The Mirror on the Floor
How A Girl Scout Dedication Ceremony Saved My Witchy Soul
I spent my school-year leisure time like many exceedingly privileged (yes, spoiled) young girls in Brentwood: gymnastics, art classes, ballet and tennis lessons. Danish au pairs shuttled me to and from a host of commitments designed to enrich and shape me. There was every reason to expect that my extracurricular activities would facilitate my eventual emergence as a successful, well-rounded, conforming member of my exclusive upscale community.
It begins at a young age with good reason: there were complicated rules of engagement in our neighborhood and there were standards I was expected to uphold. Somehow even I understood it at seven years old. I adopted all of the shame and confusion associated with squashing the deeper instincts that roared. I made a fair go of checking all the right boxes, saying all the right things.
During the school year, I understood the rules and I abided. Happily, even, for it pleased others so.
But summers — oooooh, summers — the rules did not apply.
Summers were another world altogether. Summers belonged to Denmark.
And summers in Denmark really ruined me for Brentwood.
Every June, to spare the expense of extending my au pairs for several months while they traveled, my parents sent me to join my grandmother (aka mormor) and extended Danish relations on the farm that had been in our family for centuries. (Feel free to take a moment to acknowledge my Danish family’s sacrifice: I was a spoiled only child from Brentwood. They deserve a moment of your compassion.)
Everything had a different shape on the farm.
We followed the seasons and the weather, not a schedule. The fine dresses in my suitcase were swept below the bed: I lived in corduroy and cotton, jumpers and shorts covered in grass and mud stains. I soared on a swing hung from an enormous ancient beech tree and giggled at chickens in the yard. I followed mice through endless wheat fields. I chased my cousins under white linens hung to dry in the summer sun. I picked wildflowers to place on the family graves.
With my mormor, I picked elder, chamomile, stinging nettles, and rose hips for teas and punches. I sucked on fingers sticky with sweet jam. I collected warm eggs from fluffy nests and snuggled half-feral cats for as long as they’d have me.
My mormor always had her hands in dough, dirt, pots, or canning jars; my aunt had her hands in clay, in wool, at the sewing machine, or on knitting needles.
My fingers moved lovingly and deliberately across the lace coverlets handmade decades before as I helped straighten beds and cover end tables before guests or extended family arrived.
I watched in awe as homespun yarn was soaked and dyed in mustard and turmeric. I steeped elder blossoms in syrup and trimmed the stems from herbs for drying. I stuck my nose and hands in every business they would allow.
All the while, I listened rapt as the women in the kitchen and the garden told tales of elves and gnomes.
They seemed to me not so much tales as history.
On sunny afternoons wide open with possibility, I’d borrow my cousin’s bike and pedal to Elverhøj, the “faery mound” at the outskirts of town, to eat my open-faced madpakke: cucumber sandwiches on pumpernickel and ham with havarti on mormor’s sourdough.
I lay with eyes to the sky, my ears to the ground, listening to whispers from the fae.
At dusk, I watched the tiny winged creatures catch and hold light over the garden. Before bed, my mormor prepared hot milk with chamomile and honey to help me sleep in spite of my jet lag. I would climb under a summer down comforter and slip into reveries rich with the images the day had conjured. There were faery tales from Han Christian Andersen and first-person accounts of our family’s role in smuggling Jews for the resistance in World War II.
Happy ever after was everywhere.
Family gatherings saw tables from every corner of the house extended in a long, straight line down the middle of the garden. Tall glass jars of elderflower punch were set out to calm the rowdy kids. The most lively among us slipped behind the enormous lilacs that separated the long garden from the makeshift soccer field to kick the ball and chase the day. Together, we exhausted ourselves talking, laughing, playing, singing, eating, and drinking. We were a veritable clan, ripe with eccentric personalities, rich in history, drenched in legacy. I tugged at apron strings and vest coat pockets in search of affection and stories.
At Sankt Hans, assembled family built an enormous bonfire with an effigy of a witch in keeping with tradition. One such evening, an elder woman at our bonfire assured me this was not an affront to the witch, but a blessing: witches were, after all, mostly wise women — misunderstood — who had been burned at the stake. She told me that each fire that night would send one such woman’s soul on to Bloksbjerg in Germany where it would finally join witch sisters in celebration and merriment to rival ours. (And ours, believe me, was epic.)
Looking across the landscape where other fires burned bright long into the night, I had hope for their joyful reunion.
For me, Denmark was magic.
While Brentwood seemed obsessed with what was new and trendy, Denmark celebrated what was ancient.
We mended and made things before discarding or buying. If it couldn’t be made, grown, raised, or bartered for on the farm, we weren’t likely to indulge it.
Denmark was steeped in lore, dripping in superstition, and ripe with knowing. It had hygge and faery tales, herbs and artisanal crafts. I left each summer with absurdly inspired, eccentric experiences. The Danish countryside is, after all, where I learned peacocks make great guard dogs and you never cross two knives.
From the slick and shiny cobbled stones laid in the courtyard a hundred years before to the family gravesite in the churchyard across the street to the runestones dotting the edge of the expansive wheat fields surrounding the farm, everything had a story….
It held a sense of imminent and immanent enchantment.
I expected — and found — something sublime and divine at every turn around the farm. Every celebration was a ritual, every experience a fable. And though I missed my parents and my friends in Los Angeles, I sulked (kicked, screamed, wailed, and, especially, pouted) to have to leave the farm at the end of every summer. Because I had no sense of magic in Brentwood.
Until I became a Brownie.
Based on the rules of the thing, I was likely 7 or 8 years old. While the age limits for Brownies — the early stage of Girl Guides or Girl Scouts — are often unique from organization to organization, I have reason to be confident in that window. For one thing, I was only in the Brownies as long as I was in public school — my parents pulled me out to go to Catholic school on the third day of third grade. And I know that my Brownie investiture ceremony took place at our house, something that could only have happened before my father got “sick.”
I hadn’t been to many Brownie meetups before my commitment ceremony, but I knew this much: Brownies were crafty.
The few times I joined the company of the other Brownie girls in the common room at Brentwood Elementary before my dedication, we got our hands on a host of otherwise unseemly things: scissors, felt, glue, yarn, sequins, yes, even glitter.
While art class instructors expected my work to meet or exceed expectations, my Brownie troupe leader was jazzed if I had fun and avoided injuring anyone with my blunt scissors.
I created ridiculous sparkling talismans and inspired, eccentric decorations for pagan holidays that had been appropriated by Christians. (I had no idea then that straw ornaments at Christmas were originally pagan ornaments for Yule, mind you — I didn’t care. My mormor had straw ornaments on her tree, so, DONE.) I clearly already knew in my blood and bones that my heart belonged to the evergreen tree and that thing that turned out to be Brigid’s Cross (and not the nativity).
At the crafts table during Brownie time, I got to show up.
So you can bet I was all about dedicating myself to being a Brownie: yes, please.
Our troupe leader prepared us for the ceremony by explaining its history: it had roots in a story about a family who wished their children were more industrious and helpful in the home and so longed for helpful elves called Brownies.
In the story, the children seek out the helpful Brownies in the magical woods. The resident owl instructs the children to perform a ritual at the edge of the pond in order to see the Brownies. When they seek the Brownies in the enchanted water’s reflection, they find themselves. (Okay….)
So, Brownies are industrious, obedient, considerate, helpful elves based on a short story. And Brownies are us! (Got it.)
And wanna-be Brownies like us recreate the ritual at the pond to dedicate ourselves. It’s the first step toward becoming a Girl Scout, selling cookies, making varsity cheerleading, marrying a doctor….
Or something like that.
I missed some parts because I went ELECTRIC the minute I understood we would be recreating a ritual grounded in forest magic.
I was absolutely supposed to be focused on the finer qualities of being a help in my house and getting in line to marry a doctor, but I had lost myself entirely in a tremendous shudder the moment I realized Brownies are elves and we were to become Brownies in a magical ceremony — sanctioned by adults — that was to be held at my house. I would never remember the part about cleaning, about being helpful. My every egg was in the “elf ritual”” basket.
On the day of the ceremony, my mom took an enormous mirror off the wall and set it on the living room floor. I walked around it gingerly, laying fresh oak leaves, acorns, and flowers to cover its gilded edge. When all the girls had assembled, our troupe leader explained to the parents present what we would be doing. To begin, she recited the poem she had chosen for our investiture…
“Cross your little fingers, stand up on your toes.
That’s a bit of magic, every Brownie knows.
Now we all are standing in a forest glade.
Listen very carefully, see the magic made!”
We approached the mirror one by one to complete the rhyme and take our oath in turn. My lips mouthed the final phrases with her before my mouth breathlessly delivered the magical last word:
“Twist me, and turn me, and show me the Elf —
I looked in the water, and saw…”
From the top of my flaxen hair to the toetips I stood lightly upon, I raised a cone of energy and sent a silent scream to every magical thing that had ever touched or taught me:
“I see the magic now!
I see it in myself.“
From the depths of my heart, I hoped the faeries at Elverhøj could hear me.
I got my pin and took my place among the new Brownies, flushed with pride and joy. The other girls came forward for their moments, but I don’t remember them.
I was still swimming in that mirror for I had jumped all in.
With the last new Brownie committed, our troupe leader asked us to close the circle…
But my fingers remained twisted, my heels stayed high. For there was cause for shenanigans. Every hope they might have had for me on a tight track to Girl Scouts, cheerleading, Ivy League colleges, dates with doctors, trite dinner conversation….. all were rent boldly asunder.
I made a commitment, all right, but I don’t think there’s a pin for it.
No…. I was a Brownie, an elf, a maker of mischief, a conjurer, a weaver of wild things. I knew about my kind; we had a reputation.
I was dripping with hopefulness about the magic in my house, the possibilities of this new path. Being a witch became about more than Halloween and bonfires…