. But it’s true. It will only get harder. It’s what success breeds. The better you do, the harder you have to work in artistic pursuits. There are very few actual overnight successes, if any. And if you are successful, generally it’s expected that your future work should be even more successful. No pressure.
It is, however, difficult to ignore a direct order barked at you by a symbolic goddess. While my brain was spinning too much to process all this in the moment, I knew I was meant to go on the expedition as it was presented to me. I started looking for the ring. I went to floors I would usually avoid: the hospital with its torn up padded cell, wet clothes, and the smell of iodine in the air; the dirt-filled cemetery with its creepy empty baby buggy; the maze in the woods with the taxidermied goat. I pushed myself to look places I would never look. Sticking my hands into dark fountains feeling their algae-ish bottoms, plunging my hands into salt cellars, unsure what was under the salt.
(Side note: I hate putting my hands into things. Like, I never liked finger painting as a child, making meatloaf is gross, and so on. I’ll do those things when the occasion calls for it but I hate it and I’ll go out of my way to avoid it.)
I was picking up everything I came across and shaking bottles and boxes, listening for a tiny clink clink so I knew if I needed to investigate further, opening drawers and teapots. The stewards watched me warily, but I was always very careful and very gentle, as well as mindful of putting everything back exactly as I found it. After a little while, they seemed to know what I was doing. Sometimes, I would actually catch them talking on their walkies as I was entering a room, though they would fall silent quickly. I didn’t know if they were talking about me (likely not) but I wanted to shout, “Hotter or colder? I just need a hint!” I started to get to that trance/dreamlike place where I couldn’t tell where I was going anymore or what floor I was on or where I had been. I was beyond worn out. I barely sat in the hours up to that point, but I was outside of myself by then, searching and searching.
I didn’t find the ring that night, as you might expect. I drove back to New Jersey exhausted and worn thin.
Your Ring Cycle
Make no mistake about it: your Great Work is your ring quest. Hopefully, you will eventually find your ring. But it will not signal that your Great Work is finished; it is much more likely that it will mean that your Great Work is evolving along with your glamour into a more difficult journey with greater rewards and greater risks. In the musical Into the Woods, Cinderella starts her story by wishing to go to the festival; by the second act she’s wishing to sponsor a festival. The song “Ever After” only lasts two minutes and twenty seconds. Two minutes and twenty seconds of contentment, satisfaction, and happiness out of seventy-six minutes of the entire musical.
The wishes get bigger, the stakes get higher, and every time the characters think they’ve finished, they need to go back into the woods. You are always, always, always going back into the woods. There will be moments of accomplishment and joy, but it is just that: moments. Savor them, be present for them, but accept that you aren’t finished.
You are never finished with working/Working in this life until you drop dead, and then it’s onto something new. It’s okay to feel frustrated or even angry about feeling like you are just on to the next quest instead of having the satisfaction of having completed your quest forever and ever, amen. Once you achieve your current Great Work, take a victory lap. Celebrate however feels appropriate to it and be as present as you can be and be all in. Throw a party, have drinks at a fancy place with your significant other and bestie, eat a whole pizza, rove through your city consuming brunch until there’s no more brunch to be had, buy fancy shoes, go dancing, go to a festival and make new camp friends, go hiking, do whatever feels most you and doesn’t introduce new problems into your life.
After your victory lap (which should last a week at most) and when you are starting to feel adrift, seal the end of this Great Work.
Esoteric Experiment No. 17
Objective: End your current Great Work and
start the glimmer of your next Great Work.
Choose your favorite natural place: where the ocean is glorious, a tiny stream that runs through your yard. a swamp with cypress trees strewn with moss, a historical monument to a battle from long ago, a forest carpeted in wildflowers. Bring offerings that will be friendly to the land: fresh ground cherries, spring water, oat cakes, flowers. Bring a project that will free your mind, along with any provisions you may want or need to be comfortable: a delicate shawl you are knitting, a jacket you are embroidering, a letter featuring your calligraphy addressed to a friend, a good pen and a stack of cards that you like. Arrange your offerings in a way that you find pleasing. Offer it to any goddesses or spirits who have assisted you and thank them. Write notes to any humans who have helped you and mail them or give the notes to your humans. Take a deep breath and make yourself comfortable. Formally seal the end of this Great Work using whatever methods feel natural to you: write the intention down and then seal it closed and bury it or cast it out to sea, draw blood and use it to seal your Work shut, inscribe a beeswax candle with your Work and let it burn itself out. Let your goddesses and spirits know that you are sealing this Work closed by giving an invocation out loud that flows from you naturally. Settle into your project until you find a natural trance space. What place appears next on your internal palimpsest?
You started out with a small ask with your glamour. Something unearned by you but freely given to you. Now your ask is much bigger—you accomplished your Great Work and you need to move on to the next Great Work in your ring cycle. You can do this by working through the Esoteric Experiments again in this book as they are meant to work cyclically. Working through everything again will give you a chance to keep your glamour as a finely honed blade. To ensure that your glamour keeps shining and growing, you need to keep using it. How is your glamour different now than it was when you first started? What have you learned about using your glamour? What mistakes have you made? What trespasses have you made against your moral compass? Where has using your glamour been more difficult than you expected? Where has it flowed easier than you had anticipated? Have you been able to integrate your practical work with your glamour work so they flow together seamlessly? What has become easier for you, and what is now more difficult? You can ask yourself these questions at the end of each cycle and keep a journal of your answers so you can see where you’ve changed. Something that may have been easier in a previous cycle may be harder now and vice versa.
But now, oh now. Now, you’ve wiped out of your mouth the bitterness of being overlooked and overwhelmed. You’ve thrown off the cloak that was smothering you with rejection and societal expectation. You cast aside the shoes that scarred your feet with failure, idleness, and apathy. You’ve battled your way past your oppressors who said you would never make it to the throne room because you are Other. You’ve thrown down with your opposition until they were forced to cede their ground to you. You’ve drunk with the turncoats and convinced them to turn their coats again, by sheer force of your glamour. You are bruised, you are bloodied, you are exhausted. You’re here. You’re finally here. You own the space you stand in, flush with your glamour and the strength of your Witchcraft. The Moon card. The Star card. The World card.
What will you do?
Pick up that crown off the ground and never look back.