*note: I swear a lot. Some of this will be hard for some readers not to take personally, and some will think I have a lower IQ than I actually do because honesty tends to give me a foul mouth.
Most of you don’t know me. It’s not that I haven’t been part of the Pagan community – I have, very much so. I have done it strictly on my own terms, and my terms have involved flying under the collective radar until very recently. I don’t do the campouts. Until recent years I haven’t had the funds for workshops and cons. I will go to roughly one public ritual a year, and often I choose going to a movie or any other social event possible instead. Why? Public ritual of late feels a little too much like hookup culture – a lot of you want me to get spiritually naked with you before we’re on a middle-name basis. You demand to know who trained me, as though dropping names makes a difference. You insist that nothing I learned on my own can have merit.
I can’t imagine dating in a Tinder world, and yet I often feel like that’s what I’m doing in the Pagan world every time I venture into community.
OK, you think, so why are you claiming to be a part of the community when you do zero things I personally define as community? You don’t participate. You haven’t dropped any names of people that have trained you. *I* don’t know who you are.
To this, I smile politely, but you can see the Go fuck yourself in my eyes.
We are at odds now, because I consider YOU to be what’s wrong with the Pagan community these days.
I generally don’t present my spiritual biography to people because it comes out pretty fast over a short time anyway. I tell stories. I reference myself. I am US-American, it’s what we do. This time I need to show all the goods up front so you understand why I’m saying what I’m saying, where it comes from, and exactly why I not only think the “drop a name and vouch for me” system is bullshit, it is actually a means of endangering the Pagan community. If I’m going to write a series on resolving the smaller and larger leadership problems in the Pagan community, it’s best you know what experiences prompt me to see and sense these things.
Who am I, how dare I, and why?
Who I am
My name only means something to a few of you, those that have worked with me, for the most part. Since at least one of 3rd degree initiations was from an oath bound group – and oath bound usually eliminates the ritual of ultimately meaningless name-dropping – I’ll throw this up: I am a 3rd degree Wiccan priestess in the Shadowmoon tradition. For some of you, that just means “Wiccan, and could run a coven if so desired.” To the more self-important of you that have confused your religious experience with Vatican-level authority, at this point you’re too busy having a tantrum because I am not Gardnerian or Alexandrian, will flip you the bird if you use the insulting “NeoWicca” on me, and then will return to a tantrum questioning my character and legitimacy because apparently my actions mean far less to you than the names available to me to drop. If it will shut you up enough to actually think, I now have a lineage to Janet Farrar through equally unpopular means.
My personal philosophy of interaction
- The one is not the all. No one person or one experience represents the whole of anything else.
- Courtesy and sincere curiosity matter.
- The Pagan tendency towards celebrity worship is a disease that’s only getting worse.
- Do not expend energy on useless debates. Save it for debates that actually serve a purpose and are constructed so that people are bringing out information others need to know. Such debates are rare, and really only happen for the greater good in small, personal groups rather than in larger communities.
- What you do matters far more than what you write. Bloggers aren’t the great deciders of what Paganism is and isn’t, no matter how many followers invest in them.
This is the real meat of sussing a person out. The smart among us don’t give a shit what initiations you have or what famous person conferred it. We care what you actually do. That adage about past behavior being the best indicator of future actions – it’s very true. So we watch for it.
Here are a few highlights of my past behaviors/interactions with the Pagan community that should speak for themselves as to why I’m writing this series:
The Authorial Angle
Since publishing is, unfortunately, the standard of “importance” in Paganism, over and above actual hands on contribution:
- I have written for Llewellyn Annuals since 1999. While many are with reason critical of Llewellyn, the annuals have held up pretty well and changed alongside the community. Also there is a reform movement afoot at that publisher, which is good since they’re still the main publisher of topics for occult practice in the world.
- I have published one book on Paganism and divorce – that was met with suspicion and scrutiny during the research phase by the collective Pagan public, revealing that a)we have some messed up taboos around divorce and b)people are right to be cautious but are using all the wrong measures to enact caution.
- I have two books coming out with Llewellyn in 2015 or 2016, on Mabon and Samhain respectively. There will be people that read them, and people that are unable to recognize that publishers change with more ease than people.
- I’ve been a book reviewer for fellow Pagan author Lisa McSherry’s site FacingNorth for many years. Before that I reviewed for the Beltane Papers. She and I have a friendship going back almost two decades now. Look – a name drop!
The Direct Involvement Angle
- In 1997 I co-founded the MSUPagan society. Except for a brief period in 1999 when I graduated/married my first husband I ran it continuously until 2002. For that time we were often the only consistent welcoming source to area Pagans of all ages and experiences. There are festival movement folks that live or lived around Mankato, Minnesota who can attest to my involvement.
- This included running one of the first Pagan Pride events, and yes, going on television. It also involved giving the TV producers at the Mankato station hell when they cut pieces of the Craft into the report.
- Over the years, I granted interviews, developed intro FAQ material for reporters (my journalism degree helped me to know what they were really looking for and to take a non-combative approach to the media) and acted as a source of welcome to those who wanted to investigate Paganism.
- Yes, I taught some classes, usually at a tiny metaphysical shop in Mankato downtown. Alas, divorce swept that away fast.
- I had my first third degree conferred in 2000. I was 25.
- I am aware these days that is considered a “very young age,” for a third degree and my high priestess at the time said she decided elevate me solely because I was already doing the community work. Others since have pointed out that Gardner and Alexander both elevated young women in their 20s. I was perhaps at that age less nubile, but just as capable if not as poetic as the likes of Valiente and Crowther.
- In 2002, divorce led me to a relocation, and that led me to working with the University Pagan Society at the University of Minnesota. I was not a student and did not assume a leadership role, though I frequently stepped in as a presenter and advisor when stuff might have otherwise fallen apart. As happens in non-ritual Pagan groups, it ended up being a de facto service for the entire Pagan community since the only other choices required direct ritual commitment. I worked with them until 2006; at that point not enough students were involved to allow for group continuity and it died. (I am told that the president at the time of its demise blames me for its death. No one credible seems to support her contention.)
- From 2004-2006 I served as the Twin Cities Pagan Pride Volunteer Coordinator. At that time, the festival was the largest of its kind in the world. In the first year, the board members were shocked that I got people to show up. I was shocked that was all it took to appear impressive. The second year, I got 100 Pagans to show up for their volunteer posts. I quit in 2006 because the ambition and scope for what the organization wanted to do exceeded what my health could handle, and because an ugly subtext of “bringing me under control” had started appearing with a few of the people I worked with.
- In 2010, after a few years away from much community madness, I began working with the Pagan Newswire Collective, Minnesota. It gave me an opportunity to work with someone who understood the tenets of good journalism (Cara Schulz) and to blow some dust off my mass communications degree. In 2011, I was named Executive Editor to the international Pagan Newswire Collective, before Jason Pitzl dissolved the central grouping last year. The project was ambitious in scope and some independent PNC bureaus still exist. I did not have the time I wanted to to commit to training people in citizen journalism. I hope that I might again someday.
- I have taught workshops at Paganicon (Minneapolis/Saint Paul) on the Artist’s Way for Pagans, managing the Inner Critic, and using the Cult Danger Evaluation Frame. There are many other workshops I’ve taught at Pagan Prides and at UPS and MSUPagan on so many things that I only remember them when I flip through old notebooks and find the original outlines.
What I haven’t done? Run a coven. Run a circle. Created one ritual event after another. Whatever I’m doing, it’s about connecting spiritual people in concrete ways.
The Overculture Experience
My Pagan life is not separate from the rest of my life. When I say I am urban and integrated, I mean just that. These experiences that I list here are not my entire resume – they are the ones that have most informed and still most inform what I am doing in the Pagan community.
In 1994, working on the campus newspaper at a tiny private college was a condition of a writer’s scholarship. It was a total revamp. Not only did I have to learn old-school journalistic tenets (something that previous editions of that paper had none of), I had to learn how to integrate old styles of thinking with new modes of expression as computers became more and more important. My understanding of what the media has to deal with has long since come in handy when dealing with both the Pagan and the media sides of reporting. I can say from knowing both sides that Pagans shoot themselves in the foot a lot more than they realize, all because they mentally create an adversarial system far more often than they are greeted by one.
In 1996, I rooted myself out from the original school, one of the more heartbreaking things I have ever had to do, and transplanted to Minnesota with bright-eyed thoughts of finding the other Pagans. Instead I found people my own age who were just as confused as I was. I also found myself confronted by a rather cold, difficult culture: I’d been unwelcome before, but Minnesota Unwelcome is what Minnesota Nice actually is. As I became part of the campus and did find friends, I also encountered people that felt Pagan but didn’t know Pagan, despite Mankato State having the most impressive occult collection of any library I’ve seen, including where I am in San Francisco. During that time I worked for a campus radio station, learned the ins and outs of research and rhetoric, and came to know what was available in Mankato better than most of the natives.
In 1998 I also began working as an advocate in a battered women’s shelter. It gave me an up-front understanding of how violence starts (not with hitting, or even with yelling, but in a much more insidious way that looks like opinion but isn’t), and it made me unavoidably aware of things I’d been living with in my own family. Again, I learned more about resources, the system, and where destructive ideologies begin and how they replicate. The ability to recognize abuse has been a skill that has stayed with me.
In 2001 I took on a graduate assistantship where I served international students at my graduate school. My charges were mainly Muslim and Hindu. Take a look at the year – you know what happened. Everything. I took away from this job a unique understanding of how universal ethnocentrism actually is, and an ability to recognize it among Pagans. I also came to understand how divisive and untrue our beliefs about Islam actually are – and how much absolute, hateful, untrue crap Muslim and Hindu people believe about the States (a lot.)
In late 2002, I took a job with a nonprofit that centered on training volunteer managers. One of the perks of my job was that I got to attend all their workshops and see all their research for free. I came away filled to the brim with best practices that combined well with my multi-cultural knowledge. The first place I tried this information out was on Twin Cities Pagan Pride, and holy shit…it worked.
In 2005, I became a floor manager. I learned how to get people to work for me and work for themselves. This carried over into my last corporate job right after this, which was a company that focused on “improving” the employees of other companies. It was just as insane and obstructive as you might think. It also gave me a good way of knowing how unethical things come to be normalized, over and above what I learned about abuse and abuse tactics when I worked as a battered women’ advocate.
In 2007 I started the Twin Cities Doctor Who meetup. Before you dismiss it as a little science fiction club, let me give you a few highlights: we started at 30 members, 3 active. By the time I left in August 2014, we had grown to 959 members, roughly 400 of whom were active at any given time. This included a 50th anniversary party with around 500 attendees. I was the main organizer and decision maker for this entire period of time – organization is now in the hands of my board members. This group met monthly. That’s a lot of hands-on work for a volunteer gig. When I left, it had 50% women members, and an age range from late teens to late eighties. To my knowledge it was also the only woman-run science fiction meetup in the Twin Cities.
So what’s going on now?
I’ve been forcibly relocated to San Francisco, thanks to my partner. It is not the place it used to be, and not the place many of my friends remember. Too many goat sacrifices on the altar of NIMBY have led to this mess. The San Francisco Bay area also happens to have the largest Pagan population in the United States. Since I am through no doing of my own once again new in town, I am again trying to appreciate the big picture – at least they’re active – with the small holes I suffer from directly as the new witch in town.
This series is triggered by my experiences with the SF Bay area. But what I’m learning – and what I recommend as remedies – all comes from my experiences elsewhere. So now you know who I am and who I think I am to be talking about such things.
So how dare I?
Pretty easily. I’ve had some practice figuring out how to make groups small and large sustainable – and practice doing it wrong and right.
Fine, then why?
Because I do favor a stronger Pagan infrastructure. There are tenets of counter-culture Paganism that aren’t working, either because the culture no longer supports them or because those ideas have been proven by time to be less than effective. In maturity I’ve learned to trust my personal sense of ethics and not confuse refusal to adapt with morality; that right there a far more insidious problem than many people realize and it is key factor in why more Pagans haven’t learned or adapted leadership skills in their community-creation efforts.
Also, the reason anyone does what I’m doing: for myself. I’m in the place US Paganism took the deepest root, and I am seeing massive disconnects between what’s available, what needs to be done, and above all to who has access to it. It runs deeper than social justice issues although that’s a significant part of it, too. Everyone Pagan should have a place to go for simple fellowship – and not only is ritual is not “simple” even in cases where it does offer fellowship, often it’s far less welcoming than its hosts actually realize.
This is why I’m here – to point out what’s right, to mention what I felt was wrong, and to suggest small changes that will make Pagan life easier for everyone. Most of these changes are indeed small, even if the change they make don’t feel that insignificant.