Thoughts on guests

I’ve been thinking a lot about coven guests recently, and therefore figured it was as good a time as any to lay out our current practices about them. (Why thinking about them? Well, first, we finally got the scheduling right to invite our former HPS to join us at the next full moon. And then someone else I know through some shared online spaces (who’s local) inquired very politely if we’d be open to a guest at any point. Plus, I’m working on writing up our decisions about practices, and I’m working on the bit about the guest one currently.)

One thing I want to be really clear about is that a lot of our choices about guests are born out of some very specific circumstances and decisions on where we want to focus. They’re not the right choice for every group – and they may well not be the right choice for us in a few years. But for now, we think they’re the best way to go for Phoenix Song. Your mileage may very well vary.

So, first, background, and then our choices.

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Speaking truth

As mentioned earlier this week, I spent an hour and a half on Friday talking to the Diversity Club at the school I work at. (Both lunches, so it was different sets of kids, except for a couple who have a free period over lunch.) We had 23 students by the diversity director’s count (plus him, plus the other diversity director, who is not normally based on that campus.) Two boys, the rest girls, and mostly upperclassmen rather than freshmen.

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On websites and covens

Last week (this’d be mid-October 2008), I put together a coven website. You can see the website here, and our Witchvox listing here. So, now seems like a good time to talk about what I think makes a good group website.

(We’ll pause here and note that I started doing basic webdesign back in something like the fall of 95, and did some educational design for my college for a year after graduation. Which is to say, I am opinionated. I don’t think I’m fabulous at this stuff, but I do aim for competent.)

Design:

I don’t think that design is the only thing that matters – but it is a big part of first impression. Design also plays a big role in navigation and site organisation, so it’s worth looking at before you do anything else.

I think there are lots of ways to go about looking at design. When I redesigned my former group’s website a few years ago, I wanted to keep a hint of the Egyptian focus that the group had started with (and that the former website reflected) – but I also wanted to include the sense of transformation, movement, and potential for change that’s part of a teaching group.

And so, there, you see that the background is a very faded out parchment image – just a hint of texture and shading. The header image is from a photo of the sun through a stained glass phoenix image made by a former student and now initiate (it’s a *stunning* piece: this photo just shows a strip of it.)

For Phoenix Song, I wanted to reflect our emphasis on intentional simplicity and on .. well, okay, giving people a lot of information so they can evaluate it. We do intend to have a nice header graphic at some point (L’s working on some designs) but we expect to keep the dark green color as the dominant color on the site with a white background and gray/black text. (That said, I didn’t want to wait for the art to get the site up: it’s been nagging at me more and more the last few weeks, which is why I pushed to finish it this past week.)

You will notice that neither site has spinning pentacles, blinky text, or other such things. (I consider them bad design, even if they’re sometimes sorta fun to poke at.)

CotP’s site is done in straight HTML with a simple CSS overlay (and a chunk of it was hand-coded for various reasons.) I recently offered to shift them to WordPress (to make it easier for others to edit: they’re currently hosted on my website account and I do the changes as needed since they require the master account password), but no word on that yet.

Phoenix Song’s is set up in WordPress as pages (for easy editing), currently using a slightly edited (color choices) version of the Skimmed Milk theme. (I may well change the theme slightly when we get the graphic, though, as I’m not entirely crazy about some of the spacing.)

Content:

There are different ways to approach content. Some groups put the bare minimum up online, and encourage people to talk to them if they’re interested in the next step. Some groups put a good bit more information up there.

The first thing about content is “Why are you putting this up there?” The second thing is about making it easy(ish) to read and move around in.

Phoenix Song’s site, if you look at it carefully, falls into 3 categories.

1) The “About our group” stuff.

This is designed to start general, and get more specific (ideally, you start at the main page, if you like what you read you get the “More details” which has some other useful practical specifics. If you’re still interested, you get to the membership stuff (which is three pages to make it slightly less painful to fiddle with – one general, one “Here’s how the process works, so there’s no surprises” and one with the letter of introduction.

The last 2 pages could have been handled in email, but I chose not to do that for two reasons.

– I think it’s often useful for people to see how other groups handle things – having it online may be useful to someone else.

– It gives us a good read on whether someone’s willing to read 6 pages into the site and follow some specific directions. If they send us a generic “I’m interested in your group, tell me more.” they probably aren’t a good fit for us. (In practice, I’d probably do a “Our website has all the basic info you need: we’re glad to answer specific questions not answered there” and see what happens.)

2) General information and resources:

Mostly, this is outreach stuff. We’re a small group, we don’t do public ritual, etc – but we can choose to point to other local resources. Doing so, I think, makes it a little easier to say “Not for us, bye!” Having it online (rather than in email) means I can say “Oh, we don’t seem to be a good fit – but here, go look at this page, it has links to a bunch of local options” in a way that’s easy for me to keep updated or edit on the fly.

Likewise, the music resources page is because as soon as we say Phoenix Song’s got a focus on music in ritual, people go “Oh, really, what kind of music?” And doing the listing once (with edits as needed) is a lot easier than trying to remember what’s on the iTunes at home.

The “Visiting us” page falls into both this category and the “About us” one. It’s obviously useful for people visiting us, but it’s also useful for people wondering what kinds of things they might want to be aware of with other groups.

3) Member info:

For actual members, there are some other useful bits of information – links to stuff for class discussions/resources, plus password protected page of other info. I’m thinking basic meeting dates plus some general training sequence stuff – stuff that would not be the end of the world if the password protection failed, but which we’d rather not make broadly available.

Stuff to be added:

  • Photos (of things, not people, probably)
  • L is going to work on a bio and some music notes (she’s already agreed with everything else on there.)
  • The members-only stuff

Other choices:

Now, one set of choices here is about how much text to have up. As you can see, for Phoenix Song, I erred on the side of “More information is good”. This is my natural inclination, but I did think about it a great deal (and about each segment), and in the end, decided it needed to be there.

I wanted to provide enough information that someone could make a reasonable choice about whether it was worth their time (and ours) to explore this further – that means that a lot of practical details (location, scheduling, etc.) are in some ways a lot more immediately relevant. At the same time, I wanted to give enough of an idea of what we do in ritual that people could say “Yes, that sounds interesting” without giving out too many personal/intimate details on the web.

It’s also informative to note which things we don’t talk about in detail – you’ll notice, for example, that there’s nothing about which deities we work with on there, because that’s a conversation we’d rather have in person. At the moment, it takes a bit of explanation. (That said, we do mention polytheistic practice, etc. etc. so people should be aware of what they’re looking at.)

The choice of amount of text is also deliberate in some ways: the way we’re planning on training involves a fair bit of reading (there are some alternatives if that’s an issue for someone, but it’s our base assumption.) If that’s an issue for someone, better we figure that out early, before taking everyone’s time.

What frustrates me in Pagan group page design:

There are – okay, more than a few things – that frustrate me as I’ve looked at sites over the years.

1) Playing music at me.

No. Just no. Bands get to do that, and even then, please make it easy for me to turn off (I’ve got my own music playing, thank you!). Everyone else? No. Really no. I love sites that *include* sound files – but please give me the chance to decide what to play, when.

2) Graphics that take away from the actual information

I deeply appreciate good web art – but I also believe that good art in an information source should support the information, not make it hard to find or read. I’m in the design camp that says that attention to good basic design (readability, structure, color choices, etc.) goes a great deal to support the art, as well.

If you do choose to use eye-catching graphics, a few go a long way. Or set up a page to play with the pretty shinies, and let people click into it only if they want to.

3) Navigation issues:

If your goal is information, people need to be able to find it. Sequential pages are one thing (like how our membership pages work so that you must read the initial pages first) – but it should generally be easy to get back to the index or general info and find your way around. (This is one of the reasons that doing this in WordPress makes my life easier: set the links up once, and they continue to work.)

Broken links? Not good.

4) Currency

I always wonder when I look at a site where it says “Brand new for 2006!” (and it’s 2008). It doesn’t imply regular editing, certainly. Makes you wonder what else has changed that they haven’t mentioned.

There’s two ways to handle this – avoid time-based stuff entirely (which is what most of our site does), or limit it to a small number of pages that can be easily updated. (which is what we do in the exceptions: I know where the dated stuff is.)

5) Sites that give you little idea about the feel of the group

I’m not talking about ‘put everything out there’. But I do wonder about groups that have very minimal text info, very little design coherency, and very little.. well anything. How is an interested reader supposed to distinguish you from any other group out there?

Sites don’t need to be fancy, but most witches are aware of at least basic color theory (since we use the same stuff in ritual and spellwork!) and it’s nice to see it applied or handled accordingly. If your site is all reds and orange, but you’re talking about calm reflection, I’m going to raise an eyebrow.

(Likewise, I expect some people will go “Phoenix? Why the green?” with ours. Which is okay: there’s a specific reason for it, and once we get some graphic work up, I think it’ll be better. And otherwise, I think we give a good sense of the overall feel.)

So. My opinions and thoughts. If you do have comments on the site, or think I’ve left something out, I’m open to suggestions. (Don’t promise I’ll follow them, just that I believe in listening to reasonable suggestions.)

Creating space

My summer seems to have gotten away from me again: in a week, I’m back at work for the school year, with some new responsibilities, so I’m in “Argh, get life in order now!” mode.

I spent Friday at our local IKEA, picking up various items to help with that, which leads to my post today.

Background:

One of the things my covenmate asked me, back when I sent her the Role of the HPS post, what I thought the role was in regard to the covenstead: is it automatically the place where the HPS lives. I have some philosophical thoughts about that I’m still trying to sort out into words other people might understand, but I do know the practical thing it kicked off for me: a desire for my home to be a place where I can say “Sure, come right over, I’ll be here.” A place I can host (small) group ritual in. A place I can teach in. A place I can have friends – or group members – over and be hospitable.

There’s just one trick.

I live in a tiny little house – 400 square feet, the size of a studio apartment, though it’s divided a little differently. There are many things I like about it.

  • It’s the amount of space I actually need for me and the cat.
  • I can clean it thoroughly in about 2 hours, if I have to.
  • It’s far more private than an apartment – there’s at least 15-20 feet between me and the next building.
  • It requires me to think very carefully about how I live, and what I bring into my home.
  • It fits my budget, and a larger space wouldn’t right now.

But there are also challenges. Now that I’ve lived here for a year, I have a much better sense of what they are, and which ones I really care about dealing with.

Some of them are just about the space: the tiny house dates from the mid-50s, and has at various times had tenants who did not take as good care of it as might be hoped. Plus, there’s an elderly gas stove and heater (they work fine, but they are not elegant or shiny or new.) There’s some cosmetic damage to the kitchen floor, a few places where the front room floor is splintering slightly (easy to throw a rug over), and so on. My landlady is aimable about fix-up work I want to do, like painting the bathroom, but money is a limit (on both sides!)

There’s also some limits for group work. My front room is about 8×11 feet, and has 3 bookshelves in it. It will fit 6-8 people, we think, if people are friendly about it (it requires a little moving around during circle casting, etc.) which is around the limit of what we want for the group anyway.

However, to do this, everything in there except the shelves have to be moveable. And yet, I need to make sure there’s enough seating that 6-8 people could potentially sit around and chat and eat after ritual. there’s still a question of seating.

(I should note here: L and I are rotating who hosts ritual: she has somewhat more space, and substantially more outside space. On the other hand, doing things at her place means affecting her partner’s schedule. He’s very amiable about it, but at the same time, we want to keep things balanced.)

Some solutions:

As of this weekend, I have two hard kitchen chairs, a computer chair, and a stepstool that people can sit on. The idea is that these would be easy to move around, but more comfortable seating for conversations and teaching. I also have plans for more floor pillows (something the cat approves of.)

The last thing I want is one or two ottoman footstools (padded, but square and portable) that can be used for seating, and otherwise live in the corner. I’m also considering 2-3 TV trays that can be used for portable tables (or quarter altar space) but I’m still considering where I’d store them.

So, what happens for ritual?

  • The harp is moved into the bedroom alcove, along with any other furniture we’re not planning on using.
  • The computer gets moved from the desk (in the front room) to my dresser (in the alcove). It’s an iMac, so this is fortunately pretty easy.
  • The low bookshelf in the west (usually my personal altar space) is cleared, and used as the west quarter altar.
  • I just got a set of narrow shelves that live by the computer desk (used for the east altar)
  • A flat-bottomed chair and a stool get used for north and south altars, respectively.
  • The desk can also be used to eat around after ritual, with a little planning.

The only part of this that is particularly tedious is moving the computer (and even that is only about a 5 minute process).

There is one other thing I’m considering, which is creating fabric drapes to go over the tall bookshelves, so that people do not need to look at my book selections during ritual. (I’m thinking that light but opaque fabric held on with strips of velcro would do nicely, and other people have suggested that this should work, but I have not yet gone fabric shopping or put them together.)

Inside my head:

But there’s also what it means for my own habits: it means training myself to put things back neatly on visible shelves. On keeping the books down to what *can* be shelved. On keeping on top of dishes and other such things (so that not only are they not distracting, but we have dishes to eat out of afterwards!) The rest of my week is getting devoted to doing a chunk of this and getting things lined up so that I can maintain them when I go back to work.

I grew up with a mother who was very particular about house-cleaning – and I was *not* naturally neat as a child. Naturally organised, yes: I knew where in a pile of stuff things were. But not tidy.

I’ve been learning tidy as an adult (and am currently in a weird place where I strongly prefer things to be tidy, but don’t quite have the habits ingrained to keep them that way even when I’m tired/out late/got lots of other demands. I’m working on it.) I intend to talk somewhat more about this at some point, but some of it is complicated by chronic medical foo (asthma can affect cleaning for me, and as of yesterday, we appear to be having late-summer pollen allergies kicking in: traditionally my worst season. This means I’ve got less energy to spare, and it takes me longer to get moving in the morning.)

Costs of group work

One of the things that I’ve been thinking about are the actual costs of group work – in terms of both time and financial cost. I’m not talking about paying for training, mind you – just about the other things that go into it. With rising gas prices and other costs, I’ve seen more discussion of this in people looking for groups, but there are very few specifics out there.

Now, obviously, I have one set of experiences: the numbers below are not going to reflect everyone’s experience. But I do want to put some concrete numbers out there (along with where they come from) so that other people can get a general idea of some patterns.

(This gets very long, so you click on to read the details)

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