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.

Using Witchvox – a walkthrough

Several times in the past few months, I’ve seen someone post saying that they had trouble using Witchvox, and expressing some confusion about how to use it. I’ve got some theories about why this is (at the bottom of the post, for the curious) but on a practical level, I decided it was more interesting to write up a walkthrough of where to find things and how to use the networking resources than to clean my house this afternoon. (I aim for productive procrastination when I can…)

Since the email I sent about it is a little hard to read without formatting, so I’m duplicating most of it here for easy reference.Please feel free to share the link here with any other list where the information would be helpful.

Parts of this essay:

  • What is Witchvox (and some important things to know)
  • Step 1: the group creates the profile
  • Step 2: you (the seeker) go looking for a group or teacher or event.
  • Step 3: The summary page
  • Step 4: The group listings page.
  • Step 5: What the group says about itself.
  • Step 6: Making contact
  • The realities of groups

For each step, I include examples from my own group, Phoenix Song, so you can see exactly how things work.

Continue reading

Youngest one in the room

Over the past few months, I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Due to my recent job shift, I’m now sitting in on meetings with a number of administrators (most of whom are in their late 40s or older). And in various social settings, I’ve sometimes looked around, and realised that I’m the youngest by a number of years. (This isn’t always true, naturally, but there’ve been a good handful of specific situations in the last few months.)

This isn’t to say I mind – I grew up as a faculty brat, around my father’s grad students, and was comfortable socialising with people 15 or 20 years older than I was from an early age. My brother and sister are also 15 and 16 years older than I am, so I grew up with the idea that life was more interesting if you behaved in a way that let you go do the adult-focused activities (museums, nice restaurants, performances, etc.)

This all means I’ve done a lot of thinking about what it’s like to be in my earlier 30s, and working with people who are much older. There are some places – notably technology – where my experience *is* vastly different from most of the people I work with. (I am effectively a digital native, in terms of how I use and multitask on the net, for example, even though I first got real access to it in 1994, when I got to college.) And professionally, I need to be able to bring up those kinds of issues and provide resources to help them understand what’s going on, while still respecting and honoring the much more extensive administrative and other professional experience my colleagues have.

(Because no matter *how* good I am at my job now, I’m going to be a lot better when I have 10 or 20 or 30 years of experience in it. Same is true of priestessing.)

This all got brought home to me this weekend, because I went back to visit the group I trained in for ritual for the first time since I hived. (For those not keeping count, that was about 15 months ago.) At this ritual, they honored the group’s elders – and very firmly included me in that category.

They have a point – during my time with that group, I was substantially involved in the training of 9 of our initiates (to varying degrees), and I did a lot of work to help support (and at one point, change) the community culture when that was needed. (I’ve done *less* work than my HPS and HP there, of course, because they were doing that work before I ever showed up. But I’ve done my time in the trenches.)

But it did also get me thinking.

The responsibilities:
There are responsibilities that come along with that role: needing to pay attention to what and how I say things in a community setting. Remembering that people may attach *extra* emphasis to what I say in some places, and adjusting for that – even though I might, inside my head, be thinking “this is just a thing I found handy”, not “this is what everyone should do.” Remembering that I need to model what it looks like to be a respectful guest and participant, because that reflects not just on me, but on the people who trained me, and it’s going to keep echoing with the people who see me.

Not that I’m perfect at any of these things. And there’ll always be things I thought were clear that get muddled somewhere along the line. But I do keep them in the back of my head.

Balancing “Done good stuff” with “Still got more to do.”
I’m nearly 34. Chances are good that I’ll be continuing to grow in my professional and religious life, and taking on leadership and practical roles there for another 30 years. At least. So how do I do that sensibly?

The first thing I keep in mind is that burning out is not a good move. Yes, I’m perennially busy, as most people who know me figure out fast. But I also need to schedule downtime at home, and I need to make sure my projects are balanced and sustainable.

For example, as much as I love Pagan Pride, and have enjoyed doing Programming work, I’ve done that for three years, and have learned about as much from it as I’m probably going to for a while. It’s also fairly close to things I’m now doing more of in my job that can sometimes be stressful (getting people to get me information with a deadline involved, mostly.)

So, this year, I’m training someone new in to take on programming next year. I’ll still be involved with the project, but I’ll be able to step back a little bit and do less of the stuff that feels like just more work. (I do enjoy the end result, mind you.)

Likewise, at work, there’s a bunch of stuff I want to do – but I also know I don’t need to do it all this year. This year, I’m focusing on creating an intentional space and use of the library. I want to get the administrative parts of my job under tight control, so they work as efficiently as possible. And I want to have time to develop lots of individual interactions with students and faculty about learning, finding information, and reading for pleasure.

*Next* year, I can think about other projects – like getting online literacy education more tightly interconnected with our curriculum, and working on teaching specific databases and resources. (I’ll still do some of this this year, of course – but it’s not going to be my major focus.)

Likewise, it’d be a good idea for me to get involved in some professional organisations and help run a conference or two in that setting (because I do have really useful skills there). But the first year or two of a new professional job (even if it’s in a school I’m highly familiar with) is probably not the right time to do it. There will still be conferences in a few years.

The same is true in the coven. The next step (once we’re back from hiatus) is to look at gaining a few students. I know I can’t go from 2 people to our ideal working coven focus overnight, so it’ll be a few years of building. That’s fine – I just need to make sure that that building is something that sustains and supports me, not something that’s only work and no fun. (Fortunately, I love teaching and discussing, and find it re-energising almost all of the time, so this part’s pretty straightforward.)

Being human, and reminding other people of that.
I love my job, and I love priestessing, and I love a lot of other stuff I do. But I am also going to have bad days. I have stuff I am less good at. I have times in my life where things conflict and get tangled, and it takes me time to sort it out. I have times where I say stupid hurtful things and need to make it better.

For me, part of taking these responsibilities seriously is reminding people of that. Letting them know what I think I can sustain long-term, and pushing back if they try and push too far beyond that. Not rudely, not nastily, but “If you want me to do *all* of these things, I’m going to miss stuff: which ones are most important right now?” and “If you want me to do all this paperwork that requires attention to detail and has high costs if I mess it up, I need some time off the desk where I won’t be interrupted: how do we make that work with your other goal that I am highly available to students?”

And “I really want to be involved in the broader Pagan community, but I’ve got a job that demands a lot of time and attention (and that has very little downtime to work on other things), and I’ve got this coven, and my health requires I be attentive to getting enough sleep and downtime.”

There’s answers to all of those. But they’re not always simple and quick and easy. And while there are certainly days I wish those limits weren’t around, being responsible, being mature, being – well, worthy of being an elder – means I need to speak up about what I can do well, and what I can’t do well, and what the options are.

On taking time to tend

I’ve had a couple of people, on hearing about what I’m doing for my friend who recently had surgery (currently in a transitional care/rehab center, and steadily improving), who say “I could never do that.”

And I point out that it’s not everyone’s gift to do the specific things I’m doing. (Scheduling and coordinating are tasks that take me time and energy, but that are not, in themselves, particularly challenging for the way my brain works: I am, after all, in the business of creating at least the simulation of order out of chaos.)

But today, I realised that there are two stories I’ve rarely told but that are key to why it’s so important to me to help in this way. One is a debt I’ll never be able to repay – and can therefore only pay forward. The other is a reminder of why it’s so important to me to build caring connections over time.

My first story:

My father died of cancer when I was 15. But before he died, he was ill for about a year, both before they diagnosed the cancer, and then while going through treatment to prolong his life.

He loved me a very great deal, and one of his deepest wishes was that my life should be disrupted as little as possible by his treatment and illness. Now, there is no way to make that happen – but he was desperate (in a quiet, British, way) – to do what he could.

I was 14, most of this time. And I was deeply involved in two things: music and horseback riding. The music was easy: school choir and orchestra were at school, my music school rented our Middle School building (on my way home from high school), and I could get myself there easily.

But the horse – that was trickier. I was a serious rider and competitor at that time, and I was at the barn 6 days a week (three of them for lessons, one for Pony Club, and the other two for pleasure or competition). At a barn 45 minutes away. And I was 14 – well below driving age.

Chemo takes a lot out of a person so my father was often not up to driving (especially during rush hour as many of those drives were), and my mother needed to be around for some of his appointments.

My mother was, at that time, working at our public library, in a close and friendly staff. At some point, one of her co-workers said “What can I do to help? No, really, anything.” And my mother, in some desperation, said “Could you drive Jen to the barn once or twice a week?”

The friend blinked, and thought about it, and came back and said “You know, I always regret not doing more riding in my teens. Sure.” And so, for most of that year, she drove me to my barn at least twice a week. Since she was a novice rider, and I very much wasn’t, my riding instructor arranged the lesson times so that suitable lessons for both of us would be back to back, and then we’d trek back home.

That year – and my beloved Dorothy – saved my sanity. I’m sure of it. And that friend of my mothers (who had not been particularly close before that) made a *huge* difference to not only my well-being, but to helping my parents feel that my life was continuing to be as stable as they could possibly manage.

That friend went on to continue riding, long after she stopped driving me. When she and her husband moved back to the Netherlands (where her husband was from), she found a new place to ride, and sent back periodic pictures of herself on gorgeous Frisians for a while.

It’s that, in those most formative years of my life, that taught me that helping not only makes life better for the person I’m helping (at least that’s the hope, or why do it). But that it can be a deeply transformative and world-opening moment in my own life.

I can’t deeply help everyone on the planet. I can’t even do it for all of my close and beloved friends who might need it. But I do it when I can, because of that memory of those drives, those riding lessons, those moments in which I could get away from everything else pressing in, and just be.

The second lesson:

The summer between my sophomore and junior years in college, I was taking intro German classes in summer school. My mother tends to show affection through driving, so even though I could get myself to and from school by bus and a walk, Mom would often drop me off at a somewhat easier stop.

One day, my mother mentioned – rather off-handedly – that she wouldn’t be able to pick me up at a particular time. When I asked why, she said that someone – my guidance counsellor in public high school, who had also been the guidance counsellor for my older brother and sister – had cancer, and Mom was driving her to chemo treatments.

I asked a bit more, and found out that my counsellor had been single all of her life, was living in another town (because housing prices in the suburb I lived in are not within reach of teachers who work there, as a general rule) with her very elderly and rather difficult mother.

She had no one else to drive her. She’d started treatments during the school year, when all her colleagues were obviously occupied, and couldn’t get free for the couple of hours needed to drive into Boston, wait during treatment, and drive back. Because of her mother’s demands, she’d never developed other close friendships, because her mother wanted her home.

And so Mom, who’d run into her casually at some point when this started, and she was trying to figure out what to do, had offered to drive. She had the time, she knew the routine. And … someone needed to care. This was a woman who had thoughtfully guided generations of teenagers into places they might be happy (so one hopes, anyway – certainly worked for my family).

My former guidance counsellor died a few years ago. But I am still delighted and proud of my mother, and how off-hand she was about it. How “This is just what you do, when you can do it.” Not because someone’s a best friend, or because it’s showy, or because it’s easy. But because you can, and you know it will truly be of help.

I also remember that there are ways to build connections in our community. The school I work at has a Sunshine Club. Most of the time, they coordinate gifts for new babies, or marriages, or other happy things. But if someone is seriously ill, or hurt, or has a family crisis, they also help coordinate a little of that help. If someone has great family support, that might be a few easy things. But if it’s someone who’s single, who doesn’t have family or other support in the immediate area, everyone also chips in with rides and pre-made dinners, and all the other things that can help.

So, those are my stories of why this kind of help – this kind of deeply personal help – are so important to me. Because I can never repay those months of my father’s peace of mind. Because no one should have to go to chemo alone, on public transit, because there’s no one to drive, or comiserate. Because sometimes, the thing that matters most of all is the simple human presence and engaged mind that can solve some – not all, but more than none – problems through creativity, attention, and a little time and effort.

Now, I’m not saying that everyone should go out and devote all their time to helping others. Most of us need to earn a living, and it’s also healthy and needful to have hobbies, spend time with friends and family, and all sorts of other things.  But if I had one wish for the world, it would be that people keep their eyes open for situations where their particular gifts and skills fit – with sparkling precision and beauty – into someone else’s needs.

When I have offered my gifts and skills and talents in the ways that best fit (not the ways that look best to others, or seem most showy, or whatever else), I have been amply repaid. There’s not one time I’ve done this for someone that I’ve regretted the time and energy it took: in all cases, it deepened not only my relationships with that person and the others close to them – but it’s filled my life with greater joy and beauty and wonder.

There are few greater transformative acts. Or magical ones.