Dispatches

Husbands and Wives

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 DISPATCHES

Husbands And Wives

        



This was not supposed to be a story about geek love. This was supposed to be a story about a group of people in northern California who practice a way of life known as “polyamory.” Polyamorous people, or polys, as they call themselves, love many people.


     

And a poly doesn’t just love those people, he or she has sex with them, even when some are married to other people who live in their house, many of whom the aforementioned poly is already having sex with anyway.


     

From the start, I knew that the most public polyamorous family in the United States, the Ravenhearts, belonged to the Church of All Worlds, a neo-pagan religion based on Robert A. Heinlein’s 1961 science fiction novel Stranger in a Strange Land; I’d read about it on their website. The eldest family member, Oberon Zell Ravenheart, founded the religion back in 1962.
Even still, when I started researching a story about them, I considered their interest in science fiction and its sister genre, fantasy, incidental to the more unusual story of their numerous sexual relationships. But when I meet Oberon, who opens the gate to the privacy fence and greets me with a hug, the first thing I notice is his black T-shirt reading NEVER THIRST (one of the tropes from Stranger in a Strange Land). After that first clue, additional conversations quickly made it clear that there is no separating their prolific sexual activity from the fact that they attend ritual events with names like Eleusinian Mysteries and have culled the bulk of their personal philosophies from science fiction novels.


     

Not all neo-pagans are polys and not all polys are neo-pagans, but earth-based, or “neo-pagan,” religions like the Church of All Worlds are among the few that acknowledge multiple marriages without regard to gender (Wiccanism, which people tend to be more familiar with, is another). That means that followers of these religions are in an environment more accepting of polyamory than most. But, as the Ravenhearts would be the first to tell you, polyamory is not faith-specific; polyamory is a state of mind. The Ravenhearts took their name three years ago when they were living on a remote California ranch surrounded by ravens. They also claim that a Ravenheart invented the word “polyamory,” combining the Greek and Latin roots, respectively, for “many” and “love,” using the term in an article about the practice. None of the Ravenhearts are related by birth. In polyamorous terminology (their own), they are known as a “nest.” Today they occupy a large house and an adjacent smaller house (which has four apartment units and often houses friends and other lovers) in Sonoma County, about forty-five miles north of San Francisco.
There are three men, all heterosexual, and three women, all bisexual. They range in age from twenty-one to fifty-seven. According to the Church of All Worlds, they are allowed to marry additional partners of either sex via an ancient pagan ritual called a “hand fasting.”


     

Although their coupling arrangements are best outlined with a map or flow chart, a description of who sleeps with whom goes something like this: Oberon, 57, has been legally married to his wife, Morning Glory, 53, for 26 years. In 1996, they celebrated a hand fasting with a man named Wolf, 36, who just this past August formally married Wynter, 21. Though Oberon and Wolf refer to themselves as each other’s husbands — “I can’t imagine life without my husband, Wolf,” Oberon says — they don’t have sex; Morning Glory and Wynter consider themselves each other’s wives, and they do. Morning Glory also has sex with Oberon and Wolf. When Wynter became an official Ravenheart three years ago, she had a brief sexual relationship with Oberon, which has since moved into what Oberon describes as a “mentor/apprentice” dynamic. Oberon also has sex at least twice a week with Liza, 46, who is also the lover of Jon, 24. The Ravenhearts get regular tests for STDs and never have sex outside the family without using condoms. Oberon sounds like Timothy Leary and looks like Papa Smurf. He has a long gray hair and a long gray beard and tends to pepper his philosophical musings with references to popular culture and Crosby, Stills & Nash song lyrics.


     
“Did you see the movie Pleasantville?” Oberon asks. “My childhood was very much in that era. But all my models were characters in myths. I imprinted my ideas of romance and sexuality not from popular romance and literature but from science fiction and fantasy, where you could do anything you wanted.”


     

Oberon and I, along with Morning Glory and Wolf, are sitting around the coffee table in the family’s living room. The room has high ceilings and exposed beams and is decorated with lots of goddess posters and ceramic figurines, many of which are creations of Mythic Images, the Ravenhearts’ statuary business. “I probably have more sex than your average porn star,” says Wolf. “But it’s not that our drive is higher. Our availability of sexual partners is pretty high. My biggest problem is how to say no gracefully. Because, according to the women, I’m fairly pretty. I get a lot of offers.”


     

At thirty-six, Wolf looks a lot like what you’d expect someone named Wolf to look like: long wavy brown hair, beard, thick eyebrows growing together in the center. He’s what’s known as a “gamer,” meaning he likes to get together with friends and play games like Civilization and Space 1889, a Dungeons and Dragons?style role playing game. When I first met him he was wearing a T-shirt printed with a mythical image accompanied by the words winter is coming. I couldn’t bring myself to ask if it was a winking reference to his wife of a few days, Wynter.


     

“Monday and Tuesday nights Liza and Oberon are together,” Morning Glory explains. “But Liza and Jon are going away to the Loving More conference this weekend and then they’re going to the Zeg community summer camp
so it’s important that Liza and Oberon get some time to spend together. And Wolf has been ill with the flu so he and I have been kind of not together. So normally I would have been alone. But last night Wynter had a date canceled with her outside boyfriend so she came to me and said, ‘Hey, how about we have a date?'”


     

To keep the arrangements straight, the Ravenhearts have a calendar hanging on their kitchen wall on which they write their “sleep schedule.” A work in progress, it is crammed with names and dates and times, crossed out and rewritten again and again. The family members stress that the schedule is “fluid,” that if someone is not in the mood for a date with a particular person there’s no obligation to keep it. And occasionally, one family member may crash another pairing’s date. “If someone comes up to the hot tub, they’ll always ask, ‘May I join you?'” explains Wolf. “If you want to be alone, you just say so.”


     

Sometimes Morning Glory, Wolf and Wynter get together and have sex. Sometimes Morning Glory, Wolf and Oberon have sex. And although a great deal of their conversation revolves around the topic of sex — “for us, sex is like going to the grocery store,” says Wolf — the Ravenhearts don’t come down for breakfast and spill every detail of the previous night’s encounter. “We talk amongst ourselves about our desires and about what turns us on,” says Wolf. “But we don’t just get up in the morning and chew the fat about what went on. Someone might say, ‘Hey, it sounded like you broke a chandelier last night,’ but that’s about it.”


     

Not surprisingly, the Ravenhearts are as comfortable with nudity as they are with their sexuality. Wolf points out that, during my visit, the Ravenhearts have gone out of their way to keep themselves clothed. “When it’s hot, Oberon hardly ever wears clothes,” he says. “We think nothing of walking around in the yard naked. That’s why we have the privacy fence.”


     

They’re also free to stop sleeping with someone if they want, although the implication is that they’ll eventually start up again.


     

“Someone would just say, ‘I’m entering a non-sexual phase in our relationship for a while and we just need to be in that space for a while,'” says Morning Glory. “And everyone needs to be okay with that if they’re given that message. And what’s nice is that there’s always someone else in the family who can take up the slack so you’re not just totally left out in the cold.”


     

Not that it happens very often.


     

“We’re all here because we’ve chosen to be here,” says Morning Glory. “We’ve made a commitment to each other.”


     

“People talk about commitment and assume that we must not be interested in it, but the thing is we love commitment,” says Oberon. “The hard thing is finding other people who want to make commitments to us.”

     

The Ravenhearts do take care to establish some boundaries and order in their lives. “The sleep schedule came out of a desperate need to know where our beds were going to be that night,” says Morning Glory. “We had some family meetings where we kind of broke down the week. We tried to figure out a place where everybody had somebody that they wanted to sleep with at least once or twice a week and that they also got time alone.”


     

For most Ravenhearts, “time alone” occurs no more than one night a week. “Typically, I will sleep with Morning Glory on Mondays and Tuesdays,” says Wolf. “Wednesdays every other week I’m out of town. I have friends in Sacramento. I game with them and come back Thursday morning. Typically Wynter and I are together Thursday and Friday. Weekends are always chaotic, often there’s a festival
or something. I have occasional dates with my girlfriend in San Francisco, about once a month. I try to get at least about one night to myself a week. Otherwise I go nuts.”They’re also free to stop sleeping with someone if they want, although the implication is that they’ll eventually start up again.

     
“Someone would just say, ‘I’m entering a non-sexual phase in our relationship for a while and we just need to be in that space for a while,'” says Morning Glory. “And everyone needs to be okay with that if they’re given that message. And what’s nice is that there’s always someone else in the family who can take up the slack so you’re not just totally left out in the cold.”

     
Not that it happens very often.

     
“We’re all here because we’ve chosen to be here,” says Morning Glory. “We’ve made a commitment to each other.”

     
“People talk about commitment and assume that we must not be interested in it, but the thing is we love commitment,” says Oberon. “The hard thing is finding other people who want to make commitments to us.”




Though the present incarnation of the Ravenhearts was unforeseeable to Morning Glory and Oberon when they met back in 1973, they made it clear from the start that they wanted such a family. The scene was the third annual Gnostic Aquarian Festival, a psychic phenomena conference in Minneapolis. Oberon was delivering a lecture on the Gaia Hypothesis. Morning Glory had hitchhiked to the conference from Eugene, Oregon, where she was living on a commune with her husband and four-year-old daughter. Though she had an open marriage — “that was the only way I would have ever agreed to be with anyone,” she says — her husband was less enthusiastically poly than she was. “He was really more of a Buddhist,” Morning Glory says. She tried to set him up with other partners, but he remained, for the most part, stubbornly faithful.

     
Morning Glory looks considerably younger than her fifty-three years and might indeed be a testament to the theory that sex keeps the aging process at bay. She has long reddish hair, long legs and noticeably large breasts well-suited to her status as a “Priestess of Aphrodite.” From the podium where Oberon was lecturing at the festival where they met, Oberon noticed her figure — “she was preceded by herself,” he laughs — as well as her elaborate hippie get-up.

     
After Oberon’s lecture, he and Morning Glory felt that they were pulled toward each other by a magnetic force. “We kissed and touched and just connected and it was clear that we were going to be together,” Morning Glory says. “I said to him, ‘I know what we have is really unique and special and I really want to be with you for the rest of my life,'” she recalls. “‘But if what you want is a monogamous relationship, I can’t give that to you.’ And the look on his face! It was like, ‘I finally found her!'”

     
For the next twenty-two years, Morning Glory and Oberon shared lovers and friends. In 1983, they were in an open triad relationship with another woman who already had a child, a romance that ended on friendly terms in 1994. In 1995, Oberon met Liza through a mutual lover. Liza was living on the East Coast at the time, but she fell in love with Oberon and a year later she moved to California. Around the same time, they formed another triad with Wolf, whom Morning Glory met at a Pagan Halloween gathering in Tennessee a few years earlier. Wolf had been living in Houston and working at Kinko’s. “Wolf and I used to have phone sex,” Morning Glory says. “And after she’d hang up,” Oberon adds, “she and I would have wild sex!”

     
After a visit to Houston, Morning Glory knew Wolf would make the perfect triad with Oberon. “I looked around his apartment and started laughing internally,” she says. “There were the same books on the shelves, the same old Star Trek episodes . . . He had the only Klingon knife that I’d seen in my life other than Oberon’s.”

     
Though Morning Glory and Wolf were deeply in love, they knew they weren’t soul mates, and Morning Glory was always on the lookout for a soul mate for Wolf. She also happened to be in the market for another female partner for herself. Then,
a young woman named Wynter, who had been raised in the area by poly parents, showed up on Morning Glory’s doorstep seeking work at Mythic Images.

     
“She was the woman I’d been looking for my whole life,” says Morning Glory. “We realized we were each other’s missing female component.” Morning Glory and Wynter developed a friendship that gradually turned into romantic love.
“She was just seventeen at the time so we had to do a lot of sitting on our hands and working out things with her mom and dad,” says Morning Glory. “She ended up coming to work for me as an employee, and it wasn’t until she was fully legal that we were able to act on anything.”

    

In the meantime, Morning Glory introduced Wynter to Wolf at the pagan May Day celebration, an erotic energy festival. They fell in love instantly. Wynter formally entered the family in 1997, on her eighteenth birthday, and became the lover of both Morning Glory and Wolf.

    

“For me it was yet another romance come true,” says Morning Glory. “I was able to have the other man who I love most in my life and the woman I love most in my life be bonded in the same way that Oberon and I were bonded.”

    




     

  

 DISPATCHES




Two days before I arrive, Morning Glory and Oberon, who are recognized clergy of the Church of All Worlds, presided over Wynter’s formal wedding to Wolf. When I meet Wynter in the family garden where the wedding took place, she seems weary, yet she has the serene glow of the newly betrothed. She has just returned from the house of some of her outside lovers, a male-and-female couple that she sees regularly. With her red hair, pale, lightly freckled skin and long loose dress, she looks like someone you might see at Lilith Fair or coming out of

a head shop. She tries to get at least two nights a week with Wolf; every other Wednesday she sleeps with Morning Glory. Wynter has approximately twenty lovers in rotation.

    

“I never know who I’m sleeping with on Wednesday night because every other Wednesday Wolfie goes gaming,” Wynter says.
“I always forget what Wednesday it is so I’m like, Hmm, who am I sleeping with? It’s amazing that I lead this life because I’m really into my solitary space. I need my time to be alone. Usually I take it in the morning. I take two hours and I go in the hot tub and I read Harry Potter and write in my journal. All my nights are filled so every morning I take time and do what I want to do.”

    

We are soon joined by Liza and Jon, a tall blue-eyed blond with a long ponytail. As a computer specialist, he’s the only Ravenheart who has a job outside the home. Jon met Liza in 1998 and became an official Ravenheart just this past January.

    

“The first step to becoming a Ravenheart is you have to fall madly in love with someone who already is a Ravenheart and they have to fall madly in love with you,” says Liza, who calls Jon “a very special person” for being able to enter such a large, established group. “Then comes the difficult part. You have to have a relationship with every Ravenheart. In other words, every Ravenheart has to be in harmony with your presence.”

    

Like Wolf, Jon is a gamer. But it would seem that to become a Ravenheart, you must also meet a need or a taste that no one else is meeting. The idea that different people fulfill different needs, sexually and otherwise, is an almost constant refrain in the household. Wynter, as Wolf describes her, is “catch as catch can.” She likes to get decked out in sexy clothes and seduce him while he’s trying to get some work done. She also likes to do it in the hot tub. “If she says, ‘Let’s take a hot tub,’ it means, ‘Let’s have sex.'” Morning Glory, on the other hand, likes to create a “boudoir,” as Wolf puts it; she likes candles and costumes. “Often Morning Glory and I will dress up and play pirate games,” Wolf says. “We also play a lot of nurse games.”

    

The fact that Wolf can have spontaneous hot-tub sex with Wynter and pre-planned, imaginative sex with Morning Glory plays right into their central argument for polyamory, which is, essentially, that it takes a village to fill the libido’s every need. “In my monogamous marriage, which was very short-lived, if I didn’t meet every single emotional, physical, sexual, psychological and mental need that person had, that need went unmet,” says Wolf. “Here you don’t have that.”

    

This is the kind of argument that can elude the non-polyamrous. To most of us, that’s what friends, colleagues, psychiatrists and the Internet are for. I point that out to Wolf. He tries to explain. “I don’t like horses,” he says. “But Wynter and Morning Glory do. Well, they can go horseback riding, and I don’t have to.” I ask Morning Glory why she has to live with someone in order to ride horses with that person, and she says, “Well,
then she and I can go back home and have great sex!” For the Ravenhearts, just about every social encounter and hobby can be enhanced by sex.

When Morning Glory talks about the polyamorous ideas conveyed in Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, her summary goes like this: “He spun a really fascinating possibility. What if you didn’t have to stop dating? You could continue including your lovers as your best friends and their lovers as their best friends. You could build a whole social structure of a family that was bonded on this profound spiritual and sexual level.”

    

Could it be that having great sex is what some polys do rather than going out for coffee? When Morning Glory estimates the number of lovers she expects to have this year — “people who ifI found myself in any kind of proximity to them there’s a high probability that sex would occur” — she pauses for several seconds, begins counting on her fingers and arrives at “a number around twenty.” From across the room, Oberon, who minutes earlier declared that “jealousy is an emotion I have never experienced,” raises his eyebrows and lets out a surprised, “Really? That many?”

    

Oberon’s subtle slip aside, asking a Ravenheart if they get jealous is sort of like asking a tall person how the weather is up there. The question got old a long time ago, and they say it’s irrelevant. Oberon again quotes Heinlein, who wrote, “Love is that condition where another person’s happiness is essential to your own.” In other words, if you love someone, set them up with someone else. “Jealousy is a response to want-ing to get your needs met and clumsily going about doing it,” says Liza. Of the Ravenhearts, she makes the fewest references to pagan mythology and, for that reason, provides what to me is the most concise argument in favor of polyamory. “When people have their needs met,” she says, “they don’t give a damn about what other people are doing.”

    

Unlike Morning Glory and Oberon, who rejected monogamy as early as elementary school, or Wynter, who was raised by poly parents, Liza grew up idolizing her parent’s monogamous marriage. Like many of us, the first time she fell in love she hoped it would last forever. As is the case for many of us, it didn’t. “Monogamy, in the way that we all fantasize it, is very rare,” Liza says. “I wish that people could view their relationships like a work of art over which they have some measure of creative control, rather than be plugged into a few options that are unlikely to fit their real temperament and character.”

    

By the end of my visit with the Ravenhearts, it occurs to me that there’s really nothing all that unusual about polyamory. I have little doubt that many people (including a few friends of mine, come to think of it) participate in polyamory in one way or another without their friends and neighbors knowing or really caring.
Many polys believe Bill and Hillary Clinton to be polyamorous. “She knows he has other lovers and she ultimately doesn’t care,” says Wolf. “They’re just not in a position to be open about it.”

    

But when I hear the Ravenhearts talk about a network of friends bonding somewhat interchangably through sex, it sounds to me like even a taller order than monogamy. For most of us, the notion of becoming best friends with your lovers and their lovers and everyone else who comes down the pike would require suppressing our personal tastes to an almost impossible degree. I’m not sure I’m even capable of liking that many people, let alone bonding with them on a profound spiritual and sexual level.

    

The Ravenhearts do seem genuinely happy to me, and any open-minded person would have to give them credit for having the generosity of spirit and the will to pull it off. And yet, I’m not sure what to take away from their example. The Ravenhearts may be the most public polyamorists in the country but they make for a difficult case study. Because they’re so steeped in their neo-pagan subculture, it’s hard to see where their roles as leaders in the subculture
ends and the polyamory begins.

    

The Ravenhearts have managed to build an expansive, inclusive model of love, but it depends on a lifestyle that’s paradoxically insular — it’s the rare Ravenheart who works or socializes with anyone outside their world, much less sleeps with them. Their love lives feed their religion which feeds their mythic statuary business which feeds their website which promotes their love lives: It’s a closed circuit, and one that leaves little room for confessions of problems, lest it all fall away.

    

The Ravenhearts are in some ways quite ordinary — they stay within their circle when looking for likely emotional connections, as do we all. But I wonder if they’re missing out on a more inviting definition of polyamory that extends beyond many lovers to many kinds of lovers. And that’s because, at least to me, one of the most worthwhile romantic highs is that unexpected elation that comes from falling in love with someone whose bookshelves hold none of the same books as your own.


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Meghan Daum and Nerve.com