The purpose of events (a discourse on Pagan Pride)

I’ve seen two fascinating conversations pop up in the last day: one about SF conventions and one about the Pagan community, both talking, in at least general terms, about ‘who are we doing this for, and what are we doing with it’? Which brought up all the thoughts, so hi, you all get a post about it.

The Pagan community side started with a friend linking to a post of Star Foster’s about Pagan Pride and the subsequent conversation (locked Facebook post, so I can’t share) was interesting, but also got me thinking. Which got me writing.

I was on the Twin Cities Pagan Pride board from sometime in late 2005 (so starting with the 2006 event), during which I’ve been co-programming chair, programming chair, and then hotel and operations chair once we started Paganicon in 2011. (I am no longer on the board, because moving to Maine in the summer of 2011 made it a little tricky to attend board meetings in Minnesota, but I continue to do hotel foo for Paganicon, and I presented two workshops at this year’s Southern Maine Pagan Pride.

And I found it fascinating reading Star’s post, because there’s some interesting assumptions there. And a bit of history I realise people might not be aware of.

A pause for context:

Back when I was Programming Chair of Twin Cities Pagan Pride, I made a really deliberate attempt to reach outside the Wiccan-based community. Every year, I’d sit down and produce a list of every Pagan or polytheistic group I could find in the Twin Cities region and in greater Minnesota. I’d search through Witchvox, but I’d also rummage through Minnesota email lists, through listings of events or mentions at stores, do web searches for the likely terms, and so on.

(And I’m a librarian by profession, so I do know how to do a thorough web search that goes beyond basic Google.)

I’d send off nice little notes to anyone who did not explicitly ask not to be contacted (Witchvox has an option for “Please don’t contact me about random events in the community” and of course I respected that.)

My notes said, basically “We’re doing Pagan Pride again this year, here’s the dates and location.” and for any group that wasn’t one that we saw all the time (who are awesome for doing that), I’d say something like “We’d really like to include a greater and more diverse representation at our event. If you’re not interested or available, I’d love to know about other groups or people you know about who might be interested.” and then usually a brief thing about “here’s the places I’m already looking for that.” (because asking other people to do your homework for you is rude.)

Most of the time, those emails went into the ether, and I got very little response back. Maybe they went to defunct groups. Maybe they went to spam folders. Maybe people meant to respond, and Life happened. I don’t know. But I do know I tried.

Thing is – it didn’t get us much response. And I don’t know what to do about that. You can’t make people show up and do things for you. (You can’t even make them show up). All we could do is be honest and sincere about what we wanted to do, and that we would like to include more varieties of practice and experience for people to learn about.

I also made sure that our programming items included things that could apply to a wide range of paths, and I mentioned those in our “We’d love programming about X” emails. (Things like how divination applies to your path, or what fiction you read that inspires you to think about something in your religious or magical practice differently, or how fiber crafts work for you.)

Where’d I learn to do this? The Pagan online space I’ve spent the most time – the Cauldron – has a long history of a diverse range of Pagan, polytheistic, and magical paths (Wicca and Wiccan-based practice has been in the minority there among the active posters pretty much my entire 12 years hanging out there.) So I did have a good sense of topics that might have general interest, and how to write them to avoid Wiccan-centric assumptions.

What did I find out?

First, that for a number of years (again, between about 2006 and 2010), we had a really clear alternation between more Wicca-heavy Pagan Pride lineups and more other-kinds-of-Paganism ones. This wasn’t intentional in the least: it happened four years running in which my basic outreach process was more or less exactly the same. It all came down to “we have the spare energy this year but didn’t last year” or internal cycles of groups, or sometimes things like “We have people who would like the chance to lead a public ritual” one year, and the next year, some of those people weren’t free.

We also had the issue that the Minnesota Renaissance Festival dates are a complicating factor in scheduling Twin Cities Pagan Pride: we had more diverse representation in the years before the RenFest dates entirely encompass the Pagan Pride window. There isn’t a lot Pagan Pride can do about that – going later in October even if we got an exemption for the date hits the Mankato Women’s Spirituality festival, and Earth Conclave, as well as people’s prep for Samhain. And when the people who *are* backbones of the event, year after year, have Samhain plans, this is something you do need to keep in mind. It’s a big part of why we shifted most of the programming to the spring Paganicon.

Are there things we might have done that would have been even more outreach? Sure. (There always are more things.) But those are also things that would take a substantially larger investment of time and energy because the next real step would be very personal outreach (by going to open events in those other paths and communities) But that assumes there are communities open to that kind of respectful visit (many aren’t, and for good reason) and that there are people with the spare time and energy to go.

(I had the energy to do Twin Cities Pagan Pride as a board member. But at various points when I was on the board, I was working full time, and also putting in 10-20 hours a week in teaching and leadership of the group that trained me, and finishing graduate school. Or at the tail end of that time, dealing with a major job hunt and a major health crash that has taken years to begin to recover from. People have varied and complicated lives, is what I’m saying here, and the rest of our Board also had varied and complicated lives.)

What does this actually mean?

Good question. I argue that the thing you should do with Pagan events is figure out why you’re going. I’m actually with Star that public Pagan rituals don’t usually do much for me (I do not need a big transformative experience every time – big transformative experiences are exhausting, thanks, even if they’re good for me. But if I’m going to do ‘friendly social connection’, doing it with random strangers isn’t really my thing either.)

So why do I go? I go because I believe it’s good for the larger Pagan communities to talk in useful ways. To compare notes on what’s working and what isn’t, and what’s new in town. I go because I like doing workshops as a way to both meet interesting people and share useful stuff. But I go with moderate expectations. I expect to see some people I like, maybe meet a few people I might like, and so on. I don’t expect it to be a Major Point In My Life.

And yet – part of why I’ve invested hours and hours in making them happen is because for some people, it is a major turning point in their life. I’ve had people tell me they were so glad to find people like them, and seen the glow in their eyes of connecting with other Pagans, or someone who could help with a specific path or kind of practice. This August, I was teaching a workshop on research at the Southern Maine PPD and was able to point someone at a path that totally isn’t mine, but I knew some useful resources and contacts. I live for that kind of thing. (Librarian. Connecting people with information that matters to them is pretty much my life mission. Also a religious devotion.)

The other thing I really like about Pagan Prides is that they’re low commitment as long as getting there is not a huge issue. (Free event, supported by donations.) It’s entirely possible to go for an hour or two, see the things you really want to, and go away. You don’t have to block off all weekend, you don’t have to buy a membership or a ticket. If you decide there’s not that much of interest, you can go away quickly, if you find some awesome conversations, you can stick around.

But I don’t expect it to be my whole community. I don’t expect it to be life-changing. I don’t expect it to be the Best Thing I Do All Year. Those are unreasonable expectations to put on a very broad, very general event that is focused on public education and increased awareness. If I get personal awesome stuff out of it, great.

But I go – and I support such events – because I want there to continue to be places curious people can check Paganism (and related paths) out, and learn more. (Which works better when there are experienced people from a wide variety of paths willing to talk to new people.) Where people who are curious can learn more about local resources (whether that’s groups or vendors or entertainment). And because if we want a more diverse and more vibrant and more varied group of Pagan communities in the future, we need to keep propping the door open, not just keep talking to the people we already know.

But if that’s not your thing – that’s okay. There’s other ways to catch up with friends, and other times to do stuff with Pagans. As much as I value Pagan Pride events (and other public and newbie-friendly events), I don’t think a given event is the right choice for every person or for a given person every year.  I’m certainly not offended by other people deciding to do something else with that day.

I do hope, though, we can talk about events fairly (judge them for what they are and are trying to be, not for failing to meet our personal desires for our dream event). I also hope that we can, individually and together, remember that events have histories but also – we hope – futures. Events will change and develop over time (so what we did 5 years ago might be different now) and that what we want out of an event as an individual might be different than it was 5 years ago. Or last year.

H is for History

[Pagan Blog Project post for last week. It’s been delayed for reasons that will become obvious.]

Last week’s news was very complicated.

Boston is no longer my home, but it’s where I’m from. I was born in Boston (at what was then Women’s Lying In).  In the 37 years since, I have been in and out of Boston countless times. I have wandered the Boston Public Library (and Copley Square). I have ambled down Newbury Street. I have walked across the Common, and down through what was known as the Combat Zone. I have gone through South Station on the way to many other places. I’ve spent endless hours at the Science Museum, and the Museum of Fine Arts, and all sorts of other spots. And, over the course of two summers of language classes, quite a lot of time in and around Harvard. I have not quite done what my older brother did, one summer, getting off at each and every T stop, and exploring. But I’ve been to more of them than I haven’t.

I still have a great many friends in the area, and now that it’s driving distance, not flying, I’m in Boston every couple of months. Most recently two weeks ago (lunch with friends, museum with my mother, before heading south for a conference), and then coming back through South Station on the 18th, after my trip.

Yeah. Like that.

And this brings me to talking about history. And context. And what that means for how we learn things, and how we respond to what we learn.

Continue reading

h is for habit

[again for the Pagan Blog Project]

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about the habits we get into when doing things.

There’s a reason for that: I’ve spent the past five days in Washington DC, partly for a professional conference, and partly to play tourist. (I am writing this while sitting in a sculpture court in the National Gallery of Art, because it has comfy chairs and a table of convenient height, and my feet hurt.)

Not my habitual surroundings. Not my habitual amount of walking. Not my habitual weather. (DC broke heat records the last two days – 90+ on Wednesday, while Maine is getting another snow storm.) Not my habitual technology: I’m doing this trip solely with the iPad and keyboard, rather than a laptop, and the limitations of the device (particularly around multitasking) mean I’ve been adjusting my way of doing things.

Getting shaken out of my usual habits is good for me. (and probably good for you, too), but I’ve been thinking this week about mental habits, even more than physical ones.

One of the sessions I went to at the conference was talking about different ways of doing continuing staff training (something that’s a part of my job), and several of the panelists talked about forming the habit of lifelong learning.

And that got me thinking back to a workshop given by Nancy Pearl (a librarian who you may know from her book reviews on NPR, or her books Book Lust and the sequels.) She talked about how librarians who interact with the public, or who do collection development should make a point of reading outside their own personal comfort zones on a regular basis, by reading things that are appropriate for those duties, but that they wouldn’t have picked up. (She suggested a book a month in a genre you don’t normally read, if you do fiction selection, but adjust for your reading speed and related tasks.)

I’d like to suggest that the same habit – working outside our comfort zone – might well be good for Pagans, too. I don’t mean that you need to go out and try a brand new religious tradition (though if you happen to be at an event – Pagan Pride, a Pagan conference or gathering, etc. – that makes that easy, you might find it interesting.)

But do it in the small ways. Read a blog post from a perspective or path that isn’t yours. (That’s part of what makes the Pagan Blog Project interesting.) Find a forum focused on a different kind of perspective than your usual one, and read for a while. Take a bit of time to learn about a path or pantheon or deity or practice that’s outside your usual frame of reference. And then do it again. Once a week, once a month, block out a bit of time in your life.

The point here is not to become an expert in everything. It’s not even to dabble in everything. (You don’t need to do anything with the information you learn if you’d rather not.) The reason is to develop the habit of being open to new and different information, so that you don’t end up with limited focus, limited perspective, limited views of the world.

Despite the fact I am sitting in an art museum, fine arts are not my first choice for how to spend my time (I’m actually much more about material culture – give me objects that got used, textiles, jewelry, carved seal stones, pots, furniture, instead.) But despite that, here I am today, and last Saturday, I was at the Museum of Fine Arts, in Boston.

Part of that is that there were specific exhibits in both cases I wanted to see (old favourites in Boston: my mother started taking me to the MFA as an excuse to get out of the house when I was about 6 months old) and the Pre-Raphaelite exhibit here. (Ok, granted, part of why I find the Pre-Raphaelites fascinating is because there is a strong crossover to material culture and objects that were used in daily life.)

But I also am glad of the chance to go do something I don’t get to do very often, and the chance to see new things, and the chance to learn and appreciate something different. And I’m glad of all the chances on this trip to do that. (I got to play with tools I’ve read about but never used this morning! And got to look at fascinating forensic archaeology yesterday, along with a bunch of stones and meteorites and fossils.)

That doesn’t mean I won’t be glad to be back in my comfortable little town in Maine (and my own bed, with my own cat) – but this trip is part of my habit of doing new things, of taking the chance to learn. And that is a habit I want to continue for a long time to come.

G is for Greatness (and recognising it)

[Part of the Pagan Blog Project]

I was reminded this morning of a day from my childhood.

I was nine, going on ten, and I was horse-crazy in the way that 9 year old girls often are. (Actually, I was obsessive in a way relatively few 9 year old girls are, because I tend to be full-bore about my interests. But you get the idea). I was having regular riding lessons, but this was well before we got my beloved Dorothy (that happened when I was 11)

It used to be that the United States Equestrian Team had a facility in Massachusetts, and one summer day, my mother took me and a friend up to watch the Rolex Talent Derby for young riders. And we watch and we watch, and have the conversations you do at that kind of thing, about who’s going to win. (This is show jumping, so the scores depend on who goes over the fences without knocking them down in the fastest time, and who can negotiate the complexities of the rearranged patterns of the jump-off rounds.)

Mom is pulling for a gorgeous black horse. And I keep looking at this other one, a beautiful dapple gray, with a very young rider (he was 21). And I keep saying “Mom, that one.” And she keeps going “Yes, dear.” Like you do with a 9 year old daughter, even if she’s horse-crazy. Maybe especially if she’s horse-crazy. (My mother was remarkably patient with the horses, in hindsight.)

And at the end of the day, guess who’s right. (The black came in second, I believe. There were two jump-off rounds.)

That horse and rider were Gem Twist and Greg Best. They went on to get a double silver at the Seoul Olympics, and a wide number of other major honours and glories. (And I got to meet Gem Twist a few years later: he was a very sweet horse indeed.) You can see a video of them, five years into their career together, over on YouTube if you want to admire their skill and partnership.

How do we learn to open our eyes to that kind of thing? 

That’s the question I want to ask here. How do we recognise greatness, how do we recognise goodness, how do we recognise unusual quality and skill and talent when it’s in front of us?

That’s complicated. Having some other examples clearly helps: it’s hard to know what ‘really good’ looks like if you’ve never seen people at the top of their skill set.

Here’s the thing about my story above, though: that’s the first time I’d seen that level of jumping in person. (I was 9.) And while I remember my parents going through contortions to set the VCR to record the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles (the horsey parts, rather), that was extremely unusual. (And it’s not like equestrian sports get a lot of screen time anyway.)

So how did I know what I was seeing?

You can listen to what other people say. But here’s the thing: in that story above, Gem Twist and Greg Best were not the expected favourites: he was just starting his riding career, and Gem Twist was only 6, which is very young for that kind of competition. Everyone, from what I remember reading afterwards, was sort of “Well, they were expected to do reasonably well, but nothing stunning.”

And look how that turned out.

But clearly, I was seeing something, and seeing it early, because I clearly remember talking about them after the first round, and being *sure* about them in a way that defied logic.

Sometimes we call that intuition, but I think in this case, it’s something a little more complicated. I think it’s hearing the harmony between parts, recognising the smoothness and intersection. The beauty of the cosmos, distilled into a moment of time, all the pieces lining up just right.

We can learn to recognise that moment – learn to keep our eyes open for that moment – even if we don’t know all the details of how that moment might come to be.

What does this have to do with Paganism? Or learning about it?

I had a complicated religious experience while I was at Paganicon, and I am still not up for talking about it except with a few trusted friends. (It was the good kind of complicated religious experience, though!)

But I had it because I listened to that small still voice inside my head that said “Hey. Go to the Seshat devotional ritual.”

It was one of those moments where all the pieces lined up, and the patterns were clear, and there was light and sound and harmony and complexity and wonder, all at once.

A mixture of many things coming together.

It’s those experiences, those moments, that I keep looking for. In a lot of ways, both my religious life and my professional life are all about creating a space where those things are more likely to happen: those moments of “Yes, let’s do that thing” becoming possible, and real. And seeing where they take us, even if that’s unexpected.

They are moments that cannot be driven by logic or reason – or at least not purely by them, though logic and reason can tell us some ways to encourage them to happen. And they’re moments that we can hold ourselves open for, by looking at the world with wonder and curiousity, rather than assumptions that we already know all the important things.

G is for Group

[Still more in the Pagan Blog Project]

I am slowly recovering from 10 days away from home (and my cat is slowly being assured I will not disappear at the drop of a hat – though she seems to have also decided that perhaps pouncing on unattended appendages outside the blankets while I’m sleeping is not in her interests, which is a good thing.) And I’m getting ready to go away again in a week. (Last trip was vacation with a smidgen of professional conference – paid for on my own, because it’s an awesome conference. This next one is professional conference with a smidgen of vacation time.)

Anyway. One of the things from my trip to Minnesota was getting to catch up with members of my trad, and then also getting to priestess for three 2nd degree elevations. (Which is the first time I’ve done that particular role, and which involved some rearranging of our ritual.)

It worked really well, and they all had the appropriate glow of ‘this took’ after, and I am delighted beyond belief I got to help (and that they put up with my scheduling issues. And the fact that between a professional presentation and a cold, I’d blown my voice out. There was a certain amount of ‘inhale cough drop during brief pause while they were busy in other parts of the house’ in my ritual experience.)

And as part of *that*, I spent my Monday night while there sitting at a table discussing various things, once we’d done our ritual editing. And got a chance to sort out some pieces. Which reminded me about the benefits of working through things with other people.

Continue reading