Whither Reclaiming?

Posted on by

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.

6 thoughts on “Whither Reclaiming?

  1. Macha

    Beautiful, Anne! Thanks. And spot on.

    Still, it helps to have an organizational sponsor to do some of the bigger things I like to do. It’s also really useful to have RQ and the Websites and listservs. I’d like to figure out how to make that sort of thing work well. So far, I’ve mainly been able to use it by taking advantage of my emerita status.

  2. steward

    I agree it helps to have an organizational sponsor – but I don’t see where that requires a nationwide, let alone worldwide, “Tradition”. For example, SpiralHeart started up witchcamp.org. Although it was officially “approved” by SpokesCouncil (now WCC), it was primarily Lizard’s and Deb’s initiative. Despite recruiting attempts, to this day, there is only one maintainer who’s never been associated with SH; of the others, two are cell chairs of SH, one started her own more-local-to-her camp, and one moved a distance away (and blunt truth be told, got sideswiped by internal poliltics).

    It seems to me that with the communications web that exists now – and did *not* exist twenty years ago – Reclaiming’s got a real chance to take a big step towards the anarchy it likes to talk about politically. RQ doesn’t exist in paper form anymore; it’s been obsoleted in paper form by the web. I’ve heard that Bay Area wouldn’t want to give up the name Reclaiming; if the trend toward federalism is reversed, and each community stands on its own, the discussion on naming disappears. Organizational sponsors? Do (as Macha has done) the networking Anne talks about; the Death and Dying workshop held in Philadelphia had nothing to do with Bay Area or Avalon or Feencamp – it was DelVal and SpiralHeart, with the camp community providing the 501(c)(3) cover.

    Worse, there is the charisma problem: associating the younger communities with the older ones results in the older ones modeling some of the bad behaviors they’ve accumulated (and let me note that my own community just had its 14th camp, SH ain’t a spring chicken no more). The younger ones are apt to learn from this behavior. Again, removing a Name and allowing each community to stand or fall on its own – which, really, it’s going to do anyway – would reduce the chance of this sort of charismatic modeling.

  3. Matt Sweet

    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.

    I think that this is key. And I also think that this is one of the reasons that we have such a glut of people who want to be teachers in Reclaiming–either you’re a teacher, or you’re a student. And after you’ve been a student for a while, you have no where else to go. Really, there aren’t any other roles for people who want to be healers, or musicians, or artists, or parents… And that means that we aren’t modeling the ways that folks can take on those roles in everyday life, either.

    We have this grand idea that we are going to Change The World. And while that’s a noble goal, we have to start to see that we aren’t going to change the world at a single ritual, or at a single Witchcamp, or at a single protest. We have to look at our Big Magic in terms of hundreds (or thousands) of little, everyday actions: ways of living our own lives differently, of doing our jobs differently, of raising our children differently. And I think that future of Reclaiming is supporting that work. But for that to happen, we need more of Reclaiming than our customary paradigm, in which you are a Teacher or an Organizer or a Student. We need to lead the way for people to be so much more than that.

  4. Cat Chapin-Bishop

    I think that a lot of what you are writing about here, Anne, holds true for any of the groups in the Pagan movement that have been around for more than a few years. Certainly, your comments on charismatic individuals and the tendency to bring in lots of new, quiet supporters to dilute attempts to confront things that need confronting is very familiar to me from Pagan groups that I’ve been a member of. I saw it, at earlier times in my life, as evidence of weakness or corruption of individuals I felt betrayed my needs in my communities. Nowadays, I see it more as evidence of human nature–people do these things. It takes a very wise organization or path to find a way to at once acknowledge that, and offer tools for working it through…

    Likewise, the critique Matt offers, that Reclaiming is divided into Teachers and Students, so eventually, anyone who wants to go deeper feels that they need to become a Teacher, is familiar, too. The reason the old joke, “Q: What do you call a fourth-degree Gardnerian? A: A Buddhist,” is funny is that we all can recognize the issue… our movement is new enough that we just haven’t developed enough identifiable deep wisdom yet. I think all the branches of Paganism are suffering from this, and I think most Pagan elders who are still working on deepening their own spirituality struggle to find ways to do that.

    These issues are, of course, part of what I’m looking for among the Quakers. I keep wanting to chime in and say things like, “well, the way the _Quakers_ deal with difficult people is…” and so on, just as I used to chime in about all the wise and advanced things I saw Pagans doing. It’s not that there isn’t wisdom in both traditions, nor that I _don’t_ think that the Quakers have picked up a few tools I really want to steal–uh, emulate–in Pagan contexts. But I’m enough of a grownup now to know how much I don’t yet know, and to realize that I’m idealizing a group of people again! It’s making me slow down, and feel that I need to wait, think, and experience fully before I rush in with answers nobody may be asking me for! Still, I do hope that I–that we Pagans who’ve been around for long enough to have picked up both the strengths and the failings around us–have time to pick up and pass on at least a little more of what our communities need from us.

    Macha talks a lot about culture change. I think I’m talking about working, not just in Reclaiming, but across the wider Pagan movement, about some serious changes that need to happen for us to keep growing in wisdom (as opposed to in numbers alone). But the patience needed for meaningful culture change is hard–hard for me, hard for Americans, and maybe especially hard for some of the charismatic types who make great pioneers in the early years of a movement.

    It is a struggle, but even as an outsider to Reclaiming, one I am very glad to hear getting some light shed on it. Whether or not our individual institutions and traditions listen, evolve, and grow, I think there’s a lot of room for the Grownups to get together and share a little truth…

  5. Cat Chapin-Bishop

    Wow. Proofread much, Cat?

    Apologies for all the word salad in the preceding comment. I’m a bit sleep deprived, trying to get back into the habit of rising early for when my school year starts next week.

    The bags under my eyes are even more noticeable than the typos and fnords in my writing…

  6. Thorn

    Anne, you say a lot here, and very well. I *do* think the main gift Reclaiming and *any* spiritual tradition can give is the art of integrating magic and spirit into each moment. Otherwise, what are we doing *any* of it for?

    Unchecked charisma is an obvious problem, but not the only one. (And frankly, a lot of folks I respect have charisma! You, Macha, Oak, Pandora, just to name a few of many… It does not have to automatically equal narcissism.) Mistakes have been made by pumped up charisma and I’ve apologized for my part in some of the teaching teams that were whacked by it and unleashed Gods-know-what on some communities.

    That said, the main problem I see is fallout that stems from way back in the early days when the rule was “take a class, student teach a class, teach a class.” The impulse to share as much power as broadly and quickly as possible was noble and incredibly misguided. *No One* got a chance to deepen. Period. Teachers were barely one step ahead of students and hadn’t really integrated or digested the work. (couple *that* with charisma!)

    For a time, that may have not been so bad. But it was not sustainable.

    And I noticed long ago another pernicious problem: some of us learn really well by example and osmosis. Other people do not. I learned that the hard way locally when I wanted to step down from the ritual planning cell and found that folks who’d been working on ritual for quite some time felt untrained and therefore abandoned by what I’ll call “our generation.” Wow. We (I) just expected they would learn like we did! But they were not the same type. They needed better skill sharing. But we were not taught to teach in that way, so it never occurred to us (I am saying we and us loosely, to name the early generations of Reclaiming).

    In more recent years I think there have been attempts to correct this. But the early power sharing paradigm still holds sway even though it doesn’t work. The “ideal” is there, but is often not carried out because it does not really work. And so there comes unexamined and un-named heirarchy.

    I hear feedback around this from priestesses all over the country. People not ready to teach want to teach and can’t understand why they should not. They are responding, I feel, to that part of Reclaiming culture that says “anyone can do whatever he or she wants”. Except when they can’t. And then there are problems.

    These issues are one of the reasons I teach on my own now, besides having developed my own work. I teach with the help of everyone in the class’s experience, energy and knowledge of course. I want to truly share power, not just give it lip service. And that means showing other people real ways to develop power, not just saying they have it, when really, they have never been trained to wield it.

    Developing personal power isn’t easy. Sharing it only comes after we have it. Just having co-teachers is not enough, though it was/is a good start.

Comments are closed.