Online communication

Phoenix Song, my coven, has had several inquiries over the springĀ  from people interested in learning more about us (and possibly joining us.) This is always a tricky process, but we’ve been through the initial stage enough times now that I want to talk about it here – and why we picked the initial process we did.

Our process is described over here and our introductory letter information is here, if you’d like to see specifically what we talk about.

So, why email?

There are a number of reasons I wanted to start with email. While I recognise that it’s not a perfect communications tool (and that some people will be more familiar with it and comfortable with it than others), I felt that the advantages more than make up for that.

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Harps and conversation

Today, I took a day trip. I’m feeling very pleased with the results. Briefly, I drove from home (in Minneapolis) to Red Wing, for a conversation in a coffee shop, and then went to my favorite harp and music store. So, you’re going to get me talking about the conversation (a little) and then harps.

For those who aren’t familiar with Minnesota, Red Wing is a small city on the Mississippi, about 60 minutes south east of the Twin Cities. (East across the river, it’s Wisconsin.) My harp (on which more later) came from Stoney End, a folk harp maker based just northwest of Red Wing, and I’ve gone down there when I have the money to spend on harp music.

Before we get to the harp, though, there’s conversation.

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What do you bring?

Recent conversation with a friend applying for training with a particular teacher near her got me thinking about a common question. A number of groups or teachers ask some variant of “What do you bring to this group/trad?”. She found it hard to answer – and in talking about it, I admitted I found it hard to answer too, back when I got asked it. (And yet, it’s on one of our lists of interview questions for prospective members, because it really is an interesting question.)

Part of the problem is a standard interview issue. What do you say that fairly demonstrates the stuff you’re good at without coming across as being arrogant? There are obviously ways around this, and many of the standard job interview approaches also apply to religious groups.

But part of it is more complicated. After all – especially with experiential things, like an oathbound trad – you may not have a lot of specific information to go on. Learning about a group, you may not know all of the things that they particularly need or value.

I’m reminded of a long stint of volunteer work I did for LiveJournal (for the Abuse/Terms of Service team, which handles user concerns and some legal issues), where our manager was very attentive not only to whether people were generally competent – but how they fit into the overall team.

I have a real knack for explaining things about technology to people who are not technology users (but particularly parents and teachers or administrators concerned about student online behavior) in a way that is realistic but compatible with the site’s policies. I’d calm them down, give them meaningful options, and they’d go away.

On the other hand, there’s all sorts of things I didn’t deal with as well. I don’t do aggressive particularly well, and while I can cope with it coming towards me, I’m not always good at squashing a particular kind of trouble-making behavior (people keep trying to see if they can get me to back down.) Plus, there were types of cases I just didn’t much like doing. (Everyone has something like this.)

If the entire team had been made up of people like me, it would have been skewed and one-sided, and there would be gaps. And it’s the job of whoever the gatekeeper is for something like that to be aware of that – and to make some decisions based on it.

Now, this doesn’t mean that if we get a prospective group member who’s just like me, or just like L, that we’re going to turn them down, because we’ve already got one like that. But it does mean that we might probe a little more for what the differences are – what strengths they have that we don’t have, what weaknesses they don’t share – and over time, encourage them into a position that continues to develop the new stuff and fill in the gaps.

Which still doesn’t help you answer the question. But it does mean that I think the ideal answer to it is something about “Here’s what I am that may be of particular interest to you in your setting.”

If I were answering that question today, I think I’d say something like this:

[but maybe shorter]

I’m a self-proclaimed geek. I’m not the earliest adopter of technology, but I’m usually at the end of the first wave, when I’ve had a chance to see how it’s most useful and how it fits my specific needs. And I do use technology – broadly and deeply, depending on what it does and what I want.

More than that, I’m a process geek. I am fascinated by how things work, how they fit together, and how to make connections between them. I am not interested in technology because it is new and shiny, but because it has the chance to make something better. Smoother, kinder, simpler, leaving more time for all the other passions and things I’m interested in. Better.

Information is my profession, my hobby, my toy, and my comfort. I can no more stop reading, stop learning, stop trying to understand, than I can stop breathing. But with that information, I bring a wide-ranging memory, a lot of background, and all sorts of other intellectual resources to whatever questions I come across. I don’t know everything – but I know a little bit about lots of things, and can often get up and running on figuring something out fairly quickly. (As long as you don’t actually require me to do the practical science and math parts, where my theory is a lot better than my actual skills.)

Experience is harder for me – but it’s something I know I must engage with. I know that I have to get my nose out of the book, and out of the library, and away from the screen, and I must go and try things. Over the years, I’ve learned more and more how to do that – and I deeply enjoy the time with wool twisting through my fingers, the feel of bread dough under my hands, the harp strings over skin, or the intricate dance and art of close group ritual.

More than anything, though, I’m a synthesist. I need to know the context of something to make sense of it. Facts and dates in history are meaningless for me without knowing the stories of the people who lived – and the arts they created. I am fascinated by the ways to approach library searches and information gathering – but they’re useless without real people’s questions.

I bring all of these to any group I’m part of. Past experiences have taught me not to overwhelm people (and mostly, how to avoid people feeling bad they don’t know the same things: I certainly don’t expect them to, I just think knowledge is nifty.) I’ll feel my way cautiously along until I get a sense of how much sharing of tangents and other unrelated information makes sense.

But I’ll also sit down some night, look at something that’s been going on, and come up with a new way to look at it. Or a new list of resources and ideas. Or a way to present something better. I can’t tell in advance what these things will be – I just know they’ll happen, and when they do, they often help.

We are here, right here among you…

Recently, I’ve been seeing the phrase “I can’t find anyone near me to learn from!” quite a bit more often. And there are times it makes me wonder.

The most recent was a few minutes ago, on one of the local email lists for the Pagan community in the Twin Cities (Minnesota) area, where someone was posting because she can’t find anyone near her to work with.

There’s a reason the Twin Cities are sometimes referred to as Paganistan.

We have a large and active community, especially given our relative size. There are public rituals, classes (free and otherwise), reasonably local festivals, and three local stores focusing specifically on the Pagan community. Last year’s two day Pagan Pride weekend had 35 workshops or discussions, 5 rituals, and a wide range of entertainment, vendors, and informational booths from groups in the area. (I’m on the board, I get to be pleased with this.)

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Seekers paying attention

Part four of my thoughts about seekers and what I pay attention to is attention to detail.

This is the one I wanted to talk about last (go see the others over here, earliest stuff at the bottom) because it’s the hardest to talk about. Sometimes, when someone starts talking about this particular aspect, it’s really easy to get locked into minutiae and details, and people feel oppressed and crabby because they don’t match up to some standard that’s not clearly defined.

So, first of all, I want to say: I do not expect anyone – not seeker, not friend, not covenmate I’ve been working with for 6+ years – to get all of this right. I do not expect myself to get every detail right. People are human, our memories are flawed, we have other things going on in our lives, and we will forget details every so often. Someone messing up on one is generally not the end of the world.

On the other hand, I don’t think that’s any excuse not to try.

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