The purpose of events (a discourse on Pagan Pride)

I’ve seen two fascinating conversations pop up in the last day: one about SF conventions and one about the Pagan community, both talking, in at least general terms, about ‘who are we doing this for, and what are we doing with it’? Which brought up all the thoughts, so hi, you all get a post about it.

The Pagan community side started with a friend linking to a post of Star Foster’s about Pagan Pride and the subsequent conversation (locked Facebook post, so I can’t share) was interesting, but also got me thinking. Which got me writing.

I was on the Twin Cities Pagan Pride board from sometime in late 2005 (so starting with the 2006 event), during which I’ve been co-programming chair, programming chair, and then hotel and operations chair once we started Paganicon in 2011. (I am no longer on the board, because moving to Maine in the summer of 2011 made it a little tricky to attend board meetings in Minnesota, but I continue to do hotel foo for Paganicon, and I presented two workshops at this year’s Southern Maine Pagan Pride.

And I found it fascinating reading Star’s post, because there’s some interesting assumptions there. And a bit of history I realise people might not be aware of.

A pause for context:

Back when I was Programming Chair of Twin Cities Pagan Pride, I made a really deliberate attempt to reach outside the Wiccan-based community. Every year, I’d sit down and produce a list of every Pagan or polytheistic group I could find in the Twin Cities region and in greater Minnesota. I’d search through Witchvox, but I’d also rummage through Minnesota email lists, through listings of events or mentions at stores, do web searches for the likely terms, and so on.

(And I’m a librarian by profession, so I do know how to do a thorough web search that goes beyond basic Google.)

I’d send off nice little notes to anyone who did not explicitly ask not to be contacted (Witchvox has an option for “Please don’t contact me about random events in the community” and of course I respected that.)

My notes said, basically “We’re doing Pagan Pride again this year, here’s the dates and location.” and for any group that wasn’t one that we saw all the time (who are awesome for doing that), I’d say something like “We’d really like to include a greater and more diverse representation at our event. If you’re not interested or available, I’d love to know about other groups or people you know about who might be interested.” and then usually a brief thing about “here’s the places I’m already looking for that.” (because asking other people to do your homework for you is rude.)

Most of the time, those emails went into the ether, and I got very little response back. Maybe they went to defunct groups. Maybe they went to spam folders. Maybe people meant to respond, and Life happened. I don’t know. But I do know I tried.

Thing is – it didn’t get us much response. And I don’t know what to do about that. You can’t make people show up and do things for you. (You can’t even make them show up). All we could do is be honest and sincere about what we wanted to do, and that we would like to include more varieties of practice and experience for people to learn about.

I also made sure that our programming items included things that could apply to a wide range of paths, and I mentioned those in our “We’d love programming about X” emails. (Things like how divination applies to your path, or what fiction you read that inspires you to think about something in your religious or magical practice differently, or how fiber crafts work for you.)

Where’d I learn to do this? The Pagan online space I’ve spent the most time – the Cauldron – has a long history of a diverse range of Pagan, polytheistic, and magical paths (Wicca and Wiccan-based practice has been in the minority there among the active posters pretty much my entire 12 years hanging out there.) So I did have a good sense of topics that might have general interest, and how to write them to avoid Wiccan-centric assumptions.

What did I find out?

First, that for a number of years (again, between about 2006 and 2010), we had a really clear alternation between more Wicca-heavy Pagan Pride lineups and more other-kinds-of-Paganism ones. This wasn’t intentional in the least: it happened four years running in which my basic outreach process was more or less exactly the same. It all came down to “we have the spare energy this year but didn’t last year” or internal cycles of groups, or sometimes things like “We have people who would like the chance to lead a public ritual” one year, and the next year, some of those people weren’t free.

We also had the issue that the Minnesota Renaissance Festival dates are a complicating factor in scheduling Twin Cities Pagan Pride: we had more diverse representation in the years before the RenFest dates entirely encompass the Pagan Pride window. There isn’t a lot Pagan Pride can do about that – going later in October even if we got an exemption for the date hits the Mankato Women’s Spirituality festival, and Earth Conclave, as well as people’s prep for Samhain. And when the people who *are* backbones of the event, year after year, have Samhain plans, this is something you do need to keep in mind. It’s a big part of why we shifted most of the programming to the spring Paganicon.

Are there things we might have done that would have been even more outreach? Sure. (There always are more things.) But those are also things that would take a substantially larger investment of time and energy because the next real step would be very personal outreach (by going to open events in those other paths and communities) But that assumes there are communities open to that kind of respectful visit (many aren’t, and for good reason) and that there are people with the spare time and energy to go.

(I had the energy to do Twin Cities Pagan Pride as a board member. But at various points when I was on the board, I was working full time, and also putting in 10-20 hours a week in teaching and leadership of the group that trained me, and finishing graduate school. Or at the tail end of that time, dealing with a major job hunt and a major health crash that has taken years to begin to recover from. People have varied and complicated lives, is what I’m saying here, and the rest of our Board also had varied and complicated lives.)

What does this actually mean?

Good question. I argue that the thing you should do with Pagan events is figure out why you’re going. I’m actually with Star that public Pagan rituals don’t usually do much for me (I do not need a big transformative experience every time – big transformative experiences are exhausting, thanks, even if they’re good for me. But if I’m going to do ‘friendly social connection’, doing it with random strangers isn’t really my thing either.)

So why do I go? I go because I believe it’s good for the larger Pagan communities to talk in useful ways. To compare notes on what’s working and what isn’t, and what’s new in town. I go because I like doing workshops as a way to both meet interesting people and share useful stuff. But I go with moderate expectations. I expect to see some people I like, maybe meet a few people I might like, and so on. I don’t expect it to be a Major Point In My Life.

And yet – part of why I’ve invested hours and hours in making them happen is because for some people, it is a major turning point in their life. I’ve had people tell me they were so glad to find people like them, and seen the glow in their eyes of connecting with other Pagans, or someone who could help with a specific path or kind of practice. This August, I was teaching a workshop on research at the Southern Maine PPD and was able to point someone at a path that totally isn’t mine, but I knew some useful resources and contacts. I live for that kind of thing. (Librarian. Connecting people with information that matters to them is pretty much my life mission. Also a religious devotion.)

The other thing I really like about Pagan Prides is that they’re low commitment as long as getting there is not a huge issue. (Free event, supported by donations.) It’s entirely possible to go for an hour or two, see the things you really want to, and go away. You don’t have to block off all weekend, you don’t have to buy a membership or a ticket. If you decide there’s not that much of interest, you can go away quickly, if you find some awesome conversations, you can stick around.

But I don’t expect it to be my whole community. I don’t expect it to be life-changing. I don’t expect it to be the Best Thing I Do All Year. Those are unreasonable expectations to put on a very broad, very general event that is focused on public education and increased awareness. If I get personal awesome stuff out of it, great.

But I go – and I support such events – because I want there to continue to be places curious people can check Paganism (and related paths) out, and learn more. (Which works better when there are experienced people from a wide variety of paths willing to talk to new people.) Where people who are curious can learn more about local resources (whether that’s groups or vendors or entertainment). And because if we want a more diverse and more vibrant and more varied group of Pagan communities in the future, we need to keep propping the door open, not just keep talking to the people we already know.

But if that’s not your thing – that’s okay. There’s other ways to catch up with friends, and other times to do stuff with Pagans. As much as I value Pagan Pride events (and other public and newbie-friendly events), I don’t think a given event is the right choice for every person or for a given person every year.  I’m certainly not offended by other people deciding to do something else with that day.

I do hope, though, we can talk about events fairly (judge them for what they are and are trying to be, not for failing to meet our personal desires for our dream event). I also hope that we can, individually and together, remember that events have histories but also – we hope – futures. Events will change and develop over time (so what we did 5 years ago might be different now) and that what we want out of an event as an individual might be different than it was 5 years ago. Or last year.

One spirit in the dark

There’s a chant out there from the Spiral Rhythm CD I Am – that goes

One spirit in the dark, like a candle wavers.
Many spirits joined as one, burn with the power of the blazing sun.
There is strength in community, the circle empowers you and me.
The circle binds yet sets us free, as we will, so mote it be.

I listened tonight, as I walked home from my evening reference shift at work (random music shuffle is a form of divination and sometimes consolation) while I was thinking about a recent post on the blog Making Light which essentially asks “What happens when new spiritual experience opens up under our feet, and we’re not sure what to do with it?”

My answer is far too long for a comment there – and I knew this before I even started typing – so I figured it would be a fine post here instead. (Look! This blog still exists! Really!)

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Wicca, censorship, and the library

[So, one of my goals this year is to update this blog weekly on average. I did not quite expect to start with this topic, though.]

I’ve just seen a number of news stories come across my professional blog RSS feed about the case of a resident of Salem, Missouri (Anaka Hunter) who (supported by the ACLU) has sued both the library and various other named parties (including the library director) for blocking reasonable access to material – namely information about Wicca and Native American religious practices, among other topics.

 Ars Technica has an excellent overview, and links to the PDF of the complaint.

Reading the stories I’ve seen so far, I have both a few questions – and the thought that a lot of people don’t know how libraries are supposed to handle this sort of thing, or what the common considerations around filtering/etc. are in public libraries and schools.

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Cycle on cycle

This weekend – the US Thanksgiving holiday weekend, whatever days it actually falls on – always reminds me of how cycles begin to stack, once you’ve gone through enough of them.

Thanksgiving has never been a big family holiday. First, my parents were English and raised in the UK, respectively (Christmas was always the big holiday). Second, my father generally took advantage of the long weekend in the US to lecture and perform in Canada without missing classes. And third, we just didn’t have extended family.

(My parents are both only children: from the time I was born until my father’s death when I was 15, the people in the world I knew I was related to were my parents, my sister and brother, and my mother’s mother in England. My sister married shortly after that, but it was a while longer before there was a nephew, sister-in-law, or nieces.)

But in my adult life, it’s picked up a lot of associations. It’s almost the time my ex-husband and I got married. And it’s the weekend he fully moved out when we separated.

However, it’s also the weekend of my 2nd and 3rd degree initiations (which is what happens when you work for a school that gives you almost no discretionary vacation time, and you want a couple of days of preparation and recovery, and waiting for spring break is not desireable for various reasons.)

And of course, there are lots of memories of good times with friends, at various tables over the years.

So, one little span of time stands there, holding a whole lot of different memories and ideas – and yet, simultaneously, not holding the weight and history and complicated stuff it does for most people I know, who have much larger families, long-term traditions, etc. (I am very aware of the originating history, mind you – I grew up close enough to Plymouth Rock and Plimoth Plantation that it was a regular school trip, and Mom and I went every year or three.)

And I’ve got my own harvest cycles to celebrate, too, of course.

When I start talking about cycles in ritual practice, this is one of the things I’ve made vague handwaving gestures about for years, though.

You can stand there and say “Thanksgiving” to the end of days.

And yet, unless you get a lot more specific, you will have some people for whom that word evokes family (for good or bad), specific tastes and smells. But you’ll have people who have a dread of it because they had to deal with a difficult family situation. Or the people who come from places that don’t celebrate Thanksgiving like that. And the people for whom the word evokes a painful period in history of appropriation and loss.

When you can build a harvest gathering that brings everyone in that room to the same place about what you’re celebrating, then you’ve got a good ritual.

(This, by the way, is why I’ve preferred to celebrate with friends in an ‘orphans Thanksgiving’ mode, rather than tag along to a friend’s family: there’s a lot more conscious discussion about how this meal, this approach, this ritual serves the people who will be there this year, both physically and emotionally.

With family traditions, that doesn’t always happen so well. People and families change over time, so what worked 20 years ago or 10 or even 5 may no longer create a space of thankfulness and grace and community in the ways you want. Doesn’t mean you throw out the traditions – but that all good ritual should look at what those practices serve.)

So, what I wish this Thanksgiving, is that you have one (if you celebrate it) that leaves you and everyone there feeling included, well-fed, and grateful for the wonderful things in your world. There are lots of ways to answer those questions, and you don’t need to get there by the same roads as anyone else.

And if for some reason that doesn’t happen this year – well, the good thing about cycles is that we get another one next year.

Echos over time

About half an hour ago, I finished the major work I wanted to do for this year’s Samhain.

It reminded me of one of the powers of tradition. In my tradition, the Samhain ritual has been one we’ve done in much the same way for my time in the tradition (ten years and a bit). Of course, it’s been adapted – for number of people present, for number of people to take roles, for overall energy.

This year, I’m 1500 miles away from others in the tradition. (And in fact, I’ve been in Maine for 13 weeks.) And I’m working by myself, so many of the pieces of my tradition’s practice are simply not going to happen.

And yet, there are ways in which I stepped into ritual tonight, and all the chords of all those rituals were right there with me.

I hear certain music, in the dark, in the midst of ritual, and there is no space but the space of the circle, no time but those shared moments of dark and remembered grief, and yet hope for the coming year, mingled and echoing across the years.

Bites of food in ritual remind me of how amazing ritual foods taste – there is nothing in the world like the first bite of pomegranate on Samhain night, or even of the meat pie that’s been my contribution to ancestor feasts for those ten years. [1]

So what did I do?

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