Speaking with others

This seems to be my month for it – last Wednesday, I was at a wonderful lecture by Dr. Eboo Patel, one of the founders of the Interfaith Youth Core, a group that seeks to “1) build widespread public support for interfaith youth work; 2) equip youth-focused institutions to positively engage their religious diversity; and 3) cultivate long-term impact by emerging leaders in this movement.” He’s an extremely engaging speaker, and if you’re at all interested in interfaith community building or youth leadership in any area of your life, and get a chance to hear him, take it.

What he said definitely made me think. Not only about how this plays into general life – but where and how the Pagan communities fit into it. (Note the plural, there.)

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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.)

Making a habit of community

A post on one of the Pagan forums I spend time on caught my attention this week. This person was very unhappy with a post in a thread, and was upset that he couldn’t go and respond there. In other words, he didn’t really get the community culture.

All communities have an internal culture – at least if they’ve been going for more than a month or two. Some of this culture may be obvious – but some of it often isn’t. There are many nuances, and it’s often assumed that people will pick up the details as they go along. This isn’t hard – but a lot of people don’t seem to do it, or don’t seem conscious of how to. The list below – my list of “Stuff I pay attention to” isn’t new and bizarre. It’s stuff that works in your work life. If you move to a new area. And it works if you’re looking for a face to face group, whether that’s knitting or a coven.

Why care?

These days, online,  many people create an account, and immediately start posting – and then wonder why they’re having problems in their conversations. This is uncomfortable and unpleasant – but it’s also a direct result of some of their choices. The thing that’s always gotten me is that many of these issues are easily avoided: a little time, attention, and patience go a long way in making an entry to a new group fairly comfortable. You don’t need any special tools beyond what you’d already be using – just a little time, patience, and self-control.

Step 1) Do your homework.

Don’t sign up for every group you can find on a topic all at once. It’s easy to get confused between different forums, and it can be harder to learn a particular list or forum’s style and approach. (It’s also easy to get overwhelmed and have a hard time keeping up with new posts, and that’s not much fun.)

Focus on a couple of groups that seem like the best fit for what you’re looking for. Read their rules and guidelines – often these will tell you whether or not it might be a good fit for you. The guidelines often will mention their expectations, sensitive topics, and other things you will want to know to avoid a rough entry.

Larger groups often have rules about everything from signature size to where or how advertisements can be posted, to how they handle people asking for research participants. These rules are there because the situation’s come up, and needed to be addressed – even if the reason isn’t obvious to you, there’s probably a good reason for it. You can ask about it – later – if you still have questions, but for right now, just follow their rules.

2) Listen more than you talk for a while:

New posters online used to be advised to ‘lurk’ (read without posting) for 2 weeks or so when entering a new group. You’ll get a good sense of frequent posters, common topics, and issues that keep coming up. (My take on this is “I prefer to learn from other people’s mistakes – less painful!”)

You also begin to get a sense of the more frequent posters – who do you find thoughtful? And a sense of  people you might want to ignore or at least pay less attention to – people who constantly turn the discussion to their pet topic, who troll looking for emotional responses, or who are needlessly cruel or snippy. And you’d get a good sense of the way specific terms are used on the group, both terms in the area of interest – and some group in-jokes.

Restrain yourself from jumping in to correct someone who is obviously mistaken – chances are, in a larger forum, that someone else will post and correct factual errors – and people will tend to prefer their own opinions, preferences, or experiences to that of a total stranger. Give people time to get to know you, and you’ll be more persuasive. If you still really want to comment on something, let it sit overnight before posting: you’ll probably find ways to make your post a little calmer when you review it.

3) Learn the forum’s culture:

Some forums are fine with long, detailed posts. Some have many shorter posts, and people who apologise if they go over two paragraphs. It’s probably clear which of the two I tend to do better in! (Brevity and conciseness are not my virtues without a lot of editing work.) Some forums like examples and informal references – others rely heavily on personal experience and see references as distancing or elitist.

And in the Pagan community, there’s one particularly strong distinction: some forums are focused on fellowship and support, while others are focused on debate, discussion, or critical thinking and evaluation. People who want one and end up in the other tend to be uncomfortable – but fortunately, many forums make it clear which way they lean.

4) Take it slowly:

Once you’ve read for a bit, you’ll have an idea which topics may be sensitive, prone to producing lengthy discussion, or that may get a bit heated. If you’d like a more comfortable introduction to the forum, avoid those. Start with something else. As you continue to get a feel for the forum, you can branch out into more complex discussions more easily.

Plus, as regulars on the forum get a feel for you, they’re more likely to give you a little bit of leeway if you say something a bit odd. If you have consistently come across as friendly but very new to this and you say something that’s potentially insulting, you’ll get different responses than someone who’s come across as antagonistic from their first post.

5) Consider how you want to present yourself:

As in face-to-face settings, people will form opinions of you based on how you behave – this is especially true in your early interactions on a forum (the first 25-50 or so, depending on how often you post, and what about.) It’s worth paying some extra attention to how you come across – take a moment to check what you’ve written for clarity, and whether there’s anything that might be misread.

Don’t make your first posts to a new forum at a time when you’re really rushed, emotional, or unable to think clearly unless you really do need urgent help with something. (And if that’s the case, ask your questions, calm down, and *then* come back and post more.) Just like meeting a group of new people in a face to face setting, why not put your best foot forward?

6) If you have questions, be polite:

Assume that a rule is there for a reason. Don’t single people out. Be thoughtful and polite. (Please and thank you never hurt.) For example, the person who got me thinking about this would have gotten a different response if he’d said “Hey, what’s the reasoning behind the full membership thing? I saw something in a folder I can’t post in that frustrates me, but I can’t respond.” than he did by posting something more antagonistic (and quoting the specific post.) Sometimes, it’s all in the style.

(By polite, I don’t mean obsequious – I just mean that you should avoid insults, dismissals of others, and other things like that.)

And here’s the thing:

These things? If you treat them like habits, will make it easier for you, if and when you do go looking for a group in person. Or you move, and want to break into a new social community. Or you start a new job. They’re not an obsolete set of random rules, they’re things that are common to human communities.  But that only works if you make them a habit – and apply them in different areas of your life, so they become second nature.

Twin Cities Pagan Pride 2008

It’s Monday. I spent all weekend helping run this year’s Twin Cities Pagan Pride event. This is my third year on the board (Programming, plus picking up some other stuff – most of the work on the website is mine, for example, after getting info/data from the appropriate chairs.)

I’m really pleased with this year’s event. We had 24 programming items for adults, a kids track, a teens track, many talented and amazing entertainment performances, and a sizeable dealer’s room. We had a few minor glitches, but nothing major (for example, someone turning off the sodium lights in the gym/vendor space – they take a few minutes to come back on because they have to heat up.)

We also had some great conversations. Over this year, it became clear that one of the things we really wanted to talk about was community – and what the next step looks like for us.

Instead of a keynote speaker, we instead had a keynote panel, where we asked representatives from groups who are working to build community beyond individual paths and public rituals (both of which are fine and wonderful things, but we’ve talked about those in the past, and there’s also quite a few of them, which would make a more challenging discussion).

We had representatives from Twin Cities Pagan Pride, Earth House (looking to build sustainable community space), the Upper Midwest Pagan Alliance (activism and education), Harmony Tribe (a 9 day festival in southern Minnesota) and the couple who are trying to get a teen/youth group going. The conversation spent quite a lot of time on the generational issues, but also talked a lot about acceptance in the broader community (with some really great stories) and about different kinds of service and community projects that are getting underway.

After the lunch break, we had our traditional “Meet the Pagans” panel, where anyone who shows up gets a couple of minutes to speak about their group if they wish. (Upcoming events and announcements, etc.) It’s a lovely way to see all that’s going on in our area.

After that, it was into other panels. I didn’t get a chance to see much, except for a bit of the chant panel late in the afternoon (and of course, the class I taught on Sunday morning.) but by and large everyone seemed to have a good time. I know of only one panel that cancelled itself due to lack of attendees – otherwise, discussions ranged between two (mine!) and about 25, with most in the 8-13 person range.

But overall – I think people had a really good time. I saw a lot of people smiling, talking, having conversations with random people they wandered by. I know I had a couple of great conversations in between other things. That’s a great goodness in such an event, and it was totally a success from that point of view.

Next year:

One thing I continue to struggle with is how many programming items. We did actually cut down a bit this year (from about 32 to 24) but we still had 3 programming rooms going full blast. That means we have smaller attendance at each item – this year, one panel had 0 (my apologies for that!) to about 25 in one room, with most items in the 5-15 range.

I actually don’t think that’s a huge problem in some ways (smaller groups help people make more focused connections and networking) but I know it can also be frustrating for teachers. One of the things I want to look at for next year is what the optimum balance looks like. (There will be surveys! Up later today, probably, for folks who are local.)

I also wish we’d had a better balance of witchcraft-related items (Wicca and other forms of religious witchcraft) versus other strands of Paganism. This is something I’ve really tried to do in my time here, but it seems like we go in waves. Last year had many items from Heathen, Druid, and reconstructionist groups, and few that were specifically witchcraft focused. This year was the opposite (due to some scheduling and internal group demands from various groups.) I’d like to have a more event balance – and maybe try to get a panel together talking about different strands of Paganism.

All of this said: people learned things. They had meaningful conversations. Teachers got to try some new things out. We went away thinking. Those are all fabulous things, even if we have some new ideas for the next time round.

Speaking of which: it’s a tradition that the opening ritual is done by the Twin Cities Pagan Pride board. I’m beginning to wonder if it isn’t time to end this tradition. Several of our board members strongly prefer not to participate in public ritual or do not wish to take roles in leading it. (Naturally, of course, we are choosing people for board positions based on their ability to do a particular task – not for their ritual skills!) Those of who don’t mind the idea in general are stressed, harried, and trying to juggle eight other things already – definitely not the best way to do meaningful ritual. Maybe we should stop trying to make this work.

One other option we’ve talked about is having a TCPP chaplain, so to speak – who would be responsible for making sure that each board member got appropriate support (not so much in a religious sense, but someone to check in with if they needed to vent confidentially, or who could help mediate with specific issues.) And who would also have specific responsibility for planning our opening ritual and making it work. Board members could participate if they wanted, but they wouldn’t be trying to juggle the planning and set-up in the same way.

Incidentally, I’m beating up on myself here: absent another option, opening ritual is a programming duty, and thus firmly in my sphere. The opening ritual I put together this year is not the worst I’ve ever done, but I found it quite unsatisfying and nervewracking in a couple of ways, and … I’d like to not do that again. I don’t think it does anyone any good. (Plus, I hate doing less than really good work in that kind of public setting.)

Closing ritual, which I planned in a more personal role with a friend and former TCPPD member, was a lot more successful for me, in part because I had a chance to breathe and focus beforehand in a way that it’s impossible to do at the beginning of the event and also because we’d had a specific concept we’d wanted to work with.

But either way, most of my ritual design work is done in a very different context (small group, well-known participants, specific expectations, and using a standard structure.) The further I get away from that, the more work it is – and the less I can just rely on my trained instincts and experience. They’re different sets of skills – small, known group vs. large public event, and I’m not nearly as good at the latter as I’d like to be, at least with these kind of planning demands and other pressures.

Finally:

I am feeling very tired (and I called in sick to work last night when it was getting painful to walk.) Sleeping over 10 hours (from about 10 last night to 8:30 this morning) seems to have helped a lot, but I still have a headache and other minor signs that my body definitely needs rest.

I was joking this weekend about the Pagan Pride exercise program – do laps around the programming space upstairs checking on people for walking, climb stairs for cardio, lift and move tables for strength training, bend to put down colored tape on the floors. (The last because the building we’ve been using is a community center and former city school. It’s a little confusing to find things. We use colored tape on the floors for directions.)

But I’m now off to make all sorts of updates on the TCPPD website to reflect the fact the event is over. And to put up surveys. And email all my lovely programming presenters with thanks and a link to a survey.