The question of safety

Today, I’d like to talk about ritual safety. And there’s a particular reason I want to talk about this. Many people reading are probably already aware of the deaths of three people due to an extremely dangerous sweat lodge set up at a New Age training in Sedona run by James Ray.

One of my favorite blogs, Making Light, posted a fantastic analysis of many of the issues involved (practical, philosophical, and everything in between). One reason I was so glad to see a detailed post go up there, however, was because another of that blog’s contributors, Jim Macdonald, is (besides being a SF author) a wilderness EMT who’s been doing a long series of occasional posts about various medical calamities. One of the things both writers do a great job of is showing others what people can do that’s actually helpful in avoiding crises when possible, spotting problems early, and giving the best possible chance for the best outcome if they still happen.

The comment threads on Making Light run long (hundreds of comments are pretty common), but I encourage taking the time to read them: the community culture (and some clear moderation when needed) keep them very useful, coherent, and meaningful (even the thread-drift is handy). In this case, there are more links to supporting information and a great discussion of other ritual and spiritual safety issues throughout. (There is also a great thread on the Pagan news blog, The Wild Hunt that’s worth reading)

However, all of this got me thinking about issues of ritual safety in the Pagan community, and I thought it might be useful to put some of my thoughts into electrons. Continue reading

Today

Today, I am thirty-four.

Today, some celebrate Mabon, the second harvest festival. So do I, though I prefer the name Harvest Home, these days. A day of bringing in the fruit of our work, of celebrating our labor.

Today is also the second in my personal string of new years. There is the beginning of school: the beginning of a cycle every year of my life since I was born in some way: as the child of a professor, as a student myself, or as someone working in education.

Today is my birthday: the day when night and day balance, when the days truly seem shorter, when my desire to come home and nest and reflect in the quiet competes with the growing work of the school year. They are both good, both necessary, and they continue to dance in their own helix until June. And following that, there comes Samhain (the pause before the dawning sun of Midwinter and a new cycle of potential) and the calendar’s New Year.

And I am reminded, always, of my birthday’s place, falling as it sometimes does between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Neither are my celebrations, but they were the celebrations of some of my ancestors, in the not too distant past. A time to reflect on the things I’ve regretted, as well as walking forward into the new year of blessing and potential.

Continue reading

The question of ‘sending energy’

I’ve been in discussion in the last day with someone who asked others to send energy on 9/11 to help solve problems in the Middle East. And I realised why these requests bother me (and why I don’t do things that way).

In short: I think that a vague general ‘send energy to help really big vague cause’ is equivalent to walking to a lake, pouring in a cup of water, and expecting it to end a drought. If just a few people do it, you don’t get very far. But even if a thousand or a million people do it – you might have some more water in the lake, but you still have a drought. You haven’t solved the underlying problem. Instead, you have a bunch of people who’ve spent time and energy doing one thing – and so couldn’t spend that time and energy doing something that would have a more direct benefit on the world. (Our time, and the number of things we can do in that time, is a finite number, of course.)

As I said in reply to this particular discussion, I think it’s a lot more useful to focus on the things I most directly affect.

This has guided me to work in education (where adults can have a lot of influence on the next generation – both directly with the students they work with, and more broadly as those students grow up and talk to other people.) But you can also have a substantial effect through volunteer work in the local community – or just plain conversations with family and friends about the issues that concern you.

One of the things I like about this approach that you get direct feedback – when the energy you’re pouring out is personal and close to home – about how well it’s working. You can see a direct change in the world around you (or not) and adjust what you’re doing until it’s the change you want. That goes whether you’re sending out energy, or doing physical tasks.

I’ll give one recent example: over the summer, I rearranged my library. (My, in the sense that it’s the one I’m responsible for, as a teacher librarian at a school.) I wanted to create a more intentional sense of space use, and to avoid a couple of ongoing issues. That’s a physical action – but it’s rooted in a desire to change the energy of the place, and to direct the kinds of intentional work I want there (things that are a lot more fuzzy and indirect.)

And yet, despite those things being indirect, I’ve had *many* comments (from both faculty and students) about how much they love the new space. Not from everyone, of course. (A few students have been put out that the corner I can’t see from my desk no longer has tables, and instead has shelving). But in general, people have been very enthusiastic – and more to that, the noise levels and traffic patterns have worked out the way I hoped. (Lots of quiet conversations, but not tons of people being purely social, or distracting others.)

But I also recognise, that at this point in the school year, I don’t have a lot of ‘spare’ energy. I’ve been working 50 and 55 hour weeks. I’m still getting my sleep schedule down so that I get enough sleep before I wake up at 5:30. I’ve been coming home tired, with my brain full, and my energy at low ebb – because I’m spending a lot of my energy and attention getting my work year off to the best possible start, and doing my best to support the students and faculty I work with.

That leaves very little energy left to send out vaguely with no particular direction.

And doing so, in fact, makes me wary. Besides the fact that I don’t actually thing it’s terribly effective, one of my first jobs as a priestess is to take care of myself – because no one’s going to do it for me. It’s up to me to make sure I eat a sensible diet and get enough sleep. It’s up to me to get some exercise in there. And it’s up to me to make sure I don’t drain myself to the point of uselessness unless it’s truly a critical need.

The past few weeks, I’ve been able to do a good job at work (though I find my concentration disappearing rapidly at the end of the day sometimes, no matter how much I try to get it back.) I’ve been able to keep my home mostly clean (though I have some cleaning to do today.) I’ve been able to check in with friends and have some enjoyable social time.

But I also know I need to take care of myself, or I won’t be able to do all of that next week. And the week after. And so on. (And I have some things – like our upcoming Pagan Pride weekend – that are going to demand more and more energy from me between now and the event in early October.)

And I’m also aware of some other things. H1N1 has started going around at the school I work at (and as a librarian, I’m particularly prone to exposure.) Exhaustion does a number on your immune system. That long-term management of chronic conditions (asthma and migraines) means I need to be extra careful not to drain my reserves (especially in the fall, which is my worst season for allergies.) And I need to balance the shielding and personal energy management that being around a lot of teenagers with strong emotions tends to require for me.

Which means that “send general energy to a vague cause” is not only not high on my list of things to do, it’s not even on the list at all. It almost never is, unless I’m in a situation where I actually have excess energy (and the attention and time to direct it properly) which .. well, rarely happens. A couple of times a year, maybe.

Instead, I’m going to keep doing the stuff that’s closer to me, that I can see a direct impact in, so that I can use my energy, my focus, my attention, my time in a way that has as much impact as possible. And where I can adjust and refine what I’m doing so that it’s as effective as possible. I certainly continue to do things like communicate desires to my elected officials, or to encourage and support places that produce greater understanding of people from other cultures or places on the planet. But most of what I do is closer to home, and those more distant things are things that have a clear direction, specific desire, and a well-defined goal.

Several new pages

A quick note here to let you all know that I’ve recently posted a bunch of new pages (posts not linked to a calendar date). They’re also linked in the top menu as noted.

First, a series of 3 posts (and an intro) I wrote as an introduction to my religious practice (and a general introduction to Paganism). Parts below, but you can also get to the intro page under the ‘about’ menu at the top of the blog.

And, second, the first two parts of another project I’ve been working on for a while. The third part, the commentary, isn’t done yet, but I figure the first two parts could be useful while I’m working on that.

CARE introduction:
Once upon the time, there was a web document called the CASHI (the Coven Abuse Self-Help Index) that was designed to help people evaluate Pagan and magical groups for problematic behaviors. While my own experiences with groups have generally been very good, I feel the loss of something like the CASHI, and so wanted to create something that provided the same kind of in-depth discussion and commentary of relevant issues.

The word CARE is chosen to emphasize the importance of making conscious choices about where we spend our time and energy.

Read the rest of the introduction and go on from there. (you can also access all three current pages from the links at the top of the blog.)

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.)