On what we’ve lost, and what we’ve gained

I just made a post elsewhere online I wanted to share here. I’d talked about how we’d lost a lot, as a culture, when we had mass-accessible written material (sometime after the printing press: I tend to think it’s around 1600-1650, when you start getting lots more broadsheets and other materials that are inexpensive enough that most people can get a look at them if they like.)

Someone else in that conversation went “Hey, wait. You’re a librarian and you’re saying this?” And she’s quite right, but I had to explain where we’re coming from. Here’s my explanation:

I explain:

I think we lost stuff. I think we lost *big* stuff, with the loss of a commonly held oral culture and the skills needed to maintain it.

I think we gained a lot with written culture, and on the whole, those gains are worth the losses. But it’s not all benefit, either, and more to the point, we’re comparing different kinds of loss and benefit.

(Erm. Take an older couple. The husband dies, leaving his wife of decades a widow. The same year, one of their kids has their first grandchild. There is a lot of wonderful stuff in a new baby in the family – but that new baby is not the same as the lost spouse and doesn’t replace the same functions, even. There’s still a loss that should, imho, be grieved and honored and remembered, even in the midst of all the cool new stuff that comes with the new potential.)

I’ll give you a personal example, too. My father was a professor specialising in ancient Greek theatre, and he spent about one or two weekends a month travelling to do one-man performances of his own translations of those plays using a marionette theatre (which more or less duplicates, when done in a college auditorium sized space, the amount of detail that your average ancient Greek amphitheatre-going person would have seen.)

Anyway: he was able to hold 3-5 plays in active, letter-perfect memory, and about another dozen in nearly-perfect state at any given time. He invested time in relearning them (he’d recite to himself while walking the dog: we had the most classically educated canines on the planet, probably.) But mostly, they were in his brain.

That gave him a *tremendous* amount of fluency in the subject – down to being able to cite quotes word for word when teaching on that play in class. There’s a story one of his colleagues told at his memorial of him walking down the aisle in his large lecture class, asking one of his grad students “What’s the play today?”, getting the answer, walking up on stage (having not even paused his stride), and teaching for 90 minutes on that play with no reference to notes or reference material. And it was a brillant, coherent, enjoyable lecture that his students remembered for years. And that was normal for him – he could do the same thing with other subjects he’d spent a lot of time with (and I spent my childhood with him telling me Greek mythology on every walk too and from school.)

I can’t do that. I can’t *begin* to do that. Now, some of that is that where he was a specialist, I’m a generalist (which is a lot of why I’m a librarian. I know tons of things about tons of things, but I have that kind of deep running knowledge about only a few: my religious path and related topics are one of them.)

But some of it is because he grew up and lived in a world where that was what there was: there were the words and what they meant, and he devoted a *vast* amount of his time to living deeply in the words as they were meant to be performed. He read, of course, but he also spent far more time than I do living with the text as performed work, not words on the page.

Now, I have some of the same skills in terms of internal information management and being able to pull out useful bits from what’s inside my head (and I invest some of the same kind of time in cultivating them: actually plan to stat some of that this weekend, because a conversation at work today got me curious about the actual breakdown of how I do generalised information gathering.) But in me, it manifests totally differently, because I’m so much a child of the internet age, and not a child of the oral learning and repetition age (as my father, who grew up in 30s and 40s British schools was)

And I’ll tell you here and now: I frankly envy and desire what my father was able to do. And the world we live in no longer supports it – and I suspect makes it pretty close to impossible, unless you are living a very specifically designed life. That’s a loss, even though there’s stuff I can do that would have amazed my father (and does amaze my mother.)

And a few more thoughts, not in my response to her:

I think we’re a better world, overall, for more information. Sharing information gives people the power and the tools to make more of their own choices, and I think that’s a wonderful thing. Oral information, is, unfortunately, locked inside someone’s head until they let it out, and the skills and practice needed to maintain it are hardly trivial to maintain.

But at the same time, I do think we’ve lost things, as those skills in oral memory disappear. We can live without them – but we’re changed, and the world is changed for having fewer of them about.

(This is, arguably, part of why I am so incredibly drawn to small intimate ritual groups: in such groups, one can have the broader context of the great story of someone’s life and desires and dreams, without having to get all of it in one shot. And a small group can hold, together, the memory of the group in a way a larger group can’t generally manage. It won’t always happen, but it’s a lot more feasible than in a group of 50, or 100, or 2000.)

Integrating my life

I’m back at work for the school year.

Working for a school definitely has its own yearly cycles and festival days: last night I was at the back to school barbecue for staff and their partners, this morning we had our fall all-employee meeting, book discussion, and then time to get things done in our teaching spaces.

(I come back a week before the faculty: I spent all of last week working with my new assistant to move every single book in our library, in order to rearrange the space. I’m delighted with the result, which we finished today: it’s open, with clear lines of sight and flow between different areas, and the light is even more gorgeous than before. I think we’ve solved a couple of nagging ongoing problems (involving students doing things that were perhaps better undone in corners hard to see around). We’ll see how it works with actual students next week. Best news: the most expensive actual change was about $300, other than taking out a huge elephant of a standing-height circulation desk, so if we decide it’s not working, we can always move things again.)

Anyway, this post is a great example of something I’ve been thinking about a lot this summer: the idea that to be the kind of librarian I want to be, I need to deeply integrate it with my religious goals and commitments.

By this, I don’t mean ‘try and convert everyone to my particular trad” because, ew, no. But I mean that I want to let the me that I am in circle – priestess, teacher, ritualist, creator of intentional and focused space, intuitive listener – come through more overtly in my work life.

I want to anchor and hold a space where learning and inspiration and discovery can happen in a safe way. I want to use the tools I have at my disposal to help me manage the energy and interaction demands of working with 70+ faculty and 500+ students every day. (At least potentially – fortunately, not all of them show up at the same time. But still, as an introvert, that’s a pretty hard gig for me some days.)

I need to balance the parts of the job I adore (helping people find information that matters to them, and helping them learn how to find things themselves) with the parts that are a little less ecstatic: paperwork and budgets and all those other practical details. And I need to have an eye both on each individual day’s tasks, but also on the bigger cycles of my work life: each week, each quarter, each semester, each year – and each student’s experience over the four years most of them are with us.

No small task, any of that.

And I need to figure out a way to do it that means I’m not working 60+ hour work weeks to get everything done (because that’s probably not sustainable for me) and that leaves me energy, focus, and attention to do other things after work (time with friends, writing, coven matters.)

Yeah, I know. I want a lot.

I think it’s possible. I just think it’s a work of magical and ritual creation in and of itself, even before you get down to any specific details or desires or anything else. Simply creating a life, a process, a way of living where this is even a possibility takes some change in me, and some change in what’s around me, and some change in how I look at what I’m doing and when I do it.

So, I’ve been doing a lot of that this summer.

What does that look like?

I’ve started developing daily personal habits that should help. Some of that is personal practice, some of that is trying out some different things that seem to make my body happier.

I’ve created a professional shrine in my back office that reminds me, each time I look at it, of what I’m aiming for. There are things there representing knowledge and learning and inspiration, a cool bowl of water for flow and intuition, and salt to help with grounding and crystalline intensity when that’s needed.

(I’ll take a photo at some point: if you know I’m Pagan, it’s probably obvious what it is, but it’s no more involved or weird than things many other faculty have on or near their desks.)

I wanted very much to make the space my own: that’s what I’ve been working on for the last week and a bit. Moving things around was a lot of work, but I now feel like it’s mine, it has my philosophical stamp on it, in all sorts of little ways.

I’m remembering the power of conversation. My division head (aka the person I directly report to) said something to me in the hiring discussions last spring that stuck with me: that what we’re basically getting paid for (as an independent school with, yes, a substantial tuition cost, though we also give a fair bit of financial aid) is the relationships we develop with students.

Framed in that light, spending 20 minutes helping someone (student or faculty) with a problem isn’t distracting us from our work: it *is* our work. And as I’ve started to build in time to make that easier (by going to the barbecue last night, by knowing I’m going to spend a lot of this week having 5-10 minute chats with a lot of people about their summers), it’s easier to remember that that the human connection and understanding and support are the things to keep my focus on. The paperwork can happen later, if it has to. The people are the bit that matters.

I always knew this, of course – but something about that particular conversation got it stuck in my head in a way that feels really deeply rooted now.

And a physical tool: One of my dear friends (the one I spent the summer helping, in fact) is a jewelry maker by profession. She made me (with a lot of collaboration) a bracelet to help me anchor the kinds of energy flow and focus that I want for this year, as well as to help me with some fairly specific things (like being able to work out in the main library area for most of the day and not feel totally wiped out at the end: teenagers put out a *lot* of stray emotional energy, and I can find it really distracting or draining if I’m not on the top of my form otherwise. Even when I am, it can take focus from being the best librarian I can be, which isn’t really what I want.)

I expect to wear it daily for a month or three, and then work down to wearing it as needed. Not only is it a physical reminder of my goals and intentions (never a bad thing in itself), it’s also an anchor for the specific goals I mention above, and a reminder of the power of integration.

And finally, keeping me honest: I’m doing a presentation to interested faculty a week from Wednesday (as part of our monthly teacher talks) about the integration work. I’ve been very quietly out as Pagan to a number of people for the last year or two, but haven’t talked a lot about what that’s meant.

My talk is going to focus on how working with the natural cycles of our year (both seasonal and school), seeking balance from different kinds of interactions and tasks, and about how some of my religious community skills cross into professional work (group dynamics, intentional space, recognising and creating moments of recognition for different passages), and vice versa (working where I do has *definitely* made me a better teacher in a lot of ways.) And I’m also going to talk about some of the challenges of balancing two demanding sets of skills against each other – something a lot of my colleagues know a lot about.

My hope with this is both that it’ll explain some of the reasoning behind some of the choices I’m focusing on – but also to help get conversation started about some of the broader ideas: balance, compassion for ourselves and others, going beyond the ‘expected’ answers, and all sorts of other things that are core to the mission of the school.

Pagan values – informed choice

Last month, Pax declared June to be Pagan Values Blogging month. I’ve been thinking since that announcement about what I wanted to talk about. One of the obvious choices, given my professional interests, is the power of information.

And it’s not just information alone – I’m not talking about trivia here, information disconnected from action or change. But in any path that places a heavy consideration on personal responsibility (as many Pagan paths do in one form or another), information allows us to make choices that are based on more than personal preference at a given moment.

To make informed choices, we need information.

And, of course, the kind of information we need varies based on our goals, the topic, and our past level of experience. The information that’s going to be most helpful to one person may not make much difference to someone else.

We may need basics. Useful starting places, relevant safety considerations, ways to find support and community if that’s helpful or wanted – and directions to go as we want to learn more or deepen our understanding. We also need to make sure the basics are in context – that they don’t leave out entire areas of a topic.

Helpful information includes:

  • Resources that have helped other people – and how. Not just a list of books or websites, but some commentary on why someone liked them, recommends them, or found them helpful with specific questions.
  • Ways to connect with broad resources, both locally and online. One risk when someone’s getting started is that they find only a tiny subsection of what’s out there. Participating in broad community settings (a large and active online forum, a local community event that attracts people from many paths) helps avoid that.
  • Context – exactly how a specific practice or idea fits with other ideas (or doesn’t, as the case may be.) If there’s a ritual shared, what’s the background for this ritual? What do you need to know to get more out of it, or adapt it to your particular needs?

We need information to help us understand the risks and benefits. While outright persecution or discrimination is relatively rare for Pagans these days (and there are good support systems in place in many cases), it’s probably no surprise to anyone reading this that there are some risks and considerations. Learning more – gaining information – about what that looks like for other people helps us make better choices for ourselves.

Helpful information in this area might include:

  • How other people navigate talking about their religion with family, friends, and with work or casual acquaintances. Our circumstances are unique, but many types of situation have come up before, and knowing how these went can help us make more informed decisions in our own life.
  • Accurate and appropriate information about effects of various things – whether that’s herbs, specific practices, or anything else. Many things in Pagan practice have a lot of benefits, but some of them are not things to try for the first time the day before an important presentation at work – as they can have lingering effects. (and some can have serious health considerations.)
  • Experiences other people have had with specific practices, tools, or other things that impact not only what we do, but how we do it. Again, these help us decide for ourselves what we should explore in more depth – and how to plan for that experience.

We need information that helps us avoid reinventing the wheel. There are lots of different groups and individuals out there, many trying to do similar things. While we should continue to explore that amazing diversity and range of goals, there’s no reason to reinvent the wheel every time. A little research or a conversation about something can help us avoid common prior problems – and save us time and energy so we can go further with our goals.

There are lots of examples here, but a few that spring to mind:

  • Group dynamics – how to avoid the most common problems in group settings. Group drama can eat a tremendous amount of time, momentum, and energy, leading to nothing useful getting done. Knowing how to avoid the drama and deal with different preferences or opinions effectively can make a huge difference.
  • Ritual planning for a particular group size. For example, there are some things that have been found to work reliably and well in large groups, and some things that regularly fail. Knowing those in advance of ritual planning helps create better rituals!
  • Scale – what works for an individual is often different than what works in a group of 5-10 people, or what works in a group of 20, 50, or a few hundred.

We need information that directly impacts our choices. What we do. Who we do it with. How to figure out the where, how, when, and why that sing to our souls (barring things like legality issues, of course.) We need to learn to ask questions that help us figure these things out. Our answers may not be like anyone else’s specific answers – but we need to figure out the places we do overlap, and when cooperation, learning, or sharing resources are truly helpful

Related to that, we need to value choice.

There are many, many people out there. Many paths. Many practices. Many beliefs and philosophies and worldviews. There’s no way that any single person has the ability to do everything, know everything, or be part of everything that’s out there. On a purely practical level, we only get 24 hours in a day, and we have a number of things to do during those hours – sleep, work, taking care of our household chores – before we get into any optional activities.

One thing I’ve found critical in my own path is valuing discernment. Between a demanding job and coven commitments, and other things I want to do, I simply can’t be at every public Pagan event in the Twin Cities (there are lots and lots!), or welcome every person who expresses interest into my coven, or answer every question in an online forum that comes my way. I need to set some limits and make choices in order to honor and value my other commitments (to my profession, to my friends, to my own well-being).

Instead, I use information – about my own needs, about what’s out there, about what might be most helpful to others, about what it will take to improve skills I want to get better at – to make¬† informed choices about where and how I spend my time. When one of those things changes, I adjust. (For example, I’m about to go on summer break, which changes all my schedules from my school-year life. I can stay up later, do things during the day, work on a single project for hours at a time, and so on – but I also need to make sure I’ll be able to go back to work in August fully recharged for a demanding year!)

Some of that information is clear-cut: I’m already committed to be at something that Saturday, and can’t be in two places at once.¬† But some is less concrete. Whether I think a person is a potential fit for my coven, or for a role in a particular project can be somewhat nebulous. I personally use a combination of past experience, my knowledge of myself and the things I can work best with, a dollop of ‘what’s going to stretch me, my skills, or my interactions without being either overwhelming or miserable’, and my intuition – but it’s definitely an art, not a science.Knowing myself, though, is pretty critical.

Informed choice is also about balance.

And that means balance between work and home (or hobbies and home, if someone doesn’t work), religious life and practical needs (cooking, cleaning, kids, etc.), and recognising the choices we make and their consequences.

We can’t truly begin to balance these things (and many more) unless we know what they mean – how much time and energy they require to do well, how often we want to do them, what they mean for our interactions with family, friends, or the broader community. There are places in my life I’ve made different choices because my personal preference would affect friends in way I didn’t like – or change my relationships with tradition mates. I value those relationships, so I found new ways to handle that issue. However, the only way I *could* figure out that I needed to do that is by being informed about what was at stake – and what my options were.

I suspect I’m going to be coming back to balance a lot in the coming year: one of my obvious big challenges this next work year is to balance a demanding job (which requires a lot of specific skills and attention to detail) with a religious life that requires some of the same – but also the ability to turn that off, fall into the experience, and be open to very different possibilities. Yet, I also know that it’s that balance (and dynamic balance, in particular) that’s going to save me, and make doing more of what I want possible.

Happy coven thoughts

There’s a lot of things going on right now for me. Still waiting to hear if my current job is going to hire me for the long-term position. (I really hope so, and should know within the next week.)

But we’ve got two people possibly interested in joining Phoenix Song, which is exciting. One of them we’re meeting at the end of April (as I’m busy next weekend, L is busy the weekend after, and our weeknights are already fairly booked.) The other, we met near the end of February, and had our first discussion evening with on Tuesday.

(If you were to guess from this that we are absurdly busy people, you would guess right, though this spring is more complicated for me than I think it will be in the future, and I’m being careful to schedule sufficient ‘down time’ into my week. More accurately, April is complicated because L and I are totally booked or out of town on different weekends, which cuts into the month a lot.)

Now, the way we’re doing this is there’s some advance reading – and then, our hope is to spend the time together actually talking about it, and what we do, and how it works. Some interesting things came up, and worked very much the way I was hoping it would.

We’re consciously trying to make space to not only say “What do you do?” but “Here’s what we do.” For example, we talked a little about personal practice on Tuesday, and asked her what her current work looks like. And then we talked about what we do, beyond the coven stuff we’ve already talked some about.

We talked about modeling different choices. I am, for example, frankly envious of L’s house (which I love visiting) but for a number of very good reasons, I’m going to be doing more of the hosting for a bit. I live in the tiny little house (400 square feet), and while I’m working on furniture, and more storage options, and so on, it’s not where I want it to be yet.

And we talked about how this is human – we’re all going to do stuff a little differently as individuals, and I’ve got reasons for the choices I’m making in where I live and how I spend my time, and some of my options are different than L’s (as well as some of my choices, and some of my habits.)

This lead to discussion of the problems of pedestals, and why they are uncomfortable places to live, even less fun to fall off, and how we’d like to avoid some of those issues as much as we can. And part of that is my being up front and honest about at least some of the things I think about, and struggle with, and try to do better with.

For example: horrifically busy since January: there’s stuff I’m doing less than I want to be in my personal practice. That’s ok. It doesn’t make me a bad priestess, or a bad coven leader, or a bad human – just means there’s some stuff I want to adjust, maybe.

I’d be a bad coven leader if I wasn’t doing the coven stuff competently or making sure it got done, or wasn’t needed. Or if I didn’t have a personal practice at all.

But I do, I’m just not doing all the stuff I would want to do in an ideal world where I had more time and energy. And I’m glad to have started by talking about that – because I believe very firmly that it’s easier to begin as you mean to go on.

Just stuff I’m thinking about.

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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