Access and Pagan Practice

Welcome! This post is going out as part of the fourth yearly Blogging Against Disabilism Day hosted by Diary of a Goldfish . As I mentioned in March, I’ve been dealing with some long-lasting health issues, and have recently come to the conclusion that thinking of this as disability in a number of senses (even though I hope that there will continue to be further recovery) is the sensible thing to do.

And I knew that for BADD, I really wanted to talk about the intersection with the modern Pagan community. On Friday, I posted about my own take on my personal responsibilities and some practical process pieces, because the community parts, below, kept getting longer and longer.

For those coming here via BADD links:

I hope much of this content (and Friday’s post, linked above) will be of interest for non-Pagans: many of the things I’m going to mention here apply to anyone hosting small events in their home that have a specific goal or focus, whether that’s religious or educational or personal. Some points, of course, are specific to Pagan religions, but I’ll try to explain those as I go.

If you’re not familiar with modern Paganism and want to learn more, you might want to check out the three posts in my Background – Intro link. These begin by talking about Paganism in general (part one), religious witchcraft and Wicca (part two) and my personal practice (part three). I also welcome sincere questions, though due to my own needs and commitments, I may not be able to respond immediately (May 1st is a significant holy day for a number of Pagans, including me, though my group ritual is actually tomorrow.)

The bare minimum you need to know for the rest of this post to make sense:

  • There are many different religions under the Pagan umbrella with a wide range of practices and beliefs. For length reasons, I can’t go into lots of detail here, but think of it like the range of *all* of the strands of the religions of the Book (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) in all their myriad forms, and then some.
  • Many Pagan religions put a significant value on self-responsibility in varying forms. This has both benefits and challenges for people with accessibility needs.
  • I follow and lead a group in a specific path (tradition) that has a specific way of doing things for many common ritual tasks. (Much like lots of religious traditions). Some things are up for negotiation, some things aren’t.
  • Pagan groups in general are often autonomous but exist in context in a community: they set their own guidelines in accordance with their specific path. Obviously, guidance from teachers and other leaders in the community and community interactions in general help shape these choices.
  • Paid clergy are uncommon: costs beyond nominal expenses are usually shared by all in the group in some form.
  • Many Pagan groups meet in private homes – this raises all sorts of access considerations, which I’ll be talking about below. They’re also often small, so you’re often balancing the needs of 3-13 people, not dozens.
  • There are some larger Pagan events – both open/public rituals (in parks or larger indoor spaces), but also camping festivals and indoor weekend conferences.
  • While the number of Pagans is growing (though exact stats are tricky to manage, for varied reasons), there are some areas with many Pagan group options, and some places where there are few to no group options available to someone due to transportation, scheduling, or interest issues. (i.e. sometimes there’s a Pagan group with a different set of practices or focus than someone prefers.) Many Pagans practice on their own as a result, or with close family members. (In this post, I’m focusing on group work, however, since individual adaptations are a lot simpler to negotiate.)
  • We are, after all, in this, talking about the practice of religion, a subject where people often have very strong emotional yearnings, connections, and desires. Sometimes the obvious ‘logical’ thing doesn’t actually serve as well as we’d wish. (I’ll be coming back to this one.)

Onward to the actual post! First, I want to talk about the things that we could do better (as a community in general, and specific parts of that community in places), and then I want to talk about some tools that I think deserve broader attention in doing some of those things better.

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Thinking about limits and responsibility

On Saturday, I’ll be posting some of my thoughts for Blogging Against Disabilism Day hosted by Diary of a Goldfish . In working on that post, I realised that I a) wanted to talk about some of my own thoughts about dealing with my needs but b) it was distracting from the other things I wanted to say in that post. So, you get the ‘me, as someone wanting to do things’ post here, and the post about my thoughts on the issues in the Pagan community on Saturday.

As a Pagan with specific needs:

I need to take responsibility for my needs. This is both for philosophical reasons, but also for practical ones: no one else is going to know my needs and limits as well as I know myself. I feel that I should be able to do the following, in order to help others in the community figure out what they can offer, and how they can offer it.

Recognise my limits:

I am fortunate to live in a metropolitan area with a wide-ranging and active Pagan community. On many days, there are a couple of different events going on. Many happen in ways that just aren’t accessible to me: for example, they end at 9pm or later on a worknight, which means I can’t get enough sleep to function the next day if I go.

I could try demanding that all those events meet my specific needs (unlikely to happen, and frustrating for everyone.) Or I could recognise that at least right now, I’ll need to miss some things. Lots of things.

Be able to communicate specific needs clearly and well in advance:

I know that group leaders and event planners are busy people. Keeping my questions and request short and focused will make it easier for everyone if I have to ask for help or additional information.

The larger the event, the sooner I should ask: I know there is a limited amount that even the best-intentioned folks in the world can do last minute. I’d suggest at least a week in advance, more like two or three if it’s a major event (a once-a-year festival.) Mostly, this isn’t a direct issue for me right now (I’m more likely to be the one running something than attending), but it’s good to keep in mind.

Clearly share what I can offer:

This is true both as a group leader and as a friend to others in the community. One of the things I’ve struggled with this winter is how to be a good priestess while my own resources (energy, time for anything other than basic necessities) are so slim. I think I’m walking that line about as well as possible, given the limitations, but every time I have to hold myself back from offering help or even just seeing a friend, it’s hard.

Being clear about what I can and can’t do right now means people don’t have to guess. And that saves time and energy and lets us get onto more of the good stuff, and less of the disability-management stuff.

Be a good guest:

It is not nice to spring things on your hosts, and tends to make everyone less happy. This is true whether it’s a specific food need, the fact you have a service animal, or that you have specific allergies. In general, I’d say that it’s important to be especially clear for an event hosted in someone’s home, and to realise that not everything may be an option given those circumstances.

Issues I’ve seen show up in the past include:

I’ve seen or heard about all of these situations (and more!) in my past experience, though I’m doing my best to leave out any specific identifying information.

If there are things you absolutely can’t be around:

Communicate these early and clearly (if you do it in person, follow up with an email, so they have the complete list of concerns in writing.) This includes

  • Foods you can’t be in the same room with
  • Incense, herbs, or scents that you can’t be around
  • Cleaning products, ditto
  • Pet allergies that you can’t medicate for
  • Major mobility issues (as below) that require specific furniture or arrangement of space

Food and drink limitations.

If the group tells you that they share food (often bread and alcohol in small amounts) in ritual, but that they can include alternatives with warning, tell them in well in advance (by which I mean ‘in enough time they can add something appropriate to the shopping list’, not ‘when you show up at the ritual.’) I know I don’t always have juice that’s seasonally and thematically appropriate to the ritual unless I buy it specially.

Time limits.

If you use a ride service due to mobility issues, and they give a wide time frame for pick up and drop off, check with the hosting household to make sure they’ll be home and available enough in advance. They might have been planning on last minute cleaning, a leadership discussion before everyone else arrives – or even a rehearsal of the ritual that needs to be private. You should expect to entertain yourself (bring a book, etc.) until everyone else arrives, rather than have a nice long friendly chat with people in the household (who, again, may need to be doing other things.)

If you have a service animal:

Discuss this clearly and up front with the hosting household as well as the ritual planners – people will be able to accommodate different needs. (The ADA doesn’t apply to private homes or invite-only settings, and religious settings also have specific exemptions.) This is for good practical reason. Some people have allergies sufficient to make it hard to host any animal in their personal living space. Some have pets who live in the home who do not do well with other animals. There may be specific concerns around space, mobility, or allergy needs of other attendees.

(Having had a very bad experience around this one in the past, I think it’s also good to provide some advance information that can be sent to everyone in the ritual about what to expect, and so people with mild-to-moderate pet allergies can medicate or make other choices appropriately. If your service animal has never been in this type of ritual space or work before, make extra sure to let people know that.)

Check with the hosting household about any mobility issues.

Good questions to consider include:

  • Are there stairs to get into the home? How many?
  • Are there stairs to get into the ritual space?
  • Will we be standing during ritual? Could you have a chair available?
  • If there is sitting during ritual, could you have a chair instead of sitting on the ground?
  • If outside, is the ground level, or is there a hill or valley, gravel, or other difficulties?

Plan ahead around food:

Expect that in a potluck situation (common for many Pagan groups after ritual) that there may be some foods there that you can’t eat for whatever reason. Since people have so many different (and sometimes conflicting!) food needs, especially after intensive ritual work, you should make sure you bring food you can eat that will satisfy you, and expect that you may not be able to eat everything offered, unless it’s been carefully arranged in advance.

You should be aware that some people experience blood sugar or other related reactions to some kinds of ritual work. If you have any concerns, you should let the event hosts know in advance, and ask what you should do if you need to be excused from the ritual for a minute. (In groups using a formal ritual circle, they may want to let you out in a way that doesn’t disrupt the existing energy and focus of the circle for others if at all possible.)

Provide brief information about any potential emergency needs

I’m asthmatic: I always tell someone there where my inhaler is. (And that I’m asthmatic in the first place). Seizure disorders, vertigo or other things that make standing up suddenly a problem, significant blood sugar issues, and anything where you’ve got significant limitations on the amount of standing, walking, exercising, etc. you can do are good things to communicate. The group doesn’t need all the details, but they really do need to know whether it’s more useful to hand you food or medication or to call 911. We all hope none of these emergencies will happen, but preparation helps a lot if they do.

It’s also good to let people know if you have a compromised immune system (so that if the whole group is coming down with something nasty, you can get a warning), or if you have any particular considerations that might affect others. (Like a disease that might be transmitted by casual contact, or by blood if there was a minor household accident – I’ve seen enough broken glasses and similar things to like to know this one for clean-up precaution purposes.)

Be aware that not all accomodations are realistic

We’d like them to be. But I think we also do better if we admit we live in a world where sometimes, the options don’t allow that. And likewise, sometimes, that accommodations are mutually incompatible.

One common problem of the first type is mobility, and I’d like to take some time to break down the choices here, to look at the range of considerations that come up when evaluating long-term changes in ritual and magical practice.

Let’s say that rituals currently happen in a space that involves stairs, and someone who can’t climb them would like to attend. On one hand, it looks like there might be a simple solution: hold the ritual in a space that doesn’t have stairs. In reality, that may not actually produce the same kind of potential space and work.

Option 1: Rent a space

Many rental spaces have better mobility compliance than private homes, it’s true. But they also have some limitations that significantly affect what kinds of ritual work can be done in them.

  • It is much easier to find rental spaces for a Pagan group in some places rather than others.
  • Cost can be prohibitive for a small group. My tradition has 22 rituals each year: rental spaces in the Twin Cities commonly used by the Pagan community run $50 to 100 a time – that’s a fair bit of cost to share between a few people.
  • The times the space is available may be limited – and often, the group that owns the space gets priority on scheduling.
  • Groups may need to be done and cleaned up with a strict time limit – this can make some kinds of ritual work challenging, or may make doing ritual work on weekday evenings impossible in that space.
  • Many spaces have restrictions on the use of candles, incense, food, and drink (all of which may be used in many practices at some point.)
  • Group members have to pack up and carry all of the needed items. (I’m going to come back to this point in a minute).
  • Outdoor parks can be an option in some settings – but you are at the whim of the weather. (And in some areas, outdoor ritual for a significant part of the year might be an accessibility issue all by itself. I live in Minnesota, where I think ritual planners need to pay attention to both heat issues and cold issues, depending on the season. More on that on Saturday)
  • Many spaces do not offer much privacy, or much control over the space.

It’s this last one that’s particularly challenging. Some groups do actively present open rituals (that anyone from the public can attend). Some groups hold rituals that have a very low entry bar (open to anyone who asks for the location information). And some rituals are celebratory, or are open to distractions or interruptions. But many Pagan paths include at least some elements are very private, personal, or challenging for the participants. Some more intense ritual practices can also be especially draining or even unsafe for the participants if they’re interrupted.

Let’s look at an example. The ritual celebration of Samhain in a number of paths focuses on remembering our beloved ones who have died. This can be a deeply moving and emotionally powerful time for many people. Now, imagine that you’re crying your eyes out, after telling a story of a beloved friend, partner, or family member, and someone opens the door to the space, walks through the large meeting hall you’re in, and disappears into the bathroom at the other end of the hall. And a few minutes later, they do the same thing in reverse. This is often very common in rented church or community spaces: the larger function rooms without fixed furniture often have the bathroom or other important facilities (utility closets, storage, sound or lighting controls for the building) attached or nearby, and if there are other events in the building, people may need to access them.

Or imagine the same ritual in a building where there’s a drum jam, concert, or noisy meeting taking place on the next floor, or behind the next wall. Would you be as able to focus on your memories and grief as you would in a place that was quiet and undisturbed? Sometimes spaces share light switches (or are either in total darkness, or glaring fluroescent), meaning that it can be challenging to create a soft, gently lit, sacred space for worship.

In other words, the rituals that work best in rented space are often the more public ones. More emotionally intimate ones often don’t translate well, or require a lot of special arrangement to feel like safe and meaningful space for the participants. In some cases, creating an appropriate space for a particular kind of ritual may be impossible in rented space.

Option 2: Use a different space hosted by someone in the same group

Again, if this is actually an appropriate option, this can work great. But often, the number of people in the group who can reasonably host a small group ritual are relatively small.

  • Does anyone else have sufficient space to host a group of your size? That includes being able to move furniture out of the way to clear enough open space for ritual.
  • Do you actually have a space that solves the mobility challenges? If everyone else lives in upper story apartments, or other places with lots of stairs, you might not.
  • Is the prospective host able to deal with the necessary cleaning, furniture moving, etc. to prepare for ritual? If not, is that a problem that can be reliably solved with help from the group, or not?
  • Does the prospective host introduce any new accessibility concerns – pets, other allergens, mobility within the space, space for people to sit during the ritual.
  • Will it limit someone’s spouse or partner, housemates, or children from reasonable freedom in their own home for the duration of the ritual? If they can’t move between the kitchen, the bathroom, and their preferred space to curl up when the living room/other likely ritual space is in use, frustration will likely build. These spaces might work well for a very occasional need (like a rain location in a place with generally decent weather in the summer), but they create hard feelings if they’re used all the time.

Sometimes, neither of these are good options. In which case we’re back to our less-than-accessible space as a hard limit.

The problem of tote-and-barge Paganism:

This is, perhaps, my favorite term for those groups who meet in places where they must bring our equipment. (I have the kind of experience with this you might guess when I say that in my former group, one of the best presents we ever got our HPS when we were still regularly renting space was a set of matched rolling luggage.)

How much a group needs to bring varies a lot on their practice. However, it’s fairly common to have a selection of candles and candleholders, something to share ritual food and drink, artwork or statues of deities to be honored in that ritual, and whatever appropriate ritual tools are needed. Many of these may be breakable. Altar cloths appropriate to the ritual. If the site doesn’t have suitable tables, the group may need to bring those too.And then there’s the ritual decorations, which can take up about as much space as you’re willing to haul. Some items are small. Some are fragile – glassware or ceramic. Some are large and have to be carried separately – a broom, for example, or a staff. This often requires very specific packing skills to be able to move everything safely and securely in as few trips as possible.

On top of this, of course, we must include the items that the people bringing the ritual stuff need for their own personal needs – which could be anything from food and drink to share, to a chair to sit in and cooler (if it’s an outdoor ritual), to bags with personal items.

It adds up to a lot of stuff. And it adds a good 20-30 minutes of physical effort to the day’s activities. For some people, this is no big deal – but for some people (and that includes me, right now) that’s going to substantially change the other things they can plan for that day.

There are ways to do it with less stuff. My own group has a one-basket policy (with a couple of exceptions like a small cauldron). If it doesn’t fit in the basket (which is about 9″ wide by 18″ or so long, and about a foot deep), it doesn’t get acquired. However, I’m rigorous about this because I also don’t have room to store a lot of items (little tiny house!) rather than because of the hauling complications.

The hauling’s hard enough, but in my experience, is the need to pack and unpack the stuff multiple times is even worse.

If we’re doing ritual in my home, it’s no big deal if I suddenly discover we need one extra tea light candle, or if I can’t find the lighter that’s supposed to be in the basket. I snag another one (because we’re at home, and I have such things handy.) I can do a final check of things for the ritual as people arrive, if I’m home.

If I’m elsewhere, I have to find time to double check the basket and make sure everything’s there – that we haven’t used the last stick of incense, that we have plenty of candles, that the lighter’s full enough to light things easily. This can easily take 10-20 minutes, and it’s a task that’s particularly fragile if you get distracted or lose focus for some reason.

And of course, there’s the issue of cleaning things after use. If I’m at home, my chalice often stays out on one of my shelves: it gets rinsed and cleaned, and then goes back there. If we use the one in the basket, it needs to be rinsed and washed, and then packed back down there – into the bottom of the basket. This also means you end up unpacking stuff when you get home, cleaning the stuff that needs cleaning, and then repacking it – tasks that add up to a fair chunk of time after what has already been a demanding day.

You might also notice that these are hard tasks to share. If we’re meeting at my home, I can hand much of the set-up over to other people, and focus on the bits only I can do. I can leave the washing up for a day or two, if I’ve already rinsed everything out. If we’re meeting somewhere else, but the *stuff* lives at my home, I either have to do it all, or make arrangements for someone else to do it (which might limit my schedule, other things I could be doing, etc.)

None of these are great solutions, if the person who is responsible for the stuff also has health concerns (either of focus/concentration or of energy)

Personally, I’ve found that doing rituals at home – even with the house-cleaning expectations that go with that (but I’d want a reasonably tidy house anyway…) – is perhaps a tenth of the work of doing ritual somewhere else, just because I don’t need to invest nearly as much time in double checking everything and making sure it’s available if we need it. It also makes for a richer ritual experience because I’ve got more space to improvise if I have a last minute brilliant idea. And I can spread out the work over a couple of days if I need to, rather than doing it all at once.

It also – as someone who’s dealing with exhaustion issues – means I don’t need to drive home afterwards. I can push myself to the further edge of my limits, because if I need to go to bed right after we’re done, I can. I have the comforts of home, and I don’t need to go far to make use of them. That’s pretty invaluable right now. There *are* ways to share the work in many groups – but some of them work better than others at some stages in an individual’s or a group’s growth and cycle.


As you can see from all of this, sometimes there isn’t an actual practical solution that’s accessible in the ways we might like – in an ideal world – to be able to offer. I think it’s important to keep looking at these questions, and whether we’re missing an answer that would improve accessibility without removing anything from the core practice of our path.

But I also think it’s important to realise that – in Pagan terms – there are many reasons we might be a poor fit for a particular group. Scheduling (when the group meets), the group’s focus, the time expectations (both for group events and personal practice or study at home), the specific practices, and many other things like the personality of existing group members all also matter.

Sometimes we can fudge on some of those and make everything work out in a way that preserves the tradition’s tested practices and meaningful experiences but can include people with specific needs or limits. Sometimes we can’t, for reasons that are not anyone’s fault or blame in particular, but that come from all sorts of other things going on in our lives. It’s fair game to ask what might be possible – but also our responsibility to know what we can and can’t accommodate.

The question of safety: part two, planning and running an event

As promised, here’s part two of my post on ritual safety from the organiser/priestess/etc. point of view, (part one, focusing on the participant point of view is over here.) I should note my experience here: besides priestessing for various and assorted rituals over the past few years, I’ve also been on our local Pagan Pride board for the last three years. Situations of concern have been very limited in both places (a few people feeling faint, a few times someone had trouble coming back from meditation, etc. over the course of at least 100 rituals) and I think that a lot of that is due to thoughtful planning and awareness. That said, I haven’t seen everything, and I definitely welcome other thoughts and suggestions in comments.

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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