Leaving a group: the emotional side

I got several comments after my last post in various places about how I hadn’t talked about the emotional part of leaving a group. And they’re all right, I didn’t.

There’s a couple of reasons for that.

One is that I come from a stereotypically British family: talking about emotions at all, never mind mine in specific, is something I pretty much had to learn as an adult and proto-adult. (How I learned is an interesting story not relevant to this post). It’s still usually not the first thing I think of when talking about a subject.

But there’s another reason: I believe, quite strongly, that we can’t fundamentally control our emotions, but that we can (and often should) control what we do about them, or how we act based on them. So, when it comes to something like leaving a group – where we generally have advance warning – we do have some chances to decide how we’re going to act.

Besides, my idea of witchcraft – and magical practice in general – is that each choice shapes our future possibilities. That means we sometimes have to stop and not act purely in the moment, in order to give us more options down the road.

But back to the emotions.

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Leaving a group

This is a question that’s come up in two different places recently, which usually is enough to make me consider a post here. (One was a question from someone online about how to approach that conversation with a group she’d been working with, the other was a conversation with my student about my expectations around that once someone commits to being a Dedicant, just so we were both clear.)

The following applies to a group that someone’s made a significant ongoing investment in – I’m talking about becoming a formal student, member, or whatever else, here, rather than showing up when you feel like it, basically (that’s a whole other set of guidelines.)

Basic principles:

In general, I think that it’s good to avoid burning bridges unless you absolutely have to. Even if you think the people in a group are the lousiest people on the planet, the Pagan community is still pretty small. Chances are decent that you’ll end up crossing paths with them at some point down the road, or talking to someone who’s worked with them, or whatever.

Thus, while a good parting doesn’t need to be ‘happy and cheerful’ (it’s okay to have hard or hurt feelings), handling it maturely and thoughtfully, taking the high road, and tying off loose ends as much as possible has long seemed the best choice whenever you can. It will give you the widest range of future options in the community both immediately and in the future.

Existing commitments:

The first thing to do is stop and think for a minute, because it’s going to simplify the next steps a lot. Different groups, traditions, and paths have different ways to part, and different things to keep in mind, but here’s things to look at:

Have you made any commitments, agreements, or oaths…

about how parting from the group happens or should happen? For example, students in my group are asked as part of their Dedicant oath that if they decide the group isn’t a good fit for them, they will return to the group for a formal parting if at all possible. This is a recognition of the very real personal and energetic ties formed at Dedication (and at Initiation, etc.) and is meant to give everyone a chance to tidily resolve those energetic loose ends.

Having been on the other side of someone just disappearing a number of times, I was very clear on why this was a good idea even before I hived. Avoid breaking oaths. (If it’s a truly abusive setting, or there are good practical reasons you can’t do whatever the preferred mode is, see later in this post.)

Do you have any upcoming commitments to the group?

Are you currently mentoring someone? On the list to lead or create a ritual in the next 2-3 months? Have you taken on ongoing responsibilities for any task? Is there information about how to do something that lives in your head in the current use, and is not yet down on paper?

Take time to figure out some ways to handle that. You don’t need to find an answer for everything, but it is a useful thing to be able to hand the group leadership a clear list of what they need to find alternatives for, and how to maintain what you’ve been doing.

For example, I was the technology-answering person in my group for several years before I hived. I spent the time to write up the clearest directions I could about how each tool the group used worked (how to add an event to the calendar, someone to the mailing list, etc. etc.) They still asked questions about specifics, but it helped a lot to have a reference.

What will you say?

If other people ask you why you’re leaving the group, what will you say? Someone will probably ask, and it’s a lot easier to have an answer to this one if you think about it in advance. Good answers are generally brief, and avoid anyone’s dirty laundry. If you’re parting because you just want to go another direction, a cheerful “They’re wonderful folks, but I found myself going off towards [other thing].” can work well. If hte parting is a bit more fraught, something like “We were clearly going in different directions.” or “It wasn’t as good a mutual fit anymore.” or something general and simple works well.

(You may find that you do want to talk specifics: in general, I’d suggest this only with people who specifically ask you about the group because they’re interested in it themselves, and who ask you for your direct experience. Move forward, in other words, rather than getting stuck venting about what didn’t work.)

Think of what you want to say to the group members.

This may be more than one set of things. You may have things you want to share with the group leadership, but you should also consider what you want to say to other group members who may not hear all the details of why you’re making this choice. Again, focus on tying up loose ends rather than casting blame or getting stuck in past problems.

Consider the outcomes:

Are you considering leaving, but aren’t sure yet? Or are you really sure that it’s the thing you need to do? Is there anything that might change your mind?

If there is, this would be a good time to arrange to talk to the people who could do something about that – probably the group’s leader or leader’s. Make sure they know it’s a serious conversation (not a casual catching up) so they can plan appropriately.

If you know nothing’s going to change your mind, that’s okay too. Just make sure you’ve thought through each of your concerns first.

I do encourage people to take time with this step. Sometimes we feel pushed to leave a situation because it’s pushing us toward a change we’re not sure we want to take, or we’re hitting old baggage that we haven’t fully unpacked yet. If we don’t deal with that, we stand a good chance of hitting the same problem over and over again in other settings. If we deal with it a bit – even if we end up leaving that group anyway – we’ll be in a better place in the long run. That’s worth quite a bit of self-examination, I think.

It’s also possible that a group isn’t the right place for us right now – but that in a couple of years, either we change or the group changes (or most commonly, both) and it might be worth considering again. Being really clear about why you left helps make it a lot easier to see if coming back is the right choice down the road.

Communicate

Do not assume the group leadership are mind-readers. It’s not a good assumption. They may know you’re unhappy, or want to explore other areas, or just are struggling to deal with a complicated schedule, long drive, or something else practical, but they may not realise all of what’s going on. Having a clear conversation with them will help you as well as them.

You might have this conversation in their home, but it might be easier to have it in some neutral location like a coffee shop. (preferably somewhere that no one in the conversation has really strong ties to: don’t pick the HPS’s favorite morning stop!)

Maybe they have a solution you haven’t considered (if you aren’t set on leaving). Even if they don’t, it’s courteous to give them a clear explanation if you can, so that they can consider if they might want to change things in the future for other people.

Go into the conversation with an idea of what you want to say (which could range from “I’m really unhappy with how things are going, here’s what I think would change that” if you’d consider staying, to “I really don’t think things are working out, and I think I need to leave the group.”

They may have stuff to say. You don’t need to (and shouldn’t) put up with abusive language, harassment, or anything else like that, but otherwise, you might consider staying – again, there might be something that you hadn’t considered that would at least make the parting easier for everyone).

Practicalities:

You will want to communicate any of your existing obligations. A list is handy here, that you can give them. Something like “I’d signed up for the May moon, Mallow might be a good person to handle this thing I’ve been doing and here’s directions on how I’ve been doing it, and here’s the books I borrowed from you.” Obviously, they may make their own choices, but at least you’ve done your best to point out the places they need to double check.

You may also need to ask the group for items, if, for example, they hold your measure as part of your commitment to the group, or it’s common for members to leave some items in the covenstead. (If this is the case, you probably want to think about how to get them back: depending on the situation, you might ask them to bring them to the conversation, to return them at a parting ritual, or to mail them or otherwise get them to you or make them easy for you (or a friend) to pick up.

Sharing with everyone:

You should talk about how to communicate your decision to leave to the group. Will you return for a parting ritual (at the next moon, Sabbat, or some other time?) Will there be a general announcement?

Will you want to continue talking to people in the group for any other reason (social events, overlapping circles of other interests, etc?) It might be good to talk about how to approach that. A good option is to give the group leaders time (a week or so if it’d be by email, the next obvious event if they’d do it in person) to communicate the decision, and then follow up privately with the relevant people. Again, don’t do a lot of venting and focusing on the bad parts, but do take a minute to say things like “I wish you well with Group, and I still look forward to getting together for horror movies every so often if you’re interested.” or whatever your shared interests are.

This is the thing I most regret about my hiving, actually – we all sort of knew when my last ritual with the group was going to be, but we weren’t as clear about it to students and prospective students as we might have been. I wish that I’d asked directly for some sort of announcement, or beenĀ  clear that I’d like to send something brief. I think it’s worked out okay, but people were a bit uncertain for a while whether I still wanted to see them or chat in other ways, or what was okay to bring up – and a simple email at the front end would have made that much simpler.

All that’s left at this point is to do the parting ritual if there is one, and to move on with your lives. Hopefully, by taking time to part well, you’ll have a much more pleasant experience if and when you run into each other down the road.

In really lousy circumstances

Sometimes leaving a group is absolutely necessary – but you know that one or more people in the group might be anywhere from totally inappropriate to emotionally abusive or even dangerous about it. (This last one is very rare, but just like romantic relationships going bad, sometimes other interactions take turns we really didn’t expect.)

Obviously, don’t do things you feel are unsafe (and do your best to catch this kind of situation in advance and get help if you need it.) Don’t go meet people if you’re pretty sure they’re going to gang up on you without any meaningful conversation. If you’re not sure, but want some options, think about bringing a friend from outside the group (who can sit with you, or at a nearby table) and help keep things on a more civil tone, or get help if they turn really nasty. (And again, meeting in a public space like a coffee shop helps a lot. Mall food courts generally have an active security presence, if you’re concerned about safety.)

If you feel you can’t discuss your leaving in person, sending a very simple email (no explanations needed if you don’t feel they’d be useful) is a good move: it helps make a clear break with the group. You may wish to consider turning your phone ringer off, asking a friend to check messages for you, or even staying somewhere else for a few days, just to help with the initial outburst of either questions or strong emotion.

Centering, grounding, and cleansing and/or warding your personal space might all be reasonable choices as well – not because most people will energetically attack you effectively (because most won’t!) but because it will help firm up your identification as separate from the group mind. And of course, if you have any realistic concerns about physical risk, talk to the police or other appropriate resources.

I’d also strongly advise packing away any tools, jewelry, or other items that are particularly strongly associated with the group for a while in this situation, and taking them out of your living space entirely for a period of time. In six months or a year or whatever you can come back to them, cleanse them if needed. They’ll have much less overwhelming emotional resonance for you, and you can deal with them in a more thoughtful way.

On what we’ve lost, and what we’ve gained

I just made a post elsewhere online I wanted to share here. I’d talked about how we’d lost a lot, as a culture, when we had mass-accessible written material (sometime after the printing press: I tend to think it’s around 1600-1650, when you start getting lots more broadsheets and other materials that are inexpensive enough that most people can get a look at them if they like.)

Someone else in that conversation went “Hey, wait. You’re a librarian and you’re saying this?” And she’s quite right, but I had to explain where we’re coming from. Here’s my explanation:

I explain:

I think we lost stuff. I think we lost *big* stuff, with the loss of a commonly held oral culture and the skills needed to maintain it.

I think we gained a lot with written culture, and on the whole, those gains are worth the losses. But it’s not all benefit, either, and more to the point, we’re comparing different kinds of loss and benefit.

(Erm. Take an older couple. The husband dies, leaving his wife of decades a widow. The same year, one of their kids has their first grandchild. There is a lot of wonderful stuff in a new baby in the family – but that new baby is not the same as the lost spouse and doesn’t replace the same functions, even. There’s still a loss that should, imho, be grieved and honored and remembered, even in the midst of all the cool new stuff that comes with the new potential.)

I’ll give you a personal example, too. My father was a professor specialising in ancient Greek theatre, and he spent about one or two weekends a month travelling to do one-man performances of his own translations of those plays using a marionette theatre (which more or less duplicates, when done in a college auditorium sized space, the amount of detail that your average ancient Greek amphitheatre-going person would have seen.)

Anyway: he was able to hold 3-5 plays in active, letter-perfect memory, and about another dozen in nearly-perfect state at any given time. He invested time in relearning them (he’d recite to himself while walking the dog: we had the most classically educated canines on the planet, probably.) But mostly, they were in his brain.

That gave him a *tremendous* amount of fluency in the subject – down to being able to cite quotes word for word when teaching on that play in class. There’s a story one of his colleagues told at his memorial of him walking down the aisle in his large lecture class, asking one of his grad students “What’s the play today?”, getting the answer, walking up on stage (having not even paused his stride), and teaching for 90 minutes on that play with no reference to notes or reference material. And it was a brillant, coherent, enjoyable lecture that his students remembered for years. And that was normal for him – he could do the same thing with other subjects he’d spent a lot of time with (and I spent my childhood with him telling me Greek mythology on every walk too and from school.)

I can’t do that. I can’t *begin* to do that. Now, some of that is that where he was a specialist, I’m a generalist (which is a lot of why I’m a librarian. I know tons of things about tons of things, but I have that kind of deep running knowledge about only a few: my religious path and related topics are one of them.)

But some of it is because he grew up and lived in a world where that was what there was: there were the words and what they meant, and he devoted a *vast* amount of his time to living deeply in the words as they were meant to be performed. He read, of course, but he also spent far more time than I do living with the text as performed work, not words on the page.

Now, I have some of the same skills in terms of internal information management and being able to pull out useful bits from what’s inside my head (and I invest some of the same kind of time in cultivating them: actually plan to stat some of that this weekend, because a conversation at work today got me curious about the actual breakdown of how I do generalised information gathering.) But in me, it manifests totally differently, because I’m so much a child of the internet age, and not a child of the oral learning and repetition age (as my father, who grew up in 30s and 40s British schools was)

And I’ll tell you here and now: I frankly envy and desire what my father was able to do. And the world we live in no longer supports it – and I suspect makes it pretty close to impossible, unless you are living a very specifically designed life. That’s a loss, even though there’s stuff I can do that would have amazed my father (and does amaze my mother.)

And a few more thoughts, not in my response to her:

I think we’re a better world, overall, for more information. Sharing information gives people the power and the tools to make more of their own choices, and I think that’s a wonderful thing. Oral information, is, unfortunately, locked inside someone’s head until they let it out, and the skills and practice needed to maintain it are hardly trivial to maintain.

But at the same time, I do think we’ve lost things, as those skills in oral memory disappear. We can live without them – but we’re changed, and the world is changed for having fewer of them about.

(This is, arguably, part of why I am so incredibly drawn to small intimate ritual groups: in such groups, one can have the broader context of the great story of someone’s life and desires and dreams, without having to get all of it in one shot. And a small group can hold, together, the memory of the group in a way a larger group can’t generally manage. It won’t always happen, but it’s a lot more feasible than in a group of 50, or 100, or 2000.)

Integrating my life

I’m back at work for the school year.

Working for a school definitely has its own yearly cycles and festival days: last night I was at the back to school barbecue for staff and their partners, this morning we had our fall all-employee meeting, book discussion, and then time to get things done in our teaching spaces.

(I come back a week before the faculty: I spent all of last week working with my new assistant to move every single book in our library, in order to rearrange the space. I’m delighted with the result, which we finished today: it’s open, with clear lines of sight and flow between different areas, and the light is even more gorgeous than before. I think we’ve solved a couple of nagging ongoing problems (involving students doing things that were perhaps better undone in corners hard to see around). We’ll see how it works with actual students next week. Best news: the most expensive actual change was about $300, other than taking out a huge elephant of a standing-height circulation desk, so if we decide it’s not working, we can always move things again.)

Anyway, this post is a great example of something I’ve been thinking about a lot this summer: the idea that to be the kind of librarian I want to be, I need to deeply integrate it with my religious goals and commitments.

By this, I don’t mean ‘try and convert everyone to my particular trad” because, ew, no. But I mean that I want to let the me that I am in circle – priestess, teacher, ritualist, creator of intentional and focused space, intuitive listener – come through more overtly in my work life.

I want to anchor and hold a space where learning and inspiration and discovery can happen in a safe way. I want to use the tools I have at my disposal to help me manage the energy and interaction demands of working with 70+ faculty and 500+ students every day. (At least potentially – fortunately, not all of them show up at the same time. But still, as an introvert, that’s a pretty hard gig for me some days.)

I need to balance the parts of the job I adore (helping people find information that matters to them, and helping them learn how to find things themselves) with the parts that are a little less ecstatic: paperwork and budgets and all those other practical details. And I need to have an eye both on each individual day’s tasks, but also on the bigger cycles of my work life: each week, each quarter, each semester, each year – and each student’s experience over the four years most of them are with us.

No small task, any of that.

And I need to figure out a way to do it that means I’m not working 60+ hour work weeks to get everything done (because that’s probably not sustainable for me) and that leaves me energy, focus, and attention to do other things after work (time with friends, writing, coven matters.)

Yeah, I know. I want a lot.

I think it’s possible. I just think it’s a work of magical and ritual creation in and of itself, even before you get down to any specific details or desires or anything else. Simply creating a life, a process, a way of living where this is even a possibility takes some change in me, and some change in what’s around me, and some change in how I look at what I’m doing and when I do it.

So, I’ve been doing a lot of that this summer.

What does that look like?

I’ve started developing daily personal habits that should help. Some of that is personal practice, some of that is trying out some different things that seem to make my body happier.

I’ve created a professional shrine in my back office that reminds me, each time I look at it, of what I’m aiming for. There are things there representing knowledge and learning and inspiration, a cool bowl of water for flow and intuition, and salt to help with grounding and crystalline intensity when that’s needed.

(I’ll take a photo at some point: if you know I’m Pagan, it’s probably obvious what it is, but it’s no more involved or weird than things many other faculty have on or near their desks.)

I wanted very much to make the space my own: that’s what I’ve been working on for the last week and a bit. Moving things around was a lot of work, but I now feel like it’s mine, it has my philosophical stamp on it, in all sorts of little ways.

I’m remembering the power of conversation. My division head (aka the person I directly report to) said something to me in the hiring discussions last spring that stuck with me: that what we’re basically getting paid for (as an independent school with, yes, a substantial tuition cost, though we also give a fair bit of financial aid) is the relationships we develop with students.

Framed in that light, spending 20 minutes helping someone (student or faculty) with a problem isn’t distracting us from our work: it *is* our work. And as I’ve started to build in time to make that easier (by going to the barbecue last night, by knowing I’m going to spend a lot of this week having 5-10 minute chats with a lot of people about their summers), it’s easier to remember that that the human connection and understanding and support are the things to keep my focus on. The paperwork can happen later, if it has to. The people are the bit that matters.

I always knew this, of course – but something about that particular conversation got it stuck in my head in a way that feels really deeply rooted now.

And a physical tool: One of my dear friends (the one I spent the summer helping, in fact) is a jewelry maker by profession. She made me (with a lot of collaboration) a bracelet to help me anchor the kinds of energy flow and focus that I want for this year, as well as to help me with some fairly specific things (like being able to work out in the main library area for most of the day and not feel totally wiped out at the end: teenagers put out a *lot* of stray emotional energy, and I can find it really distracting or draining if I’m not on the top of my form otherwise. Even when I am, it can take focus from being the best librarian I can be, which isn’t really what I want.)

I expect to wear it daily for a month or three, and then work down to wearing it as needed. Not only is it a physical reminder of my goals and intentions (never a bad thing in itself), it’s also an anchor for the specific goals I mention above, and a reminder of the power of integration.

And finally, keeping me honest: I’m doing a presentation to interested faculty a week from Wednesday (as part of our monthly teacher talks) about the integration work. I’ve been very quietly out as Pagan to a number of people for the last year or two, but haven’t talked a lot about what that’s meant.

My talk is going to focus on how working with the natural cycles of our year (both seasonal and school), seeking balance from different kinds of interactions and tasks, and about how some of my religious community skills cross into professional work (group dynamics, intentional space, recognising and creating moments of recognition for different passages), and vice versa (working where I do has *definitely* made me a better teacher in a lot of ways.) And I’m also going to talk about some of the challenges of balancing two demanding sets of skills against each other – something a lot of my colleagues know a lot about.

My hope with this is both that it’ll explain some of the reasoning behind some of the choices I’m focusing on – but also to help get conversation started about some of the broader ideas: balance, compassion for ourselves and others, going beyond the ‘expected’ answers, and all sorts of other things that are core to the mission of the school.

Using Witchvox – a walkthrough

Several times in the past few months, I’ve seen someone post saying that they had trouble using Witchvox, and expressing some confusion about how to use it. I’ve got some theories about why this is (at the bottom of the post, for the curious) but on a practical level, I decided it was more interesting to write up a walkthrough of where to find things and how to use the networking resources than to clean my house this afternoon. (I aim for productive procrastination when I can…)

Since the email I sent about it is a little hard to read without formatting, so I’m duplicating most of it here for easy reference.Please feel free to share the link here with any other list where the information would be helpful.

Parts of this essay:

  • What is Witchvox (and some important things to know)
  • Step 1: the group creates the profile
  • Step 2: you (the seeker) go looking for a group or teacher or event.
  • Step 3: The summary page
  • Step 4: The group listings page.
  • Step 5: What the group says about itself.
  • Step 6: Making contact
  • The realities of groups

For each step, I include examples from my own group, Phoenix Song, so you can see exactly how things work.

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