Talking about what we do

On Friday, I’m going to be talking to the Diversity Club at the school I work at – about Wicca, and historical witchcraft. I’ve only got 40 minutes or so, so it’s going to be interesting.

This came about in an interesting way – we’ve got a new Diversity Director this year, and he’s been picking a particular topic to talk about twice a week. At the end of September, he sent out a list of topics, through Oct 31st (which is both a regular meeting and Hallowe’en), with October 31st listed as a time to talk about the Witchcraft hunts, Hallowe’en and Wicca.

I looked at my work email, and wandered down the hallway to volunteer. (I’ve been quietly out at work to people I’m closer to, but haven’t been public about it, and he didn’t know my own religious affiliation.) We had a lovely chat – he has Pagan friends, but was delighted not to have to try and field questions directly.

We’re not sure whether I’ll out myself or not (I have been cautious of this with students, because my relationship with them is different than a teacher’s is: I see them far less consistently, and it’s important that all students feel comfortable asking me questions.) But at the same time, the school has a decent history of supporting different religious beliefs and (fact-based) discussion of them by faculty.

Having this conversation:

I’ve spent some time thinking about how I want to do this. I plan to be in there with an easel (my theory is that any conversation that includes the word Samhain, you probably want to have something write it on) and handouts (so that I can focus on taking their questions and discussing, rather than worrying about getting to everything.)

There are some things I know I want to touch on – for example, I’ve been told that a couple of them have made comments that Wicca isn’t a real religion, so I want to talk briefly about what makes a religion, and about how the US does and doesn’t recognise religions. (i.e. there’s no official process, but various Pagan groups and paths have the same kinds of recognition as other religious traditions – IRS non-profit religious status, recognition in the military, ability to grant ministerial credentials, and so on.)

I’ve also made a deliberate decision to avoid getting bogged down in details but to stay accurate (if simplified). For example, I say: “Traditional Wicca is a priesthood path – equivalent to a religious order with specific commitments. Many others adapt Wiccan practices and use the term Wiccan but may vary from what’s described below.” which gets the idea across (I hope!) that there are different ways people use the term.

Likewise, when I talk about ethics, I’ve said: “Ethics are based on personal responsibility for choices and their effects in the world. Free will is a particularly strong value. There is no concept of salvation by deity, but also no idea of original sin.” rather than getting into a discussion of the Rede and the Threefold Law.

I’m also focusing on witchcraft and religious witchcraft rather than the grand scope of Paganism, because that’s how it’s been advertised – but I do mention that it’s one of a larger grouping of Pagan religions, and made sure to include books that mention this.

And there are some things that are not in the handout at all – the “Are you Satanists?” thing, or the “What about sacrifices?” These are answered in a couple of the books I’ve referenced (and that our library owns: I’ll be leaving a few down there for a week or so), but I made a deliberate decision to avoid these questions in the handout, because why give people ideas if they don’t ask about it.

I’ve done my best to treat practices fairly and as if this is a totally normal and reasonable way for religions to work – straightforward, with a sense of depth and more going on for those who are interested.

Don’t worry, I’ll post something (probably Friday) on how it went. I’m talking to both lunch blocks, so it’ll be two different groups of kids. I suspect the hardest thing about it may be avoiding saying “We” and “I” in terms of Pagan practice.

(I’m also trying to figure out what I’m going to wear, since it’s also Hallowe’en. I think I’m going to make it the first wearing of a really gorgeous dress a friend found for me in a consignment store – it’s a pale green, with Celtic stenciling on the bottom) and a fun hat – a gift from the same friend, a Renaissance-faire style velvet snood style cap. And some of my amber jewelry, because I’ll be amused if anyone figures it out – none of it’s obviously Pagan, but anyone who knows a little about Wicca may make the connection.)

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.)

Witches Weekly ?: Why Pagan Pride?

The Witches Weekly blog asks a question this week. This week’s asks about Pagan Pride, in part saying “Do you feel it is just a day to gloat about being pagan, or do you think the genuine purpose behind it is to show that there are strong pagans in every community?”

I wanted to answer this one, because I’m both on the board for our local one and have some mixed feelings about it. Obviously, I think overall it’s a good idea – or I wouldn’t be putting my time and energy into it. (I’ve been Programming Chair or co-Chair for the last three years, and this year picked up some additional responsibilities.)

Incidentally – if you’re local, please come. Twin Cities Pagan Pride will be October 4th and 5th at the Sabathani Community Center in Minneapolis. Much more info to come at the link, but there will be vendors, programming items, rituals, entertainment, and all sorts of other goodness.

Some background:
Our event is quite large. This year, I think we’re the only 2 day event in the US. (We discovered on doing our first one last year, that two days is actually easier on the people putting it on than one day was – plus there’s all sorts of additional opportunities and time available.) We have about 20-25 programming items planned this year (I’ll be doing a final count tomorrow as I prep the schedule.), 4 rituals, and other excellent things.

The way I see it, our Pagan Pride event serves several related functions:

  • Providing a space for people curious about Paganism to come and learn more about various paths and local community options.
  • Providing a non-threatening place for people who have family and friends who are Pagan (or who are just curious) to see a little of what we do (and for some general education.)
  • Providing a place for different parts of our local community to come together and share ideas.

We’re lucky in the Twin Cities: we have a sizeable and diverse Pagan community. We have not one, not two, but three stores focused on the Pagan community (and a few others that are more generally metaphysical.) We have a long running full moon open circle, public Sabbat rituals on a regular basis, and a wide range of classes offered. (I’m currently taking a series on herbalism, and am signed up for an astrology class in October and a runes class in early December.) There are a number of active, thoughtful groups in town, who do good things in their own religions and paths.

But at the same time, all the separate paths and groups in the area don’t always get together that often – so it’s nice to have one time a year where people can see all sorts of different kinds of approaches in one place. I think that’s good for those of us who identify as Pagan – and I think it’s a great thing for people who are interested in a Pagan religion, but aren’t quite sure where to start.

I think we generally do a really good job – people learn, they talk, they have a good time. We’re pretty pleased. So what are my mixed feelings?

1) How good a job are we doing at truly sharing the Pagan communities in our area?

This is a hard one to answer. We do a good job of showing some of the variety and range of Pagan religions. But at the same time, not every group is represented every year (we actually have enough groups in town I’m not sure every group *could* be in a single weekend – but in reality, people’s time and energy and schedules have a role.) Some groups have an long-running presence. Some groups I contact never reply and don’t participate as a group.

So, is it a true snapshot of our community? We try, but it’s obviously imperfect.

2) How welcoming are we to people who are new (and often nervous) about Paganism?

Again, we try, but we’ve also had comments over the years about people who’ve come in, gotten nervous, and gone out again. Some comments have been about people wearing ritual robes or obvious jewelry. Some have been about the topics of presentations. Some have been about other behavior.

Overall, we’ve made a decision that we’re not going to tell people what to wear – and that other than basic public behavior issues, we’re not going to tell people who to talk to, or what to do. We do encourage people to be welcoming, and we do have some plans this year to help guide newcomers to some particularly useful places (by having a list of particular workshops and events of interest to people new to Paganism), but I still feel like we could do better at this.

Part of it, though, is about volunteers. I’d love to, for example, have a simple 30-45 minute workshops running every hour or two that just talked about “What is Paganism”, gave a rundown on different kinds of paths (the various witchcraft traditions, reconstructionists, etc.) and answered simple questions. But we need an actual person who’s willing to do that, who will do it fairly and with good information, and who would be willing to cover the same material 4-6 times in a weekend. And who doesn’t have other demands on their time.

3) How we’re trying to do several things at once.

My goal with programming has been to have a little bit of everything – but as I’ve been told on our surveys, this sometimes leaves people with too many choices. This year, I’ve been fortunate enough that scheduling has mostly made it easy to have some clearly defined ‘tracks’ within programming: we have 3 adult programming rooms (plus the ritual space), and I’ve mostly managed to schedule things so that there’s one ‘brand new to this’ kind of topic, one topic for people who’ve been around for a while, and one topic that’s sort of in the middle – usually some kind of specific technique or approach or interest.

But it does sort of get away from Pagan Pride’s core mission of being focused on people unfamiliar with Paganism. Our eventual hope is to split off a day for people who’ve been Pagan for a while into its own event, and have workshops on topics of interest to people in a number of paths – for example, on things like pastoral counseling issues, group dynamics, or specific magical or ritual techniques.

4) How aware the public is, anyway:

Also a tricky one to judge. Due to weather considerations and rental costs, we’ve chosen a site with some drive-by traffic, but not much walk-by movement that’s a little off the most travelled areas. (Oddly, renting the public spaces in our site is *far* cheaper than a park permit and tents: our choices are between a much smaller event outside, with possible rain or cold, or a sizeable one with lots of choices inside, but not much walk-by traffic. I think we’ve made the right choice, but it has consequences.)

We also do our best to get announcements out to a wide range of local news organisations and event listings – but that’s not always something everyone reads or notices.

What to do:
None of this means that I think Pagan Pride should go away. But it does mean that I think there’s some things we should always keep in mind.

  • Why are we doing this?
  • What are our core audiences – who do we really want to reach, and how?
  • How good a job are we doing at that? Are there things we could do better?
  • Are we really giving a well-rounded introduction to the Pagan community locally? Can we improve that.
  • What feedback are we getting? Is it reasonable (suggestions we can do something about) or stuff that’s way out of our budget/resources/mission? How do we educate people about the realities of what we can manage in a given year?
  • Is this the best way to do this goal? Are we going about it in the most practical way?
  • What gaps are there in our local community that we can fill? Which ones are we duplicating?

That time of year

There is no year of my life that has not, at some fundamental level, been wrapped up in the academic calendar.

My father was a university professor: our family vacations ran on his schedule.

Then there were my years of pre-school, elementary school, junior high, high school, and boarding school (a new and different schedule, that, but still, in principle the same.) College.

Working for my college for the year after graduation. I had very little to do with students, in general (I was doing web and project design for faculty), but you could still feel the ebb and flow of the school no matter what else happened.

I moved to Minnesota, for one year *not* working for a school – but in graduate school myself part time.

And then I began my current job, where I’ve been since fall of 2000, working in an independent day school. There are many things I love about it.

One of them is how often I get to pause and reflect on how much I love it. Every year, the last week teachers are around, there’s a parade of special lunches, ceremonies, in between the meetings. Some of the process gets a little tedious – but many of them help me remember just how fantastic the people I work with are, how neat the kids are, why I enjoy getting up almost every morning. (Almost. I *am* human, after all.)

And then there’s the part we’re in right now. The beginning of the year.

It’s unusually exciting this year. We’ve moved my desk (in the hopes being in the office will make noise-distractable me a) less stressed and b) more productive). We’ve negotiated some new duties that make my salary manageable, but that give me some significant challenges. And we have new carpet (the original, from the early 70s addition, was in place until last week) and a little new paint.

We come back a week before the faculty (who will be here next week.) They’re already trickling back to look at rooms and have initial meetings with colleagues, and it’s hard to go an hour without someone stopping by to chat about their summer (always too short!) and what they have in mind.

I’ve been sorting magazines (we get about 50), a process that always brings the news of the summer back in rush. Later this week, I get to start updating our patron database (something that has to be done manually.) And next week, we’re back to meetings and faculty gatherings. The week after that, students.

All of them remind me of cycles and new beginnings, and new possibilities. I love that.

But it’s also sometimes a little weird: it’s obviously (and for some historical reasons) off kilter from the traditional agricultural busy points. Just when my religious life is telling me to go be introspective and reflective, my work life is getting hectic with major projects. Just when my religious life is telling me to work hard on goals and projects, my schedule drops out from beneath me, and I often find myself somewhat adrift as summer vacation hits.

Now, there are advantages to some of this: four of the eight Sabbats fall in my vacations generally, so it can be easier for me to prepare in an unhurried way for ritual. I get a natural sense of ebb and flow to my schedule: things build and then diminish. I’m constantly turning from project to project as cycles shift and different things become easier to work on. I’m never bored.

But at the same time, it does give me a strange perspective on the Wheel of the Year. And one I think I’m never going to quite shake, even if I eventually end up working somewhere that isn’t a school.

The advantage of group rituals

Yet another post inspired by interesting search strings that show up in my stats. (Incidentally, I am greatly delighted by the interest in my recent book lists and HPS theory posts. Thank you, all, who’ve been reading and commenting and passing links on!)

The search string in question was “advantage of group rituals” It’s pretty obvious, if you read various other posts in this blog that I am a big fan of group rituals. But I have not yet talked about exactly why that is.

Scratching the itch:

First and foremost for me, group ritual scratches itches inside my head that personal ritual never does. It’s something about the interaction between me and other people in a sacred space. Don’t get me wrong: I value personal work as well, and I think it’s essential for a well-balanced religious life. But if I go more than about 6 weeks without group ritual, I notice myself getting more and more off-kilter.

One of my motivations, yes, for getting my 3rd degree, is that it means that no matter where I am, I can form a new group, should I have to. I very much hope doing that from scratch in a totally new place without any other groups around I can visit won’t ever be necessary – but I feel a lot better knowing that I have the tools and skills and abilities to do so.

But why does it matter to me? Good question, and there are some reasons I still haven’t puzzled out in the more than a decade since I noticed this. But there are some I’ve figured out…

Singing in harmony:

My standard comparison on this one is singing. You can sing many wonderful, amazing things by yourself. You can move minds, change the way people see the world, relax or annoy them. But what we can’t do with the human voice is sing interweaving harmony parts by ourselves. If we want to do that kind of music – which, again, has many wonderful options – we need more people. It’s not that one is better or worse than the other. But they are different, and they sometimes do quite different things.

The experience I get from singing to myself is different than the experience I have been in the circle with a round sung by multiple people there. The energy flow is different. The sense of holding and creating sacred space is different. All sorts of things.

Different isn’t always *better* – I can have fantastic experiences on my own, and fantastic experiences in groups (and, sometimes, lousy experiences in both settings.) But I find the difference brings a lot of benefit, just because I’m getting varied experiences.

The practical bits

There are also some practical ways that group ritual is different (and has beneficial differences in at least some cases.)

Make time: It’s sometimes easier to make time for something when it’s deliberately scheduled on your calendar and involves other people (so you need to prepare ahead of time, and there are more obvious consequences if you blow it off.) We’re more accountable. But it’s not just – at least for me – about making time to be there.

It’s also about making sure there’s time in my life to prepare for it. To get myself there, to prepare mentally for ritual. And, of course, these days, there’s also planning time for the ritual that needs to happen if the ritual’s going to take place.

Requiring myself to make that preparation time also oddly makes it *easier* for me to make personal time: I’ve got a better sense of what things I might want to focus on, work with, learn about, practice, or whatever else on my own. And, sometimes, an idea of what I don’t want to spend more time on right now. In other words, it helps me set priorities and goals in my personal work, by outlining some possibilities.

Articulate: Related to this, when we’re doing things with other people, we need to be able to articulate what we’re doing. Some of my best ritual designs are because I had to get out of how my own head works and come up with something that makes sense to people who do not live in my head. (Which is to say, everyone else.)

Feedback: Other people can give you continual feedback on what they see from you, and how to deal with problems or changes that come up. This can be frustrating at times, but it’s also a powerful learning opportunity.

New ideas: You often get to experience approaches you would never have thought to work with. The group I trained with rotated who designed full moon rituals among the initiates: it was fantastic to see how different people approached different topics, and what style of ritual they chose to do. It challenged me in ways that wouldn’t happen if I were working entirely on my own.

Support: You don’t have to do everything yourself. Seems logical, from the above points, but there are times when I’m really glad I don’t have to track everything going on in circle, and can just trust other people to do their bits, and get a rich and full experience. And, of course, in emotionally challenging rituals, you can get support from the other people there in doing deep and intense work.

Challenge: Perhaps my favorite. Now, I try very hard to be rigorous in evaluating what I do on my own. But I’ve found that working with other people requires me to challenge and develop my ideas and practices in a way even the most rigorous self-examination doesn’t always reach.

My current covenmate is a great example of this: I’ll poke at things over time, come up with something – and then she will, very clearly and precisely – ask me a bunch of questions that allow me to take it to the next level, or that make me look hard at certain assumptions. (She says I do the same for her: we’re a good fit for each other because we both find this incredibly useful and enjoyable.)

The only downside, so far as I can see, is that we have a very hard time having *short* conversations with each other.