Hi readers! This popular tag has been floating around YouTube and Instagram for a few weeks now, and I wanted to leave you all with something before I run off to Free Spirit Gathering. Enjoy!
It’s been a long time since I’ve been a beginner, but being active on the Pagan and witch Internet means that I’m constantly in contact with newcomers. I see their questions (and sometimes have them directed at me), I check out the books they’re reading, and I watch what’s changing since I first got started in the nineties (a lot, for sure).
Recently, I was telling Mat Auryn that I wish those of us who have been around for a while would recommend different books. After all, the community has changed, people’s values and interests have shifted, and there are generational differences that we should respect. We know more about the history of Wicca and witchcraft, we have different ideas about what it means to be Pagan, and we have myriad more paths and traditions available for newcomers.
So why are Scott Cunningham, Ray Buckland, and other oldies still at the top of most of the reading lists floating around?
I spent the last weekend of August in beautiful New Hampshire (after several hours at less beautiful Boston Logan International Airport) attending Templefest, the Temple of Witchcraft’s annual event. It was my first event with the Temple, and I had a blast. I got to know online friends, met lots of new friends, talked writing with Christopher Penczak over morning coffee, and shared a bottle of wine with a roomful of Patheos bloggers. The weekend left me with a lot to think about, including the impact of the Pagan Internet, exploring multiple traditions at once, and rekindling a personal practice.
Corvus looked up from scrolling. Ever the attentive friend, she’s been closely monitoring my new book’s progress on Amazon. As it’s gotten closer to the release date, she’s become very familiar with the top 100 charts in “Wicca” and “Witchcraft” on the site.
“No, seriously,” she said. “I’m looking at the bestsellers in Wicca, and I don’t know any of these authors. Have you read Lisa Lister?”
“No, but I know what book you’re talking about. It’s all over Instagram right now.”
“How about Shawn Robbins? She’s got two books in the top ten right now, and all her bio says is that she’s a psychic, paranormal researcher. Dude, Lisa Chamberlain has, like, a dozen tiny books. And she writes about Heathenism and runes too?”
We spend several minutes like this, with Corvus asking me if I’ve heard of so-and-so and me going, “Nope.”
Maybe we’re just old. This is usually how I feel when my tenth graders make me classroom playlists and all I hear is autotune and synths. I still think of myself as young and cool, but since becoming a teacher I know that this is, in fact, untrue. We’re closer to forty than thirty, and our favorite books about Wicca and witchcraft came out mostly in the seventies and eighties. Hey, it was bound to happen.
But there’s something else going on here, and I don’t think it’s just us and our inexorable senescence.
A couple of weeks ago I posted this video, in which I talked a little about the New Year and setting intentions (which sounds so much more authentic and spiritual than saying “resolutions,” am I right?). My original list of goals included things like, “Write a proposal for a second book,” and “Actually write four blogs a month.”
But let’s be real. I don’t actually need any ritual prompting to write books, because my anxiety keeps me on track pretty well throughout the year. And it’s this anxiety about other projects that keeps me from doing as much blogging as I’d like. Plus maybe I don’t actually want to write more. This is sort of working for me right now, especially as I settle into my new adulting routine (I’m salaried for the first time in my life and spent yesterday morning downtown being fingerprinted, filling out tax forms, and peeing in a cup for a guy named Sunny).
Two years ago, in an effort to piece together the tattered shreds of my self-esteem after graduate school (etc.), I resolved to wear adorable (read: slutty) matching underwear every day. I asked for gift cards to lingerie stores for Yule and Christmas, went to Victoria Secret for the first time (where a very enthusiastic, startlingly blonde woman named Donna came at me with a pink tape measure), and spent that year mostly feeling like a boss. It was one of my better ideas. So mission accomplished. This year, I wanted to do something similar. Something more fun than serious. Something that wasn’t about being better at something I already work to be better at.
Once upon a time I used to be a musician. Like, seriously. It feels a little like a hallucination now, but I actually went to music school and studied jazz. I played in rock bands, recorded, played with a jazz combo, and meticulously documented multiple hours of daily practice in journals that I can barely understand anymore. I was never brilliant–prodigy-level music people are genuinely terrifying up close and I still sing through my nose and can’t improvise my way out of a paper bag–but I was dedicated. I only cared about playing music.
I stopped playing with any level of seriousness about six years ago, for mostly cliche reasons that I won’t repeat here.
It’s weird thinking about something that used to be so important to me. Now I don’t really feel anything one way or another.
So anyway. This year, I want to see if I can still play. Nothing overly serious. I want to ease into it. I’m committing to writing a new song every month, and learning a new cover. As incentive (few things are better motivators than shame, I’ve found), I’m requiring myself to post both to the Internet.
So, behold, Internet. I give you the January original:
I’m still deciding on the month’s cover.
So I finally responded to a post in the Esfinges Facebook group, which is an online space for female HEMA people. A young woman wrote in describing her own post-practice frustrations and asked for input on how to deal with, basically, feeling like you suck too hard to be handling a sword.
I fancy myself something of an expert at sucking (see tales from my days as a 7th grade soccer star here), so I finally felt like I could contribute something useful to the group:
I think it’s important to understand that failure is, in and of itself, an experience that demands the cultivation of grace and compassion. It’s relatively easy to be enthusiastic and kind and supportive of others (and ourselves) when we’re winning, or when we know we’re good at something. People are less adept at handling struggle and frustration. I’ve met people at tournaments who seemed awesome…until they lost. Then it would be like hanging out with another person. Those types of folks are usually not worth building relationships with, and I find they don’t have a lot of longevity in their respective fields.
Learning to deal with frustration is part of become adept at something. I’ll second the suggestion to journal. I’d also challenge you to do more things that force you to deal with those feelings. Failing means we’re trying, and pushing beyond what we know we’re already good at. In my own practice, I work to remind myself of where I’ve succeeded. And also of where I’ve failed even harder than what I’m experiencing in the moment. I say things like, “Okay, I sucked today. But you know what? I was here and I did it, and things are better than they were last year. And I’m certainly better for having tried than if I’d just stayed home.”
Do that, and in time, I really do believe that success follows. It’s just that we don’t talk much about all of the failure that mastery requires.
Having finished exuding the wisdom that can only result from decades spent failing, loudly and in public (and being, as far as I can tell, a good decade older than many of the more vocal group members), I was suddenly struck by something. Something that’s been nagging at me since I started competing in fencing tournaments that I haven’t been able to pinpoint until now:
HEMA people don’t seem to collectively know how to lose.
It’s like there’s a stigma against trying something and sucking at it. And maybe it’s in my head, but I feel like I’m running into it extra hard with the women I’m meeting.
I get excited to see other women at tournaments and I bop on over and introduce myself, and I frequently get something like, “Oh I’m not competing today! I’m just not ready yet!” Or, “I’m still a beginner—I’m just here to watch!” More than once I’ve had other women tell me I’m brave for competing, like I’ve just signed up to donate a lobe of liver or something. I also hear a lot of, “Oh, I’m not a good fencer, you should really talk to someone else!”
We learn this kind of self-deprecating speech over the course of our lives. I learned to say things like this before getting on stage and playing guitar (girls don’t play rock music any more than they handle weapons, as far as the world seems to be concerned). I catch myself saying shit like this about fencing, too. So I get it. Jesus, I get it.
But fundamentally what’s happened is these women haven’t given themselves permission to fight. Some of them might get online later and find an excuse. We do a lot of complaining about larger opponents, poorly-fitting protective gear (because no one in Poland has ever seen a naked woman, as far as I can tell), instructors who can’t empathize they way we wish they could (though I’m lucky to have one who works at this), and similar. And those are real issues, certainly. Yeah, shit can be a lot harder as a girl. I 110% agree. And that’s a battle that we need to be fighting.
But I’m also okay with losing. And I think that’s a big part of the underlying issue, in the art as a whole. Losing is hard, and it’s a lot easier to just not try. It’s much easier to drink and be angry and complain on the Internet about how unfair things are. It’s much easier to come up with reasons why you shouldn’t be expected to do things.
Quitting is easy. Never trying to begin with is even easier.
I’m okay with walking into a ring, understanding that I could be slaughtered. I might make particular choices about who I spar just for the sake of preventing unnecessary injury, but I’m not going to “wait until I’m better” the way I feel like I’m being told to. I know that I might never feel ready. And I spent enough time wrangling with depression to know that I can’t always trust my own perception of myself or my abilities. I have to do things despite how I feel.
It’s not just us ladies, of course.
At one point, I heard someone in my own fencing circle rumbling about the need for a “fight team” of elite students, so that we could make a better impression as a school. Students should earn the right to compete in outside tournaments.
Like if one of us displays weakness, the wolves will close in.
Let’s be real: If people had to wait to compete until they felt like they were assured victory, most of us would never leave our homes. It’s this line of thinking that says you shouldn’t try anything unless you know you’ll already be good at it. That might fly in a Mountain Dew commercial, but real life isn’t like that. In fact, I think that kind of attitude is cowardly. Shit, if I waited until I thought I was ready for things, I’d still be hiding in my bedroom, living with my parents, maybe even married to someone I hate. I definitely wouldn’t have gone to grad school. I wouldn’t have nabbed that book deal. I wouldn’t have ever published anything. I wouldn’t have ever gotten on stage to perform. I wouldn’t have the friends I do now. I sure as fuck would never have become a priestess running a coven.
Maybe some of this is pressure to be acknowledged as a “real” sport. Maybe it’s a nerd thing. Half of us have spent our lives playing D&D and being bullied for wanting to go the Renaissance faire instead of trying out for football. It feels good to be validated somewhere, finally.
I don’t know. But I think when I get frustrated by peoples’ bad attitudes at tournaments, this is part of what’s behind it. I don’t recall running into these things when I was doing Taekwondo, though maybe it’s because I just wasn’t paying attention (there were also plenty more women, so I think we’d collectively hammered some things out already and weren’t dealing with the same level of frustration).
So I’ll say it again: Part of being good at something is being good at failing. Winning is actually a lot less impressive, in my mind. Someone has to win, after all. But good losers are too few and far between.
I’ve dealt with too much bullshit in my life to be overly worried about whether or not strangers at a tournament think I should be there or not. I care what my instructor thinks, I care about my own safety (well…), and I care about whether or not I’m coming out better at the other end of things. But I’m really over the deprecating talk of being “worthy” of handling a sword. I’m going to do the thing regardless of whether or not anyone thinks I’m worthy. Because I like trying.
It’s been a rough morning. By now, most of you probably know that Charlotte was in the news this morning. Driving to work, the streets were littered with broken glass and other trash. Cop cars and news vans were still perched at intersections. The kids are rattled—scared and angry. This isn’t some distant horror; it’s my neighborhood. Our kids are involved. Our schools are involved. Schools are where these things coalesce, after all. And kids are so much more aware than anyone gives them credit for.
It’s going to be a tough week.
Other things are okay. It’s been easy to keep myself busy. I work full time, and have class in the evening.
I’ve been dedicating a lot of time to longsword these past couple of months. At Free Spirit, something sort of popped in my brain. After some significant conversations and a heavy ritual experience, I made an oath to Freyja—that wasn’t related to HEMA—and I think this has just been the natural consequence. I don’t know why I was surprised. Aside from just generally improving my fencing, I’m also building a really spectacular set of new relationships. I mean, I’ve known these guys for almost a year, but now we’re actually friends. It’s been really valuable to step outside of my usual social spaces (which are Pagan spaces) and work on other parts of my life. “You live in witchcraft,” my working partner tells me. And he’s right. It becomes invisible after a while, because it’s just my life. I don’t notice it until I step outside and explore something different.
It helps me to keep things in perspective, and it creates more interesting opportunities to push my thinking.
So my fencing friends and I are about to start a Dungeons & Dragon campaign, with our instructor acting as DM (naturally). It’s been fun setting aside my blogging and book writing and lesson planning and athletic training to take pleasure in fantasy. Earlier, I’d been flirting with the prospect of writing fiction (I rarely even read fiction), and this is feeding that impulse. I’m flexing a different part of my brain. And, of course, there’s the added fun of painting new character minis. I always forget how much I enjoy that, going through bursts every year or two. It’s been a great way to get to know my new friends, too. There are lots of things I could say about the awesomeness of D&D, but another time.
Foxfire is still kicking ass and taking names. We initiated one of our outer court people last weekend, which was a really moving experience for everyone. I haven’t posted to Patheos all month, and I’m sitting on all of these half-formed pieces that I just haven’t been ready to finish. One of them is about the significance of the initiation experience—something Jason Mankey and other Patheos bloggers touched on recently—and its function in traditional Wicca. Always a controversial topic, I realize. It’s hard to appreciate the kind of ritual we do if you haven’t lived through something similar yourself, so I understand why people think it’s all about inclusion and exclusion. Obviously, exclusion is a thing that happens (and obviously people can be assholes about it), but that’s not central to what’s going on. I’m not just doing this to draw lines in the sand and make people feel bad. If that’s all I wanted, I could just be a jerk on the Internet. Staging a meaningful initiation is way harder than that. The experience that we created was facilitated carefully over time, for one specific person, focused on plugging her into something bigger than herself. You can’t replicate that just by having the text I used on paper. It really doesn’t matter whether or not anyone thinks “it’s all on the Internet anyway” or whatever. That’s like saying you can read the transcript of a graduation speech and have the experience of making it through high school. You can’t replicate initiation by reading a book. You don’t “evolve” past that kind of experience because you want to be inclusive. I can respect the choices that other people make in their own traditions and their own individual practices, but it blows my mind that people write off what I do as obsolete or purely about elitism. Do you need to go through a group initiation experience to be a witch? Of course not. But this is how we do it, and we do it that way for internal reasons. Not because it has any bearing on how or why other people practice their own kinds of Craft.
I’m rambling at you now, just tired.
I’m off to a sword event this weekend, with two more this season. I’ve also got the Army Ten Miler coming up in a few weeks, with two half Marathons to follow in November and December. This has turned out to be the year of distance running. Maybe I’ll shoot for a full Marathon in the next year or two. We’ll see.