Being an external brain

One of my dear friends is currently at the hospital for hip replacement surgery. And so I wanted to quickly post a note to something I wrote (and she reviewed before I posted it) that’s about what I’m doing for her during her recovery.  We refer to what I do as being her External Brain. I talk about the details of how we make that work over here.)

Basically, I keep track of details so she doesn’t have to. So her husband doesn’t have to. So we know that there’s someone who can sit with her all the time while she’s in the hospital (my friend has adult hearing loss and lip-reads, so having someone there to both remind the hospital staff of that and of what’s necessary for her to participate in the conversation (and to do things like take notes of what’s happened, so she doesn’t have to, and can focus on the conversation.))

I’m reminded of two things every time I do this particular kind of work – and in its own way, this particular kind of priestessing.

1) It’s not about me.
It’s about what’s actually helpful and necessary, and my own ego, my own desires can just stay out of the way. (That’s a valuable lesson I carry back into my group work, my work life, and pretty much everything else.)

This doesn’t mean that I need to erase my personality – quite the contrary, as some of what makes me able to be her External Brain with great results is how our interactions work out. But it does mean I need to be clear about the end goal and the intention, and all the other pieces that go into that. And I need to focus on what my friend needs, not what I’d need if I were in a similar situation.

2) Everyone has their own skills:
And to be the best friend I can be, I can’t want to do everything. That’s not good for me, it’s not good for my friend. Currently, another friend of hers is there being Speaker to Medical Staff as she comes through surgery and out of recovery. When she’s ready to go up to her room, he’ll call me, and I’ll head over, so that someone can be there while he and my friend’s husband get a chance to take a break if they need to.

I also don’t need to be the one driving around doing errands. Unlike last time we did the External Brain routine, my friend has a personal assistant who helps her with work tasks, who has a good idea what she’ll eat and where to get it, and who can handle a lot of those details very efficently. I don’t need to be him. I don’t need to be her husband, and provide the emotional support and engagement he can. I don’t need to try and be other friends, who will bring their own comfort and skills. I just need to be me, and to do the things she’s wants me to focus. And then to spend time filling in around the edges if it’s necessary.

Mostly, though, I just need to be me, thoroughly. Completely.

Vacation, part 1

I’m currently in Boston, wrapping up part 1 of my vacation to see family and friends out here. (I grew up in a Boston suburb, went to college in a different one, and most of my college friends are still in the area, as is my mother.) Later this morning, we’ll be taking off to see my brother, sister-in-law, and my 5 and 7 year old nieces in New Haven for a few days.

In August, I’ll have lived in Minnesota for 10 years. And yet, while I love Minnesota (deeply: I fell in love with the state on a visit about a year before I moved and have never regretted that choice), coming back to the ocean, to the glacial valleys, to the landscape of my childhood  is never a bad thing.

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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.

Online communication

Phoenix Song, my coven, has had several inquiries over the spring  from people interested in learning more about us (and possibly joining us.) This is always a tricky process, but we’ve been through the initial stage enough times now that I want to talk about it here – and why we picked the initial process we did.

Our process is described over here and our introductory letter information is here, if you’d like to see specifically what we talk about.

So, why email?

There are a number of reasons I wanted to start with email. While I recognise that it’s not a perfect communications tool (and that some people will be more familiar with it and comfortable with it than others), I felt that the advantages more than make up for that.

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Little bits of techno-magic

I touched on some of this in my post about my new job – but I wanted to come back to it.

I’m a librarian, an infovore, and I consider being able to manage information one of the greatest forms of power. This means I’m on and around computers all day – and that I tend to build in little tiny pieces of ways to redirect my attention where I can. Here’s some of my ongoing and recent ones.

(I’ll note here that I use a Mac at home – in this case, a shiny new MacBook, which is why I’ve been thinking about this. I use a PC running XP at work, and work requires 5 different sets of passwords for various things.)


I create playlists in my iTunes for all sorts of different things: sabbats and elements, but also for particular kinds of working. For the long-term job ones, I used songs that were about things important to me. (Love of learning, sharing information, giving people tools to make informed choices, connection in community, etc.)

Desktop images:

I pick images for my computer desktop that reflect what I want in my world at the moment. (Right now, they’re very simple blue backgrounds from Marmalade Moon because I wanted something simple, but I’m also very fond of the art at Digital Blasphemy . I pick them based on my focus, on what I’m using that computer for, and on something that reminds me of beauty and attention to detail whenever I look at it.

The computer name.

I name my technology. (For people who think this is silly, I’ll say that I’ve had tremendously good luck with hardware over the last nearly 25 years I’ve been using computers. Stuff has occasionally failed, but it’s always been recoverable and I’ve had plenty of warning. Whether or not the two are related is hard to determine, but it doesn’t seem to hurt.)

I name my car, my iPod (a bad pun: her name is Polyhymnia, and she contains mostly Pagan chants and other related music much of the time), my computer. I pick names that reflect my hopes for the use: my previous computer is Esoterica, and my new laptop is musica humana (the term for the human music, the harmony between human spirit and the music of the universe, as opposed to musica mundana/musica universalis (the music of the spheres) or musica instrumentalis (instrumental music, a step away from that union, and considered more ‘mechanical’ in classical theory.)

Yes, it’s music-geeky, but it’s also a constant reminder to myself of where I want my focus to be. (In this stage of my life, using the music as a springboard for everything else I want to do. Everything comes back to the Song and the heartbeat.)


Speaking of typing all the time, my personal passwords generally reflect a current goal or interest. So, for example, when I was really hoping that the job would work out in my favor, I used ‘fruition’ for several passwords. (It is no longer any of my passwords, I rush to say.) It’s a great use for passwords that need to change every couple of months – I found that picking a related term helps me remember them.

You can do the same thing with an affirmation or a favorite line of poetry. Take the first letter of every word, change a few for numbers or symbols, and you have a great (and very strong) password. For example, if I were to use the following:

I am capable and competent and love my job

I might condense that first to: IACACALMJ
If I wanted to make it more secure, I might do: !AC&C&LMJ

Easy for me to remember if I say the phrase to myself – but hard for someone else to guess.