The shiny new project

Hi! This would be the announcement of the shiny new project that’s been occupying a lot of my spare time on and off since August. It’s actually not all that secret – I’ve had a link in the header here for a while, and I’ve mentioned it (usually in relation to specific pages) on several forums over the last few months.

Welcome to Seeking: First Steps and Tools at http://gleewood.org/seeking . It contains 107 (and counting) separate articles about general Pagan topics, with a focus on getting started in religious witchcraft paths. They work from basic definitions, to a series of articles on connecting with other Pagans, to a selection of core and common practices (and some ideas on how to start with them), to broader questions that come up a lot, and where I wanted to collect my answers and thoughts.

And welcome to its new sister site, Liminal Words at http://gleewood.org/books. There’s only a few titles up there right now, but more are on the way. It’ll include both Pagan titles, and other books of interest – on my current list are notes on books about the natural world, productivity and time management, food, and much more.

Both these sites are a way for me to use tags and other organizational tools in a way that’s clear, useful, and easy to understand, rather than trying to throw everything together on this blog.

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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.)

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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Pagan values – informed choice

Last month, Pax declared June to be Pagan Values Blogging month. I’ve been thinking since that announcement about what I wanted to talk about. One of the obvious choices, given my professional interests, is the power of information.

And it’s not just information alone – I’m not talking about trivia here, information disconnected from action or change. But in any path that places a heavy consideration on personal responsibility (as many Pagan paths do in one form or another), information allows us to make choices that are based on more than personal preference at a given moment.

To make informed choices, we need information.

And, of course, the kind of information we need varies based on our goals, the topic, and our past level of experience. The information that’s going to be most helpful to one person may not make much difference to someone else.

We may need basics. Useful starting places, relevant safety considerations, ways to find support and community if that’s helpful or wanted – and directions to go as we want to learn more or deepen our understanding. We also need to make sure the basics are in context – that they don’t leave out entire areas of a topic.

Helpful information includes:

  • Resources that have helped other people – and how. Not just a list of books or websites, but some commentary on why someone liked them, recommends them, or found them helpful with specific questions.
  • Ways to connect with broad resources, both locally and online. One risk when someone’s getting started is that they find only a tiny subsection of what’s out there. Participating in broad community settings (a large and active online forum, a local community event that attracts people from many paths) helps avoid that.
  • Context – exactly how a specific practice or idea fits with other ideas (or doesn’t, as the case may be.) If there’s a ritual shared, what’s the background for this ritual? What do you need to know to get more out of it, or adapt it to your particular needs?

We need information to help us understand the risks and benefits. While outright persecution or discrimination is relatively rare for Pagans these days (and there are good support systems in place in many cases), it’s probably no surprise to anyone reading this that there are some risks and considerations. Learning more – gaining information – about what that looks like for other people helps us make better choices for ourselves.

Helpful information in this area might include:

  • How other people navigate talking about their religion with family, friends, and with work or casual acquaintances. Our circumstances are unique, but many types of situation have come up before, and knowing how these went can help us make more informed decisions in our own life.
  • Accurate and appropriate information about effects of various things – whether that’s herbs, specific practices, or anything else. Many things in Pagan practice have a lot of benefits, but some of them are not things to try for the first time the day before an important presentation at work – as they can have lingering effects. (and some can have serious health considerations.)
  • Experiences other people have had with specific practices, tools, or other things that impact not only what we do, but how we do it. Again, these help us decide for ourselves what we should explore in more depth – and how to plan for that experience.

We need information that helps us avoid reinventing the wheel. There are lots of different groups and individuals out there, many trying to do similar things. While we should continue to explore that amazing diversity and range of goals, there’s no reason to reinvent the wheel every time. A little research or a conversation about something can help us avoid common prior problems – and save us time and energy so we can go further with our goals.

There are lots of examples here, but a few that spring to mind:

  • Group dynamics – how to avoid the most common problems in group settings. Group drama can eat a tremendous amount of time, momentum, and energy, leading to nothing useful getting done. Knowing how to avoid the drama and deal with different preferences or opinions effectively can make a huge difference.
  • Ritual planning for a particular group size. For example, there are some things that have been found to work reliably and well in large groups, and some things that regularly fail. Knowing those in advance of ritual planning helps create better rituals!
  • Scale – what works for an individual is often different than what works in a group of 5-10 people, or what works in a group of 20, 50, or a few hundred.

We need information that directly impacts our choices. What we do. Who we do it with. How to figure out the where, how, when, and why that sing to our souls (barring things like legality issues, of course.) We need to learn to ask questions that help us figure these things out. Our answers may not be like anyone else’s specific answers – but we need to figure out the places we do overlap, and when cooperation, learning, or sharing resources are truly helpful

Related to that, we need to value choice.

There are many, many people out there. Many paths. Many practices. Many beliefs and philosophies and worldviews. There’s no way that any single person has the ability to do everything, know everything, or be part of everything that’s out there. On a purely practical level, we only get 24 hours in a day, and we have a number of things to do during those hours – sleep, work, taking care of our household chores – before we get into any optional activities.

One thing I’ve found critical in my own path is valuing discernment. Between a demanding job and coven commitments, and other things I want to do, I simply can’t be at every public Pagan event in the Twin Cities (there are lots and lots!), or welcome every person who expresses interest into my coven, or answer every question in an online forum that comes my way. I need to set some limits and make choices in order to honor and value my other commitments (to my profession, to my friends, to my own well-being).

Instead, I use information – about my own needs, about what’s out there, about what might be most helpful to others, about what it will take to improve skills I want to get better at – to make¬† informed choices about where and how I spend my time. When one of those things changes, I adjust. (For example, I’m about to go on summer break, which changes all my schedules from my school-year life. I can stay up later, do things during the day, work on a single project for hours at a time, and so on – but I also need to make sure I’ll be able to go back to work in August fully recharged for a demanding year!)

Some of that information is clear-cut: I’m already committed to be at something that Saturday, and can’t be in two places at once.¬† But some is less concrete. Whether I think a person is a potential fit for my coven, or for a role in a particular project can be somewhat nebulous. I personally use a combination of past experience, my knowledge of myself and the things I can work best with, a dollop of ‘what’s going to stretch me, my skills, or my interactions without being either overwhelming or miserable’, and my intuition – but it’s definitely an art, not a science.Knowing myself, though, is pretty critical.

Informed choice is also about balance.

And that means balance between work and home (or hobbies and home, if someone doesn’t work), religious life and practical needs (cooking, cleaning, kids, etc.), and recognising the choices we make and their consequences.

We can’t truly begin to balance these things (and many more) unless we know what they mean – how much time and energy they require to do well, how often we want to do them, what they mean for our interactions with family, friends, or the broader community. There are places in my life I’ve made different choices because my personal preference would affect friends in way I didn’t like – or change my relationships with tradition mates. I value those relationships, so I found new ways to handle that issue. However, the only way I *could* figure out that I needed to do that is by being informed about what was at stake – and what my options were.

I suspect I’m going to be coming back to balance a lot in the coming year: one of my obvious big challenges this next work year is to balance a demanding job (which requires a lot of specific skills and attention to detail) with a religious life that requires some of the same – but also the ability to turn that off, fall into the experience, and be open to very different possibilities. Yet, I also know that it’s that balance (and dynamic balance, in particular) that’s going to save me, and make doing more of what I want possible.

The question of gossip

One of the things I’ve been thinking about (due to some professional work talking about online harassment and disagreements) is the role of gossip and social commentary in the Pagan community.

I believe that there is healthy gossip and unhealthy gossip, but I want to talk about some examples.

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