Saturday, June 07, 2014

Sparky T. Rabbit

Sparky T. Rabbit
Peter B. Soderberg
Bruner Soderberg
3 February 1954 – 2 June 2014

Back in 1982, if memory serves, I attended the first CoG MerryMeet festival held outside of California, at Circle Pines in Michigan.  I was a very young Witch (not such a young woman, but a young Witch).  I had only been to two smallish, mainly local Pagan festivals, one being the first MerryMeet in ’81 and the other one in the hot, dry coastal hills of the East Bay.  I had no idea what to expect, but I was excited.  I was there for a reason, as a delegate from my Local Council to conduct the business of CoG.  That fact gave me some assurance of who I was and what I was doing out in the woods with a bunch of unfamiliar Witches.

We held our meetings under a pavilion, where I remember shucking Circle Pines-grown corn for the evening meal.

On the first day, I was wandering the grounds between sessions when I came upon two friendly men who introduced themselves and asked my name.  When I answered, the larger bearded man who wore a long black cassock-like garment, let out a tremendously loud and jolly laugh, and said, “Oh, you’re Macha NightMare!  I love that name.  It’s one of the best names I’ve ever heard.  How did you come to get it?”

“You’ve heard of it?” I replied in surprise.  Both men had read it in the old Reclaiming Newsletter (predecessor to Reclaiming Quarterly).  The man who expressed such delight in my name was Sparky T. Rabbit; his slender friend, who has an equally wonderful, wickeder-than-Sparky’s laugh of his own was Steven Posch.  We became absorbed in a lively conversation for some while.  Throughout the festival, we found ourselves together.

* * * * *
From then on we kept in occasional letter and telephone contact.  We did our best to keep up with each other, and when I had occasion to be in Minneapolis, a guest at Steve’s house, Sparky sometimes coordinated visits.

Some years later there, I think it was 1992, there was another MerryMeet at Circle Pines.  Sparky and I really fell in love during that visit.  When I wasn’t in meetings, we hung out, just the two of us, talking, singing, sharing songs and chants, exploring our respective experiences of culture, Pagan community in particular.  You know how it is sometimes – you’re in an unfamiliar environment for a brief period, a weekend or a few days, and you meet someone who captivates you, and who is mutually interested in you and your ideas, and you can’t get enough of each other?

Twisted River Witches

I remember Sparky telling me about his then-coven, the all-male Twisted River Witches, who did, as I recall, public activist magic, maybe on a bridge joining the Quad Cities?  I think it’s a wonderful name for a coven, indicating as it does the home from which they get sustenance, the place where the mighty Mississippi twists.  I don’t know that area at all, plus this memory has dimmed with the passage of time.  There is one wicked Witch from that coven who may be reading this.  He’s generally closeted due to his employment and I don’t want to transgress and ‘out’ him.  Perhaps he’ll share a story about the magical pranks (if pranks they were) done by the Twisted River Witches.

Another all-male coven, this one I think was all gay men, Sparky told me about was Sons of the Bitch in Kansas City.  One of the songs on Hand of Desire, Lunacy’s second and final album, “Praising Her Name,” includes the lyrics “Praising Her name, praising Her name, that Sacred Bitch, that Holy Witch.”  I love it!  I doubt the coven exists today; however, if anyone reading this can tell us more about it, I’d love to learn.

Radical Faeries

Sparky had some involvement with the Radical Faeries, as evidenced by this pithy quote:

“We are the equivalent of Shamans in modern culture,” said Peter Soderberg, during an interview at the 1985 Pagan Spirit Gathering. “Many gay men want to be middle-class Americans. They want to be respected as human beings and they want their sexuality to be ignored.  But radical faeries are willing to live on the edge.  We feel there is power in our sexuality.  You know there is a power there because our culture is so afraid of us.”  Margot Adler, 2006.

I invite anyone who can say more about Sparky and the Radical Fairies to tell us.  Mugwort of Nomenus has placed Sparky’s name on the fairie ancestors list.

"Wicked Witch of the Prairies"
Master Ritualist

In her 1995 anthropological study of contemporary Witches, Never Again the Burning Times, scholar Loretta Orion rhapsodizes about a Full Moon ritual at Pagan Spirit Gathering designed by Peter Sonderberg [sic], whom she says calls himself Peter the Big Blue Fairy.  I think Sparky hated that appellation, at least in later years he did.  Maybe he gave it to himself earlier.

Throughout the book she quotes liberally what Sparky had to say about ritual.  Ritual designers would do well to consider his ideas.  They have served me well.

One of the few opportunities I had to actually perform ritual with Sparky was at a festival in Wisconsin in 1999, “The Union of Earth and Sky: A Ceremony for Thor and Freyr,” I was honored to work with him and the crew he’d chosen, among them Elvis, K.J., Sonja, Melanie, Owl, Archer, Steven, Keith – you know who you are.  For me one of the most touching components of that ritual was the Man in the Moon and the Night-Time Stars.

Steven Posch, Macha, Sparky T. Rabbit
Here’s what some have said on Facebook[1] about Sparky’s ritual expertise:

Wisconsin Witch Mari Powers says, “He taught me that ritual can really rock in 1983. I will miss him very much.”  

Washington Druid Kirk Thomas says, “Sparky facilitated a trancey ritual at a gay men’s pagan festival I attended that was pretty life changing for me.  It was the first (and I hope, last) time I was ridden (non-consensually, no less) by a god.  It opened my eyes to that deity and his power.”

If anyone who was there reads this, I’d welcome your elaboration on your experience of this ritual, either in a comment below, or I’ll be glad to add it in a subsequent post of Sparky stories.

The Pagan Book of Living and Dying and Lunacy

In 1995 Sparky contributed his song “Lament for the Queer Dead” to Crossing Over: A Pagan Manual on Death and Dying, the prototype for what HarperSanFrancisco published in 1997 as The Pagan Book of Living and Dying.  The Lunacy a cappella singers, comprised of Sparky and Greg Johnson, recorded this true lament on their second album, Hand of Desire.  This album was released on cassette tape, but at the time of Sparky’s passing it was nearly ready for a digital release.  Speaking for myself, and others I’m fairly confident, that album will be made available as soon as practicable.  Right now Ray has business surrounding Sparky’s death to take care of.  Watch this space for updates.

The Irish say that music has three purposes: to elicit laughter, to induce calm and sleep, and to elicit tears.  I may not have that exactly right, but I’m certain that music fosters and enhances the experience of mourning.  “Lament for the Queer Dead” fulfills this charge.

Canadian Witch Jane Pawson says, “Oh this is so sad.  I loved the Lunacy tapes.  I have the fondest memories of Sparky at a very early [Reclaiming] B.C. Witchcamp.  He taught and his traveling companions taught that camp a lot.  Like how to dress for ritual and Ms Cow's Maxims and chants and just a more inclusive way of being.   

As a contributor to The Pagan Book of Living and Dying, Sparky describes himself as “a Faggot Witch from Illinois.” 

* * * * *

I think it was in 2000 that I visited my late friend Patricia Monaghan in Chicago, where I was presenting at a gathering that I think was called a Pagan Expo, Chicago.  Sparky was with his husband Ray in Chicago that weekend.  After the expo, we retired to an Irish bar downstairs for socializing.  Sparky had long admired Patricia’s work, her goddess scholarship in particular, and Patricia had long heard of Sparky.  I had raved about both to each other, so this was their first meeting.  The other first was that I finally got to meet Sparky’s beloved husband Ray about whom Sparky spoke often.  Afterwards I told Sparky how cute I thought Ray was, how lucky they were to have each other.  

Sparky & Ray Jump the Broom
Sparky and Ray spent nearly 31 years together.  I only recently learned that two friends here in California whom I’ve known for maybe 25 years officiated at Sparky and Ray’s handfasting.  (I’m not naming names due to uncertainty about their ‘out’ status.)

Pagan Summit

Pagan Summit, 2001
Due to my involvement in a dictionary project initiated by the Pagan Educational Network (PEN), I learned that organization expanded to sponsor what they called a Pagan Summit (not well-chosen title, in my opinion, but nonetheless that’s what it was).  Coordinated by Cairril Adaire and held at the University of Indiana in Bloomington in 2001, the summit organizers sought to include people the organizers considered influential.  Networking fool that I am, I insisted that some others I knew be invited.  Among them were Patrick McCollum, Deborah Ann Light, and Sparky T. Rabbit.  Sparky came as a delegate from the Twisted River Witches.

Sparky served as a sharp facilitator of consensus process breakout groups, a job made especially challenging by the fact that many had not experienced that kind of decision-making.  Sparky was an expert.  Attendee Jerrie Kishpaugh Hildebrand said, “I met Sparky at the Pagan Summit in 2001.  His brilliance around the use of consensus processed was as inspiring as his music.”

Heartland Pagan Festival

The one time I attended Heartland Pagan Festival in Kansas, Sparky came, too.  He’d been there before, I think, and he knew some of the organizers, Parsley being the one I remember best.  My friend Grey Cat from Tennessee, who’s on the Other Side now too, and I were two of the featured guests.  Sparky was there to give a workshop on ritual, in which he emphasized play and spontaneity, and to perform a concert.  Sparky drove there with his pal Beal from Chicago.  We four formed an odd group -- two Midwestern gay men, one Tennessee crone, and one uppity Californian -- shared a cabin not far from the communal showers and the dining hall, but away from the tent campers.  We talked and laughed and had a great time until late into the night.

I gave a workshop I call “Chants & Enchantment.”  Though Sparky and I had been friends for years, we rarely enjoyed face-to-face meetings, so we took this rare chance to experience each other’s teaching.  This workshop happens to be one of my favorites.  In fact, some of the chants we use were written by Sparky.

The first singing I do in this workshop is a Sufi meeting dance of sorts.  I learned it from Ginny Brubaker of Chicago at that very same Circle Pines MerryMeet where I met Sparky and Steven, in fact, although it turns out she learned it from someone here in Marin County, California.  In any case, this chant involves people looking into the eyes of each person in the circle.  (I tend to lead workshops with attendees seated or standing in a circle.)  When I got to that part, Sparky discreetly left.  Later I asked him, “Too California woo-woo?” He confirmed that fact with a nod.

Sacred Harvest Festival

Macha & Sparky at Sacred Harvest Festival
In 2004 Sparky and I, along with Ivo Domingo, Jr., presented at Sacred Harvest Festival in Wisconsin.  I had designed a special ritual for that weekend entitled “Witchual: A Spell.” We cast a spell to view the dark and light, in ourselves and in our communities; to recommit to Goddess; and to reclaim and honor stereotypes.  My design concept was influenced by Sparky and Steven, so I was especially eager to learn how Sparky had experienced it.  However, I have a rule not to critique ritual – every ritual deserves honest critique so that it can become as effective as possible – sooner than 24 hours afterwards.  Sparky laughed a lot that evening that I’d made that rule because he knew I was dying for his feedback.  I made it, though: the next evening he told me he loved it, and got specific about what worked and how.

* * * * *

Much of what Sparky and I shared had to do with Craft, ritual, Pagan community, Pagan groups and organizations, the massive dysfunctions we see that drive us nuts, as well as the ritualists, activists, and artists we respect and admire.  We’re passionate about all of the people and culture we love so much.  That, of course, is why we sometimes become frustrated.

Sparky was not a candidate for Mr. Congeniality, although he was a congenial man in my view; nor was he one for Mr. Popularity, although he was popular in the sense that people liked him and wanted to be around him.  But Sparky didn’t care what anyone thought of him when he spoke his mind.  He would get on a tear about some topic and he would work it and work it and work it until he reached some understanding, and satisfaction that his points were being understood and appreciated, if not agreed with.  I’m sure there are readers who’ve known Sparky, or maybe heathenbear or Bruner, on listserves.  We both got kicked off of one list due to Sparky’s persistence in a particular discussion of het male assumptions.  I had never actually taken a position in that fight, which is what it devolved into, but evidently my friendship with and support of Sparky was enough to get me banned.

At the festival from whose list we were banned.
From time to time Sparky would have a falling out with one friend or another, or more than one at the same time.  He held his grudges in a strong grip.  Eventually, with the passage of time and some perspective, rapprochement could be achieved.  Even forgiveness and renewed vows of friendship.  I am among those who did time away from Sparky for a hurt he felt.  In the end, though – and I’m sure of this from our conversation about a week before his passing – everyone forgave everyone else and he knew who loved him and he loved them back.

He regarded his identity as an artist as sacred.  He took pride of authorship; he insisted on proper attributions; he valued honesty.  He was a perfectionist of his creations.  And he expected nothing less of others.

When I felt I had to disassociate myself from the tradition of my forming, both as Witch and as tradition, Sparky was a tremendous source of support.  He helped me analyze the things that bothered me.  He sent me articles.  He opined.  He reminded me of old feminist analyses about the tyranny of structurelessness.  He took his concerns to the leaders and organizers of the larger community, via an international listserve.[2]  He phoned frequently to see how I was processing this big change.  He was a wonderful friend to me.

* * * * *

Upon learning of Sparky’s death, my friend Ivo Dominguez, Jr. wrote:

Sparky T. Rabbit’s voice is intertwined with the roots of my development as a witch, and we still use the chants that he wrote and the chants that he popularized within our covens today.  I played the cassettes for his two albums so often that I wore them out and had to buy replacements twice.  I cherish the one time that I had the opportunity to sing with him.  It is still a luminous fanboy moment for me.  I grieve the loss of such a beautiful man and his beautiful talents, but I also grieve that so many in the current generation of Pagans have not heard of him.  What is remembered lives.  Take the time to look him up and find copies of his music which is finally available again in digital formats.  Then you'll feel the joy of discovering his music, and also share my sense of loss as well.  May he go forth shining.

Abby Willowroot says, “and yet, the music lives on and nourishes all who and sing it. Many Blessings on the passing of this uniquely creative Pagan Spirit.  May the road he next walks be as inspired and fruitful as the Path just walked.  May All who feel this loss acutely be comforted, and may they soar as they perform rituals in Sparky's memory.”

Even in just that past three days I’ve run across several posts and articles I just have to talk with Sparky about.  It’s not that I have no one to explore these ideas with; I have good friends for that.  But they are not Sparky.  They do not have his unique perception, his sharp edge, his principled stand, his unwillingness to put up with bullshit.

There’s so much more to say!  I hope others will contribute – fill in blanks, offer stories not yet told.  I know many knew him in completely different contexts than I did.  Nothing here touches on his fondness for Lord Ganesha, his explorations of his Scandinavian heritage, so many other things.

The terms Sparky claimed for himself is *argr* seidhmadhr.  I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve forgotten what he said it means.  Can someone who reads this help me?

To Sparky, *argr* seidhmadhr, I say goodbye, dear friend.  May you find peace, wherever you are.  We who remain on this side will keep your light aglow, for what is remembered lives.

[1]   I’ve taken the liberty of copying some Facebook responses to Sparky’s death in order to share them with people who aren’t on Facebook.
[2]  For any Reclaiming folks who may be reading, I had nothing to do with Sparky’s presence on RIDL.  He, in fact, asked me to sponsor him and I declined, believing it inappropriate for me to do so.