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.