Alabama and Reflections on Alex Mar’s Witches of America

alex marI’m in Alabama for Thanksgiving, hanging out with my parents, running, writing, and sleeping more than I usually do. Oliver always makes the drive with me, and it’s funny watching him interact with my mother’s three cats, who are comparatively huge and fancy (long-haired, Persian, flat-faced, totally uncivilized despite whatever she says about them). Oliver stalks around the house looking surly, hissing a lot, and staying close to me. The other cats do little more than watch him attentively, but he hates it. And, naturally, I have to take his side.

Thanksgiving break and then winter break are much-needed, and I appreciate them more now that I’ve finally admitted to just not liking fall. I can catch up on reading (in between grading student papers), do some blogging, and refocus on my own physical well-being (eating regularly, getting a lot of exercise, sleeping). I even set up a target in my parents’ backyard so I can shoot.

I’m finishing up Alex Mar’s Witches in America, which I’d been dying to read since seeing all of the horrendous, scathing, angry reviews floating around the Pagan Internet.  It’s been sitting on my table for weeks, and I finally got to read it yesterday, finishing up this morning.

There’s a lot in here that I recognize. Mar and I have similar educational and economic backgrounds (near as I can tell) and are close in age, so many of her questions and impulses look familiar to me. I understand how she feels when she doesn’t quite connect to the language prevalent amongst the Dianics she visits (it’s not her feminism, not her experience of womanhood). I understand that she feels self-conscious, surrounded by the kind of ecstatic religiosity at a large Pagan gathering, and later amongst the smaller groups she pursues. I understand wanting to suspend disbelief in search of a feeling that everyone else seems to have already achieved, feeling like you’re missing something. I understand the difficulty she has negotiating conversations about socioeconomic class, and the sometimes careless assumptions she makes about the people she’s studying.  And I understand the disappointment of having to go, “Nope. This isn’t what I thought it was or what I hoped it would be.”

So I’m empathetic, even if my experiences were different.

I can’t really comment on her relationships with her individual subjects or what oaths she may or may not have broken. I think it’s worth noting that (as far as I know) the people she describes by name have remained silent on the matter. Only they can say what boundaries were violated, if any. I’m not privy to the promises she made, and I don’t feel like that’s any of my business. I also think that when oathbound material is shared and vows are broken, it’s usually best dealt with by shutting up and not drawing attention, which only serves to let everyone else know the material is really oathbound.

When I first read Tanya Luhrmann’s Persuasions of the Witches’ Craft, I had similar reactions. I found myself thinking, “Jeez, I would never have been comfortable letting a scholar into my circle like this.” But that’s their business. It’s not up to me to tell them what’s secret and what isn’t, because every group is different. If I disagree, they only way I can protect material is to keep my own mouth shut and use their experience as a cautionary tale. As for open rituals, I think having writers present is a risk that everyone takes. These are public, after all. How many church services have I written about myself? How many open rituals? Even when you go through IRB clearance (as I did), individual consent from a large body of attendees is often not required, especially if the event is open to the public (like most Pagan festivals). Whether or not that’s personally ethical varies by individual, and the outsider’s position (whether she’s a scholar, a journalist, or a blogger) is usually different from the insider’s.

Friends and colleagues have commented that they found the work to be dismissive of certain kinds of Paganism (especially eclectic Wicca) and also somewhat body-shaming. I didn’t get that impression, myself. If anything, I thought most of her descriptions were a little cliché (“pendulous” breasts abound). When she avoided eclectic Wiccans, I understood it to be because she was personally on a quest for something organized, lineaged, and appealing to her desire for intimacy. Her avoidance made sense to me, and didn’t strike me as dismissive.

As an ethnographer, I can also empathize with the fact that subjects almost never feel perfectly represented. They often feel you’ve missed the point. They often feel slighted. Usually—for religious groups—this is rooted in the ethnographer never totally giving up her outsider position. The Christians I worked with knew that I couldn’t possibly have gotten them, because if I had, I would have been saved.

At best, I’d say this is an interesting memoir from someone who thirty-something spiritual seekers may recognize. At worst, it’s just kind of rehashed and self-indulgent—pretty standard fare in popular journalism. I think the mistake some people made was assuming that this book was designed to be representative or descriptive, but this is obviously not the case. It’s very clearly a memoir. I can’t imagine how someone could pick this up after reading the dust jacket and opening chapter and think this book would tell them how to be a witch, what Paganism looks like in the United States, or what really goes on in a witch coven. This is one more volume in the growing library of “seeker” memoirs—popular for the last several years—akin to Kevin Roose’s The Unlikely Disciple or Lauren Sandler’s Righteous: Dispatches from the Evangelical Youth Movement. Fascinating for the mildly curious, but clearly not intended to be objectively scholarly.

As usual, I think our reactions say more about us than about the work itself. Maybe she really gets it wrong. Maybe looking in the mirror is uncomfortable for us Pagans. Maybe she broke her oaths. Maybe we’re offended that she didn’t feel what we feel. Maybe we wish she’d worked with different people. Maybe we just wish she’d picked a better title.

I think it’s worth reading, though, and considering the problem for yourself.

Life Update: Patheos, Fall Plans, and Rambling

IMG_6524I miss you, thornthewitch.com.   How have you been? I promised myself that I would keep updating, even once I began writing for Patheos, and I’m afraid I’m failing you.

Writing for Patheos is awesome. It’s a blast having a bigger readership and getting to interact with more people, from different paths and practices. I genuinely love disagreement, being challenged, and forced to reconsider my perspectives, and Patheos has provided that, absolutely. At Free Spirit Gathering, points from my article about hugging and consent were raised, and I was approached by several attendees, thanking me for representing their interests. This was the first year that no one forcibly grabbed me (and I’m not talking polite hugs). Even Corvus made it through without any unwanted touching, which was truly astounding, and I felt largely responsible. It was more gratifying than I can say, feeling like the things I write can actually have some impact.

The biggest downside is that I really can’t swear as much (which is really challenging for me) and I feel like each post has to have some kind of moral. Sometimes I just like to ramble. That’s where you come in, thornthewitch.com.

There’s been a lot going on, and this fall promises to be the most hectic I’ve ever had.

I’m working at the elementary school, teaching a class at the university, going to school part-time, and traveling. At the end of August, I’m off to East Coast Thing (Wait, what? A Wiccan at an Asatru event? REASONS.). In October, I’ll be attending my first Gardnerian gather, which was unplanned, but I’m super excited about it. The following weekend, I’m officiating a wedding (which will require its own preparation during earlier months). In November, I’m presenting a paper at the AAR annual meeting, which is always exciting and nerve-wracking. There’s always the potential for shame (although my good humor usually protects me), but I try to think of it as a learning experience, an opportunity for conversation, and a chance to spend some time with people that I look up to. Meanwhile, there’s my tarot course, tarot reading and study generally, writing for assorted platforms, and running both an inner court and an outer court. I’ll also be trying to save money for PantheaCon, which I’m determined to attend this year (and will be searching for a room and/or roommate, so let me know if you’ll be there).

I’m not complaining, though. I’m happiest when I’m really busy, even when it’s exhausting. It’s good for my mental health. I’m much more pleasant to be around when I feel like I’m fulfilling a purpose and accomplishing something. That American Protestant work ethic is fucking ingrained, and I’m okay with it.

I’ve made a couple of YouTube videos this week, too. One on feeling like I’m living a double life (sort of a video companion to my most recent Patheos post) and another on starting a coven.

So all kinds of excitement! Stay tuned.

Wicca is not Nice

There’s a lot to be said (later, when I’m not running late for work) about the pathway by which Wicca became a religion characterized by “tolerance” and “open-mindedness” and “doing no harm.”

But, while some of these and related virtues may deserve cultivation, they are far from central (and may be absent entirely).

Drawing Lines: Musings on Categories, Labels, and Representation

IMG_6554Drawing Lines: Musings on Categories, Labels, and Representation.

Is there a Pagan uniform? With so much interest in organized representation, how do we decide who to exclude?


 

Okay, please bear with me while I try to figure out how to effectively share Patheos posts in an aesthetically pleasing way.  I really will refrain from double-posting, as promised, but the option to follow my postings on Oathbound isn’t quite up and running yet (it’s dependent on having a minimum number of posts, apparently).  Until then (later this week), here’s my most recent blog for those of you who may have missed it.  If you like it, please share it with people who may also like it!  My schedule there entails posting about twice a week, so updates will be frequent!  There’s also a lively comments section for those of you who enjoy sharing your input!

Life After Teen Witch: An Introduction

photo-4I’m going to avoid double-posting blog posts for the sake of preventing monotony, but I did want to let everyone know that I just posted my first blog over at Patheos.  Go read it and share it on your assorted social media platforms and I’ll love you even more than I already do:

Go here!

You can also give me a follow over there (and like me on Facebook) so you don’t miss the excitement.  Hooray!

Blogging at Patheos!

photo-4In just about a week I’ll be writing on Oathbound: Witchcraft and Magic from the Gut, my brand new blog over at Patheos. I’m super excited, because I’ll be sharing space with established authors whom I’ve followed for a long time (Jason Mankey, Lupa, Aidan Kelly, Peg Aloi, and Lilith Dorsey, among others).  So hooray!  It’s a big deal for me because I’ll have the opportunity to write for a larger audience and get more critical feedback on both my writing and my general line of thinking. It’ll also give me an excuse to finally attend Pantheacon, which I’m mad stoked about.

I’ll be writing about a lot of the same topics: traditional Wicca and witchcraft, Paganism in the academic world, generally humorous stories about being Pagan in the wild, and tales from my own work operating a coven and trying not ruin the tradition with which I’ve been entrusted.

The new blog is still under construction, but look for a link in about a week. I’ll continue to post at Thorn the Witch, but it’ll take some time to figure out exactly what the divide is going to look like. I expect that things may get a bit more personal and swear-y over here (because saying fuck a lot and trying to revive the word “cowan” isn’t going to go over well on Patheos, probably), but hopefully not less frequent.

In the meantime, please check out and like my brand new Facebook page! You’d be doing me a big favor (and tricking Patheos Pagan into thinking I’m really popular and cutting edge so no one regrets letting me do this).

(And isn’t my blog banner badass?  It was made by Lore over at Ecstatick Magick, who is a fucking wizard.)

Everyone is Sort of Terrible: On Taking Breaks from Community Participation

Sometimes I really just don’t want to be around other Pagans. Part of it is my introverted personality. Part of it is the stress that just naturally comes along with running a group. And part of it is genuine irritation at the pettiness of other people, bringing out my own pettiness.

There are times when withdrawal from a wider community is necessary. I think it’s easy to blindly get caught up in patterns—that’s the nature of any social group. We’re people; it’s what we do. There’s always some kind of (sometimes subtle) hierarchy, some kind of covert measure for determining authenticity (oh, he’s not really one of us), speech patterns, memes, outfits…it starts to feel gross after a while. I stop feeling like I’m progressing. I get caught up in the dramas of other people and lose sight of my own objectives.

It’s not personal. I mean, sure, the Pagan Community™ has its share of brokenness, but I’m not convinced it’s really more prevalent than what goes on in other spaces. Everyone is sort of terrible sometimes, whatever freak flag they’re flying. Abandoning one group for another doesn’t usually solve much because fundamentally people follow the same sorts of behavioral patterns just by virtue of being people. Withdrawing entirely can be equally problematic because isolation doesn’t usually help anyone in the long-term. It’s worse if you’re prone to depression.

For me, it comes in waves. I get excited about participating in a wider community right around summer and sustain those feelings through fall (LET’S GO TO ALL THE FESTIVALS). Winter and spring, I don’t want anything to do with anyone (EVERYONE IS SO DUMB OMG). It’s normal, I think, to want to take breaks.  And it’s especially important to be aware of your own waves to keep from being caught off guard by shifting moods.

I start feeling drained and the depression gets worse. I don’t have as much energy for new connections or casual acquaintances. I get irritable and start speaking in sweeping generalizations. I roll my eyes a lot more. It’s unpleasant for everyone involved.

To remedy this I try to do a lot more art. I paint, I play music, and I journal a ton. It helps me to center and recharge. I run a lot more, and further. I usually cut down on my time spent online. I also like to plan trips, either to go backpacking in some backcountry somewhere or to visit close Craft family. Sitting around with my upline shooting the shit over cocktails is basically my idea of heaven. I can start feeling like I’m part of something worthwhile again. All of this leaves me with more energy for my coven—that tiny portion of the community that I’m directly responsible for.