Little Things

OliverThe school year is finally coming to an end. A few more days with students, a week of exams, then a week of teacher workdays for closeout procedures and grading (some of which I’m taking off for Free Spirit Gathering because priorities).

I’m having to go back to basics. A lot of my writing lately can be boiled down to, “I don’t feel great and don’t really want to do anything because sometimes I’m too tired or too unfocused to think about Craft stuff,” and lately I feel like that’s changing. Finally. Last month I took everything off the altar in my bedroom and put it in a box. If you let things go and then try to come back, it can all start to seem cluttered. Even intimidating. Too heavy to just walk back into. So I cleared everything off–altar cloth and all–and just set a single candle in place. I haven’t made any of those in forever, so all I had was yellow. In Golden Dawn interpretations of tarot, yellow is tied to consciousness and connection with God, so yellow felt appropriate. I’ve been lighting it every night while I’m home. When it burns down, I put in a fresh candle. This ritual has become enormously comforting.

I feel like reading lately, too. The season brought some new releases that I’m actually excited about, and my to-read pile from yesteryear is starting to look appealing again.

The book is back at Llewellyn for a second round of editing. It’s still pretty surreal. I wrote a book. The release date is July 2018…lightyears away. The idea for the cover has already been set, so I’m hoping to have something to show you guys in a month or two.

I’m ready to have a second project. I started writing a piece of fiction for Camp NaNoWriMo in April, and I expect I’ll pick that back up once summer break starts. It felt good to do something completely different. I’ve never written fiction before.

Free Spirit always breathes some life back in. I forget that summer is my season and always makes me feel better. This is the first year I’ll be leading workshops there,too, so, again, something different. Winter Tashlin and I will be leading a discussion on privilege in Pagan communities, and Thista Minai and I will be teaching archery as a devotional practice. I’m excited to have my bow at Free Spirit. I’ll also have my feder, so I can pick fights with Acacia and any other interloping HEMA people. Good times.


Fertilizing the Lawn: Paganism in the Bible Belt

“Well, it is the Bible Belt.”

This is a common lamentation uttered by Pagans throughout the Carolinas (and, I know, elsewhere). Nobody showed up to your first open circle? Well, it is the Bible Belt. Can’t find a coven to join? Well, it is the Bible Belt. No Pagan shops or public gatherings? Bible Belt. Failed Pagan book club? Not a big enough turn-out at Pagan Pride Day? No one to accompany you to that out-of-state festival you so want to attend? Bible Belt. Bible Belt. Bible Belt.

This is a cop-out. And a bad one, at that.

You want to know a secret? There is no perfect Pagan community where every group succeeds, every open circle is brimming with amazing people, and multiple Pagan shops stock every book you could possibly want. There is no fabled land in which you can put out a meet-up announcement and fairly expect a dozen attendees on the first go, where all you need do is don your Pagan jewelry in public and magically make friends on the street, where no religious opponent (or whatever) ever says anything to discourage you.

Many years ago I tried to start a Pagan study group in the suburbs or Northern Virginia, well within the bounds of the DC Metro system. Nobody ever showed. And thank goodness for those shops in Occoquan and Alexandria because there were hardly any resources in DC itself at the time (unless you were Reclaiming, which I wasn’t). Talk about not the Bible Belt. So why did I feel so alone there?

The problem wasn’t with DC. The problem was that I didn’t know how to look yet, not really. And I didn’t realize that building something from the ground up requires such enormous patience. I’ve started a lot of groups over the years and tried to instigate a lot of Pagan activities, and it’s gone like this everywhere I’ve ever lived:

1) I advertise in all the usual physical and online space.

2) I get replies from people who are just so thrilled to have found me. I’ve never not gotten replies, no matter how small the town. Oh it’s so great that you’re doing this I desperately want Pagan friends. I’ve been looking for a group forever. I would love to read that book/go on that trip/do that thing. Never fails.

3) Nobody does what they say they’re going to do. You’re probably alone in a coffee shop or a rented space somewhere.

4) Better buy more coffee so you don’t look too awkward.

There are then two choices that present themselves:

Admit defeat and don’t do the thing, or do the thing anyway and trust that other people might do the thing with you once they see how much fun you’re having doing the thing.

I started a successful reading group in Cary, NC this way. For a long time, nobody showed, so I sat there and read by myself. And kept advertising. When they finally did start trickling in, they were unreliable. People tend to only want to do things if they don’t have to actually put in any time or effort. But a few months down the road, I had a small handful of regulars who were genuinely glad to be there and happy to choose books collectively and actually read them. The group grew. Eventually, I had to leave, and someone had the enthusiasm to step up running the thing without me. This group existed for years (and for all I know still does) after I moved.

Communities don’t just arise spontaneously out of the aether; they must be actively constructed by people dedicated to the task. Where people care about community, community exists.

I’ve often been surprised by the kinds of communities (or lack thereof) I’ve found in both large cities and small towns, and, anecdotally, there doesn’t seem to be this inexorable correlation between the population of Pagans and the tenacity of the local Christians that so many describe. Manhattan, for example, is often described like some kind of Pagan Xanadu, but I found it to be surprisingly lacking (given its population and liberal flavor) in explicitly Pagan activities, including, surprisingly, shopping (perhaps related to the closing of Magickal Childe). Chicago was better, and I’m glad to see that there seems to be quite a bit more in DC since I left more than ten years ago.

My strongest experiences of Pagan community have occurred in Norfolk, VA and here in Charlotte, NC. I’ve also been pleasantly surprised in Huntsville, AL. All of these are politically conservative, Southern towns with strong, vocal Christian populations. I also found lots of Pagan happenings in Atlanta, GA (which didn’t surprise me at all, though I’ve heard plenty of complaints to the contrary) and understand that there are strong communities in various parts of Tennessee, Kentucky, and Florida.

So I’m sort of left wondering what being in the Bible Belt has to do with anything.

This is coming from someone who, for the sake of research, routinely attends a theologically conservative Baptist-affiliated Church and is otherwise pretty entrenched in assorted Christian communities here in Charlotte, surrounded by people who know I’m not Christian and care about me anyway.

A handful of people showing up to quietly protest at Pagan Pride Day with a couple of signs and a few Bibles—outside of the grounds—does not equate to being persecuted. Consider groups who actually experience marginalization in the forms of routine violence and systematic oppression and it becomes hard to feel too sorry for white Neo-Pagans, who mostly just have to deal with the occasional proselytizer and asshole coworker.

But I digress.

I’ve often found myself in positions where I’ve lamented the state of The Pagan Community™ (as though that’s even monolithic). I fantasize about living outside of the South. I fantasize about England and Ireland. I wish for book clubs with the capacity for graduate-level analysis. I wish for Pagan zines left at coffee shops. I wish for drum circles and a shop that specializes in titles from small British presses and independent American publishers.   I wish to finally start that Pagan rock band. I wish to say things like, “Hey! Let’s start an archery club/martial arts group/other thing-with-weapons devoted to our own Pagan gods!” and have those within earshot enthusiastically go FUCK YES and call me about it once we’re all sober.

But those things are only going to happen if I make them happen.

Summer is wonderful because summer means Free Spirit Gathering and Starwood. The amount of work that goes into putting on a Pagan festival looks to be so enormous that I actually feel guilty for just paying to show up and enjoy the awesome. I always leave thinking, “Does living a few hundred miles away and being scared of the Internet mean that I can’t shoulder some of this enormous burden? What can I do to aid the awesome?”

Usually all I can do is throw money where I have it and cajole everyone I encounter to come with me and do likewise (I’m sort of like an FSG evangelist). If I lived closer and weren’t scared of the Internet, I’d probably do more.

But that leaves me free to work on the community in my own city.

Whatever the circumstances, I’ve committed to staying in Charlotte. Charlotte is my city, now. Foxfire territory. It doesn’t matter where I came from or what my expectations were. If Charlotte’s community sucks, it’s because I’m failing at my mission. At the end of Free Spirit my friend Scott said to me, “If the grass is greener, the solution isn’t to leave or complain. The solution is to fertilize your own lawn.”

And I’m certainly not going to let something as nebulous as the “Bible Belt” stop me.

So what can you do to make your own community stronger?

And who’s up for that rock band?