(A note here that my experiences and thoughts are focused on initiatory small-group work – in other words, stuff that is deliberately designed to create certain kinds of changes over a relatively short (and often intense) period of time, in service of a specific goal, and done with a quite small number of people. Some of the points here apply to other Pagan settings, but I think it will probably be fairly clear which is which.)
Part 1 has some background about my own experiences and experience working with chronic (and emerging) medical issues in the context of my religious witchcraft work. This part was brought about by someone who wrote a letter of interest to me about group work, and as part of that, wondered about how much detail about health issues was important. This is something I discuss in some detail on the current group information pages, but I felt it deserved to be broken out in a little more detail.
Much more below…
My first law is “Let’s not waste each other’s time, okay?” If we’re not a good fit for each other, for any reason, I’d rather figure that out sooner than later, so that the seeker can move onto places that might be a better fit.
While I really enjoy conversations with seekers and people interested in Paganism, religious witchcraft, and a wide range of related topics, my own limited energy and time mean that my primary focus in my religious path is on my small coven setting. I currently live in an area with many options for Pagan groups of all kinds, so if I’m not the right place, I do my best to point people at other promising options.
(I do support public Craft opportunities by helping to run the Twin Cities Pagan Pride and the new Paganicon events locally – both things that involve periodic meetings, a lot of at-home work, and two very long weekends a year. All easier for me, personally, than a regular evening or weekend commitment for conversation.)
What I want to know at first is quite simple: what do I need to know so we can have a comfortable and focused conversation.
One of the spaces I commonly suggest is mobility-access friendly, but has a fair bit of background noise (bad for people with various kinds of hearing impairment). The other location I’d normally suggest is often a lot quieter, but has stairs (and closely-packed chairs). I’m open to other ideas, but need to know we should be talking about them. Both are relatively near my home, but if someone is taking public transportation, one location might be a lot easier for them.
If that goes well, we move onto the next step, which is a series of discussions to help us decide if they might be a good fit for what I can offer.
Discussions – and looking forward:
This means that we need to make sure that moving forward into a short series of class/discussion evenings is the best use of our time, and that the space and schedule for those discussions works for both of us. Like many things in this work, these end up being intertwined.
I have a wide range of things going through my head as I get to know someone:
- I have certain limits on what I can and can’t host in my home.
- The prospective student might have things they need or can’t be around.
- Are these two sets compatible? If we’re sure they’re not, we should move on.
- Other group members may also have things I’m keeping in mind – their health needs, their transportation options, all sorts of other things.
And the standard practical notes: Rituals take place in my home, since I want non-initiates to be able to focus on the ritual, not hosting: I’m open to other group members hosting discussion evenings or social events, as long as I can be comfortable there. I enjoy shared meals after ritual, so we need to find foods we can eat together. And so on.
Some of my personal limits:
- I live in a very small home (400 square feet): it’s easy for me to clean (even when I’m low energy) but the layout is cramped, and not a good fit for someone who uses a mobility aid larger than a cane.
- I don’t have a lot of space for comfy seating or chairs with very specific requirements – during ritual or not.
- I cannot accomodate a service animal – my dog allergies won’t tolerate dogs in my living space, and my cat is also not good with other animals. (And if someone can’t be around a cat – even with an air filter and wood floors – I’m not going to be a good place to visit.)
- While my sensitivity to cigarette smoke varies depending on season and other allergens, I can’t reliably tolerate having it carried in on someone’s clothing/hair: someone who needs to smoke at any point during a class, discussion, social, or ritual event is not a good fit for the group. (This is usually 3 hours or so.)
- I need to hold ritual and teaching events at times that allow me to get enough sleep before the next day. Someone whose schedule is very far off mine is probably not a good fit.
- My energy levels are still a little unpredictable: meeting at my home gives me a lot more flexibility around preparation and clean-up work if I need it.
- I’ve got some communication quirks. (Conciseness is not my virtue, though I work hard to be clear. My natural speech speed is ‘very fast’, though I work to slow down.) Some people who do much better with these than others.
- And like many people, I’ve had experiences with friends and loved ones with a range of mental health needs. Some I’m very comfortable supporting (with appropriate professional support as needed). Others have behaviors that hit sore and damaged places in my own psyche that I’m not currently comfortable handling in a close emotional setting like a coven.
Many of these things are things that can and will change over time. The choices I’m making now (as the only initiate in a very small coven, and with some specific housing choices and health limitations) are not the choices I may make in a couple of years. A different living space, financial position, the presence of other active initiates who can share teaching, preparation, and ritual duties, or who could provide a balance to my experiences and personal history all can change what’s possible for me, and for the group.
Some group and tradition considerations:
Existing group members get priority when determining accessibility choices if there’s an incompatibility. (That’s because I’ve already made a commitment to them: if they leave the group for some reason, I’d be glad to revisit.)
If I’m the one who has an incompatibility issue, I need to figure out what’s realistic and fair to everyone, but I owe it to the group to not get in over my head by trying to accommodate everyone.
Some parts of the tradition practice have allergen, mobility, or other accessibility issues. Some of these are easier to work around than others: during our discussions, I’d want to talk about the specifics.
- Our tradition uses stick incense for a specific part of ritual. While variations in the core of the incense, the scent, or the materials used are all fine, adapting to use no incense would be a lot more complex (and involve some collaboration with others in the tradition.)
- Our tradition training involves a number of guided meditations: there are some possible solutions for someone with hearing impairment or other reasons to have a hard time with this practice, but again, they’re not trivial to solve.
- We use bread and wine in ritual, though additions are possible (and more likely than using alternatives.)
Care for community:
I have friends with a wide range of health concerns themselves. Some of them are immuno-compromised. Some can’t afford the downtime from what would be a simple cold for most people. If I have plans to see them, I need to be attentive to my own health and exposure.
So for the needs of my friends (plus my own: right now, I’d rather my body put all its energy into recovering from the past year, not add more demands!) mean that I want to work with people who are thoughtful and clear communicators about health considerations in advance. If they’re coming down with a cold, I want them to think through things and check with me: we might decide to reschedule, we might decide to go ahead and meet (but I’d take extra clean-up precautions), we might decide something else.
If there are other things I need to know to keep me and the group healthy, I want to know that, such as conditions which could be contagious, since a number of our ritual practices involve fairly close interactions (sharing a passed cup in ritual, hugs, being near each other for an extended period, the chance that a dropped glass or ritual blade might draw blood accidentally.)
The larger questions:
There are also larger and much more complex issues that I think about. They basically boil down to four things.
1) Our health has a huge impact on our lives.
When we are healthy, that impact is not always obvious to us, but when we’re in the midst of poor health (whether that’s due to a cold or a chronic illness), it’s very clear how much our ability to do the things we love (and the things we need to do) changes.
Our bodies also have a huge impact on our minds: we all have the experience – or know someone who has – of having medication change what’s easy and hard, or of introducing side effects that we suddenly have to work around. Even when those changes are good, they still take some time to get used to.
2) Change takes time.
Change takes up our energy and processing ability, whether it’s change for the good or change we’d rather not deal with. Taking someone who is already dealing with a massive amount of change (in what they can do comfortably, in their plans and way of living, in their view of themselves as a person due to significant or chronic illness) and adding *more* change to that (through the process of initiatory training that in our tradition requires a lot of self-examination and exploration of different ways to approach the world) doesn’t make a lot of sense.
Too much change can be overwhelming, frustrating, and utterly exhausting – exactly the last things someone who’s already dealing with significant ups and downs in health needs. This is the primary reason for wanting someone to be stable in treatment for a period of time, and without other major changes in their near future before we add something new to the equation.
(Conditions that come up after initiation are a bit simpler: at that point, while there are still substantial changes possible, someone has a good baseline of how they respond in ritual and magical settings within the tradition, and is better able to figure out what they can handle, what they need help with, and whether they need to take a break for a while.)
3) The magic and ritual we do places real demands on our bodies, and creates real change
Some ritual and magical work is gentle: the equivalent of sitting down to enjoy a good book. It has some demands (focus, attention, concentration, creativity), but we get up from it refreshed and relaxed. But some ritual and magical work – especially work designed to teach us new skills, have us experience something new, or deal with challenging emotions (grief, loss, creating a new sense of self and internal identity) can be tremendously hard work both emotionally and physically, as hard as running a long way or being in an amazingly challenging hour of therapy.
It can be hard to tell which way some things will go. Some of the simplest exercises hit people unexpectedly hard. Others dance through the challenging work in ways that show their growth and understanding, but don’t leave them drained or wanting.
But ritual work can also produce physical change. Some people have blood sugar shifts after ritual, or blood pressure changes. Some people have changes in migraine prodrome, or in how they use their lungs. Our bodies are amazing and interconnected, so even a relatively small shift can create a change we need to learn about to understand. (And sometimes, a change that needs to be checked out by a professional.) I keep first aid and CPR certification reasonably up to date, but that has limits.
Likewise, medication can change the way that we respond to and manage energy in magical and ritual settings. Starting from a stable dosage and treatment means that someone learning new skills can have a solid foundation – not an ever-changing baseline.
More than that, though, as we change, our response to situations in our life, to medications, to health factors, may change. Sometimes this is for the good – I’ve had fewer migraines and asthma issues since I started my own Craft training. But sometimes this is more challenging: it can affect mental health, levels of medication, or other parts of our life like our hunger cycles, the foods we crave, or how we approach exercise or activities.
These are not simple things.
That’s why I’ve got the requirement that anyone with chronic conditions (even if they’re well under control) has a way to check in with appropriate professional treatment if needed. (That doesn’t need to mean they’re currently seeing someone, just that they could if they needed to: they have the resources, transportation, ability to get referrals that would be involved.) And, as I’ve said, that treatment for their condition has been stable for at least six months – no substantial changes in medication, dosage, or other treatment approaches.
4) Sharing information helps us make better choices in what we do and how we do it.
And it goes both ways.
You’ll notice here that I’ve been pretty blunt and open about my own health issues. Oh, not every detail – but it should be clear from this post and the previous one that I have stuff going on, what that is, and a fair bit of how I cope with it. I am open in part because I think that the more we talk about some of these things in public, the more solutions we find and the more options we have (and the more ideas other people have to help their friends, their group mates, and so on).
I also understand privacy (you’ll notice that this isn’t under my legal name, for example.)
I don’t expect everyone to be open in the same ways I am (for all sorts of reasons.) But I do expect that someone who I am welcoming into my physical home and into my metaphorical home (my coven, the tradition I teach, etc.) will understand that it’s important that sharing be roughly equivalent at some point.
For me, that point is the point at which we’re seriously considering someone becoming a student and becoming a Dedicant in the group. By that point, they have had the following opportunities:
- To read the coven website, and this blog. Both of which have lots of information about me, the way I approach things, and why I’ve chosen to do things that way.
- To meet me in person in a neutral and public location for an hour or two of conversation.
- To meet several times (in public once or twice more if they like, then in my home) for discussions and introductory training material. Generally, this is 5 or 6 meetings, depending, about every two or three weeks.
- To attend at least one ritual, and quite possibly more.
- And probably some sort of social event in there, too.
What I know about them, at this point, is a bit more limited:
- Whatever they share in their letter of introduction (which generally does not include medical detail.)
- Whatever they share in those conversations and classes (which might be a lot, or might be a little other than the necessary immediate practical details.)
- Not much else. You’ll notice the imbalance here.
So, once we get to the point of considering Dedication, there is a questionnaire and a conversation that explicitly asks a number of questions if they haven’t come up yet. And at that point, I expect a prospective Dedicant to either be able to say “Here’s the info, and I understand why it’s important to you.”, or to say “Can I ask more questions about why you ask about X?” and then share the important info. (For I do, in fact, have reasons for every question I ask, as you might guess from the above. I basically ask about the issues above, plus some further details of background and experience if needed.)
If the answer is “Can I take a little more time.” I might be willing. (Depends on my own life, on whether there are other prospective students who would be held up by that.) But if the answer is “I’m not ready to share at all.” Well, then we’re not a good fit for each other, and I’m not sure how to fix that, other than suggesting that if that changes for them, come back and see what’s possible when it does.
These questions talk both about things that are a current issue – but also about things that might not be as immediate.
One simple example: I’ve worked with two students who’d had gastric bypass surgery. One of them had a particular difficulty with a couple of specific breathing exercises, and spent a couple of weeks quite frustrated and in some discomfort trying to figure out how to make it work. Once we realised that it was probably related to the surgery, we were able to make suggestions that solved the problem. When another student came through who’d had the same surgery, we were able to avoid some very real discomfort and frustration that would distract from learning and understanding. That’s a good thing – but it took knowing that both of them had had this surgery.
(Both of these students needed a couple of very specific adaptations in other rituals, as well, that involved food or drink consumption in amounts larger than a single bite/swallow. Again, very easy to arrange with advance knowledge, but anywhere from seriously uncomfortable to risky for them if we hadn’t known.)
Likewise, I expect people to be truthful about what they do share. If I found out later that someone had mislead me in their answers deliberately, there’s quite a good chance I’d ask them to leave the group. (This is, of course, a complicated situation: however, there’s a huge difference between ‘I’m still learning about this condition’ and ‘I’m going to pretend it’s not a problem’. That’s part of the reason for the six month timeline, by the way, and the fact that joining the group deliberately takes a couple of months even if everything goes very smoothly: it gives people a chance to get past the denial stage of chronic illness diagnosis.)
As you can see, these are all very complex interwoven considerations. There aren’t easy answers – but there are a lot of places where thoughtful, forthright conversation at appropriate intervals can make sure that we treat each other well, and that we do our best to make sure there’s a good and meaningful fit before asking for any sort of long-term commitment on either side.
Is it a complex process? Yes. But so’s any time we’re asking others into our closest circle of self, of understanding, of potential vulnerability as we learn and change and grow and open ourselves to our Gods. Health isn’t separate from or different from those things. It’s wrapped up with them.