Monthly Archives: August 2006

Whither Reclaiming?

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I was just in Chicago for the weekend, and had the chance to catch up with some Reclaiming friends while I was there. Getting out of town is I think critical for most bouts of soul-searching, including organizational soul-searching. It gives you a whole new perspective on what really is out of whack. Is it only your crazy bunch of friends complaining again, or is it popping up in other places? Is it just the jaded old guard, or are newer people affected too? What is the truth behind the rumors? The rumors behind the truth?

What I heard in Chicago is no different from what I’ve heard in the handful of other cities I’ve visited in the last year that have a Reclaiming “community.” If you have as few as 3 or 4 people who work well together and are excited about holding public events, you can have a thriving Reclaiming presence in your town. If one or more of those people start fighting or leave, and the chemistry doesn’t recover with the addition of others to the core, eventually the “community” will die. Likewise, if your core group works together well but doesn’t mesh with the people that live in the town, you don’t have a community. You have a working group with no traction on the ground.

I put community in quotes, because the term is so subjective. Community is more a feeling than a structure. Everyone knows when it’s there, but its demise hinges on different factors depending on who you talk to and what their role has been.

I lived in San Francisco during the heyday of early Reclaiming, when the rituals were juicy and there was lots of controversy but the core was strong and they/we had great involvement in town. I learned an incredible amount by watching and listening to masterful priestesses and priests at work. It was in my best interests at the time to learn what I could and stay out of the fracas that arose almost constantly between different covens and personalities. As I gained more experience, I began to notice that the conflicts were more complex than they seemed. The fights billed as personality clashes also were wars about differing visions of how Reclaiming should grow. Policy fights, likewise, often masked desperate attempts to rein in difficult personalities. I am speaking here in pretty plain language that some may object to, but bear in mind that I’m trying in a few brush strokes to capture the strain on an organization whose founding principles kept it at odds with its own success.

Reclaiming’s struggles do not revolve around spiritual ideology. We are on the whole remarkably in agreement over the basic spiritual principles we value: immanence, ecstatic ritual, poetic, spontaneous invocation, ensemble priestessing. Kate Slater made some good points in her blog comment to “The Baby and the Bathwater”, illustrating that Reclaiming has contributed enormously to current Pagan theology. Maybe that is our fifteen minutes of fame, that we have created impressionistic, fluid links between the Craft, the Gods and nature, whereas before it was more representational, static and boring. If so, it has been well worth the trip.

Reclaiming’s political ideology, on the other hand, has I believe generated a great deal of the acrimony and attrition that plagues Reclaiming now. Or, to be more specific, there is a blind spot in our ideals which our political analysis encourages us to overlook that has had and continues to have a deadly effect on Reclaiming system-wide. We believe in the absence of hierarchy, we believe in consensus process, we believe that all of the far-flung Reclaiming groups can run themselves, and that no central authority should be able to legislate or regulate what happens in any of the “boroughs” of Reclaiming (trying to get away from using “community” is devilishly hard).

All this would be workable, I think, if we could have worked out at least one knotty problem. And the winner is: Charisma! We value charisma, yet with charisma (often) comes narcissism, and narcissism unchecked is the death of consensus. It will drive any working group into the ground. Having a decentralized structure with no oversight committee means there is no functional way to correct bad behavior. Insisting on consensus means that all a power-hungry or attention-seeking person has to do is attract enough new, quiet people to the group to dilute dissent and keep the group from adapting challenging policies — policies that end up more as guidelines anyway, since there is no governing authority.

This is not a slam on any particular person or community; it is a pattern that has happened many times in several Reclaiming communities. It is our Achilles Heel. There are other knotty problems, to be sure: the question of pay scales for teachers, how to acknowledge experience while still valuing input from all, how to train those who want to become teachers, and how to give them spots to teach at when so few spots exist, how to create consistency and transparency over large distances. All these are to my mind the garden variety issues that ensure that we will have plenty to discuss at meetings well into the next millennium. But I am not so sure that there will be a recognizable group called Reclaiming a hundred years from now. We lack the political will to grow up in a certain way, and let our cherished ideals evolve into something more sustainable.

I was in Chicago last weekend to drop my daughter off at college. It was great to be able to introduce her to my friends in Chicago, and to know that should she have any time to get involved with ritual while she is there, there are good people for her to work with. While we were there, a bunch of us went out for Vietnamese food and (of course) started talking about Reclaiming. We soon came round to the question of where to go from here. The local group had had its initial heyday, was in a temporary or permanent lull, and while organizing classes and rituals was discussed with frustration, I heard some real excitement when people started talking about how they were able to use magical and ritual principles in their “day jobs.”

This to me is the answer to “whither Reclaiming”. Reclaiming is not an end in itself, it is a network of people we can learn from and listen to, in order to pick up some great skills we can’t really get anywhere else. And at this point, the best thing we can do is to take those skills and use them in the world at large. Figure out how to translate them into our jobs, our childraising, our interactions with the non-Pagan world. Step away from the “Big Magic” paradigm that says that with enough juju going a single ritual can change the world. Magical intentions like that are the breeding ground for narcissism and crises of faith.

The more we soothe our Achilles Heel — the more our networks are made up of genuine friendships, people who trust each other, listen to each other and like working together — the more genuine people we will attract who may come to share our values (or not). My vision of the future of Reclaiming is people everywhere who act like regular magical human beings, recognize Mystery when they see it, and know how to respond for the greatest good in those fabulous moments of opportunity.

A Peak Experience

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I continue to mull over my long involvement with Reclaiming, listening to what other people consider the babies in the bathwater, sitting with reactions and reflections in order to think of something useful to say about it all. One image that pops to mind is an incredible moment that occurred less than a year ago, and maybe that’s as good a place as any to begin.

I was in Minneapolis last Samhain with family and friends to attend my friend Donald’s handfasting, which included three days of community events and field trips they had planned. Part of the weekend celebration was attending a BareBones theater piece at a park down by the Mississippi River one evening. It was a long, involved story with large puppets, street theater, and tons of people sitting on straw bales in the gathering dark. At the end, we each took up tea light lanterns and processed down to the water’s edge.

Most of my family had long since departed to the car to wait in relative warmth for the evening to be over, but my daughter Lyra and I trooped down together to the mighty Mississippi to watch the conclusion of the piece. It was a clear night, dark with no moon, and the flickering candles and low hum of conversation felt like a gentle swarm of night-flying bees congregating near a watering hole. From upriver a wooden raft was slowly floating down with the players in diaphanous garb enacting the ritual’s end. Soon Lyra said to me, “Listen to what they’re singing.”

It was a chant sung in warbly but determined voice, being picked up gradually by the watchers on the bank. I eventually heard them singing, “When we are gone, they will remain, wind and rock, fire and rain. They will remain when we return, the wind will blow, and the fire will burn.” Lyra and I joined in, harmonizing with the crowd, and for a long while stood there arm in arm, singing with the swelling chorus on the banks, in joy and sadness for all that passes and returns.

As the chant faded and the theater ended, Lyra turned to me and said, “Are you going to tell them who you are?” “No, it’s better that way,” was my response. No one had to know that I had helped write that chant years ago, after Starhawk had asked me to set her words to music. No one had to know that I helped produce the CD on which “When We Are Gone” was recorded, that I sang on that recording, or that I had been instrumental in distributing the CD far and wide for the past 11 years.

The power of that moment was that our liturgy had gone beyond the banks of Reclaiming chant and entered the culture at large. The song was its own boat, unstoppable, wending its way through the landscape to so many new communities, touching the lives of more people than I could hope to know. One expects that of anthems, of songs launched with big money and bigger popularity, but to hear one’s own chant sung in a non-ritual venue by people one has never met feels pretty miraculous.

Great liturgy is one of the timeless contributions made by Reclaiming priestesses to contemporary Paganism — and perhaps to modern spirituality as a whole. It is why I think our history is best told chant by chant, moving out from the creation of each to its authors, what it was designed for, and its permutations over time and distance.

This significant success is testimony to the creativity that happens between us, sometimes, and to the networks of friends and colleagues we are able to create, sometimes, which help this music pass from group to group. Ironically, this successful influence of Reclaiming-generated liturgy on our culture bears little relation to the question of whether Reclaiming as a tradition or organization will endure over time. I will turn to this question in my next post. Thanks everyone for listening.

The Baby and the Bathwater

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I was talking to a good friend last month who lives out of state, and of course our conversation wound around to our love/hate relationship with Reclaiming. We both came up through the ranks of Reclaiming as teachers and priestesses, and we both benefitted greatly from the skills in collaborative ritual, facilitation, group journeying, and ecstatic, extemporaneous invocation that you just can’t learn anywhere else.

Both of us have been involved with Reclaiming for around 20 years, and have seen a lot. We’ve seen good people come and go over the years, and have noticed that mostly the good people go after they realize that Reclaiming is a victim of its own idealism and there’s nowhere to “advance” once you have experience and skills. I said that I have been struggling to clarify my present-day involvement with Reclaiming, particularly trying to discern what is baby and what is bathwater and not throwing away that which is of lasting value.

My friend responded instantly: “But there is no baby in the bathwater, and there never has been.” I was stunned at that, and have been thinking about it ever since. Can it be true that what started as a grand experiment in creating a spirituality that was Goddess-centered, egalitarian, politically and socially radical would have absolutely nothing to show for itself 25 years after the fact? Could it be that a community and religious movement which has been at the center of my identity for over two decades consisted all along of nothing but our intense willingness to believe our own promotional language?

I think that’s a pretty harsh assessment, and I’m not sure I fully agree with it. To me, Reclaiming has always been about the web of friendships that I have gained from my involvement in the community. Through Reclaiming I have come into contact, trained, and been in circle with some of the most incredibly talented magical practitioners I ever hope to meet. Even though most of us don’t teach Reclaiming classes or witchcamps anymore, or attend Reclaiming rituals, we are still friends and co-conspirators. These friendships continue to inspire and support us in all the different places we find ourselves both spiritually and socially.

As a sustainable spiritual community venture, I think Reclaiming will not survive because in the end the forces of entropy will be greater than any force binding its parts together. It simply does not have the structural cohesion to survive in the long term. As far as producing a discrete body of knowledge that defines Reclaiming and its practitioners, whatever started out being uniquely Reclaiming has long since been absorbed into the greater eclectic Pagan milieu, so while I think we can claim to have influenced a large number of people, it is more in terms of style than substance.

This post falls far short of a careful analysis of flaws in the structure or ideology of Reclaiming, and perhaps I’ll go into greater detail in a subsequent entry. I would certainly not tell people to avoid Reclaiming; I think there is value in some or most of the core classes, and large group rituals still have the power to encourage major transformation in those for whom that is a necessary next step. But the language, the belief system and ideals that surround most of what gets taught under the aegis of Reclaiming really deserves a fresh, critical eye. Having long since given up trying to raise the bar overall on our teacher training and feedback systems, I genuinely shudder at some of what gets taught now in the name of Reclaiming magic. So while I don’t tell people to avoid Reclaiming, I do caution them to choose their teachers wisely.

At this point, I think the only thing I have to contribute to Reclaiming is a clear-eyed inventory of what many still think is a bathtub full of babies. I am not ready to join my friend in pulling the plug but I do think that, Reclaiming’s future aside, it will be helpful for everyone who has trained or taught Reclaiming-style magic to apply the same clear thinking to their own assumptions and experience, figure out what their own baby is, and get it out of that stinky bathwater.

Hello Mudda, Hello Fadda

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I’m blogging today from WordCamp, a free one-day conference in San Francisco for WordPress bloggers and developers. It takes a powerful force to pry me away from the coast these days. I am in hyper-hermit mode, plus who would ever want to leave a beautiful house on the California coast if they don’t have to? But the idea of learning more about my blogging software, plugging into the open source community, and getting a free lunch and t-shirt overcame my considerable resistance, so here I am.

Vince is in the car parked in the shade. I had to start praying for a parking place in the shade all the way back in Novato, but it paid off and even in the busy Castro neighborhood I found a spot reasonably close in where he can rest comfortably. Maybe someday I’ll know a neighbor he can stay with when I leave for the day, but being a pound puppy his abandonment issues are so big that he is happier spending the day in my car than alone in the house.

It’s a wonderful thing to be sitting here with so many other introverts. Half the people in the room are tapping on their laptops while the main discussion goes on. There are some über-geeks here but most are regular people, some who know a lot about a little, and most who know a little about a lot. I find myself comfortably in the middle range, and have had a couple interesting conversations with other bloggers. Another plus is that there are relatively few women here, so lines at the (minuscule) bathroom are not an issue.

I’m not interested in making use of every feature of my blogging software, but I have picked up a couple tips that I will experiment with when I get home. Mostly I find it interesting to watch the open source community in action. It is a relational paradigm that I find very familiar. There is a core belief that if we all cooperated the world would be a much better place. People understand the need to be media savvy, creating cash flow from different projects, but there is active concern that this not endanger the democratic nature of running things on non-proprietary software. At the same time, these folks understand that there has to be some sort of hierarchy in the organization, in order to preserve the quality of the product. Not just anyone can mess around with wordpress and have it be adopted as part of the core software. You have to actually know what you’re doing.

There was a good New Yorker article recently about wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that anyone can edit or add to. Stephen Colbert, my favorite non-Jon-Stewart TV personality, recently did a real-time test of just how stupid wikipedia can be by suggesting that people adjust the number of elephants now found in the wild. Predictably, the number of people zooming over to wikipedia.org and putting bogus edits into the “elephant” entry overwhelmed the system, and they had to “lock” that and other entries. The problem with wikipedia is that in choosing universal accessibility over some sort of hierarchy based on knowledge and experience, the accuracy and usability of the entire project is threatened.

Listening to people here talk about development and use of wordpress software has made me realize that Reclaiming at its best could best be described as an open-source spirituality. Realistically, though, it is more like a wiki-spirituality, in that anyone can add to or edit it. If you’re in an area where there’s not an active Reclaiming community, there is very little that you need to do before becoming the center of your own new Reclaiming community.

This functionality has been its greatest strength: Reclaiming as a tradition has benefitted from the input of many brilliant people over the years, some who know a lot about a little, and others who know a little about a lot. But there becomes a breaking point, when the network of communities and individuals becomes too large to run on the infrastructure we have traditionally used to support it. In my opinion, Reclaiming as a whole has been slipping into irrelevance over the past couple years because the wiki-phenomenon of garbage-in/garbage-out begins to overwhelm the basic core of intelligent, usable spirituality.

I realize that is an incredibly provocative statement to make, and I will get back to it in later posts. In my experience, when I say things like that in public forums I get reams of private posts thanking me for saying it. But generally this sort of discussion doesn’t go very far on Reclaiming’s public email lists before it ends in a deafening silence. This disparity of response itself is a good indication that the publicly-held ideals of Reclaiming spirituality have only a shallow buy-in by those who actually self-identify as Reclaiming witches. What an interesting phenomenon! I’m so glad I came here today, if only to connect a few more dots in my ongoing struggle to identify what the hell I feel and think about being part of Reclaiming.