Kyrja has pink and purple streaked hair, a brightly colored house and an equally colorful name she picked for herself — from a Viking word meaning "choosers of the slain." "I chose the name Kyrja because I choose to be who I am. I take full responsibility for my own choices," said Kyrja (pronounced KEE-ruh), who prefers just the first name, no last name, thank you very much.
Kyrja spent years operating a steel drum roller and dump trucks and digging ditches. When she was laid off from the construction industry in 2008, she saw the opportunity to put her pent-up creativity on paper.
Out came Rupert's Tales, a children's book featuring pagan stories of tolerance and respect.
The 50-year-old Port Richey woman shares her stories with a radiant smile and a star-shaped wand that rains glitter.
"Grouchy people," she explained, "don't stay here long."
Kyrja, whose legal name is Kathie Withers, grew up a devout Catholic. She raised her own two children in the faith, served in her church as a Eucharistic minister and taught religious education classes for children.
Then about seven years ago, as she was going through one of the religious workbooks, the description of the Crusades jumped off the page. The workbook explained that Christians went to Muslims to introduce their God.
"I said, 'No, that's not what happened.' I really had a hard time," she said. "You can't shove all this horror that happened down children's throats, but I could no longer perpetuate that kind of soft sell."
The Crusades included a series of violent, church-sanctioned military campaigns against Muslims, Jews, pagans, and others who were not part of the Roman Catholic Church.
After doing a lot of thinking, she told the children, "This is what the book says but there's a lot more to it."
She wanted to make sure they realized that "it was the people, and not God or Jesus, that commanded these actions. Bad things happen because of bad people."
"The most important thing is your relationship with God; it doesn't matter whether you kneel, sit or stand," she said.
She came up with her own curriculum and lessons — then realized she was teaching her own beliefs, not church doctrine.
She said she left the church on good terms and began searching. Curiosity led her to a meeting of the "Pasco Pagans," where members have different ways of living their nature-based spirituality. Kyrja now believes in multiple gods as well as divine intervention. In February she married a fellow pagan named Randy.
"I did a lot of research and found what resonated within me," Kyrja said. She described "a homecoming feeling" that she had "found that right place to be."
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Kyrja first got the itch to write a children's story after a family gathering a few years ago. Her two brothers and their wives were telling a story about their mother snoring and how they thought a monster had gotten her.
Her first story was called The Monster Got Mom.
"It's really funny and I never did anything further," Kyrja said. But she had "all this rhyming stuff, children's stuff in my head."
At the same time, she encountered people who were judgmental of her pagan beliefs. She remembers one woman telling her: "You're going to burn in hell."
"I felt more sorry for her than angry," she said.
It also fueled her passion to develop a children's book with themes of love, acceptance and tolerance.
Her favorite line from Rupert's Tales: "That's the nature of nature. There isn't anything wrong. The days will grow shorter and the nights will grow long."
The book came out in February.
Michelle "Zoe" Flood, the Hudson woman who started Pasco Pagans about nine years ago, said she recommends Rupert's Tales even for adults who are new to "the path" because the stories help people understand the basics of paganism, including the different holidays.
Flood said she has seen Kyrja lead guided meditations and has been very impressed by the way she affects others.
"She doesn't think she is, but she's very much a leader in the way she practices," Flood said.
Kyrja continues searching and educating herself.
"All knowledge is worth having," she said. "It doesn't matter what your faith is, all knowledge is a good thing."