November 16, 2013

Nothing that is original can perish: Lady Olivia Robertson, 1917-2013

Bear with me. This will be long and full of feelings, but these are things I haven't been able to talk about for a very long time. In the spirit of Olivia Robertson, an amazing spiritual woman who always had the knack to be able to be herself without judgment or censorship who passed to the Beautiful West yesterday, I'm going to present my thoughts here, in her honor, and in her memory. I will miss her more than I know how to express.

I read about it in the back of Rolling Stone when I was 13. "Fellowship of Isis," the little ad said. "International Goddess organization."

The ad caught my attention at a curious time. I'd recently lost my maternal grandfather, and his final words to me, "what are you going to do with your life?" were a mandate. I'd asked my parents for a hiatus from church. Sitting in the place where I'd had to watch that funeral was the last place I wanted to be, plus I was dealing with my emotions around well-intentioned but misguided behavior from relatives who suggested in televangelist-fueled wisdom that Grandpa might not have gone to heaven, due to his not having attended church. I didn't blame God or Jesus – I was more than certain that Grandpa was right with Them – but I found myself dissatisfied with a structure that suggested heaven was only something you got if you had enough punches on your churchgoing card.

It wasn't a typical teenage rebellion. I didn't go running to some opposite. Atheism held no appeal, and neither did Satanism. Instead, I spent a lot of time in the woods, in the library, in solitude thinking about what my grandfather had taught me by his life. I considered every Christian sect and then everything outside Christianity. After my review, I became a Buddhist. Meditation was helpful and I enjoyed the practice, but found myself troubled by that First Noble Truth. While I could agree that life is often suffering...I couldn't agree that it was suffering all the time, that everything was always doomed. I loved the world and the people and things in it too much. And if I couldn't get past the religion's first tenet...well....Of course, now I know better, even having had the honor to speak about it personally with the Dalai Lama once, but that's a story for another day, and I wasn't meant to be a Buddhist apparently.

So I retreated into the Egyptian mythology I'd read off library shelves since elementary school. I wondered what the world would've been like, had the Battle of Actium ended differently, or Julius Caesar had opted to listen to his wife and stay home on a certain March morning. I wondered whether ancient Egyptian deities even existed anymore.

And then I saw the ad, and I wrote a letter, and my adventure began.

About three weeks after, I got a brown paper packet in the mail. It was covered with ink and colored pencil drawings. Inside, I found a handwritten letter on yellow paper from a woman who said she was Olivia Robertson, co-founder of the Fellowship of Isis (FOI), and absolutely yes, Isis was alive and well and so were all the other gods and goddesses and they were being worshipped all over the world and it was about time since the world had gotten to be so very violent and wouldn't I like to read the Manifesto? (Those of you who know Olivia can probably hear her voice in that last sentence. She really talked like that when she was excited.)

Beneath the letter, there were several FOI booklets and a book about Isis, signed personally by Olivia, and a personal photograph of an altar, on which she'd written a description and a personal blessing. I was touched that this person who led thousands of people would take the time to talk to little old me.

Then I balked. 'Manifesto'? Lady, I'm a minor, do you have any idea what my mother would do if she knew you were mailing manifestos to hapless teenagers? And how much money is this going to cost me? Is this a joke? Is this a hippy version of the Billy Graham Crusade I just stopped giving my summer job money to? Or is this like that weird New Age cult that sent me information last summer? 

So I sat on the packet for a few weeks, but then my curiosity got the better of me and I took out the booklets and read them all. I wrote Olivia back, realizing that she was Lady Olivia, and that she was a writer and an artist and a visionary and a poet and the most interesting person I had ever read about....and she was talking to me! And she kept writing back. Our correspondence went on for years. Did I believe everything she said? Not really. But she believed it, and as a result of that openhearted approach to the world, she lived in a far more beautiful world than I did. And I wanted to know more about that world.

Eventually, I signed the Manifesto (sorry, Mom) and joined the Fellowship. During college, I opened an Iseum, and signed up for priesthood training with an FOI subgroup. Two years after college, I was ordained as an FOI Hierophant during the 1993 Parliament of World Religions. During that powerful week, I also finally got to meet Olivia, that incredible woman I'd been corresponding with for a decade. Olivia was exactly as I'd always imagined her to be, somehow. I also met the Rev. Deena Butta, an FOI archpriestess who lived in Chicago, as well as many other FOI members and friends.

Things went a little strange. The subgroup I was with split with the FOI, due to politics. I was advised, then ordered, to stop speaking to Olivia, told that she was the reason it had all happened. I wrote to Olivia despite that order, because I couldn't just walk away from our friendship, and I hoped to understand. Three weeks later I got another familiar brown packet, but this one broke my heart.

"Derry [Olivia's brother] and I regret to inform you that we cannot accept your initiation as Hierophant due to disagreements on the results of your attunement. We grant you the title of Priestess for now. Isis requests that you reflect on your next actions...."

I was devastated. I'd worked hard, I'd done everything I'd thought I was supposed to do with my mentor, and when things felt wrong, I'd reached out to Olivia to tell her that our friendship meant more to me than any title or training, from her or anyone else. I felt abandoned, guilty, angry, sad, all at once. I wrote back, I phoned, I begged others to contact Olivia on my behalf. No response came. My mentor informed me that this was just proof that the politics were the FOI's fault, and I should just quit and forget them.

Something was still wrong. I contacted Deena, and poured my heart out to her over lunch. She did not offer any advice, only listened, and then nodded and said, "well, what does your heart tell you to do?"

I resigned from my mentor's teaching. I didn't resign from FOI, but stopped participating, and I withdrew from the Chicago neopagan community, during which time I did a lot of thinking and praying and trying to understand. Later that year, my own students and our small study group's co-founder voted to organize as a temple, and the House of Bast, the temple that eventually became the House of Netjer, was born. We worked hard, and had many successes, but I regretted the way things had gone with the FOI. I held out hope that I might hear from the person who had first let me know that I could even be in an Egyptian religion, again one day. Even in the face of her silence, I wanted to make Olivia proud.

Several autumns after I'd gone to Egypt, become Nisut, come home, and continued my work, I got a call from Deena. "Olivia's coming to town for a few days. She'd like to see you," she said. "We're having a private dinner the night before our FOI conference, if you'd like to come?"

I had no idea what to expect, but nothing in Deena's voice sounded negative. So I packed up a gift and some food to share, and went. It was a full house, and I knew barely anyone, so I went into the kitchen and made myself useful. Then suddenly everyone was leaving and Olivia appeared behind me and said, "I wonder if you wouldn't mind staying a bit, so we can chat."

We sat down. Olivia reached out and put her hand on my shoulder. "I wanted you to know that I wanted to write you all this time. But Isis wouldn't let me." Suddenly, I wondered if she was talking about something else, but then she got that look that said that you were about to hear something important. "She told me to keep silent about everything that was happening. I was so very, very cross with Her! I hadn't any idea why she would want us to stop talking to you, but She was absolutely insistent...."

By then, though, I knew, and I told Olivia so. I had been content as a student and a servant where I was. With those added years of experience, I finally understood that I never would have had the courage to go out and do the deeper work my gods were demanding of me, those things that had required so much more training and responsibility, if I'd been permitted to stay in that comfortable little space I'd carved out for myself in 1993. I'd needed a push off that cliff. Isis provided it in the form of the one person who was listening to what She wanted, since I certainly hadn't been at that time.

Olivia understood. "I'm sorry," she said, then she laughed. "Well, I'm not sorry about that! I'm so pleased with that bit. But I'm sorry that I couldn't tell you what was wrong. I just had to trust that you would do what She wanted. Now, tell me about all this work you're doing to serve...."

So many years of emotion, so much pain, and then a simple apology and onward, like nothing had ever gone wrong? In most conversations, I don't think people can shift out of those spaces that quickly. But with Olivia, that was every day. Her innocence, her ability to be 100% in any moment, let her do that, and it was refreshing and beautiful. Would that all of us could be that open, that sincere, that capable of just being ourselves.

Like the Isis she loved so much, Olivia was a consummate shapeshifter: not to conceal or deceive, but able to fit herself into any situation, any mood, whatever was needed at the time. She did so effortlessly, with an eccentric, brilliant heart made of love. She spoke her mind, she truly tried to listen, and she accepted everything and everyone.

In 2011, during her usual autumn visit, Olivia told Deena that she wanted to see me again, but privately, not during the usual gathering. When I asked why, I was told that Olivia wanted to renew the vows I had originally taken in 1993 if I was willing, to "fix what had been left unfinished," as Deena put it. On October 29, I was re-consecrated as a priestess in the Fellowship.

Left to Right: Rev. Kiel, Rev. Deena, myself, Rev. Ray and Lady Olivia.

Later that afternoon, we ate and talked while watching movies and entertaining various guests. That evening, I gave her a goodbye hug, and for some reason, we both ended up crying. I looked down (Olivia wasn't very tall in stature, but huge in spirit) to see what was wrong, and she just nodded and stared at me for a minute, then and whispered in my ear, "You do your Mother's work." I nodded back and promised I'd keep trying, then hugged Deena goodbye and headed home.

I didn't get to see either of them again. Two months later, I moved to California, and after my father's death at the end of September 2012, I was unable to attend any 2012 FOI-related events. Deena passed to the Beautiful West in January 2013. Now, Olivia has gone to catch up with Deena, with her own brother, with our friend Isaac (whom she persisted in calling "Simon," and I still don't know why) and with all the other wonderful beings she'd already been talking to for most of her life. If I envy Olivia anything, it's that she probably had less of an issue with death than most of us ever will, since she spent most of her life halfway on that side anyhow. I am certain she will have many more adventures. I might even keep sending her letters. Surely, someone over there has some brown paper envelopes, though postage costs must be astronomical....

Joan Forest Mage, a Chicago FOI priestess, posted some of the lines from the Dolce Domum ritual that Olivia wrote for the Fellowship as a memorial. One of them jumps out at me: "Nothing that is original can perish." If that's the case, then Lady Olivia Robertson will outlive the end of time.


  1. Hail and senebty, Lady Olivia. Maybe she will run into my mother during the transition period, too.

  2. A heartfelt, sad and beautiful post.

    Thank you.

  3. This was so beautifully written. I could feel those feelings of hurt and questioning...Your writing captured those experiences so well. Thank you for sharing.

  4. Thank you. We had a long time together, some of it bittersweet, but all of it profound. I miss her.

  5. Just beautiful, very moving, and FULL of the Lady Olivia spark I know only too well❤ Thank you so much for sharing your personal experiences. These are a treasure. Senebty!