Witch in practice: Week 2

Slightly later than last week, Sunday got away from me timewise.

This past week

I kept up with my daily offering and morning practice (which I swear I will talk about more shortly, honest. Still not this week.)

On Friday, I had the second meeting for a project in the Boston area – good conversation, though we’re definitely still in that stage of a new project where we’re trying to figure out what we’re doing. (I’m at “This is our second meeting, this is normal.)

Like sensible witches with busy Octobers, we are not attempting to meet in October, and I’m hosting our next meeting at the end of November.

Friday, I made the first of what I intend to be monthly offerings to my local food pantry in honour of Hekate (I forget where I heard this first, as an alternate approach to leaving food out – I can leave a tiny token amount outside my apartment, but don’t want to leave more than that.)

Saturday, I taught the second Dedicant class, which I call either “How the Craft is not like other learning” or “Better Pagan Research”, and covered a lot of things to think about. My dedicants have an ongoing set of deity research projects, so we talked about that specifically, as well as issues like people talking about their personal experiences of magic, ritual, and deity when looking for information.

Sunday, I did the longer offering I do once a week (generally on Sundays, when I’m reliably home and not extra busy) which involves some sort of food or drink (locally made mead, in this case), a candle, and incense.

I did a particular offering to the Archangel Michael, who has turned up in multiple readings for me in the past couple of years as a “hey, you might want to aim some attention this way” (the offering was very much a ‘this is your feast day, hi, here is a thing, let’s see how this goes’ mode.)

I also did a new moon Tarot reading, experimenting with a new spread, and I’ll see how that plays out this month (and talk about it if it seems promising, though it’s definitely one other people would need to adapt to their needs.) And a little meditative dancing, because I just could not muster the energy to leave the house, even though it was a gorgeous day.

(And then I did a bunch of writing and editing and sending notes out to people, and was up a tad too late, and overslept this morning, so that’s the kind of day it is today.)

Witch in practice: Week 1

 Welcome! One of the things I’ve been thinking about is that there are lots of books and resources out there that talk about all the things we might be doing – and not so many talking about what we’re actually doing.

Today is my birthday (and the first of my personal new year’s days), and also Mabon, so I think it’s a grand time to see if I can do a post once a week talking about what I’ve been up to. I’m not necessarily going to talk about details (some of those are private, some of them involve other people, some take a chunk of explanation) but I will talk about the shape of things I do.

This past week:

It’s been a fairly quiet week magically speaking. I’ve done my basic morning offering devotional every day, and my morning practice. (I’ll talk about both of these in more detail soon, but I’m crunched on time tonight.)

This weekend:

My basic goal for my birthday weekend is to have some good conversation and good food – it fits well with the seasonal celebration.

No group ritual this year – my coven has brand new Dedicants, and their Dedication earlier this month took precedence for our ritual time. (We meet twice a month, on average, with ritual at one of those, and not at the other, because timing and scheduling are complex things.)

Instead, I went out to dinner with a friend last night (this is the friend with whom I go out to interesting restaurants, and we mostly manage to go to somewhere that does farm to table or otherwise seasonal foods a couple of times a year.) We had a lovely meal out, some interesting food, and I came home and settled in to writing. 

I didn’t set my alarm this morning (and thus slept tons, and quite late.) My plans for the day involved a brief walk along my usual route, some ritual work, and then cooking. All of that took me longer than I’d planned on, but it all went well. 

The personal ritual work including a Tarot reading for the year ahead. (I used this one from Ethony) and I’m thinking about the results. I spent a little time journalling about what my ideal day looks like, and thinking in general about what I want my coming year to look like. 

Reflection: 

I also spent time thinking about my past year. It’s been a busy and complex year in some ways. Here’s a few highlights:

On the witchy front, I have a brand new initiate (as of August) in my tradition, the first person where I have been their primary teacher and initiator.

This feels amazing and wonderful and also awe-inspiring in the best ways (by which I mean there’s been a fair bit of self-examination and “Wait, am I doing this right” along the way.) I also have three new Dedicants, studying for our year and a day cycle, and they ask great questions and bring such fantastic experiences and thoughts to discussions and ritual already. 

I’m also working on a local project that’s in the very early stages, but really promising. (We’ve got our second meeting about it on Friday.) 

I’ve self-published four historical romances with magic (set in a magical Great Britain of the 1920s), and they are steadily finding people who love them. This delights me! And there are more books coming (I’m working on editing book 5, and writing book 7 in that series, and I have a lot more planned.) Basically, if I’m not doing witchy stuff, work stuff, or dealing with daily life stuff, I’m probably doing something related to these books.

My day job has also been going well. I’ve been making progress on a couple of long-term projects that are showing great results, and I’m now partly contracted to a federal project in our field, which means I get to be helpful in different ways and learn new things (without it being too stressful.)

My day job is now at a “I could do this until I retire” sort of place. I love my job, I like the people I work with, there are new things to enjoy figuring out, and older patterns that can be improved, but it’s not the rapid learning demand it was my first couple of years I was there. That’s just fine with me – it’s leaving me with brain and mental space for the other stuff in this section and my life! 

My health is doing a lot better. I spent the summer of 2018 doing a lot of time consuming things that helped (including starting allergy shots and doing sleep testing.) The CPAP machine helped a lot, moving to a new apartment helped even more. For the first time in a decade, I’m able to walk a mile (with a short pause somewhere in the middle, ideally) and not feel overwhelmingly tired at the end. (It used to be my stamina would give out suddenly and without warning, which was really annoying and awkward.)

This is really exciting, both because I’m enjoying walking along the bike path by my current apartment most mornings, and it opens up things like “walk downtown to the library” as options for my day. I have more health-related stuff I’m working on, but I’m really pleased with the progress so far.

I’m single (and have been for 14 years, so, y’know, pretty used to that now.) But I have regular time with local friends, a lot of online connections I value deeply, and if I were up to going out more often, I’d have even more social stuff I could be doing. Pretty satisfied here. I have a couple of plans for this year that should help with ‘meet people I don’t already know’ on a more regular basis. 

My finances are not great, however. I took on debt doing that apartment move on short notice, because health issues made it pretty essential. (However, my current apartment is awesome, has a lovely kitchen, and great space for hosting ritual.)

I’m hoping to make a big dent in that debt this year, both through some side work I’ve been doing for a friend, through writing income, and through being a lot more mindful about where and how I’m spending money. 

Coming up:

I’m working my way through a couple of magical courses and materials (Briana Saussy‘s Spinning Gold, which I took two years ago, and am focusing on again as an alumna this year and Alexis J. Cunningfolk’s Lunar Apothecary, which has been on the backburner for a bit), and I’m thinking of adding one more. 

Big goals for the year are still in a formative stage.

Basically, my birthday is when I start thinking about what I’ve liked about the past year and want more of (and what things I can set aside and stop doing….) Samhain is the end of my ritual year, and there’s a fallow time until the first light of Yule. Between Yule and January 1st, I put a lot of data (astrological and otherwise) into my calendars and to-do app, and figure out the big goals for the year in terms of what I want to actually accomplish in concrete terms. 

Next week in specific has a meeting about that project, our second Dedicant class, and hopefully me making some progress on various other witchy projects. I’ll check in here next Sunday night and tell you what I’ve been up to.

Two new options

For those who might like to support my work, I’m offering two new ways to do that – Patreon and Ko-Fi.

(Right now, Patreon is set up with three monthly tiers, starting at $1 a month, and Ko-Fi is a one-time $3 payment. I’m open to adjusting these as I see what people are interested in, so please feel free to contact me with ideas.)

Many people have told me that Seeking has been a tremendous help to them over the years. I’d like to expand the resources there and make them available in more formats (like ebooks). That takes time and focus! 

I’d also like to take on some more intensive research projects. You know those lists of associations for herbs and stones and other objects used for magic and ritual? I want to explore the stories and associations of different objects (like rose quartz, rosemary, or frankincense) and trace them back through different historical sources. That’s a huge project, and it will take a lot of time, research materials, and planning. 

Your support through either site will help provide resources so I can spend more time on research, and help me buy books for that research. (And we’ll be realistic, it also will probably go to things like spending a bit more money on food I don’t have to take a lot of time to prep, to buy me more writing time…)

And a project

Along with some other (not Pagan) writing projects, I’m working on producing ebooks of content related to Seeking. Right now I’m toward the end of working on one about what religious witchcraft is and isn’t, and what people might want to know as they start considering it. (Similar to the material in the Beginning section here).

I plan to keep going, covering material in other sections (and some types of content not yet on the site). I’m also working on an ebook about hosting coven and witchy group activities (how to think about space, hosting supplies, cleaning schedules, and other practical issues).

I hope both of these will be out by October 2019 (possibly sooner!) Your support helps me free up time and resources so I can spend more time on writing, and every bit helps.

Hospitality

(Part of my series on coven life in practice)

Phoenix: silhouette of phoenix in white on blue circle

One of the first questions for coven work has to do with the space. After all, most small Pagan groups meet in someone’s home. There’s a lot that goes into that, both thoughts and actions. 

Where I live

I wrote a draft of this when I was still in an apartment with some serious quirks (especially around heat/cooling and where there was enough space for ritual.)

Then a bunch of apartment issues happened, and I ended up finding a new place on very short notice. The great news is that the new place is much better set up for group work – I have a large wood-floored living room with plenty of space for ritual, and plenty of light when the sun’s out.

This still has some quirks, though. It’s a walkout basement apartment, so you have to go down a number of stairs to get to it. (There are sturdy railings, but it’s not accessible to someone who uses mobility devices or who can’t manage stairs.)

I also have a cat (non-negotiable) and between my allergies and my cat’s responses to other animals, I can’t handle a service dog in my living space. (Much as I like them in general: I work somewhere where there are several.)

What are my commitments here?

One thing I thought about a lot is figuring out where the boundaries are here. I want to be hospitable, but I also wanted to make sure that what I started with was something that would be sustainable long-term. 

1) I need enough seating for everyone. 

I have a futon (set up as a couch) in the living room, and a bench seat, and a smaller seat in the bedroom, plus a couple of floor pillows. This is working pretty well. If and when we add more people, I’ll need to add a few more options, probably including some floor pillows and another couple of the benches.

(Incidentally, this is the bench seat and the smaller ottoman – they’re very affordable, and unlike a number of similar items, have a very high weight rating. Mine have held up really well so far.)  

2) I need a reasonably comfortable climate. 

Chances are usually good I’m more climate sensitive than the people around me, so if it’s comfortable for me, it’s probably okay for other people (though it might edge on too chilly, but then we can adjust.) 

The current apartment has an air conditioner in the living room (my previous place, I just had a portable in the bedroom, and no way to air condition the living room due to the configuration.)

3) We need a manageable approach to food and drink

I didn’t want to put a lot of burden on myself to feed people (chronic health stuff affects shopping, cooking, and some of my finances: there are times when all three of those are fine, and other times when all three are in short supply. I wanted to plan for my worse weeks as the default, not my better ones, though in a really bad week, I’d cancel class or ritual.) 

Living down a flight of stairs, I also don’t want to feel I need to haul heavy things down here all the time (or haul recycling back up.)

Thinking about context

Having people in my home is a social community act, yes, but it’s not a purely social one in the same way having friends over might be – we’re here for a particular purpose, and I’m already putting a significant amount of time and energy into other parts of preparation (cleaning to a reasonable degree, plus preparing class materials or ritual, teaching or running ritual, and then cleaning up after and sending out notes and anything for followup.)

I also didn’t want to put a big burden on them in terms of cost or preparation, because that’s not good for them. 

What that means in practice

In the current place, it’s pretty easy: I can close the door to the bedroom if I want (or mostly, since the cat is likely to lurk in there). I can make sure the public spaces are clean.

We meet and do class and ritual in the living room, using a large gateleg table for an altar (usually folded down to be smaller), tv trays for quarter altars, and moving the small furniture around as appropriate.

In my previous apartment, the bathroom’s only entrance was from the bedroom, so no matter what, the bedroom had to be clean enough to let people into it. The bedroom also offered the best space for ritual.

I let my students know I was glad to provide water, hot water for tea, a variety of teas and tisanes, and that they were welcome to bring other things to drink.

(I got a SodaStream, so I can provide fizzy water (my drink of choice other than the one or two Diet Cokes I allow myself each day. They turn out both to be very light drinkers at best, and we meet in the day time, but alcohol in moderation would be all right for after ritual otherwise.)

I made it clear I was fine with a range of options – no food other than after ritual (I do feel strongly about that one!), everyone brings their own snacks. They promptly decided to alternate bringing food, with one of them bringing a main dish, and the other bringing something that goes with it (and I occasionally add in things like ‘I made bread for ritual, here’s the rest and some herb cheese to go with it’). 

I set my few requirements (food for after ritual needs to be stable during ritual without anyone checking on it, and quick to finish after ritual, and I don’t have a microwave. I may change the microwave part this fall.) 

They also do the dishes (I don’t have a dishwasher), which is awesome. And it gives me time to take down the ritual altars if I need to, or set up specific things. What are the important parts of this? 

What are the key issues here?

Clarity is queen. Both with myself (what are my goals, what can I reliably offer?) and with the other people involved, so that they know what to expect.

I laid out what I felt I could offer, we talked about it, and I expect we’ll keep talking about it as the logistics change (for example, as we add more people, or when they start taking on more parts of the ritual work.) 

Coven websites

(Part of my series on coven life in practice)

Phoenix: silhouette of phoenix in white on blue circle

One thing I’ve thought about a lot is designing a site about the group. I go through and tweak things (or clarify things that come up as having confused someone) periodically, but it’s been roughly the same content for years now. 

Intro page

The intro page describes a general range of things I’m up for. Well, as the first paragraph says: “These pages are designed to tell you more about me, my training, the tradition I practice, and what I am able to offer” 

It lists four options: for people wanting to meet other witches in the area, people curious about religious witchcraft, people looking for workshops or short-term training, and people interested in coven work. As it explains, I’m only up for ongoing group work in a tradition-focused setting. (The reason for this is that I’ve got only so much stamina, and I want to spend it on my tradition on a regular basis, not open circles or public rituals – as much as I’ve learned from those things and enjoyed them in the past.) 

There are links to more info about the first three options: the rest of the site focuses on coven work. 

Seven pages

The bulk of the site is seven pages that talk about different aspects of group work. The first one gives some key information (am I currently open to new students? What about general scheduling?) and links to the next six pages. 

There are two big goals for the coven site (besides ‘share public information about the coven and tradition so people can decide if they might be interested’.) 

First, I wanted to give people a taste of what I’m like

(If you can’t deal with the fact I produce text in paragraphs on a regular basis, I am maybe not the right person to teach you: I’m fine with people who need different approaches, but I need them to be able to articulate that and what does work for them.) 

Second, there’s a fair bit of information about me out there (blog, coven site, Seeking, other sources) so part of it was thinking about how to ask people to share information about themselves that felt like a fair exchange, and that would help me decide what the next step could be.

A brief history

The first page talks about the history of the tradition and my own background. This part is often a page on many coven sites, but it’s even more important for me because we’re a small tradition, and my sites are (I think) the only place currently mentioning the tradition in any detail. I want people who have an understanding of traditions and various forms of religious witchcraft to be able to put me in some kinds of general context. 

Besides this context, the rest of the information is intended to give a pretty clear idea of things I find interesting in coven, religious, and magical practice – if these things aren’t what someone is looking for, I want them to figure that out early. 

Answers to some common questions

Some of which I’ve actually been asked! These are questions that people have had, or that are logical things people might be wondering about. It sets out some baseline requirements (I won’t take students under 21) but that I’m glad to work with a range of existing experience. It also talks about a few things that might be dealbreakers for some people, like having oathbound material. 

Initiatory and coven work

Initiatory coven work isn’t like getting together with a group of friends. Hopefully it will be that too, but it isn’t just that. It takes time and focus to build some skills, and it takes time and working together regularly to build trust. If people can’t make it to events and classes regularly, that’s going to be a problem on both fronts. 

This is also where I outline some specific requirements. I’m open to people with a range of health (physical and mental) issues or chronic things, but I am neither a doctor nor a therapist, (and even if I were I’d want them to have outside resources for support and treatment if needed) so I want to make sure any chronic conditions are reasonably stable before we add additional complexities like initiatory training to the mix. 

This is also the point where, when reading letters (we’ll get to the letters!) I start going “No, that’s not going to be a fit.” For example, I’m open about how people solve transportation issues, but I can’t be the person doing the transit. I have things to be doing before people arrive that involve being home (never mind people showing up early, etc.) and when we’re done I may need to fall over and rest for a bit because of my own health issues. (Not a good state to be driving in!) 

I live near several major bus lines, and there are multiple cab and ride services near me, so I feel okay having that line. (If I were more remote, I might be a little more flexible about this, but it would also change how far I would be willing to go in ritual or classes.) 

Membership process

I am a big believer that membership in a small coven or similar group should be hard to get and easy to leave if someone decides it’s not for them.

The other side of that coin is that I’m inviting people into my home, repeatedly and regularly, and I need to feel okay with saying no to a given person if I feel I need to. I think hard before doing that – but I want people who think about this as an important step they’re taking, and understand there’s give and take involved. 

That’s why I spell out that I expect the initial process of feeling each other out will take several months – two to five, depending on scheduling. That gives us time for an initial meeting for coffee, for Seeker classes (a series of five). At the end of that time, we should have enough of a feel of each other and how things are working to make better informed long-term decisions. 

When I’ve talked to people in other Pagan contexts, incidentally, the lack of idea about process is one of the things they find so frustrating about many coven and group sites. It’s hard to put numbers or details on (because honestly, there’s a lot of variation: the right approach for one person isn’t the right one for the next person interested.) But at the same time, I think it’s important to lay out the limits and expectations. 

Accessibility notes

I go back and forth about how detailed these are (or should be), honestly, but I’ve come down on the side of more detailed (with a summary at the top) both because accessibility issues are something I care about, and because there are accessibility things I can’t offer. 

That’s because we do ritual in my home, and unsurprisingly, I’ve made choices that make my home more accessible for what I need – reasonably close to work, within my budget, with a layout for laundry and trash that works for me) that presents challenges for other people (stairs and layout). Not all accessibility needs are mutually possible at the same time in the same space (especially when we’re talking about rented apartments, rather than public buildings!). 

Anyway, having the information here helps people with their own specific needs figure out if there’s some reasonable middle ground or not. 

Letter of introduction

The last section of the site with significant content asks for a letter of introduction for anyone interested in group work and training. The goal of this letter is to equalise some of the information imbalance of having lots of information and nothing from them. I’ve also poked at this section over the years, to find a balance between useful information and being too nosy. 

I’m trying to do three major things with this letter:

1) Get information from the person that will help me understand where they’re coming from and what htey’re like. 

2) See how they respond when they have plenty of time to figure out how to respond. There’s no particular pressure.

3) Figure out if it’s worth meeting in person. 

That’s why there are six questions.

The letter as designed is actually very helpful, and has been working fairly well. I get some really brief responses, and it’s hard for someone to recover from that. I give pretty clear instructions.

I don’t need an incredibly long letter, but if you send me four sentences and only answer two questions out of six, I’m going to raise my eyebrows and probably not meet with you in person.

Someone who acknowledges the questions but doesn’t answer all of them, however, has a much better shot. (For example, saying they’d rather discuss their group history in person, or they’d rather not share details of their personal life yet.) 

I ask for: 

  1. A bit about who they are, how they spend their time, if they live with anyone else. (And I ask if they have a partner or children, and some related questions about what they know.) 
  2. How they describe their current path, and what they’ve done so far. 
  3. Why they’re looking for a group right now, and what they’re hoping for.
  4. How they found out about Phoenix Song, and what’s particularly interesting to them.
  5. A check on some practical details. 

These all tell me different important things. Knowing someone’s basic living and working situations (or how they spend their time, if not working outside the home) help me ask questions about scheduling, time for training exercises, if they’ve already got a lot on their plate. 

A lot of people aren’t very articulate about how they got started on witchcraft or related paths, but knowing a bit about where they’ve been doing things or learning things helps me peg where I start with more detailed conversations.

I’ll start in very different places with someone who already has group experience versus someone who’s read one or two books and has never done ritual with other people. 

The third and fourth questions help me weed out people who haven’t read the information on the site, or who have some significant gaps between my understanding of that and their understanding of it. Sometimes I’ll still meet with these people, but it helps me hone in on questions that I really want answers to early on. 

Planning classes

(Part of my series on coven life in practice)

Phoenix: silhouette of phoenix in white on blue circle

One of the obvious questions once you start talking about teaching classes is ‘how do you plan that’?

I’ve never been a classroom teacher (outside a couple of short semester-break style workshops), but I’ve spent most of my life around educators. My father was a college professor, and for all but one year of my adult life, I’ve either been in school or working for a school as a librarian. (My current job has less direct interaction with students, but I work with teachers among others.)

So I came in to teaching witchy stuff with a lot of exposure not only to a wide variety of teaching methods, but to people talking about how to teach both ongoing classes, and how to teach one-shot classes or workshops (it’s a lot more common for librarians to work once or twice with particular groups than to work with them for a series of class sessions.)

I’m also the daughter of a professor who taught brilliantly organised two hour classes (complete with quotation from the relevant literary works) off the top of his head with no notes, so my sense of the field was skewed from the start.

Planning

Over the years, I’ve figured out my preferred teaching style. I bet it isn’t yours, but I encourage you to figure out what is. It’s not so much my particular style of teaching that saves time and energy, as knowing what works for me (and works pretty well for the people I’m teaching).

This is also one of those things where it depends on how many people are sharing teaching responsibilities. If different people may be teaching the same material at different times (but you want everyone to cover the same things), you’re going to need to do more advance planning than if one person is teaching, or if the teaching topics are more organic.

In my case, I want to make sure a specific set of topics are covered over the course of the year, but I’m somewhat flexible about what we talk about when (and want to leave space for things to come up organically.) In some cases, the sequence matters (I need to teach X before we can talk about Y more usefully), and in others it doesn’t so much.

Laying out a year’s worth of work

You can actually see this on my year and a day training suggested classes page – this is more or less the outline I start with, since I’ve done it once, revised it several times, and I’m pretty sure I’m not leaving out anything major and critical that I want to cover. (This is a matter of personal judgement: there are some classes on there that don’t get widely covered in other settings, and some that do.) 

This part took a long time. Not just writing up, but revisiting it regularly over a few months to go “Have I missed anything important?” and “Does this sequence make sense, logically and in practical terms?”

Planning a class

That prep work pays off though. Now, to plan a class, my steps are pretty simple:

I write up notes for each class (not about content, but things that came up while we talked, assignments, and things to know are coming up – more on that in a separate post).

I put the next two upcoming classes in those notes. When I put them in the notes, I copy over the basic list of what I want to cover (or review it), and put reminders to myself for anything specific I need to prep at an appropriate point. Mostly, I keep ‘stuff I need to prep’ pretty minimal. This step includes things like “Figure out specifics of this meditation” and “Will be better with Y items, get those.”

A couple of days before the class, I go through and add details to my notes, with specific things I want to talk about. Because I’m me, and most of my details are in my head, this is mostly in outline form. (If I’m talking about people and dates, or anything else where the specifics are relevant and need to be precise, I write those down at this point.)

I also think about order and sequence.

All of these go in a file in Ulysses, the app I use for short writing, one file for each class, all kept together so I can swap between files very easily in the sidebar. When I’m teaching, I have the iPad open, and use that as a reference for what to talk about, and in what order.

I usually find a list of 4-6 major items works pretty well, clustered together under a similar topic.

Structure of class

One big consideration is the structure of class. We schedule three hours, and some gatherings we have about an hour or 90 minutes of ritual in there, and some we don’t.

We have three people right now (me and two students) and I aim for something conversational – I have info to share and to get them to talk about, but they also ask things as they come up. Our sessions generally run:

  1. They arrive, we set up food (they alternate bringing a main dish and a side dish, usually)
  2. We do some initial checkins, talk about questions that have come up since the last class, and so on. (I usually answer it directly in email, and then discuss the topic with both of them, to make sure we’ve hit all the same info with both people.)
  3. We settle in for the main portion of the class. I try to do a bit of alternation of ‘let me talk at you and answer questions’ and asking them things. When possible, I’ll build in an exercise for them to do, or something where they share something they’ve worked on, or something that’s not a lecture.
  4. At the end of the class, we clear the space and do any practical ritual or energetic exercises that take more space. (Over the summer, we were doing class in my bedroom, where we also did ritual, because that has the air conditioner, and also more floor space than the living room. In my current place, that’s not a problem.) 

If we have ritual, we do ritual first, then sort out food, and then move into the class part of the discussion.

I keep an eye on the time, aiming to wrap up about 15 minutes before we’re due to finish (this gives us time to clean up, do dishes, and make sure there aren’t any lingering questions.)

Obviously, there are dozens of other ways to organise the time, and figure out how much to fit into a class – pick what works for you.

Making the tech work

(Part of my series on coven life in practice)

Phoenix: silhouette of phoenix in white on blue circle

One thing that’s changed a lot since my own training is technology. I started as a Dedicant in 2001, when access email was fairly common, but many people didn’t check it every day (or even, sometimes, weekly) and dealing with complex discussions about files could be annoying because you’d have to keep track of which version you had.

Cell phones existed, but not everyone had them, so you also had to check whether it was okay to leave a Pagan-specific message at the number someone gave you, or whether it was a work phone number or a shared family one. 

These days, the world looks a lot different! Here’s how I’m using technology with my Dedicants.

General communication: 

I let them know that I prefer most things in email – it’s the easiest tool for me to mark something for later (I can send it right to my todo list), it’s the easiest tool for finding information later, and I have a record of what I sent.

(Most of the time I’m good with this right now, but a flare of some of my chronic health stuff can mess with my executive function or bring brain fog as an unwelcome houseguest, so I try to have tools in place all the time that will help if those things happen.) 

I make it clear I’m okay getting texts or phone calls, but chances are pretty good I may not pick up or respond quickly both because my phone isn’t always handy, and because both my office and my apartment have sometimes iffy signal. 

We have a Google calendar with dates for upcoming events. 

Class notes:

I write up my class notes (usually in a fairly minimalist outline form, but noting any specific information or details I want to make sure are accurate.) I don’t share these since they’re so minimal – they’re reminders for me of what I want to talk about, rather than full teaching notes. 

This is by far how I prefer to teach, as it works much better for me to keep a class conversational rather than a lecture. It feels a lot more natural to pick up a related topic because of a question, or to note a thing to come back to.

I use my iPad (which has a Bluetooth keyboard) to read from while I’m teaching, and I add quick notes about things that come up or to send along afterwards. That helps me remember to send those things out or follow up about them. 

Other files

We have a Google Drive folder with several subfolders. 

The Group Practices folder has general group information – a document with some practices we’ve discussed so they can be referenced later (what happens if you’re sick, what about confidentiality, what about guests, what about other activities together, etc.) 

The Dedicant Class Materials folder is for class files (I usually keep the the most recent couple at the main folder level, for ease of reference). 

And then I have a folder for individual files – each person has one which is just shared with me and them. They can put things in there they want me to look at or check over, without sharing it with everyone. (I tell them that I won’t look at things in there unless they ask me to, so email me or otherwise let me know to look at things when they’re ready.) 

After each class, I set up a document in the shared drive that has notes about any upcoming things to be aware of, links I wanted to share from class, and pointers to the tags related to this class’s topics. That serves as documentation for all of us that we can check, and makes it easier for me to be sure I’ve shared key information in a way we can all reference later if we need to. 

Pinboard

Finally, to share links, I have a Pinboard account. Pinboard is a great bookmark sharing site.

For the Phoenix Song account, all bookmarks are public, and I am adding them gradually (from my own personal account, from rummaging for things I know are online, etc.) as we go. That helps keep it manageable: I’m adding 5-10 links most classes, rather than trying to go through hundreds on a wide range of Pagan topics and having to remember where I left off. 

Each bookmark gets at least one tag, and then I can tell my Dedicants to check the particular tags for a class topic. For example, class 2 was about research and learning, and one of the relevant tags is ‘research.skills’. Keeping it easy to maintain is key for me with this kind of thing: if it gets too bulky, it’s too easy to get behind. 

Ritual scheduling

(One of my series of posts on coven life in practice)

Phoenix: silhouette of phoenix in white on blue circle

One really good question – and one I found myself getting hung up about – was “How often are we doing ritual?”

How I was trained

I’d been familiar with the training circle I trained in, which did ritual for the full moons (usually a bit shorter: 1-2 hours in actual ritual, plus prep time before and some social time/potluck meal after) and Sabbats (often longer: 3 hours for the ritual, give or take, and a more elaborate setup.)

Samhain required a good 4 hours of setup, and ritual often ran 3 or more hours. It was a gorgeous ritual, but it was physically exhausting, as well as emotionally a wringer. (As you might expect for a Samhain ritual.)

My initial thoughts

If that makes you tired, I’m right with you! I’m pretty sure I can’t do that anymore, at least not without really paying for it later. (I’m fortunate in that some kinds of ritual exertion are less tiring for me than they would be outside of circle, but I don’t like to keep betting it’ll be true.)

Another aspect is working with students as the only initiate. If they have a weird experience that needs to be talked through, or something goes awry, I need to make sure I have enough reserves to help with that and get them to a more stable point. That’s part of the commitment of being their teacher!

Our scheduling specifics

As I mentioned in another post, our scheduling is currently drive somewhat by childcare for one of my students – having a consistent day (middle of the day on a Saturday) works for her, and works for us, even if doing a lunar ritual at noon still feels a little weird to me.

The larger question is “how do we do the other scheduling?” Naturally, if we meet every other week, we’re not going to be meeting close to every full moon, or even necessarily within a week of a given Sabbat.

After giving it some thought, I decided for right now that we’ll do the 8 Sabbats (on the closest reasonable date). I have a slight preference for doing the Sabbat ritual slightly before the Sabbat, but this varies a little depending on the feel of the season for me. (This is so they can then do a little more on the day themselves if they’d like. Same for me.)

In the months with no Sabbat ritual, we’ll do a full or new moon ritual, depending on the scheduling, so they can get some experience doing different kinds of rituals, with different kinds of focus.

Once they are at the point where they can cast circle themselves, I’ll be sending out information for a thing we can all do independently for the full moon in the months we’re not together,  and talk about afterwards.

What happens once they stop being Dedicants, if they’re initiated? That’s a good question. Some of the scheduling issues will remain, so we’ll figure out what makes sense, but maybe we shift to doing longer rituals (with no class after) some weeks, and a discussion/class on a topic on the others. Maybe we come up with a different plan. We’ll find out!

How this is working

So far, this is working pretty well for us. Meeting about two times a month, every month, seems to be a reasonable amount of time. We’re getting through about as much content in classes as I was hoping to, with a comfortable amount for questions and things that come up in the course of doing things. 

Scheduling

(Part of my series of posts on coven life in practice)

Phoenix: silhouette of phoenix in white on blue circle

One of the things I’ve thought a lot about and struggled with is scheduling.

Don’t we all have that fantasy of a perfect schedule, where we meet on Sabbats, and full moons (and maybe new moons too) and everything flows and fits into a rhythm?

And I definitely was shaped by the group I trained with having a rich and full schedule. 

Except. Wait. No. Also other things. 

How things worked in the training circle

The group I trained in was great in many ways. We had ritual for the full moon (sometimes on a weeknight, sometimes on a weekend). We had longer rituals for the Sabbats. My high priestess had amazing beautiful items for the altar, seasonal things, a host of different coloured altar cloths and lights and other details. Walking into the ritual space could be entirely magical.

Classes for Dedicants were generous in length, meeting twice a month. Three hours once a month, five hours the other, to leave plenty of time to try things out. Classes were rich with information, with notes and exercises and meditations, and with a moderate amount of assignments to do at home (about 15-20 minutes of personal practice, and some reading or written assignments.) 

Initiates met once or twice a month for class, and the group leadership (people teaching and the upper degrees) met regularly. That last one involved dinner, the others didn’t unless there was a ritual. Initiates took turn in creating ritual for the group, and in taking on different ritual roles (great for learning, but more challenging than doing a role you knew well.) 

Only, over time, I realised some things. And then I ended up with chronic health issues that make fatigue a real thing to contend with (and often, I’m up for the group thing, but then it will take me days to recover if I overdo it, and probably affect my work. It will definitely affect my ability to write, to create, and to do other things I care about. And my ability to sort out food and laundry and other basic human needs.

First, that was a lot of time. By the time I was a second degree, I was regularly spending 10-15 hours on circle things many weeks, and that was before any of my own study or personal witchy practice got done. Other weeks it might be only three or so, but that was still plenty. 

Especially when you consider that there was a semester in the middle of my second degree that was utterly ridiculous. I’d moved into the covenstead in the middle of getting divorced. I was working full time (in a school library, so I was at work by 7:30 in the morning) and went back to grad school. I’d helped run the first two day Pagan Pride event as Programming Chair, and right around when the event happened, the partner of a dear friend (someone much loved in a different part of the communities that make up my life) died, suddenly. And I was helping her. 

I didn’t exactly have much spare time – and because I worked in a school, I couldn’t take vacation days mid-semester to catch up (or even just get a grip on my laundry). I had to hang on until winter break. I turned in more assignments that semester 15 minutes before the deadline than any other time in my education, by a factor of about 10.

That was the most absurd semester of that experience, but it left its mark. As handmaiden and second degree, I was also responsible for a lot of sorting and arranging things for ritual – and a lot of that turned out to happen on a schedule that really didn’t work for me.

Even before my health crashed, I had days where I could do several hours of steady physical work (like cleaning the temple and then a moderately involved ritual), and days where I absolutely couldn’t, and I was already constantly pushing my reserves that year. 

What I took away from that

It meant that when I hived, I wanted nothing to do with that. I wanted a practice that was sustainable. Even minimalistic. 

I joke that my requirement is that the coven stuff has to fit into a basket. It’s a fairly big basket (about 2 feet long by 1 foot wide by 18 inches deep) but still. It’s not the stacks of items in a large altar space, and Rubbermaid tubs full of seasonal decorations. More on this when I talk about objects.

Still, I don’t want a practice where I’m constantly looking to top the last big ritual, or where I feel compelled to come up with complex ritual ideas (especially right now, when I’m the only initiate in the circle). I want something where we can have meaningful, heartfelt rituals – but they aren’t necessarily super complicated or require a lot of setup time.

What does that mean now?

One of my students is a single parent, so actually, her childcare options are driving a chunk of our scheduling. Fortunately, that’s also working pretty well for other reasons. We’re currently meeting for about 3 hours every other Saturday, from 11 to 2. They bring food, I do the preparation of the space. (And they do the dishes, after. It’s great!) 

One session in a month, we do ritual (currently pretty short and sweet, but enough to try out different things.) It’s been a long time since I did group work in the tradition, so part of what I’m figuring out is how some of that will go in this place with these people.

I’m going to make the discussion of ritual scheduling its own post.

Times have changed

Phoenix: silhouette of phoenix in white on blue circle

One thing I’ve been thinking about a lot – and talking to some friends who have extended periods of time in the larger Pagan communities – about, is how things have changed. 

I did a review of Seeker emails I’ve received earlier this year, and I was thinking about how they were both similar to and different from a decade ago (I was regularly answering them for our training circle for a couple of years.) 

I’m seeing some interesting patterns, and other people I’ve talked to have seen some similar ones. I don’t know that these are universal, by any stretch, of course! 

A little history

I should put this slightly in context: 

Between 2001 (when I started) and 2008 (when I hived) the training circle I worked with regularly ran a series of introductory Seeker classes. This was a 5 class series, held in a public-transit accessible location, either a Pagan/esoteric store, or a cafe with meeting rooms. We asked for a small donation ($5 a class was fine) to cover photocopies and things like the teacher’s parking and maybe a drink.  

When I started (I did my own round of attending Seeker classes in May of 2001), there were 15-20 people starting the series, four times a year. By the time I hived, the Seeker classes were smaller: there was both less apparent interest from people looking for groups, but also a few more options in the community, of people offering similar options. (We thought, on the whole, this was good for everyone: it’s really good for people to have choices if they’re available.) 

But it did also seem like, instead of interest in small group growing, it tapered off, and looser, larger groups, got more interest (I want to say from around 2005 to 2015 or so, based on other conversations.) People seemed to want public rituals, or open circles, or larger communities (some kinds of festivals, groups that got together for Sabbats and some classes, but not necessarily initiatory training) rather than small focused group work.

What I’m up to these days

I’m very clear on the coven site that I’m open to people interested in group work, but that I’m only interested in ongoing in-person work with people who are interested in or willing to learn my particular tradition and practices for what we do together. (Limited time, limited energy!) 

I get a request every month or two, on average, from people from a range of backgrounds. 

Strong desire for group work

The past year or two, I’ve been seeing that desire for group work flowing again – I’ve seen a lot more requests (proportionately speaking) from people who are thinking seriously about group work and what it means, even if they’re not really sure yet what’s right for them. Before that, I was getting more questions from people who were curious about witchcraft, but less sure about group work. 

(This is all totally not statistically valid, by the way: it’s impossible to judge trends in the larger community or population based on emails they happen to send me. But the shift has been noticeable enough for me to think about.) 

Less experience

One thing I am seeing that’s different than during my own training, is that a lot of people are emailing about group work fairly early in their own learning experience. They’ve read a few books, but not dozens. They may not have much experience with group ritual of any kind, even public rituals. 

Both my current students have tried some different things on their own – meditation, some magical – but not a huge range of what’s possible (or generally discussed in the broader witchy community). 

When I started out, and up to about 2005-2007, it was pretty common to see people who had already done a fair bit of exploring. They’d been to a few different public rituals, they’d read more than a couple of books, and they’d tried out some different things, often a fairly wide range. 

The differences are really interesting to work out. 

Less awareness of community options. 

Some of that may be locational. Boston is in a weird position, because there isn’t a lot of public ritual or intro class material out there. (As opposed to the Twin Cities in the early 2000s, when for a while it felt like I could be at a different public witchy event, no invite needed, shared on public calendars you could find with a search engine, every night of the week and half a dozen times on Sabbats.

I argue that Boston’s community is warped by Salem’s (which is a complex thing) and also by the fact that a lot of Boston still runs on an academic calendar, and the occasional impermanence of college populations. That’s shifted some (I’ve noticed it since I moved back) but it still affects a certain amount of scheduling. (Also, finding public transit accessible affordable spaces for ritual around here can be tricky!) 

At any rate, most of the people I hear from find me either on Witchvox or on BostonPagan.com (which is run by the Cornucopia Collective folks: I occasionally make it to an open ritual, and do a class or two a year for them, which is great fun.) I get an occasional other request from my website. 

More openness to conversation

Interestingly, I am seeing more openness to conversation – when I reply with questions, or thoughts, I’m getting a better quality of response back. Thoughtful people, more of the time. (Of course, there are and will always be people who don’t reply at all.) 

Some of that may have to do with the design of the coven site, which is very deliberate (and that’s probably a whole other topic, so I’ll make it one.)