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.

Being Wiccan and Pagan at the same time. Or not.

Over the weekend, I once again found myself in a situation where I was surrounded by other Pagans and thinking, “I have nothing in common with these people.  What am I doing here.”

There continues to be a lot of talk, as always, about Pagan solidarity.  Letting go of differences, coming together as a community, and even forming institutions.  Any time there’s tons of Cherry Hill folks in the room there’s going to be sighing and lamentation over the perceived lack of Pagan social programs: chaplains, counselors, charities, government representation, etc.

I get it some of the time.  We live in a country where “real religion” equates to “religion that looks like Protestantism,” and not having some of the things that go along with that can put individuals at a disadvantage.  Coupled with the weirdly Jesus-y language people use to talk about “the Goddess” and “Nature,” it’s gotten to a point where I’m very confident in asserting that I am not practicing the same religion as these other people.  This is particularly evident when we start talking about “Pagan values.”  It seems that we can all more or less agree that there can be no definitive list of values that will adequately blanket everyone who considers themselves Pagan, but we keep right on trying.  You guys let me know if you come up with anything, because I sure as hell can’t (and please don’t say “Nature,” for the love of all that is holy).

It’s weird being part of a community while simultaneously not part of it.  I sort of imagine it being like warring nation-states vying over ethnic identity.  Or something.  I’m Pagan by default, but I’m Gardnerian specifically, and those obligations and affiliations trump anything that happens in the larger community.  Whether it’s because I’m shallow or just because I’m human, it matters to me that I have some kind of distinct identity.  My Craft has no place for chaplains, seminaries, churches, and the all-loving Jesus-Nature-Goddess, and if that’s what my community cares about now, then can I continue to count myself one of them?

It’s a bizarre place to be in.  It turns out that the question isn’t, “Can you be a Wiccan and a Christian at the same time,” (because Cherry Hill is hell-bent on demonstrating that you can) but rather, “Can you be a Wiccan and a Pagan at the same time?”

And, of course, I upset people further when I add that by “Wiccan” I mean “Gardnerian.”  That’s its own conversation, and a tired one.  Suffice it to say that, whatever word you’re using (and who cares), I’m talking about something very specific, and it’s not the same thing that’s described in Scott Cunningham.

I’m sure it seems silly to some of you to fret over labels and identity categories like this.  But I’m of the mindset that these categories create selves, and not the other way around (see my post on the High Priestess).  They’re constructed and sometimes arbitrary (and, always, changeable), but they matter.  Labels are constructed and arbitrary, but we nonetheless think it’s important to mark the bottle of bleach so we don’t mistake it for something else.  That’s oversimplification perhaps, but it matters that we understand that all traditions are not one tradition.  If we’re all the same and it doesn’t matter, then why have a community at all?

“Oh, maybe Wicca isn’t as stupid as I think it is.”

I was chatting with a colleague this morning about our class’s recent foray into “paranormal” subjects (we’re reading Christopher Bader et al’s Paranormal America) and I mentioned that I could understand some of the conclusions that the authors had drawn from their fieldwork (not to imply that this is a good book, because it’s terrible and just goes to show how thoroughly sociologists can mangle data and, further, why Evangelicals shouldn’t be allowed to conduct national surveys), given some of my own experiences at things like psychic fairs and New Age festivals.  My colleague’s quick response was, “But you’re not like other Wiccans!  You’re reasonable and well-read.  Usually Wiccans are the worst sort of religious flakes.”

I had to laugh at his comment.  And then I was sad because (putting personal vanity aside for a moment) his assessment of Wicca more broadly is not totally unfair.  And how sad is it that when my friend actually encountered a Wiccan he could respect, his conclusion was not, “Oh, maybe Wicca isn’t as stupid as I think it is,” but rather, “She must be an exception.”

I’m not suggesting that we should collectively be altering our behavior to garner the approval of outsiders, but I do think it’s important to consider that the negative opinions that people hold about us are sometimes grounded in reality rather than in just random, senseless prejudice.  The complaints that I’ve made against my own Pagan community are not unlike those made by non-Pagans: we tend to be uncritical readers, we tend to be gullible and naive, we are usually (and I’m very comfortable with “usually” here) pretty shallow when it comes to constructing theologies and ethe, we frequently aren’t mindful of history (both our own and those of others), many of us have a very troubling persecution complex, and our community is overwhelmingly oblivious to its white, Western, middle-class privilege.

Throw in some healing crystals and lots of fetishizing talk about Native Americans and it’s no wonder that Fox News (etc.) can say what it does with relative impunity.

Again, I’m not advocating that we collectively give Wicca a social facelift (though I personally may think one is in order).  People, particularly when they have the means to do so, should live their own lives according to their own preferences and goals.  I’m merely suggesting that, given the preferences that many of us have and the way we often carry ourselves collectively, we should stop acting so surprised and scandalized when others think poorly of us.

Ronald Hutton, Cherry Hill, and Tarot

This past weekend was busier than most.  Morgan and I journeyed to the University of South Carolina for Cherry Hill Seminary’s symposium Sacred Lands and Spiritual Landscapes.  Beginning on Friday and running through Saturday, the symposium featured a keynote from Ronald Hutton as well as papers and responses from Pagan Studies notables like Chas Clifton and Wendy Griffin.

My feelings about Pagan Studies as an academic field are extremely mixed.  Cherry Hill, as a seminary, produces work that is confessional.  I feel like I spent the weekend mostly sitting through personal stories of divine experience and community building rather than things that would pass for scholarship in other circles.  There was an awful lot of self-congratulatory talk regarding the establishment of a Pagan Studies group at the AAR (rather than any much-needed conversation on improving said group) and all of the new degrees that can be earned through Cherry Hill.

I don’t mean to sound so critical.  This is a seminary, after all.  The confessional has its place and I can appreciate the impact that an organization like Cherry Hill can have, but I worry that the confusion of this sort of theological work with the secular scholarship that is going on at universities and in other AAR groups will stymie Pagan Studies in the future.  I wasn’t the only grad student present who participates in the Pagan Studies AAR group against the advice of advisors (on the grounds that this group is not, to paraphrase, engaging in critical scholarship).  There needs to be a greater place for secular scholarship within Pagan Studies, performed by people with appropriate backgrounds in relevant fields.  I left on Saturday, accompanied by my graduate colleagues, somewhat discouraged and disappointed with some of what we’d heard.  It pleases me that this is now a field and there are other people interested (and in the throes of) pursuing this work, but we cannot only do it from the standpoint of practitioners.  Rather, we cannot do it only from the standpoint of practitioners if we wish to interact with scholars in other field and be taken seriously.

But!  Ronald Hutton was brilliant.  And charming.  And very British.  I got a book signed, got to have a chat, and Morgan was kind enough to indulge my fangirl impulses and take a picture of Hutton and I together.

Sunday afternoon was spent reading tarot at Divination & Desserts, the local fundraiser for Pagan Pride Day.  I worked last year, too, and this year was a marked improvement, due primarily to location.  I’m not particularly involved in the public community in Charlotte (largely because, as you can see from the website, the community exists primarily outside of the city limits), but I do poke my head in periodically.  I enjoy this kind of event.  It’s laid back, there’s lots of time to chat and get to know people, and everyone is open-minded (I don’t have to do much in the way of explaining tarot to people who are completely unfamiliar).  Plus drinks and dinner followed!  Along with some intense conversation about building a stronger community here in Charlotte.

Building Community

I’ve been away doing all manner of things.  The fall was largely about making decisions regarding my academic future (and then changing those decisions come spring), traveling, lecturing, grading (and subsequently being disillusioned by) undergrads, and making new friends and contacts.  I scored a mention from Jason Pitzl-Waters at The Wild Hunt after he saw me present at the American Academy of Religion’s annual meeting in Chicago.  Morgan and I came and saw and conquered and hung out with Chas Clifton and Chas Clifton’s glorious hat.  Good times were had,IMG_1427 IMG_1428and we even enjoyed the added benefit of visiting with Craft siblings and cousins while there.  We went to some very impressive used book stores and some very underwhelming occult shops.  Books were had in piles and all was once again right with the world.

Now I’m back to class and my T.A. work and my Craft obligations, and still figuring out where to go from here.  What does seem sure is that I’m remaining in North Carolina indefinitely.  Roots are down, like it or no, and thankfully I’ve found a solid circle of friends here.  Ali remains the locus of the open Pagan community here in Charlotte, and I’ll be hanging my own Gardnerian shingle out soon, too, it turns out.  She continues to be the most perfect friend I could possibly have made since stumbling into this town, and I know she’ll be an important resource as I begin to build another kind of community here.

Speaking of my perfect friends, Kim and I are gearing up for festival season (with Ali, too!) and I’m off to New Jersey in a couple of days to visit a new friend acquired through, of all places, Instagram.  He’s probably not an ax murderer.  But just in case, Ali, I need you to get into my house after I’m dead and remove all of the journals and Books of Shadows before my mother arrives.  Get them to Morgan.  Morgan, you and Chad can split up the occult books (I assume Ali will have already raided what she wanted).  Give Holly and Bob my tools.  Give Oliver to Monty.

I’m kidding, of course.  Louie and I will be sussing out witchcraft in New York City and laying around talking about Aleister Crowley over wine and absurd amounts of cheese.  Check Instagram for pictures of the mayhem!