Part three of my series on coven in the time of Covid-19. This was written in June 2020.
What activities might work?
More specifically, what are the risks of those activities that we can figure out? Our gatherings normally fall into two broad categories: classes and rituals, with some social interactions that are pretty similar to the risks and actions for classes.
Classes involve people sitting in the living room (overall, less than 6′ apart), reading, writing, and talking. People may raise their voices or project to clarify something, but it’s usually a lower conversational level.
We sometimes have practical exercises as part of the class, as well as practice with casting circle, or activities like divination.
People might bring food to share, they may have personal water bottles, or they may borrow a glass from my kitchen. (I have historically provided water and tea to anyone who wants it: if people want something else, they bring their own.)
People need enough space for note-taking, so there are usually TV trays for that.
Rituals involve more moving around and interactions. Our basic ritual geometry is a circle, with one main altar and four smaller altars (TV trays again, with items on them).
Most ritual actions are done at the main altar, but several involve walking around the circle, and three sets of actions involve doing something at each quarter altar (with people moving to open spaces in the circle as needed). Our preferred method of casting circle involves some singing, and some unison speaking as responses to various things.
What is needed for the actual ritual working depends on the working – this might be sitting on the floor, this might be doing a particular ritual step, this might be something else. Once that is done, we celebrate the Great Rite, and would normally share drinking from a chalice, a small bit of food (usually some kind of bread or baked good) and a hug or functional equivalent. We’d normally finish with a shared meal (potluck) and hanging around talking before switching to class mode.
Usually one person handles most of the tools. We use a candle for lighting other candles (usually passed person to person), but each person could have their own.
Social gatherings are roughly the same parameters as classes, but we might also normally be considering some crafting-centred time (like making candles, salves, or other items) that might involve working with shared materials fairly closely.
Other considerations include things like bathroom access, food and drink, the fact it’s hot out right now and I have the AC on, etc.
What does that mean now?
Shared space is hard in the current reality. It’s not just ‘can we keep 6’ between people? But it’s also about things like a shared bathroom space and I have only one bathroom. In current safety protocols, I would need to throughly clean it shortly before people came over, and also as soon as they left, as well as anything they touched or breathed on.
I have chronic health issues that mean my stamina is sometimes decidedly iffy. These days, I’m usually up for the basic cleaning involved in being a decent hostess, and for putting away the essentials after we’re done. (By ‘essentials’, read ‘stuff that mght spoil or that the cat might knock over later’.)
But probably 2/3 of the time I’m not up for “substantial cleaning to disinfection” on my living room, kitchen, and bathroom twice in the same day, a few hours apart. (Based on how often we finish class or ritual and I have to sit down and not do anything requiring much exertion of any kind for the rest of the afternoon after we’re done…)
Some of this could potentially be split up among the people visiting, with me doing a last pass once they leave of the stuff handled since cleaning, but that seems tricky too.
At the moment, no one else has suitable space to host, given the balance of other people they live with, limited space, etc.
Outdoor space is also tricky. I live in a first-tier suburb, so most backyards aren’t super spacious. In my case, I rent an apartment in a regular house (so my landlords are right there), and my bit of the backyard access is a small patio.
It also looks out over the bike path, so there’s consistent low-grade noise of people talking, biking, small children enjoying the outside, and our conversations could be heard easily by others. The town still has some restrictions on park use and gatherings, and the other public spaces don’t allow any privacy. (Aside from the other logistical issues like travel and restroom access.)
Being in the same room is tricky if we want to maintain 6 feet of distance (it’s probably barely possible for 4 people in my living room, but only barely.) That’s even without the cleaning issues above.
Ritual speech and singing are more likely to increase transmission factors We know that singing and projected speech significantly increase the number of aerosolised particles, that masks catch many of them not all of them.
Shared ritual tools are also a concern, though in most cases there are options for this (people only handling the specific part they are doing, having multiples for things like wands and tools to light candles, etc.)
Meeting for multiple hours. One final factor is the amount of time – we’d normally be getting together for 2-3 hours for class or ritual. (Not least because several people need to take some time to get here, so doing super short meetings isn’t practical.)
There are some particular situations that are similar to the above list (classes, rituals, social time) but have some special considerations.
Dedication: I have two prospective Seekers (people who might or might not choose to become students of the coven). We’ll be starting Seeker classes at the end of June, and decisions about Dedicancy will be around the end of August.
The dedication ritual is done in circle, with various elements (a simple oath agreement, presentation of a dedicant cord, and presentation of the new dedicant to the quarters and powers of the tradition.) Obviously, that becomes tricky if we are physically distancing.
My current plan for this involves doing the circle and oath by web call, and then (weather and pandemic permitting) meeting up with the dedicant in some suitable park, and doing a brief repeat of the oath and presentation (physically distanced except for me handing them the cord for 2 seconds…) Less than ideal, but allows for some face to face contact.
Dedicant classes: A trickier consideration, since many of our early classes involve both practicing things where small visual and audio cues can be important for how someone is doing with them (both of which are severely limited by a web camera).
Part of training is also about the Dedicant becoming familiar with the energies of the group and tradition – which includes things like what our particular flavour of circle casting feels like.
For the moment, I plan to proceed with covering what we can, while recognising that we may need to take things a lot more slowly (or alternately, do some parts more quickly, so they can start to learn the energies on their own). At a future point when we can work in person again, even with some limitations, we’d then spend a couple of months working in circle regularly before considering initiation.
Initiations for my current students are normally a thing we’d start talking about in early August (when they finish the required classes). Right now, I’m fairly sure of the decisions and preferences of two of the three.
I’ve talked to my doctor about what the actual risks are (given what I can share of what’s in our initiation…) and our ritual actually is one where there are parts that involve close contact, but not for very long at a time. Masks might be an option for much but not all of it (as well as good air circulation, running both air filters in the ritual space, etc.)
So the question becomes “What stage do we need to be at for me to be willing to do that.” and “What stage do we need to be at for them to be willing to do that”. Both of these are discussions in progress, not least because it’s still some time before we’d do one anyway, and because the science and local guidelines about gatherings, etc. are all works in progress.
My personal baseline currently looks roughly like this:
- Our local health guidance on fairly conservative settings (i.e. the guidance for people with more concerns about serious risk) allows for small gatherings inside your home with people outside your household (not a shared bubble situation). We’re nowhere near that yet.
- Cases have been trending downward in our geographic area, and it has been at least a month since a new phase in the state (to allow time to see if cases rise with reduced restrictions.)
- Both of us take as many precautions as we can for 2 weeks before the initiation. (That means going to work probably needs to happen, but reduce other transmission risks as much as possible – avoid other social situations, be extra careful about masks and handwashing, do things like temperature checks daily to improve catching symptoms early, etc.)
- Regular conversation during those two weeks about exposure, relative risks of that exposure, and either party being able to postpone if they’re not comfortable with the risk, or if the local situation changes.
What does pausing mean?
One of the challenges of this particular situation is that normally, we aim for something of a natural flow from someone being interested in the group (or tradition) to becoming a Seeker (exploring), Dedicating (being a student for a year and a day), and considering initiation (which needs to be a mutual decision by both the group and initiators and the prospective initiate.)
I’m also clear that what I want long-term is a coven of initiates who are committed to doing the things we do together. I’m being more flexible right now about a timeline for those decisions because the pandemic has meant a lot of changes and disruption for everyone’s schedules, energy levels, focus, etc. (including mine), but long-term, I’m not up for something like an ongoing inner court/outer court structure.
Historically, people have been able to decide that the tradition is not for them at any given time with some requests around how they let us know. A Dedicant is asked to formally part from the group if at all possible (by returning one last time, returning their cord, being released from their commitment to the group, and the commitments the group has made to them), rather than just not show up and drop off the map, for example. But if someone doesn’t want to return, for whatever reason, or can’t, then there are solutions for that too.
Putting a pause on that flow does have some implications. What do we do during the pause? What changes for them? What changes for me (and the other initiate in the group?)
Do we move on to the post Dedicant discussions and work we’d normally be considering? Probably yes. At least most of it.
Do I release someone from the commitments they’ve made not to do certain ritual and magical acts without checking in first? Maybe.
Technically, I am still responsible for fixing things if they are still formally a Dedicant. It’s not that I wouldn’t help an initiate who found themselves needing help (of course I would), but the obligations are a bit different, in terms of how urgently I need to sort out a solution.
Do they start taking part in a rotation of planning rituals and other activities with the group, as I would encourage if they were initiated? Probably, yes, since this isn’t a thing particularly limited to initiates anyway.
What should we talk about, in terms of how their personal practice may or may not change, given that they have not had that new anchoring to the tradition of initiation, but have done a lot of personal work? Probably, that’s a list of things I’m still thinking about the specifics.
Is there a time limit for people to make a decision about initiating or leaving the group? Not any time soon, but yes, with some pieces that will depend on individual circumstances. At a very rough ballpark, without other factors, I’m thinking that’s “three months after we’re meeting in person again regularly.”
What does this mean for taking on new potential Dedicants? What happens if restrictions continue long enough to need to postpone their initiations? (Again, remember I personally need to be way over on the more conservative end in terms of risk.)
My baseline here is a bit simpler: I’m unwilling to initiate someone until they’ve had several months of working with the group in person, even if that does mean a longer postponement. (I’ll be super clear about this, both in conversation and writing, as that’s relevant.)
See the other articles in this series.
Posted June 23, 2020, reformatted November 2020.