C is for Consideration

[Part of the Pagan Blog Project]

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about how we talk to people. And specifically, how we ask other people to take their time, and their energy, and their attention, and do stuff that helps us out. And this is relevant to research, of course, because no one knows everything, and so chances are, you too, someday in the future, will find yourself wanting to ask someone for help.

There’s all sorts of ways to frame this that make it sound like you have to be overwhelmingly nice to make that work. But really, it’s not about niceness. It’s about consideration. And I was thinking this week about group dynamics of groups I’ve been around in the past – Pagan and non-Pagan – and how many of these are so very important.

Are you aware of the scope of what you’re asking?

“Help me understand this word in this context” is a much smaller question than “Tell me everything about your religious beliefs, practices, and how I can do them too.” You don’t really need to know that much about the topic to figure that out. If you’re going to ask really big questions, make sure the person is up for that, and has time and energy for it, and make it clear you’re aware you’re asking a Big Complicated Thing.

Related, do you actually give the relevant details? If you’re asking about a term, tell people where you heard it or came across it. (It’ll give them context to give you a better answer.) If you’re confused about something, explain what confuses you rather than leaving people to guess. If you’re looking for a magical or ritual solution, but you’ve got limits on what you can use, put them in briefly up front, so people can take them into account or ask for more details. All of those show that you’re treating the people you’re asking like people, not “give me an answer now” robots.

Do you remember you’re not the only thing in that person’s life?

I’m a librarian, I love helping people find info. And I do that particular kind of labour of love for one of my big hobby projects. One of the reasons I do it – and this is a thing that has people asking me to dig up info a couple of times a day, on average – is that the people who ask me are aware I’ve got other stuff going on. They check it’s a good time. They give me a little time if I say “Wait, middle of something else, give me five minutes.” It’s the times in my life where people take my time and energy for granted (and put demands on when and how I do things that make it hard for me to keep my other obligations) that make me cranky.

Do you leave space for other priorities? 

Related to the above – I’ve spent a lot of time working on community, collaborative projects where one of the things that helps make that thing work is keeping in mind that it’s the *project* that matters, rather than any one individual person’s specific priorities. Yes, we work towards being able to do stuff for people in ways that work for them, but chances are, there will be times when the overall goal wins out over a particular preference. Recognise that it’s probably not someone’s only priority to answer your questions. (Even when I’m at work, where it is my job to help answer questions, I’ve got limits: I’m not going to answer them at 11pm at night, If I’m helping one person, I’m not going to be able to take 20 minutes to stop and help another person. There’s some kinds of questions we should not answer, like medical or legal advice.)

Whose timeframe is it anyway? 

Sometimes, you’ll see someone come into a forum, ask one of the Big Complicated Questions (often with a wall of text, or lots of details, or sometimes with some very specific questions that require a particular background or expertise to do much with.) And no one answers them for a couple of hours, and then they make a sulky “Why aren’t you all answering me?” sort of post. Related to “People have other stuff in their lives than you” – well. People might be sleeping, or at work, or spending time with a sick loved one. They might be watching TV or petting the cat or knitting, to destress from a complicated thing at work. They might be helping someone else, with just as interesting and complicated a question. You get better results if you don’t throw random demands into other people’s timeframes, basically.

Are you clear? 

One of the things one of my current group projects has been teaching me is how to be up front in email in a specific way. I am the queen of long posts, but that project is slowly (good thing it’s running for another 2.5 years!) teaching me to write shorter long posts, and ones where it’s easier for people short on time to do something useful with it. It’s a useful skill in all areas of life, really.

 What does this mean about the Pagan communities? 

Briefly, the impact for Pagans is even more so than for some other religious communities. We rely on a lot of gift-economy labour to make things happen. People to plan events, to run them, to do all the little bits that make a difference in them. On our forums and email lists and blogs, we rely on other people taking the time to talk about things that answer our questions. What makes those spaces work is some consideration.

And the more consideration we can offer each other – not niceness, not ‘you must like me’, but “Hey, you’ve got 24 hours in your day, and I’m glad you’re willing to share some of that with me” – the better things tend to work.

C is for Cosmos

[Part of the Pagan Blog Project]

So, today I want to talk about context. Which basically means “how does this thing I’m doing fit with the me that’s doing it, and the where I’m doing it, and the why I care about it.”

One of my library professors referred to “collection” – as in ‘collection development, how we select stuff to be in the library’ – as the interrelationships between a given item, the other items in the library, and the people who use them. There are also more subtle interactions with the space (you may run out of room physically, but there are also ways in which you can keep more from a smaller collection in your head at a time, and form connections between different pieces more easily.)

Right. Let me stop and back up.

Resources are sort of like stars. We stand here, on earth, and we can see one really nearby star (the sun) and we can see a lot of more distant stars. If we use some more tools – binoculars, telescopes, missions into deep space – we can see a lot more.

But from where we’re standing, how do we make sense of them? We might look at stars that appear to be near each other in the sky. Which is to say, we stand somewhere, and we look north, and we go “Oh, right, there’s a star, and there’s some other stars, and they all circle around that star, which is Polaris.” (If you live where in the northern hemisphere as I do, anyway.)

And people being pattern makers the way we are, we stand there and we go “That bit there looks like a bear. And that looks like another bear. And that bit is a dog. And that bit is someone’s belt.” and so on and so forth. Even though, really, it’s all about us and where we are at this moment in space and time.

We do that with books, too. And web pages. And resources. And things people tell us. We want so desperately to make connections between pieces that we forget that we’re just seeing from this current moment in time.

And yet, some of those stars might be connected in ways we don’t see. Stars that form out of the same nebulae might be moving in the same direction at sorta roughly the same speed. But over millions of years, they may spread out when we view them, and be in very different parts of the sky. And yet, they’re far more connected than stuff that looks like a constellation.

Here’s the other thing. All those stars? They’re constantly moving. Where they are when we look up at the sky varies, of course (but that’s our perspective changing, as the earth spins). But they also move – the entire universe is expanding – and so the relationships shift and change.

Finally, what we know about them changes. As we’ve discovered more and more ways to look at the universe, ways to hear the universe, ways to map the universe, and even ways to move through the universe, we learn more stuff. Lots and lots of stuff.

Back to the library.

A good library is an ever-changing organism. That’s true of the physical items (we get new books, old books may eventually be discarded), but we need the same sort of mental flexibility, the chance to remember that the way the world was five years ago is different than the way the world is now. And it’s different than a hundred years ago, or a hundred years from now.

(As an example: Netflix recently put The West Wing into streaming, and I have been watching lots of it (again) while I knit. For a show about politics written a decade ago, tons of it is amazingly, stunningly relevant. And yet, there are all the places that aren’t. Because it was always an alternate universe, but also because where we are now in political discourse, in social discourse, in community understanding, is different.)

So, back to Pagans and research. The point here, is, of course, that  you stand there, looking at the stars around you, the books and the websites and the people and the places and the experiences that make up your personal research cosmos. As you stand there, remember that they’re moving and relating to each other, and changing, just as you’re changing and moving and shifting.

The best researchers are the ones who remember the world changes. That it’s vast and huge and always has something new, something they don’t know yet, some shiny new relationship to be discovered.

And they remember not to be fooled by the resources that seem right and true, but don’t necessarily tell you what you think they tell you. (Is that point of light really the star you think it is? And do you know where it came from?)

“That publisher is lousy, they never put out anything good” is one of my favourite examples of this problem: To understand why, you need to understand the stars you’re seeing and how they relate to the business of publishing, to the variety of opportunities and resources, to the ongoing conversations within separate subfields and practices, and much much more.

By looking beyond the obvious patterns, we do better research. We learn more cool stuff. And we can do more with it.

B is for Barrier

[Part of the Pagan Blog Project]

One of the things we kick around in professional discussions, sometimes, are barriers to research, to learning, to trying new things. And it’s a topic I admit I find fascinating, because some barriers are things that if you just know they’re there, they get a lot easier to deal with. And some are things that may have fairly simple fixes for many people. Others, of course, are hard to fix, or are very persistent, or are rooted in wide-scale assumptions about how the world works.

So, today, I want to talk about some barriers to research and why they’re there. Sometimes, just knowing what’s affecting us makes it easier to talk about solutions. Good thing, since due to length, this post is mostly about what the barriers are, not about how to work around them. I would be really interested, though, if anyone reading would be willing to be a case study for looking at solutions.

[What would this involve? Exchanging a couple of emails with me about your basic demographics – where you live/what you can get access to – plus what the researchy stuff that’s frustrating you right now looks like and what you’ve tried. (I’d send you email with more specifics to make that easier to answer). I’d be glad to use whatever pseudonym you like, and the only locational data I’d want to share is rural/suburban/urban and country. I don’t promise to find a solution to your problem (though it might happen) but I’d hope to give you a couple of things to try you haven’t checked into. Offer good for all English-speaking countries, but I’m more likely to be really useful regarding the US than anywhere else, because I’m more familiar with the possible options. If you’re interested, bounce me a note via the contact form, please, so I have your email address.]

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B is for Book

[Part of the Pagan Blog Project]

We all knew I was going here, right? Let’s do a couple of lists this week.

  • 3 reasons books are great for religious learning.
  • 3 reasons they’re not so great.
  • 3 ways they’re more complicated than you might think.

I note: these are not meant to be complete lists. Just a dip in the water of some things to think about.

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A is for Answers

[Part of the Pagan Blog Project]

The world has relatively few absolute answers. Oh, yes, there are some things we’re pretty sure about. But compared to the things we don’t actually know for sure? They’re actually pretty tiny.

That’s why biology and chemistry and physics and astronomy are vibrant fields. That’s why we have history and sociology and anthropology and archaeology. That’s why we’re looking in the deepest oceans, and the furthest biomes, and the farthest reaches of the universe. And that’s why we have people who piece together the details of tiny beads, bits of pottery, and much more, to guess at all the things we don’t have writing about, and people who look at all the writing we have, and try to piece that together.

(And there are vast parts of the world we don’t have writing about. Even the places that wrote things down left out a lot – often they’re great at some parts and bad at others. We might have excruciating detail of household accounts, and no idea about their religious rites. Or we might have elaborate temple ceremonies, and no real idea how day to day religious practice or even ordinary family life worked. Or we know the religious parts, but what mattered in how you raised your kids or cooked your meals, not so much.)

And then there’s all the nuances. I learned Ancient Greek in high school and college, for a variety of reasons. And yet, much of what we have in Classical Greek is a tiny limited fragment of what there used to be. And what we have is mostly from a very small number of communities, authors, and perspectives. We see, in those bits, hints of other dialects and stories that were well known that we only see hinted at. But we really have no idea what we’re missing.

We know a lot of things varied by polis. But we don’t know which things, or how they varied, often. We don’t know what that meant for many religious festivals, or about representation of the Gods. Or how that changed over time. We have hints and glimpses and moments, but we don’t have certainties for vast swaths.

Imagine looking at your computer or ereader screen – the one you’re looking at right now. Now, imagine that maybe one or two pixels, one or two points of light on that screen, were lit. Could you tell whether the picture was Atlantis at the depths of the ocean, or Avalon, or Charon’s boat? Maybe you’re lucky, and the thing you’re looking at right now gives you more hints – the curve of a boat here, the reach of a tower beneath the waves there, a shadow of a well there.

There’s one other thing we don’t have, and it’s best summed up for me by a quote from Peter S. Beagle’s Folk of the Air:

“Because that world’s gone. The world where people walked around whistling that music. All the madrigal singers in the world can’t make that other one real again. It’s like dinosaurs. We can put them back together perfectly, bone for bone, but we don’t know what they smelled like, what kind of sounds they made, or how big they really looked standing in the grass under all those fossil fern trees. Even the sunlight must have been different, and the wind. What can bones tell you about a kind of wind that doesn’t blow anymore?”

The speaker then goes on to talk about how even in the times we have history for, we don’t really know what the street sounds were like, what the smells did to what we paid attention to, what the light and the street beneath our street felt like. We can guess, and guess better, the closer we are to the world we live in now. But there’s so much missing.

We don’t have many answers.

And yet, people like answers. They want answers, desperately and painfully. Because certainty is comforting, even if it’s a depressing certainty. (There’s a recent This American Life show called “Heretics” that takes that one on.)

And yet, most Pagan religions don’t have them on offer. Not about the ‘what happens after we die’ part, but often not about lots of other things. Why this works. Why that doesn’t. Why that does, but it’s a bad idea. (Well, we’ve got some answers for that, but they’re anecdotal, rather by definition.) All the laid out beauty of a composed and structured plan.

No, what we’ve got are whisps and bits and fragments of song and memories of dance and chants by candlelight and firelight and moments in time. It’s up to us to hold space for them, but to hold space for our present, too, and to find our answers – our own personal answers – going forward.

So what do we do? Hold space for what we know, and hold a gentle space for the things we guess at. The things that fill in the lines between the sparks of light we have. And in that space, we make things real for ourselves.

When we do it honestly, with integrity, we’re clear (with ourselves, and with everyone else) about which is which. What is fact anyone else can find, and what is the stuff we figured out to make it hold together. And we keep our eyes and ears and minds open to new information, even if it contradicts what we thought might be an answer (last week, last month, last year, last century.)

Because there’s new information all the time. And in the spaces in between – well, we have learn to be better at living in uncertainty.

(Like it or not, we’re going to have to do it, so we might as well get better at it.)