Ten years perspective

About ten years (and two weeks) ago, I went to the first Seeker class with the group I would later join. It met in the back room of a coffee shop that isn’t there anymore, and several of the teachers left the group a few months later for various reasons.

It was not my first introduction to Paganism, or Wiccan-based practice, or magic. After all, I’d been reading fantasy books with characters who were Pagan for quite a while. I’d had some powerful experiences in college that lead me to explore some basic magical concepts like centering and grounding.

And I’d always believed that the Gods were many and varied, notes and strands of melody singing out in the cosmos in infinite combination, as only someone who was raised on daily stories of Greek mythology can.

I’d also taken my time.

I’d been an active Catholic throughout high school and college (after becoming Catholic when my parents returned to Catholicism when I was 13). There was a lot I’d loved about my college Catholic community, in particular, but I also had frustrations. (The role of women in the church. A desire to create ritual, not just facilitate it. A growing certainty that my GLBT and polyamorous friends were not doing something wrong or sinful, but something that was often complicated, given society’s biases, but something that could be and often was joyous, loving, and wonderful.) There are still things I think many Catholics get right, and do wonderful things with – but it’s a place I visit, and chat with, not a place I could live.

I was approaching 25, engaged, working at my second job after college, going to grad school part time. I’d moved halfway across the country the year before, and I’d taken the time to figure out what I wanted out of my religious life.

After a lot of reflection, I knew I was a happier person when structured complex ritual was a part of my life (at least sometimes). I wanted a path that included music in some way. That worked with the polytheistic view of my world. Something that had a cohesive way to explain some of the magical and energetic experiences I’d had. And something that could help me … be better. Do better. Learn more.

I looked at other religions, too. But I kept circling back to some strand of Paganism.

And so, I found myself in the same place as hundreds, thousands of people before me. I’d read some books. I’d browsed Witchvox. I’d wandered and lurked through alt.religion.wicca and alt.religion.wicca.moderated on Usenet, and various mailing lists. I’d gone to a few public rituals in the community, and gotten a better sense of what I really wanted. I’d sent out some emails (embarassing ones, in hindsight, but hey.)

Three separate people ended up pointing me at a particular group, also on my short list from that Witchvox research. And so I said “Eh. Let’s try them first.” And then had to wait until they offered introductory classes at a time that fit with my grad school schedule.

And so, that May, I found myself in that room, with a dozen other people, and four or five people from the group, depending on the week. Over the five classes in the series, the number of students got smaller. (That’s pretty common in things of this kind.) I heard a lot of things I already knew. (Book knowledge has never been the problem for me.) But I was listening, more, to “Is this a place I could see myself? Are they doing things that will stretch me in the right ways?”

I thought they were. And now, ten years later, I’m even more sure of that.

(I should note here: I don’t think my path is everyone’s path. In fact, I think it’s the right fit for very few people. I’m a lot more interested in helping people figure out what their thing is, the thing that makes their spirit sing and dance and delight the way mine has.)

Those ten years have brought amazing changes to me. I got married – and divorced. I dedicated with the group in September, initiated in early 2003, and went on to gather in my second and third degrees. I hived off to form a new group – ok, that one is still in process, because the rest of my life needs to settle. But I look forward to that.

And in between, my life’s shifted and changed. I’ve gained a relationship with two deities very near and dear my heart, in ways that I would never give up, even though I still have a hard time talking about it. And a number of other deity relationships that, while less immensely personal, I treasure and delight in.

I’ve had ritual experiences that fundamentally changed how I viewed the world, in the best possible ways, that gave me more understanding of myself, of what I could offer, of what I could become given a nudge into the void in the right direction.

I’ve had the privilege of being part of other people’s spiritual learning. I taught Seeker classes myself for the better part of four years, was the primary teacher for Dedicant classes for a year, wrote a number of rituals, and have had endless conversations online (as well as writing a lot of supplementary and discursive commentary.) Some of which people say is very useful.

And I’ve been part of other people’s initiations, an experience I always treasure and am humbled by. I’ve also seen other friends move away from Paganism, into paths that call their hearts, and considered it a part of my job as their friend to help them think about that in all the ways that lead to a clear decision, not the one I might prefer.

And somewhere in there, I’ve learned to actually have visuals in my meditations, and explain how I sense and experience energy to people who don’t hear it. I’ve figured out (mostly) how to pace teaching for people who are not like me in how they learn. And I know where a lot more of my own personal sore points and foibles are, and what to do about them so they stay my problem, not someone else’s.

And if the mark of a healthy spiritual life is in the connections it brings me, my life is infinitely richer now than it was those ten years ago. The deity relationships, of course, are a delight, even when they’re also a challenge. My friendships aren’t always local, but they run deep and true and strong. And there are these people, my tradmates, who I don’t always agree with – but who I love, and cherish, and know will always be a part of something dear to me. And while stuff was not always smooth and peaceful around the time I hived, I’m particularly proud of the fact that I’ve kept good relationships with the group I trained with. (And I deeply enjoy visiting them when I get the chance.)

I also look back, from this perspective, and wonder.

I’ve spent five years on the board of a local Pagan project (Twin Cities Pagan Pride), where I was part of the board that took the event to a two day event, got 501(c)3 status in our own right, and most recently have shifted to an outdoor fall festival (the public education part), and a brand new event in the spring focused on creating a space for the Pagan community to come together and share and challenge and learn (that does not involve camping…) That’s pretty neat stuff, all by itself. Helping to create a brand new moment, an event that brought people joy and wonder and learning – that’s what I live for.

I’ve written rituals, and been part of debugging others. I’ve helped friends through major medical and personal difficulty with far more patience and flat out usefulness than I would have ever imagined I had. I’ve held people when they cried, and given them help that let them face challenges in new ways. I’ve written an absurd amount, but every time I write, I get better. I’ve pummelled my brain to figure out a new way to explain something to a student or groupmate who was struggling, and I’ve done my best to figure out how to resolve conflicts in a way that was effective but compassionate.

And I’ve gotten my share of nasty emails, insults, dismissals, and much more. And of course, some places I’ve failed. Some of it well deserved, mind you. (As I noted above, I am not perfect.) And I certainly have my frustrations: with myself, with community issues, with patterns and cycles that I don’t need to repeat. I’ve had friendships change and drift away that I miss and wist for – while knowing that part of that has to do with ways I failed, somehow.

There are two things I most treasure about my religous and spiritual life these days, and a couple of others that continue to delight me.

First, that I have (as you might guess given that the word ‘phoenix’ shows up in both group names in the tradition) a number of tools for self-transformation and growth that I can use to change things in my life. That doesn’t mean those changes are instant (the past year is painful evidence of that). And it doesn’t mean I’m in control of the process.

But I feel like my training, my group work, my tradition, has given me experience enough to walk to the edge of the cliff, and jump off, and trust I’ll find my wings before I hit the ground. Not that I do that carelessly, of course. But I did it for each of my three initiations (just as it was part of the process of finding a group in the first place). And it’s lead to my facing a complicated and challenging job search, and some miserable health circumstances with a lot more grace and dignity than I would have thought even five years ago.

Doesn’t mean everything goes my way. But it does mean I tend to be less miserable in the process.

Second, I delight in having a wide range of tools at my disposal. Sabbat ritual? Simple. Meditation to help with a particular issue? Probably have one I can edit up fast. Daily or regular personal practices? Got a good sense of what might and might not help for a given situation. Ability to create my own solid, meaningful, effective ritual space and do what I need to? Yep. And a fair bit more.

It’s not that I know everything – but I feel pretty competent in a general sort of way. (What an elder deep in my affection refers to as being a professional trained stunt priestess.) It’s a lot like my other vocation, my profession. I don’t know everything there is to know about being a librarian, either. But I have a pretty good idea of what kinds of stuff I don’t know, and where it might come back to bite me, and what to do about that if it starts becoming relevant.

And that’s a pretty amazing place to be living. Lots of people don’t get here.

Then there’s the delight. Those perfect shivers of time where everything clicks in a ritual, and the chant and the incense and the colors and shapes, and the people beside you all slide into place and echo down the years. Those moments of perfect clarity in the service of M’Lady and her Lord. The inspirations of creating a chant, a ritual moment. A burst of flame from flash powder one Mabon, of the sun rising over the east bank of the Mississippi with the Morris Dancers dancing the sun up (a part of my personal practice).

Not all the moments are glorious. There’s the eternal downpour of one Beltane, where I thought I’d never get dry and my shoes squelched for days. The ritual where I worked so hard anchoring that I slept for nearly a day solid afterwards. The difficulties of any group of people doing complicated things that expose sore spots and weaknesses and frustrations. And, very occasionally, people doing things that had no excuse, that left their scars on those I care for. But all those things taught me something I would not wish to lose, too.

There were, also, of course, many hours of homework, of practice, of doing things that didn’t quite work, didn’t quite click, trying to figure out what I was missing. Of cleaning the temple when I’d rather be doing any number of other things. And there were those moments of frustration when I didn’t live up to my own standards, or let someone down. Of not knowing what to do about something, or not doing what I knew I should.

But we pick up, and we go on. When religion works, it helps us change and grow and become better, more glorious, brighter in the world.

There are things I know now I didn’t know five years ago, or even three. That’s as it should be. And it makes me wonder what I’ll know in early 2013, ten years from my initiation. Or in five years, or ten.

What I hope is that the richness, the delight, the wonder, the awe that are part of my life now are more so then. That there’s a greater stability and deep roots to anchor the work and writing and teaching and sharing I want to do, both as a librarian and as a priestess. That I’ve had a chance to learn more things, and be surprised, and do more things I’d never dreamed of.

And I really wonder what the larger Pagan communities will look like then, and what I’ll be particularly passionate about doing in them. I’m looking forward to finding out.

The question of oaths

Tomorrow night, I’m having a pre-Dedication conversation with my current student.

One way I think about the oaths in my tradition is that it gives us a really good point to stop and talk about a number of community interactions clearly and directly, without making assumptions about how other people view the issues of personal privacy, sharing experiences, or giving people space to have their own experience of an event. Over time, I’ve come to the decision that there are some basic principles behind the oaths that I agree with – and then some practical things I also keep in mind.

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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.

Speaking truth

As mentioned earlier this week, I spent an hour and a half on Friday talking to the Diversity Club at the school I work at. (Both lunches, so it was different sets of kids, except for a couple who have a free period over lunch.) We had 23 students by the diversity director’s count (plus him, plus the other diversity director, who is not normally based on that campus.) Two boys, the rest girls, and mostly upperclassmen rather than freshmen.

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Talking about what we do

On Friday, I’m going to be talking to the Diversity Club at the school I work at – about Wicca, and historical witchcraft. I’ve only got 40 minutes or so, so it’s going to be interesting.

This came about in an interesting way – we’ve got a new Diversity Director this year, and he’s been picking a particular topic to talk about twice a week. At the end of September, he sent out a list of topics, through Oct 31st (which is both a regular meeting and Hallowe’en), with October 31st listed as a time to talk about the Witchcraft hunts, Hallowe’en and Wicca.

I looked at my work email, and wandered down the hallway to volunteer. (I’ve been quietly out at work to people I’m closer to, but haven’t been public about it, and he didn’t know my own religious affiliation.) We had a lovely chat – he has Pagan friends, but was delighted not to have to try and field questions directly.

We’re not sure whether I’ll out myself or not (I have been cautious of this with students, because my relationship with them is different than a teacher’s is: I see them far less consistently, and it’s important that all students feel comfortable asking me questions.) But at the same time, the school has a decent history of supporting different religious beliefs and (fact-based) discussion of them by faculty.

Having this conversation:

I’ve spent some time thinking about how I want to do this. I plan to be in there with an easel (my theory is that any conversation that includes the word Samhain, you probably want to have something write it on) and handouts (so that I can focus on taking their questions and discussing, rather than worrying about getting to everything.)

There are some things I know I want to touch on – for example, I’ve been told that a couple of them have made comments that Wicca isn’t a real religion, so I want to talk briefly about what makes a religion, and about how the US does and doesn’t recognise religions. (i.e. there’s no official process, but various Pagan groups and paths have the same kinds of recognition as other religious traditions – IRS non-profit religious status, recognition in the military, ability to grant ministerial credentials, and so on.)

I’ve also made a deliberate decision to avoid getting bogged down in details but to stay accurate (if simplified). For example, I say: “Traditional Wicca is a priesthood path – equivalent to a religious order with specific commitments. Many others adapt Wiccan practices and use the term Wiccan but may vary from what’s described below.” which gets the idea across (I hope!) that there are different ways people use the term.

Likewise, when I talk about ethics, I’ve said: “Ethics are based on personal responsibility for choices and their effects in the world. Free will is a particularly strong value. There is no concept of salvation by deity, but also no idea of original sin.” rather than getting into a discussion of the Rede and the Threefold Law.

I’m also focusing on witchcraft and religious witchcraft rather than the grand scope of Paganism, because that’s how it’s been advertised – but I do mention that it’s one of a larger grouping of Pagan religions, and made sure to include books that mention this.

And there are some things that are not in the handout at all – the “Are you Satanists?” thing, or the “What about sacrifices?” These are answered in a couple of the books I’ve referenced (and that our library owns: I’ll be leaving a few down there for a week or so), but I made a deliberate decision to avoid these questions in the handout, because why give people ideas if they don’t ask about it.

I’ve done my best to treat practices fairly and as if this is a totally normal and reasonable way for religions to work – straightforward, with a sense of depth and more going on for those who are interested.

Don’t worry, I’ll post something (probably Friday) on how it went. I’m talking to both lunch blocks, so it’ll be two different groups of kids. I suspect the hardest thing about it may be avoiding saying “We” and “I” in terms of Pagan practice.

(I’m also trying to figure out what I’m going to wear, since it’s also Hallowe’en. I think I’m going to make it the first wearing of a really gorgeous dress a friend found for me in a consignment store – it’s a pale green, with Celtic stenciling on the bottom) and a fun hat – a gift from the same friend, a Renaissance-faire style velvet snood style cap. And some of my amber jewelry, because I’ll be amused if anyone figures it out – none of it’s obviously Pagan, but anyone who knows a little about Wicca may make the connection.)