A pause for some background

A friend on Dreamwidth posted an interesting Pagan meme that I thought was particularly timely: I’m coming up on the 10 year anniversary of seeking out the group I trained with and worked with until early 2008, when I hived off. Seems like a good time for a “What I’m doing now” moment, plus a nice introduction to link to in various blog places.

(Below, I’m speaking for myself, rather than the trad as a whole, which seems worth making clear right about now.)

Please describe briefly your Path:

Priestess in a small initiatory mystery-focused religious witchcraft tradition with a strong focus on personal transformation. (We have BTW influences from our forebears, but are not BTW).

I am a third degree and elder in the tradition with all the rights, privileges, etc. etc. that come with it. That and a couple of dollars buy a cup of coffee, and you’ll notice I don’t stand on rank (Jenett is my public Pagan name, as used for over 10 years. These days, I use it for everything except work and legal documents).

I am the 3rd person to reach the 3rd degree, and the first person whose training was fully within the tradition. I took and continue to take my particular role as “Hey, is this how we want to set precedent going forward?” very seriously.

Please describe briefly how you practice it:

  • Ritual for Sabbats, Esbats, initiations, other rites of passage, and other times when a ritual is at least part of the sensible thing. We have a common structured ritual model.
  • Daily practices that vary by person, though there’s some common threads.
  • Mine involve music playlists, a household shrine (with varying levels of daily action), some meditation, and a lot of traditional crafts (spinning yarn, baking bread) as a vehicle for goals and energy movement in my life.
  • Thorough attention to not just how to do something, but why we do it that way, some of the (many alternatives), and appropriate variations.

When did you first commit to your Path?

Depends how you count. I’d been aware of Paganism as an option since about 1990 (when I was 15). I started seeking out specific (mostly energy-management focused) material to help troubleshoot particular issues starting around 1995.

In 2000, I started actively exploring Paganism (and my local community) as an option. I took Seeker classes beginning in May 2001 with Circle of the Phoenix, dedicated with them in September, and had my first degree initiation in early 2003. (Followed later by my 2nd and 3rd degrees.)

I generally call the Dedication “I’m pretty sure this is the right step” and the first initiation the actual commitment.

How is your practice different now than it was then?

Right immediately now – less group work, since it’s on hiatus until I figure out what’s going on with the job hunt.

In more general terms – a somewhat different focus on the ritual work: we are still clearly doing very similar things, but a lot of my work has a particular focus on music, movement, and story/narrative that is not necessarily always present in my parent group’s work.

I’m also a lot more comfortable adapting on the fly to a specific need.

Is your practice different today than how you thought it would be back then?

The differences are all additions: I was looking for something that would lead to ongoing group work, that would use a structured ritual format, that would have consistency and foundational materials that lead to persistent answers to questions about what we were doing, why we were doing it that way, and why it mattered in the first place.

But there are pieces in my tradition – mostly stuff I don’t talk about a lot in public spaces, because it’s complicated to explain without a lot of background – that I’ve found immensely powerful and meaningful and life-changing. I didn’t know to go looking for them, originally, but I’m so glad I found them.

Does your Path and core belief system differ now than how it was when you first started? See above. Not really.

What is your heritage and how does this inform your Path?

Mom’s side of the family are Austro-Hungarian on her mother’s side and Eastern European Jewish on her father’s. She and her family fled Vienna during the Anschlüss, and she grew up in the UK, where she eventually met my father, who was English. (They then emigrated to the US, where my siblings and I were born and grew up.)

That said, most of our family customs are much more from the English side of the equation, and that’s where a lot of my religious life influence also ends up.

What are your main influences for your Path?

  • The tradition as a whole (and experiences with the community of that tradition).
  • The interaction with the Gods (and other beings) I honor, serve, work with, etc.
  • Lots of fascinating conversations with other people who have great ideas.
  • Personal experience.

Which do you do more: practice or research?

This is a dualism I really dislike, not only for religious reasons, but for professional ones. I believe in learning: sometimes learning is about taking in information from other sources (research, conversation, directed experiences), sometimes it’s about trying things out, working with a new skill or idea, or whatever.

I read (and talk, and listen) a lot. I do (and make and create) a lot of stuff. Trying to separate them is a bit like saying “Which do you need more, air or water?” (And I pick that analogy because, of course, there is water in tiny little moisture bits in air, and there are tiny air bubbles in water.)

Do you feel that one is more important than the other?

See above rant.  I do believe that practice without information is likely to get you in trouble sooner rather than later, and that research without practice does not make an actual religion or spirituality but is less likely to lead to trauma, therefore starting with research is usually the more sensible route. That said, there’s lots of simple stuff that can be done with pretty basic knowledge, so you don’t need to hold off very long on doing anything. (And I have a website devoted to that sort of getting-started thing.)

I think that if you’re *just* learning/researching and not doing, you’re not following a path yet. You might be figuring out if it’s a good idea, or what you need to get started sensibly, or whatever. But you’re not actually *doing*.

What values and ethics are important on your Path and in your practice?

  • A familial one: “The only thing they can’t take away from you is what is inside your head.” Know your stuff. Own it. Make it live in your life.
  • Things are connected. Mess with this end here, those other five ends may go in places you hadn’t anticipated. Still sure you want to tug?
  • The stuff we do changes us, and changes our connection to the world around us. Again, you sure you want to do that thing?
  • Stagnation is not helpful, as a general rule. Regular cycles of introspection, new plans, ongoing work, harvest, and reflection are a good thing.
  • We have control over our choices and what we do about them. That power means that if something isn’t working for us, it’s up to us to figure out what to do about it, not just sit there and wish that things were different.

There are lots more, but that’s a reasonable sampling of ethics. I particularly value

  • thoughtful communication and reflection before action
  • keeping one’s commitments (or renegotiating them if needed)
  • the transformative power of information, knowledge, and wisdom
  • and trying to leave the people, places, and situations we touch better than we found them. (And definitely not worse.)

What sort of cycles do you feel your practice goes through?

Like a lot of people, I have periods where everything feels like a struggle, and periods where everything is humming along beautifully. I think they’re both important. Mostly, I keep moving towards the next thing: the next season, the next goal, the next desire, the next hope, the next great conversation, the next moment of connection, while doing my best to savour the moments I’m having right now.

What is one of the greatest obstacles or struggles you have had to over come?

The past eighteen months (and counting) of health and job foo have been the single hardest period in my life – harder than the year of my father’s death, harder than the time around my 2nd degree that brought separation and divorce from my ex-husband, three moves in 18 months, finishing grad school, and doing my best to help people in a variety of other ways.

I’m learning a lot, but I’m ready to be done learning this bit, now, and am working on going on to learning a new job, a new focus, a new possibility, and what it’s like to build that in stability for a bit.

How do you see yourself practicing in ten years?

My dream would be to have a small coven of seasoned initiates who are interested in digging deeply into various topics of mutual interest. (I’m particularly interested in the intersection of music and ritual and magic, but finding people with similar enough interests is not that simple.)

I’d love a life of coven work, ideally work with a romantic partner/spouse, personal work. I imagine I’ll be continuing to do some variety of reading, writing, and talking about my path, though I don’t dare to imagine what form of technology that’ll take.

How do you incorporate your practice into your life?

How don’t I, is a slightly easier question. I consider my chosen profession – librarianship – to be partly a religious vocation (in the sense of connecting people with information that gives them choices and possibilities). Most of my daily life choices are pretty consciously rooted in specific values of my path.  You can see a sample day in the life over on my Seeking site.

Has walking your Path changed you as a person?

Yes and no. I think I’m more me, more the me I want to be and become like, rather than being vastly differnet. (That said, a bunch of external labels have shifted for me since my teen years: I used to be a good little Catholic girl with strong Republican and conservative leanings. These days, I’m a witch, priestess, and grown woman with lots of opinions, but also lots of ways to integrate those into my life.)

The biggest change though was between high school and early college – by the time I started seriously exploring my path, I was already pretty much set in the direction I continued in.

Do you consider yourself to be a priest/ess? How so?

Yep. Goes with the whole ‘initiatory mystery-focused initiatory’ bit. I am capable of setting up and guiding someone through the experience with (we hope) successful results. I talk with and to the Gods, and help others do so when they need it. I create and hold and anchor a temple space, and create and assist with making the rituals that happen in that space.

A witch? How so?

See “witchcraft tradition” That said, I view priestess as *why* I do things (in service of the Gods and community) and witchcraft as the technology I primarily use to do that, in the older sense of technology (a systematic treatment or body of tools).

A shaman? How so?

Not quite so much, both for cultural appropriation/confusion reasons, and also because that’s just not what I do. I do think there’s something in the argument that western European folk magic and witchcraft is that area’s answer to solving that Siberian shamanism looks at, or that various First Peoples tribes have other solutions for – in other words, helping those who need to be reconnected or made whole somehow.

Which matters more: getting the vocabulary right or the actual practice of what we are trying to define?

I’m a librarian: how do you find the practices if you can’t talk about them or point to them? Words matter. That said, while I love a good etymological or semantic wrangle as much as the next person who likes those things, I’m also often just fine with it when people say “Here’s the definitions I’m using, let’s get on with the discussion”.

One of the most profound things anyone ever said to you was:

“Reach out to those who thirst” (conversation with M’Lady, and a good guiding principle for my life, partly because it has so many interpretations.)

A defining moment on your Path was:

One of my very early rituals with the group I trained with (perhaps four months in) involved a Drawing Down of Hecate, in which I was told, in phrase-for-phrase perfection, the last paragraph of a letter my father wrote me the summer before he died. I do reread the letter regularly, but hadn’t recently at the time, and it was not something that I and my HPS had discussed in any detail. (I think she knew my father had died when I was in my teens, but that’s about it.)

That’s the point at which I said “There is something very Real here. Ignoring it would be stupid and foolish and close-minded.”

Have you ever taken a “leap of faith”?

Many. Every initiation. Every new circle role. Every time of trying something new for the good of the person I was teaching, or the ritual I was helping, or the community event I was helping plan. Very few of them have failed.

I do also think that the leap of faith that got me to move from Boston to Minnesota in 2000 was a religious leap of faith, though I didn’t recognise it as that at the time. (It being the only way for me to end up working with the specific tradition I’ve come to love.)

Please tell us something stupid, reckless or embarrassing you did once in your practice:

There is a story about an Artemis ritual, an outdoor fireplace, and rather too much flash powder, but it is a fairly lengthy story so I won’t go into it here. (We did take a number of safety precautions, and no one was harmed, but it makes an impressive and cautionary retelling. Moral: more is not better when it comes to flash powder.)

What is the most frustrating thing about your Path?

Good question. The fact that I do not have unlimited time, energy, and hours, to devote to all the things I want to do and would love to learn from? But it seems unfair to blame a fundamental human thing on the path.

Have you ever been frightened?

Yep. But mostly in the ‘awestruck’ way, not in the ‘argh, we’re going to crash’ sort of way.

Can you perform ritual without a script?

Yep. And in fact, it’s generally my preference these days.

CotP was a training circle, so we often had people doing roles they were relatively new to: scripts really help with that if you don’t want to spend hours in rehearsal. But I did learn from that how to work off of notecards in a way that feels natural for participants.

Have you ever preformed spontaneous magick/spellcraft?

Yep. I have done a fair bit of stuff while driving (moving forward in a car is a very handy visualisation.) More of it works than doesn’t, and when it doesn’t, it’s usually that the framing wasn’t very clear.

What are you still exploring or experimenting with?

Lots of stuff. Figuring out how the past year’s health changes have effected my ritual work in particular (How I raise, focus, and sustain energy is different. So are meditation, visualisation, breathing, and a whole bunch more.) The whole music/magic/ritual tripod I mentioned. Integrating more of the art forms into ritual work (in ways that are accesible to a small group or personal setting).

I’m looking forward to the exploration of how a small working-focused circle is different from a larger teaching circle (where I did my training), but it’s going to take a while to get there.

What (or whom) are you the most committed to in your practice and on your Path?

I’m going to talk about the deities below. To what, in general, the “reach out to those who thirst” I mentioned above.

Ritual tools are …

Handy. Tools make it easier to do things efficiently and/or better.  However, the tool is not the work, and the tool is not the creator, and it’s good to be clear about that.

Magickal tools are … see above.

The one thing you can’t do without is: my brain. 

Seeking personal power is …

Important. I believe that someone who is actually secure in their personal power is able to get on and do other wonderful things. It’s the people who are insecure, threatened, uncertain, etc. who tend to cause the problems.

I also believe in a quote from a Lois McMaster Bujold book (Borders of Infinity) where Miles says: “Power is better than revenge. Power is a live thing, by which you reach out to grasp the future. Revenge is a dead thing, reaching out from the past to grasp you.”

Power is what lets us create change the future. We have to understand our own, and its relationship with the powers around us (other people, the Gods, other beings, the world as a whole) in order to live in power, not in revenge.

Politics and your Path are …

My ethics and my values inform my politics (as they should), but my tradition doesn’t have any particular political statements beyond an ethic of tolerance for other people’s choices. I treat politics like I do any other choice: something to be thoughtful about, to grow from deliberate choices and actions, not reactions.

One thing you wish people would understand about your Path and/or practice is: There’s a tremendous amount of variation out there among Pagans. Asking me is more helpful than assuming you know what I’m doing. (Plus, I really like questions: they get me thinking in new ways.)

Do you teach?

The question is more “Do you stop teaching?” Because really, I can drop into “Do you want to know more about that?” mode at the flick of an eyelash. (I try to use my powers for good, not boredom, but I do have what I describe in gaming terms as a +2 Obsession flaw with finding information. Handy for a librarian, but occasionally disruptive in conversation.)

More seriously, I had the pleasure and delight of teaching one of the Dedicant year series while with CotP, have two prospective students locally if I stay in the area, and if I don’t, really want to offer something class-like wherever I am. (Coven-related stuff, but possibly also Seeker/intro/develop your personal practice type stuff: locally, I don’t feel the call for that, because there are about 5 groups doing it at any given time.)

What do you feel is the role of clergy in modern Paganism and Heathenism?

I don’t think I can speak for all those other people, but my own take on being clergy is that it’s about creating ways for people to connect with the Gods, the community, and the stuff that they, personally, need to deal with for whatever reason, and then not abandoning them in the deep dark woods without a lantern. In other words: create spaces for learning, exploration, and connection, and make sure that some tools and safety precautions are in place so that the experience ends well, not badly.

(I think these things are true in any religion – have you ever seen a parish council meeting that got nasty, or a sermon that split a congregation in half? Words can be plenty divisive. But I think they’re extra specially important to take seriously when we’re doing stuff that takes people out of their daily reality into other places.)

Sometimes being clergy is about public ritual, or teaching, or running a group (I’m more about the latter two than the first, but I can do them all with reasonable competence.) But I also think it can be about things like hospital chaplaincy, or writing, or creating sacred spaces for family beyond yourself, depending on how you approach it. Or helping a friend through a crisis, or solving a problem, for that matter.

I also think there should be more room and more discussion to roles in the broader Pagan community that *aren’t* necessarily clergy – musicans, artists, writers, readers, volunteers, creators, planners, etc. who share their time and energy with others, but without roles directly helping people connect with the Gods in specific and directed ways.

When the Veil (or Hedge!) is thin, how does that feel to you?

I hear energy rather than feel it (or see it): the best way I can describe it is a very faint string tremulo. (There’s a decent quick YouTube video about this – a good example is about 1:45 minutes in. It’s a very shimmery other-wordly sound.)

What entities do you work with most? (ancestors, gods, fae etc)

When I have group work going, I end up working with/honoring three primary pairs of deities: the two I work with personally, the two the coven works with, and the two the tradition works with for specific rituals.

My primary personal work is with a pair of deities who I am pretty sure are an English (not Celtic, thank you) deity-of-body-of-water whose name I do not adequately know in any way that translates to other people well. (I normally refer to her as “M’Lady”) and her consort (who I usually refer to as “Himself”) who is all about riding the bounds of stewarded land, and hoofbeats on sun-dappled trails.

M’Lady is also particularly interested in sharing information and understanding with others, with a particular kind of quiet patient compassion without being either maternal or smothering. If you start going in the direction of the medieval approach to the Ladies of the Lake, and take a sharp right into a quiet garden with a lovely pool (and some other stuff) before you get to ‘random hands holding up swords in lakes’, you’re in sort of the right geography.

I also will do what’s effectively short-term consulting work with other deities from time to time – Artemis most notably – for specific situations/reasons, and I keep circling around something with either Hestia or Vesta for household ritual stuff.

The tradition also does a fair bit of work with ancestors (both of kin and of kind). I do honor my blood ancestors, but I also honor Hypatia (of the library at Alexandria) as a ancestor-of-profession.

What is your relationship with the Land?

Geography informs our lives, even when we don’t recognise it. I prefer to be reasonably conscious of it – hard not to, when for much of my ten years in the Twin Cities, I was driving over the Mississippi every day. (You can read what I wrote about that, and the geography of the river, in a post I made just after the 35E highway bridge collapse in 2007.)

I believe that my path – my Craft – need to be rooted in the location I live in, in some fundamental ways. One of the things that’s simultaneously exciting and terrifying about the current job hunt is the fact I may need to figure out all of that again.

The main purpose of ritual is:

To help people connect with the important things for them – with their Gods, with others, with a goal or purpose, with community in a way that encourages movement forward, not stagnation or retreat.

The most important aspect of ritual is:

That it be at least somewhat effective, the requirements for which depend a whole lot on who you’re talking about, the path or structure you’re using, your goals or desires, and a bunch of other things.

What is the purpose of divination/dowsing (or whichever for of augury you use)?

I primarily use it as a way to look at all aspects of what’s going on – in the sense that a well-designed system will take a wide range of common (and not so common) needs, desires, things to think about, etc. into consideration.

I don’t think it tells us what will happen. I think it tells us what might happen (or even what’s probable) if we don’t make any changes. And yet, knowing – asking the question – is already a change.

What was the most difficult book you ever read? (Either difficult to understand or hard to face what it said or both)

Music in Renaissance Magic by Gary Tomlinson, which is mostly about Marsilio Ficino, a completely fascinating Renaissance philosopher, magician, and esoteric theoricist who spent a lot of his life trying to figure out how to make the music of the spheres apply to music. It’s a fascinating book, too, but it suffers from the problem that you need a fairly high level of music theory background *and* a fairly high level of general esoteric history and knowledge to really make sense of some of it. (I had more of the music theory at the time I read it in college, and really need to go back.)

(Mostly, I am likely to find books annoying or badly written, rather than difficult, if I have problems with it.)

What book do you recommend the most to others?

Currently high on my regular recommendation list is Diana Paxson’s Trance-Portation (you can see my comments, which include links to the introduction and first chapter and other handy info over on my books and resources site.) I love it because it’s well-tested material with lots of trouble-shooting advice and widely applicable skills/approaches.

What is you favourite podcast (if any) and favourite blog (other than your own)?

I have not been listening to Pagan podcasts a whole lot recently, but one of my standby general ones is Midmorning, from Minnesota Public Radio. The host, Kerri Miller, does an amazing range of topics (each one generally getting a full hour’s time with one or more expert guests.) She includes authors, musicians, and politics, but also a wide range of topics about food, technology, health, finances, and much more in a way that’s both entertaining and highly informative.

For blogs, I read The Wild Hunt to stay up to date on news and other stories of interest, and I’m also really fond of Gordon’s Rune Soup, which is all about magical theory in a very pragmatic way. I always get a new perspective when he posts.  (I read many many others, too, but we’ll try and keep this limited.)

If you could impart only one last piece of wisdom or knowledge, or share one experience with the world at large, what would it be?

I try not to give one answer for anything after 11pm. It seems foolish.

Which, really, is not a bad thing: know when you’re not likely to be making good decisions, and try to avoid making the important/lasting/high consequence ones then.

Please finish this meme with a picture, image or photograph of some sort:

One of the problems with honoring Hypatia is that images of her are not satisfying (either they’re very Victorian, or they’re reflecting other things that weren’t where I wanted to focus.)

So, a couple of years back, I made my own, as my first exploration with polymer clay figures. Last weekend, I did a redesign (because the original, made to sit on the edge of a shelf), has a distressing tendency to do a nose dive at odd moments.)

Here’s the new one. You can see some making-in-progress shots on the web, too – the last one has comments with more notes about materials.

And hey, you can have two photographs:this is the current stuff on my daily practice space/shrine. It includes the prosperity statue I made in similar ways. I’ll talk more about this in post in the near future.

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