Yearly Archives: 2014

Church of Green and Blue

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Church of Green and Blue

Jason’s recent editorial at the Wild Hunt has spurred me to write here, after a three month hiatus. In his article, Jason makes some good points about the growth of Pagan affiliation in the U.S. compared to its relatively small level of infrastructure and influence. On the question of how to create more engagement among the estimated one million or so Pagans, his answer is better funding for more targeted journalism.

In a related post, Thorn does a remarkable job of laying out the numbers involved in making a living as a spiritual teacher. She ends her piece with this insight:

A big fish in a small pond creates ripples that have impact, but they share the same ecosystem as all the other members of the pond. And outside the pond? Probably no one has ever heard of them.

I have been grappling with these issues since I started Serpentine Music in 1992 and began teaching in 1994. In the 1990s things looked very different, as both Jason and Thorn have pointed out. The publishing industry was stronger then and so was the workshop economy, so between big advances and reasonable speaking fees it was possible to earn a decent living as an author and teacher.

In 2000 I had a couple conversations with Carl McColeman (then the music buyer for New Leaf Distributing), about what it was going to take for Pagan music to become as big as New Age music. Carl had just written an article for New Age Retailer on the topic. We both agreed it was only a matter of time before the market for this music grew to something like the size of the market for books like The Spiral Dance.

We turned out to be wrong, partly because we didn’t foresee the tanking of the music industry, but also because we weren’t thinking big enough. The market for Pagan music never grew to the size we had hoped, but meanwhile its lyric imagery and values were absorbed into the musical mainstream quicker than we ever thought possible. From early artists like Sinead O’Connor, The Pretenders, and Tori Amos, to more recent bands like Florence and the Machine and Arcade Fire, popular music has become filled with songs of shapeshifting, of communing with nature and spirits, of the seasonal festivals. To a certain extent, all musicians are Pagan now.

So the current market for books, music and workshops has made a certain kind of leadership and livelihood nearly impossible to sustain. Yet on a cultural level the influence of Paganism in this country is profound and far-reaching. Our small pond is rapidly being absorbed (some may say siphoned off) into a much larger waterway. And here is where I disagree with some commentators: I don’t see this as a problem. I see this as a huge win.

Learn to Breathe Outside the Pond

If anything, this is a time in the U.S. when spiritual affiliations are getting even looser and less important than they have been for the past 40 years. And when people do feel the need for more spiritual support or community infrastructure in their lives, they are likely to either get more training to carve out their own path, or go back to a version of their childhood faith. Soon after our conversations, Carl returned to his roots and became a Christian mystic.

So I don’t think trying to engage the larger Pagan population with more Pagan-focused journalism will work. On the other hand, the mainstream press is full of casual and profound mentions of Paganism, in every conceivable context. Take this recent example from The Guardian, where in an offhand comment about the fashion industry, Glenn O’Brien of GQ says, “Creative people are natural pagans…It’s the only way you get to talk about Venus and Mercury and Jupiter.”

Unquestionably, we need good journalists reporting on every level of society and culture. Just like we need authors and teachers to remind us how to live a good life. But I think we lose the battle for influence as soon as we start pitching things exclusively to a Pagan audience. One million Pagans don’t even see themselves as an audience—they are Iowans, or lapsed Catholics, or doctors, or yoga moms.

If you are a teacher and writer who happens to be Pagan and would like to make a living at teaching and writing, here is your challenge: meet people in other ponds. Develop totally unrelated groups of friends, and figure out how to talk about what you do so that they can understand. Speak at industry events where your religious affiliation is at most a side note. Sharpen your game, retool your ideas, become a better communicator, learn from others who are a few steps ahead of you. If you can translate your spiritual beliefs into a heartfelt approach to whatever else you do, people will listen.

The rapidity with which the larger culture is absorbing Pagan values is very exciting, but it also means that even in our small pond we need to be more ethical and informed. That’s why Cherry Hill Seminary is such a treasure, and why active bloggers like Jason and Thorn who keep raising the level of online discourse are too.

The number of people who read this blog will always be small, but my goal here isn’t to pump up pageviews or even necessarily to reach more Pagans. It is to develop my ideas, to practice different kinds of writing, to share experiences that have shaped my life. And ultimately, to create stories that are good enough to speak to everyone who finds solace and inspiration in the great big Church of Green and Blue.

Fire in the Earth

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FireintheEarth

There is very little I still hold from my days of Feri (or Faery) study and practice. That stage of my life was rich in drama and wonder, and I was blessed with a circle of close friends engaged in the same pursuits. We kept each other on our toes, exploring all sorts of things we would have never considered before, from the practical to the wildly esoteric. Yet most of what I learned I do not use in my own practice or my teaching. I left Feri behind some years ago but managed to keep my friends, no small feat.

Feri was part of the flowering of Bay Area mysticism, a movement that heated up in the 1960s and 70s, fusing science and faith, ancient myth and modern discovery, Eastern and Western philosophy, into something new. The flowering took on all forms of expression: literature, poetry, psychology, art, film, environmentalism, education, spirituality, medicine, social activism, theoretical physics, and so much more.

As a child of this whole movement more than any one particular strand, maybe I was destined to part ways with both organized and disorganized religion and form my own understanding of spirituality, magic, and leadership. Central to my effort over the past couple years has been a re-thinking of the elements Earth, Air, Fire and Water, and how they relate to the cardinal compass points of North, East, South and West. My personal practice is rooted in this new, evolving model, and it informs everything I do.

This is where I find myself drawn to one Feri gem: the simple phrase Fire in the Earth. For my purposes, I have taken the phrase out of its original context and placed it in the South. I think of it as a refinement of the traditional associations with Fire—creativity, sex, passion, expression, ecstasy—because my goal is effectiveness in the world.

It has never made sense to me that Fire is in the South while our bodies are associated with Earth in the North. Not to make this a commentary on Pagans and physical health, but I think the split does lead to both a lack of physical vibrancy and a tendency toward ungrounded, unsustainable magic. Fire in the Earth challenges us to develop the spirit within our bodies, creating a magnetic, vibrant health that supports our will and prevents us from overextending ourselves.

To me, magnetism is the key. It is different from mere charisma, which wears off because it is an affect, not a core state. Magnetism is a fiery physical presence that both generates energy and draws like energy to it—a much better condition if we are truly interested in manifesting our goals, or succeeding at any creative expression. It is the opposite of fire run amok, and the walking wounded teaching others to reach for ecstasy without first cultivating the strength to handle it.

What does this re-alignment mean in practical terms? It means building a container to match the energy you want to pour through it, giving that fire a wide hearth in which to burn brightly. It means creating the steel in your spine that is only forged through white heat. And most of all it means acknowledging that there is no “pure” fire, no source of light and heat separate from that which moves within us. The force that drives the flower does so only through the green fuse.

Fire in the Earth. We sit at the edge of our own caldera every day. The question is, what are we doing with it?

9th Annual Brigid Poetry Festival

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Brigiddoll

It is time once again to pull out your journals, those scraps of paper and backs of envelopes where you have jotted down verse throughout the year—you know you have—and offer it up to the Goddess Brigid, patron saint of Ireland. Brigid loves poetry, excels at smithcraft, is an accomplished healer, and midwife, and in my experience also appreciates a fine whiskey on her Feast Day.

Which is tomorrow. Or as I prefer to think of it, the entire weekend.

This Silent Poetry Festival has been going on since 2006, and has become a wonderful, international event, with people posting poems in honor of Brigid on their blogs, Facebook, Twitters, Tumblrs, and other such devices.

If you would like to join in, here’s what to do:

  1. Post a poem either on your blog or on our Facebook page. (Yes, I know it says 2011 but just ignore that, Facebook won’t let me change it.)
  2. Share your link either here in the comments section or on that aforementioned page.
  3. Take some time in the coming week to dim the lights, pour your favorite libation, and read some of the poetry offered up to Brigid.
  4. Sleep deeply, wake refreshed.

That’s it! Extra credit for posting children’s poems, photos of gatherings to read poetry aloud, and other mirth to celebrate the return of the light. Please help spread the word, so others may partake as well. (And if anyone can help me credit the photo above I would appreciate it.)

Here is a poem I have been inspired by lately. It is a prayer of Ludwig van Beethoven, after he realized that his deafness was incurable.

Beethoven’s Prayer

Oh God give me strength to be victorious
over myself, for nothing may chain me to
this life. O guide my spirit, O raise me
from these dark depths, that my soul,
transported through Your wisdom, may
fearlessly struggle upward in fiery flight.
For You alone understand and can inspire me.
—Ludwig van Beethoven

May the light return for all of us this year.

Real World Ethics

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My ongoing examination of leadership and community dynamics in this blog dovetails nicely with teaching ethics classes at Cherry Hill Seminary. I never imagined teaching an ethics course, but was asked to step in mid-semester four years ago when a faculty change left the Boundaries and Ethics class without a professor.

That year I played catch-up, learning the material while teaching it and facilitating class discussions. As an educator this is never a comfortable position to be in, but I found that I loved the topic and kept studying after the class was over. Since then I have taught the class twice, each time making minor improvements in the curriculum. Now I think I am ready to do a full-scale revamping of the course.

But first we need a good basic text.

The course needs to bridge historical and modern Pagan thought on ethics, and present methodologies for making ethical decisions in chaplaincy, pastoral, and community settings. I want my students to start with their personal (both observed and first-hand) experiences with Pagan leadership, community and group dynamics, filter it through a study of ethical criteria and guidelines developed by various religious and secular organizations, and come up with a code of conduct for themselves going forward in their private and professional lives.

Make an Ethical Difference

I have been scouring the market for books to use the next time I teach the course, and am happy to report that we have a new front-runner! Mark Pastin’s new book Making an Ethical Difference: Tools for Better Action is a great introduction to thinking ethically in difficult situations.

Pastin, CEO of the Council of Ethical Organizations, draws on his experience as advisor to corporations and NGOs worldwide to shape the book, starting each chapter with a new dilemma and using it to illustrate how to think about similar situations. Make an Ethical Difference presents five tools for sharpening your ethical sense:

  1. Read the Ground Rules
  2. Reason Backward to Find the Interests
  3. Face the Facts 
  4. Stand in the Shoes
  5. The Global Benefit Approach

While these are excellent practices for making our own ethical choices, applying them to a situation with multiple parties involved is much trickier. Fortunately, Pastin has what he calls “The Convergence Process,” designed “to increase the alignment of the ethics eyes of those directly involved in a situation requiring action.” In other words, getting people to share outlooks and be willing to change their views—including your own. It is a powerful approach involving transparency and great communication skills.

A book like this is the perfect guide to keep nearby when the inevitable occurs and humans get into conflicts. I will be referring to it myself in the months to come, taking Pastin’s tools for a test drive in my current ethics class and out in the real world as well.

Meanwhile, does anybody have other favorite ethics texts to recommend?