Sucking at Fencing, Sucking in General

15355773_1797489653858417_308325602769976054_nSo 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.

Come on.

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.

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I’m Writing a Fucking Book and Drinking Lots of Coffee

group-shotYesterday was my last day of student teaching, and I’m sitting at a Starbucks drinking liquefied sugar and gleefully clacking away on my laptop for the first time in months. God I missed this. Working really gets in the way of working you know?

I actually feel like blogging.

Good thing, too, because I’m writing a fucking book.

No, seriously. For real this time. The Llewellyn contract is signed, the deadline is set, and pretty soon I’ll have to provide a headshot that doesn’t make me look like I escaped from the woods and got lost at Sephora on my way to a spinster schoolteacher convention.

I got tired of whining about how I don’t know what books to recommend to seekers of traditional Wicca and decided to write my own. This is the kind of project that gets me really excited but comes with a certain level of dread, too. I’m purporting to represent a movement here, and, as a relatively conservative Gardnerian priestess (and a young one, at that) I’m clearly not the most representative voice in the world. To remedy this, I’m trying to include perspectives, anecdotes, and advice from others, in other traditions (as well as my own, of course). I’m working down my list of badass trad Wiccans to contact and beg for input, and I can only hope to be as inclusive as possible. I know I can’t write something perfect, but I at least want to write something that another coven leader in a different tradition can feel comfortable handing to an inquisitive seeker and going, “Here, this is pretty close to what we do and has some things in it that could help you.”

I’m not policing the term “traditional” either. I’m discussing it in terms of the role of initiation, lineage, hierarchy, and the coven, but I’m not out to tell people who is and isn’t legit. Ya’ll can figure that out on your own. So if you’ve got a story to share (I’m especially looking for people to represent some of the less-discussed BTW groups here in the States), please drop me a line. I don’t have the final say about what gets included (and there’s no money in it), but I’ll take all the help I can get to make this thing representative and solid. Seekers, that goes for you, too. Drop me a line. Some of you will hear from me personally at some point, asking for input. I’m envisioning inserts scattered throughout the text body, with advice, anecdotes, and other tidbits from people who aren’t me.

In other writing news, I’m working on another project that I hope will end up being a column for Witches&Pagans Magazine. I’m co-writing with one of the buttheads over at Gardnerians, so I know good things will result one way or another. I’ve been reading Witches&Pagans (back when it was NewWitch) since issues 1 (actually—fun Thorn factoid—I have a letter to the editor in an early issue in which I make myself look like an adolescent jackass), so I’m majorly pumped that they’re even considering my writing.

The great irony is that all of this writing about witchcraft leaves much less time to actually practice witchcraft. Foxfire has been extraordinarily patient with me, and for that I’m grateful. Winter months are just kind of a mess, anyway. Family events, holidays, traveling, work, and weather get in the way of the day-to-day business of coven things, especially when you’re in different towns. It takes an enormous amount of effort from everyone to be in the same space at the same time (both physically and emotionally). The upside is that we all seem to be busy with personal Craft stuff, and everyone seems to be growing despite my neglect.

My social time is limited, but most of it belongs to my HEMA club. I didn’t realize how much I missed belonging to a martial arts school. Taekwondo was this huge thing in my life back in college, and it was devastating to close that door, after moving away, realizing my instructors were assholes, and subsequently being disillusioned by the entire tradition. That was a really rough time in my life, and it tarnished a lot of the things that were really great about the art itself. I told myself I’d never be a part of a system like that again. Money-grubbing “masters” and a bullshit belt ranking system and raging misogyny from ninja dudebros (as well as other women) at every fucking turn. I’m still proud of what I accomplished in Taekwondo, but I’m no longer sorry I quit.

My sword club fills this deep-seated emotional need that I sort of forgot I had. Or was pretending I didn’t have. Or something. It’s a lot bigger than fencing.

And on that note, more coffee.

Hello September

wilIt’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.

Is Tarot Necessarily Spiritual?

Photo on 8-3-16 at 1.35 PMOkay. First, I need to put on my religious studies scholar hat.

There.

“Spirituality” is not objectively a thing that we can locate and measure.

It’s constructed, both culturally and by individuals. Over time, we ascribe meaning to objects and practices, and eventually those things take on greater symbolism. They become spiritual. For some people.

As a community, we tend to talk about certain things as though they’re inherently spiritual. Meditation, crystals, drinking tea, tarot cards…you can probably make your own list based on the various “spiritual” hashtags from Instagram or Tumblr.

Like the more we meditate, the more spiritual we inherently are. Or the more tea we drink, the more enlightened we become.

But here’s the thing: those things are tools. They’re not in and of themselves spiritual. Thanks to some selective history and, frankly, marketing, we associate them with “spiritual” people. We forget that “religion” and “spirituality” (again, even the perceived difference between those terms says more about our cultural locations than it does about objective things called “religion” or “spirituality”) have looked different across millennia—continue to look different wherever we are in the world. Just doing and having particular things doesn’t automatically make us more anything.

I have at least a dozen Bibles in my house right now. In my hands, they’re just books. For Christians, they may be symbols of something else, but my owning and handling them has zero impact on anything in my life. The power isn’t literally in the book, or I’d surely be glowing by now.

Drinking tea might relax you and make you feel super witchy and receptive to the voices of the gods, and that’s fantastic and valid. But it’s not inherently in the tea. The thousands of other people drinking that tea from the same manufacturer aren’t having the same experiences you are. Your experience has more to do with you.

Someone else (hint: it’s me) is a lot happier with coffee or vodka.

And that’s cool.

Something becomes spiritual when you assign spiritual value to it. If it’s meaningless to you, it will continue to be meaningless no matter how much of it you drink, buy, or practice.

Tarot cards are not inherently spiritual. They became spiritual in time, thanks to the efforts of particular people. They used to just be a weird card game for rich Italians.  If they are spiritual to you, then that says more about you than the cards themselves. And you’re probably awesome, so that’s great news.

Cool.

Okay, taking my religious studies hat off.

Tarot is a part of my spiritual practice, but not really because it’s a divination tool. I see my tarot reading as an acquired skill, developed with long hours of practice over the course of years. Part history, part religious studies, part literary studies, part storytelling, tarot makes sense to me the way interpreting any kind of text makes sense to me. We take a set of symbols and we build meaning, based on our cultural backgrounds, our personal experiences, and our impulses (which are often just sublimated pieces of our experiences, not external messages from nowhere). If the gods are involved, it’s because, on some level, I’ve involved them.

Instead, tarot is spiritual for me because it’s given me this huge body of symbols—a language, if you will—to make sense of other things. Tarot is a map to my world. I think of people and events in terms of cards. I understand abstractions like “spiritual growth” or “initiation” or “shadow work” in terms of tarot symbols. It’s a way of creating meaning for me. It gives me context. I can say, “Oh, this was totally a Seven of Swords moment,” or “Holy shit I need to stop dating Knights what the fuck is wrong with me.” Instead of feeling like I’m alone in the world, feeling something no one has ever felt before, I can find reassurance in the cards. Yes, other people have been here, too. This is the next step on the Fool’s Journey.

It may not make sense to anyone else, but it works for me. It becomes spiritual.

So is tarot necessarily spiritual? That depends on what world you’re occupying, I suppose. For me, the Bible is just a book and a tarot deck is just a stack of printed cardboard. But I can see the power that they hold for people, in different circumstances, and I can respect that. It’s the thing the symbol represents that matters, which depends on context. The American flag itself isn’t holy, but perhaps liberty and justice are. When people get upset at the misuse of flags, it’s not because they believe that the flag is literally the country. The Book of Shadows I keep isn’t my practice of witchcraft. You could set it on fire and I’d just make another one.  I wouldn’t stop being a witch just because you took it from me. My tarot deck isn’t the source of my divinatory powers. If I lost it, I’d just buy another one.   The tea you’re drinking isn’t what’s making you magical. You’re magical all on your own. Your tarot practice is spiritual because you are spiritual.

Contemplating Strength

strengthAll of the trumps are complex cards. There are so many stories we could tell, and so many systems of esoteric knowledge that we could draw upon for interpretation. There’s really no way to know everything about any one card—the connections are infinite and highly individual, and we build them as we work with the cards. Strength, though, is one of those cards that I think a lot of people feel like they have a handle on. It’s easy for a novice reader to draw this card and conclude, simply, that a querent should “use a different kind of strength” or some such. She wouldn’t be wrong, of course. But, as in all things tarot related, there’s a lot more going on.

Lately, I’m really struck by the gender dichotomy that exists in this card. It’s not really about strength or overcoming for me. It’s more about the relationship between masculinity and femininity. Gender is a human construct. We have particular cultural ideas about what constitutes maleness and femaleness beyond just biology, and these assumptions inform our religious models. We use masculinity and femininity as (imperfect) metaphors to describe esoteric truths. If we were going to resort to reductionism, we could think only in terms of men and women, but this usually shortchanges the deeper metaphor and causes us to miss a bigger point.

It’s not really a woman and a lion (well, of course it is, but it’s also more than that). It’s an entanglement of these two sides: the gender metaphor in action. The woman isn’t just a woman, she’s the embodiment of a particular kind of extreme femininity: the white dress of a virgin, the long hair we culturally associate with beauty, the light coloration we tie to gentility, and the placid features that indicate that desirable, distinctly female serenity. Her body is literally a garden, with flowers waiting to be plucked. She’s not just a woman; she’s the idealized (Western, Victorian) woman.

And the lion? The ultimate symbol for male sexuality. Historically, lions have been tied to virility, conquest, lust, and passion. They are fierce and predatory. They’re also—to use a human category—polygynists. Males rule over a pride of females, killing the cubs of any predecessors as well as any males that may try to copulate with any of his harem. The lion isn’t just a lion; he’s an extreme kind of human masculinity.

Both of these extremes are disturbing for most of us, I hope. And here they are, intertwined. It’s weirdly beautiful, but also dangerous. The woman appears to be subduing the lion, but is she? Some tarotists point to the lion’s tail curled between his legs in submission, but this is a dog trait. Cats have no such body language. Still, it’s as though the two figures need each other, and, of course, they do. Masculinity and femininity are relative constructs. Without one, we cannot conceive of the other, and we certainly can’t measure extremes.

So while the traditional interpretation certainly isn’t wrong, more and more I see extreme dichotomies in this card. There’s struggle here, especially relational struggle. Balance, and the calamity that results from imbalance.  There is no overcoming, here.  No subdual. Rather, there is coexistence.  There is entanglement.  There is the struggle to exist in a place of extremes.  There is no triumph—only coping.

Off the Rails

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In the spirit of random dumping, here’s a picture of Oliver with a bow.

One of my first degrees, Lore, tells me that I should just take Oathbound completely off the rails sometime, just for the hell of it.  “Just post grocery lists.  Or rant about a bad date.  Or make up some kind of witch trend and see how many people you can get on board,” and she laughed sort of maniacally.  She’s got a taste for the weird, and she loves it when people get strange just because.

Blogging has come to be its own genre, with its own formulas, and it gets a little confining sometimes.  I love it, really (and I’m not going to fuck with Oathbound, although I can hear Jason Mankey — hi Jason! You’re awesome! — saying, “But you CAN write about other things!”), but I think Lore has a point about blowing off some writing steam.  I need to work up to doing it on such a large platform, though.  I know my Patheos friends would welcome other kinds of material, but there’s definitely a particular voice and a particular style that dominates.  I think I’ll just have to sort of mentally work up to putting the off-the-cuff stuff there.

Honestly, when I get home from work, I just don’t really have the energy for much.

I work at an impoverished urban school with a student body that’s more than 95% African-American and Hispanic.  Our kids are several years behind in terms of performance, and it’s my job to teach them to read at grade level.  This task, by the way, is literally impossible given the total lack of support from our district and the State as a whole.  Without educational resources, parental support, or even a safe place to do their homework (many of our children are homeless or live in volatile foster situations), it just isn’t going to happen.  A lot of kids are migratory.  Many don’t speak any English.  We do our best and try to at least be a source of positivity for these kids, but the situation is dire any way you look at it.  And the educational gap is getting bigger every year.  Our children are also routinely involved in neighborhood violence.  Police are everywhere all the time.  The school-to-prison pipeline is a real thing for these kids, and it’s a daily heartbreak.  And that’s without even getting to the absurdity that is teacher education, pay, and retention.  It’s amazing to me that more people–people with children, especially–aren’t angry about public education.  It’s like no one cares.  Or they only care insofar as they don’t actually have to do any work to change anything.

So I don’t really care about Pagan drama when I get home from work.  It’s just not relevant to, dare I say, “real life” most of the time.  It’s a Maslow’s Hierarchy thing.  I like to engage with categories within Paganism, authenticity, history.  It’s intellectually stimulating and personally challenging.  I love the conversations we have, and the opportunities to learn.  But if I’m going to get angry about something at the end of the day, it’s never going to be over who’s a real witch, or whether or not someone’s god is being defamed on the Internet, or what Christians think about Satan.  It’s never going to be over whether or not Pagans can be atheists, or what the gods are really like.

Interesting, sure, sometimes.  But other things are more pressing.  And I’m tired.

I’m also a little voyeuristic.  I want to hear about what people’s personal lives are like.  One of the things I loved about Livejournal a hundred years ago was watching total strangers (with common interests) freak out about the same stuff I was freaking out about, other places in the world.  Dating, family drama, having kids, problems at school or work, wanting to try something cool they read about in their newest witchcraft book, being nervous because they were going to a new community for a ritual, pissed off ranting about people I’ll never meet, lamenting that no one understands.  It was gold.  It made everyone — no matter their religion, their subculture, their kink, their trauma, their whatever — look totally human.  Learning from each other happened naturally, and everyone seemed to feel less alone.

I have narratives in my head about some of the other Patheos bloggers I’ve never met in real life (actually, all of the bloggers I follow, on whatever platform), especially the ones who barely write about their personal lives.  It’s like fanfic.  Our blogs make us look so polished and together most of the time.  I like to imagine what the freakouts might look like.  My freakouts and fuckups have been pretty spectacular in the past.  All of those blogs about finding a good coven, building community, and whatever have all come from real life experiences.  Most have been super messy.  Maybe someday when I’m drunk I’ll write more about that.

Right now I have to finish this moronic assignment for my teaching program.  Then I have to go to the grocery store because I’m out of basically everything except for cat food, which helps no one but Oliver.

I also need salt, tuna, granola bars and snacks to take to work, some sort of fruit so I don’t get scurvy, and maybe something to eat for dinner that doesn’t involve pouring milk over a bowl of cereal.  Which I’m also out of.

 

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.