Category Archives: Leadership

Who is holding the clipboard? Can they handle it? Can we handle them?

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.

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?

Fame, Community and Commerce

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One night over twenty years ago I stood outside Urban Stonehenge, a large pink house on Potrero Hill, talking to my friend Rose as people streamed in through the front gate. It was a big monthly San Francisco party known as the anarchist community coffeehouse, and I’d driven down from Sonoma County to see friends and play at the open mike.

Rose and I greeted people as they came in and many of them, seeing my guitar nearby, asked expectantly if I was going to sing. At one point I commented to Rose how awkward the attention made me feel. She said, in her matter-of-fact way, “Don’t be. Just accept the fact that you’re a minor celebrity in a minor subculture.”

Until that moment I had not thought much about fame in terms of our circle of friends. Rose’s comment helped give me some perspective, and from then on I started paying attention to who stood out from the crowd, why, and how they handled it.

Commerce in the Community

Fame is different from leadership, yet in our celebrity culture we often conflate them. We assume that people who are famous are better at something than the rest of us, or have great ideas that others should follow. While this is often true, the larger a community grows the more likely you are to find people who achieve celebrity without the weight of actual leadership ability.

I have written before about what happens when narcissism and charisma infect community leadership. That post was in some ways the product of my observations over the past twenty years of spiritual communities in general. To make it a little more concrete, I want to focus here on two different leadership paradigms I have found.

For many years, the prevailing business model in the women’s spirituality and self-help movement had been to write a good book, then go on the workshop circuit and teach that material to grow your audience, while developing material for a second book. These books presented a positive vision of personal empowerment, yet among the author personalities there was a degree of competition that often belied their egalitarian message. 

Their zero-sum-game attitude was easy to miss when the economy and especially publishing was doing well. But as money started to tighten up, people with name recognition were faced with hard choices and not all of them made good ones. Those who could not control their egos tended to flame out and disappear, while others found steady income through teaching or sought out new markets in which to spread their message.

In the early 2000s I studied dreamwork with Rev. Jeremy Taylor, eventually becoming the first graduate of his Marin Institute for Projective Dreamwork. For something as non-mainstream as interpreting dreams, Jeremy had a refreshing viewpoint on competition and fame. He stated explicitly more than once that the more competent dreamworkers there were out in the world, the more the public would be educated about dreams and ultimately the more opportunities there would be for all dreamworkers.

Having come up against the winner-take-all mentality in self-help circles himself, he knew the only way to counter it was to set a different tone early on with his own students. I was deeply grateful that someone so well-known would live his principles to such a degree, and actively work to change the culture of celebrity from within.

Studying with Jeremy gave me the language to voice what had been bothering me about fame and community ever since that coffeehouse incident. It continues to inform my work today with authors, most of whom hope to bring their message of wisdom or spirituality to a larger audience.

“Leave more value than you capture.”

This quote from tech CEO Tim O’Reilly should guide all of our efforts to create a stream of commerce from our community involvement. A subculture that becomes an exclusive feeding ground for one or two high-profile members will end up desiccated and unable to thrive. And thriving culture is what supports all the arts and insures a growing audience for everyone.

The publishing industry is in such a shambles today that the only way authors can get ahead is to collaborate, sharing insights and best practices, and joining forces to find and create new audiences for all our work. The relationship between spirituality and commerce has never been easy, but at least we now have a guideline by which to judge those in our midst who end up being leaders and achieving fame. We can ask how much value they create and leave on the table for others. How are they generous, and to what effect? And is our community richer or poorer for their presence in it?

The Art of Community

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It was a running joke in the old Reclaiming Collective that “The Future of the Collective” would always be an item on our meeting agenda, and we would always run out of time before addressing it. The joke lasted for years, and provided a refreshing bit of honesty about our ambivalence toward maturing as an organization and community. 

We were an action-oriented group, always organizing the next ritual or set of classes, and many of us worked together in other direct action groups as well. So there was some measure of pride in saying that we were too busy doing things to sit back and wonder why we were doing them, or where it all might lead. That was fine for slower-moving, less radical organizations, but not for us. It just wasn’t in our DNA.

Living in the moment, moving by the tides and dealing with only what is immediate and unavoidable is a great way to test yourself, learn new things, and form bonds of kinship. But while some of those bonds may stand the test of time, most dissolve as quickly as the moments that produced them. Reclaiming proved to be far better at creating moments than building anything meaningful or lasting, but it did teach me a whole lot about what community really means.

Community is who shows up. If you are going through a tough time and have been brought to your knees, who calls to check in? Who comes over to help? Who can you count on through thick and thin? That’s your community, like it or not.

When I went through my own hell realm a few years ago, what made it all the more painful was noticing who responded to my calls for help. Many people I assumed were my close-in community were nowhere to be found, while others I hadn’t considered inner circle ended up there because they wanted me to count on them, no matter what.

I took the lesson, and completely re-arranged my notion of who my community really was. The process has also made me acutely aware of where I put my energy. Where does my heart lie? Who is family to me? That is who I show up for.

My friend (and former neighbor) Peter Laufer wrote of our town:

A town’s character is influenced by its physical location and its architecture. But its mythology and sense of self develops as events occur.

The art of community is building that mythology through the repetition of physical actions that improve the group’s overall health and goodwill. It turns out that community has very little to do with a shared worldview, the number of meetings attended, or the intention with which it formed in the first place.

Moments are fun, and can be meaningful, but showing up is the sinew that makes a community somewhere you want to stay for the long term, maybe a lifetime. There is an art to that, yes, but it is also a practice. And for that, you don’t need an agenda item.

Bullying, Caretaking and Community

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And there is no peace, no true release
No secret place to crawl
And there is no rest for the ones God blessed
And he blessed you best of all.
—”King of Bohemia,” by Richard Thompson

By happy coincidence, this song lyric allows me to continue from my last post on those among us who are many-skilled, while helping me frame an assortment of thoughts I have been tossing around for a few weeks now.

Last month I wrote, “As a society, we cope uneasily with the fact that gifts and talents are not evenly distributed among the population.” Seeing someone in action who is incredibly talented can be inspiring, and it can also make us feel acutely our comparative lack of that talent or skill.

Because they are so good at some stuff, we often build up as leaders those who are gifted—especially if what they are good at includes speaking, writing or performance. Sometimes they even become spokespeople for entire communities formed around their ideas and aspirations. This is especially true in spiritual communities, where all too often the emotional release of a great performance is mistaken for genuine enlightenment or transformation. In this game, the ones with the most charisma usually win.

And what do they win? Power. We listen to them, we defer to their opinions, we assume they are right until we are forced to disagree with them—often through painful experience. Meanwhile, we trust them to guide us and keep the community’s well-being foremost in their minds as they go about leading things.

But being comfortable with power has very little to do with being a good leader. And sometimes those who like the power we’ve given them feel the most trapped by the responsibilities of actual leadership. One could almost say victimized.

Hearing these Richard Thompson lyrics in the car the other day reminded me how those moments feel. You give it your all, and still you get criticized. Blamed when things go wrong, sneered at by those who used to hang on your every word. Every parent knows this feeling—and if you haven’t felt it yet, just wait. :)

So much depends on exactly how we rise from this spot. Our response at this precise moment determines whether we truly are leaders, or just despots. If we lash out because we are tired, or pissed, or had a bad day, or even if we truly feel that nobody should ever question us, we have set in motion a bullying/caretaking dynamic from which our community may never recover.

Here’s how the bullying/caretaking game goes: Someone realizes that the person at the top isn’t leading well, and says so. The leader retaliates by participating (or in some cases being the instigator) in trashing the person who speaks out. Policy issues are re-framed as personality clashes, with the whistle-blower now characterized as gunning for one of the leader’s favored deputies rather than voicing a legitimate concern. The pile-on continues until the person who originally spoke out is either bullied into silence or driven out.

This is old news to anyone who’s read my book on Reclaiming, a community where I have watched this dynamic play out more than once. I’m kind of tired of thinking about it, and I’m definitely tired of writing about it. But when I heard about the latest kerfuffle, what got me interested enough to write again was the other side of the bullying/caretaking equation: the caretakers.

Caretakers are the peacemakers in the group. They strive to help everyone get along, they tend to avoid conflict, and they are so aligned with the group’s ideals that they will put up with a significant amount of less-than-ideal behavior to get to the good parts again. Usually they do a lot of volunteer work to keep community events running smoothly. They often have great leadership skills but may be more comfortable in a secondary role, so are happy to cede the limelight to the natural performers.

Caretakers find support and friendship in the group, and this benefit usually trumps their periodic misgivings. But caretakers are not completely altruistic. So long as they stay peacekeepers while others get trashed, they do accrue some power without having ultimate responsibility to lead.

And the benefits of the role can be significant. If your livelihood is dependent on the clients or students you gain from the group, why would you risk that income source to speak out? What could possibly compel you to try to change the group dynamic, if failure meant financial struggle or open conflict with your friends?

It is quite possible to be a caretaker until you are financially stable enough, or have a strong enough support network outside the group, to leave. Or, if you live far enough away from the epicenter, it may require only occasional gymnastics to stay out of the fray while building your network at a safe distance.

Changing the DNA of an established community is a daunting task. Because each role is dependent on the other, it takes a tremendous amount of energy to reverse the cycle. Leaders who don’t see the harm in lashing out have to actually listen, and begin the hard inner work of changing their patterned responses. Caretakers have to step out of their comfort zones and use their power to stop the cycle in spite of the personal risks.

Or, nothing can change. Caretakers will keep things running, while a new crop of gifted people sees the model of leadership in place and figures their performance skills are up to the job. Sadly, no one is there to teach them otherwise.

Richard Thompson the Many-Skilled

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Last winter I had the great pleasure of seeing Richard Thompson again in concert. He is one of my favorite musicians and it had been a few years since I saw him last, so I was really happy to have heard about the show in time to get tickets.

What made it Richard Thompson photo by Joe Putrockeven more special is that I brought along two friends who had never heard him play before. These two men are fans of all the great guitarists of our era, but they’d never considered Richard Thompson to be among them. To them, he was a fringe name in a field of much more important players. But I raved about his playing and they (mostly) trust my judgment, so off we went.

All it took was the opening song for both of them to change their minds completely. Thompson was in fine form, electrifying from the first notes, and as the last chord faded one friend leaned over and said, “Too bad he’s having an off night.”

Later, my other friend said that it ws the best live show he’d ever seen. He was raised in a musical family and has been going to concerts since he was a boy, so at first I didn’t know whether he was being serious. But he went on, describing the many things that Richard Thompson does brilliantly: his virtuosic guitar work, with traditional ballads, obscure dance music forms, and hard-driving rock; his songwriting, which spans every emotional tone and genre with biting lyrics and beautiful melodies; his voice, which is completely distinctive and suits his songs perfectly; and most especially, his dynamic stage presence as a performer.

As he rattled off his list, I thought of the story of the Celtic God Lugh. Lugh led the Tuatha De Danaan to victory in the Second Battle of Magh Tuireadh, and is the father of Cúchulainn, the great Irish hero. But my favorite story is of how he gained entry to the court of Tara before the battle.

Lugh knocked at the door and was challenged by the doorkeeper, who asked him what service he had to offer the king. Lugh declares that he is a skilled wright, to which the doorkeeeper replies that the king already has one of those.

In a highly ritualized exchange, Lugh then goes down the list of things he excels at: he is a smith, a champion, a swordsman, a harpist, a hero, a poet and historian, a sorcer, a craftsman. Every time, the doorkeeper refuses him entry because the king already has someone who excels at each skill.

Finally, Lugh asks if the king has one person who does all of those things. The doorkeeper has to admit that there is no one in Tara who is a master of all skills, and he opens the door for Lugh.

As a society, we cope uneasily with the fact that gifts and talents are not evenly distributed among the population. It is relatively easy to admire those who excel at just one or two things, because we understand where they fit in the social fabric. Among musicians, Jeff Beck is a great guitarist; Yo-Yo Ma is a virtuoso cellist; Leonard Cohen is a great songwriter; Bruce Springsteen is a great performer.

We find it harder to accept those who have developed multiple talents into finely-honed skills, because the combination is so rare. Someone like Richard Thompson, who excels at so many things, may find it hard to achieve the recognition he deserves, because he is not just one thing.

Or at least, that is how I make sense of the fact that Richard Thompson is not more well-known. Being a Son of Lugh is not the easy road to recognition. Incidentally, to my friend’s list of things that Thompson excels at, I would add his gift for bringing myth to life. Fairport Convention was, after all, instrumental in popularizing Celtic folk songs like the Ballad of Tam Lin, reviving them with an electric sound.

You can hear that vein of bringing new life to old material in Thompson’s playing even now. That is, if you have heard him play live. And if you haven’t, what on earth are you waiting for?

Thoughts on Spirituality, Politics and Values

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This post is the happy intersection of something I already wanted to write, combined with this month’s annual Pagan Values blog-fest-o-rama. Joni Mitchell, one of my personal songwriting heroes, has refused more than once to be part of compilations and tours of “women artists” or “women singer-songwriters,” maintaining that she is an artist first, then a woman. I feel the same way about this event, though I understand the reasoning behind it.

I am a big believer in just being good at what you do, whether it is parenting or writing, art or politics. Thinking of the greater good, being able to sacrifice for others but also knowing when to put yourself first—all are valuable and necessary. I value education, clarity, decency, aspiration. To me these are fundamentally human attributes, identifiable (and also lacking) in people of every creed and religion.

But I am not here to quibble. Instead, I want to post the thoughts I shared last month at the Pagan Alliance Festival in Berkeley. The Alliance kindly asked me to speak on the topic of “paradigm shift,” so I decided to talk about an idea I used to value, but don’t anymore. What follows is an edited version of that speech:

This year’s theme is “paradigm shift,” so I thought I would talk about my own recent paradigm shift around spirituality and politics. Reclaiming’s ideal of unifying spirituality and politics is something I lived and breathed starting in the early ’80s. But that has shifted over the past several years, and I want to explain why.

The best place to begin is with James Watt, Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior from 1981 to 83. James Watt was awful, one of the worst cabinet members in U.S. history. He pursued terrible environmental policies, and he seethed with hatred toward environmentalists. Watt was also an evangelical Christian who believed in the “end times,” and only wanted to assure that the earth’s resources held out till Christ returned. To the end, he was engaged primarily in a religious war.

After his craziness got him kicked out of the Dept. of Interior, someone interviewed James Watt and asked what his biggest fear was about environmentalists. And he said, “that they’re all secretly pagan.” That comment was a huge in-joke for me and all my friends, because of course we WERE secretly (or not so secretly) pagan.

We were environmentalists for many sound economic and political reasons, but at the core we were horrified at the abuse of the earth’s resources, and wanted to restore the spirits of the wild to the land. We wanted to protect the earth, and to do that we had to overthrow the evangelical Christian worldview. James Watt provided an excellent target, and so we built our pagan identity around opposition to him and people like him.

But oppositional identities are tricky things to control once they get started, and recent events give us a timely opportunity to do some course correction of our own before things get out of hand. James Watt was a true believer, and in that sense he is the forerunner of everyone we see on the far right rising to political power in the states and nationally.

We’ve seen blatant efforts to roll back voting rights, women’s health care, fair wages, due process and the right to organize. The fight is on to destroy the separation of church and state in this country. This is horrifying. If we don’t vote and get involved politically, our country could very quickly revert to an oppressive theocracy, just like back in Salem in the 17th century.

But I am grateful that we can now see their goals so clearly, because it is this view down into the abyss that has caused me to change how I feel about mixing spirit and politics. In the religious right, we can see the shadow of what we might become if the shoe were on the other foot.

What do I mean by this? Zealotry begins with a deep sense of frustration at the slow pace of change. That urgency, combined with strong religious beliefs, means that we turn to a sympathetic deity or presiding force to intercede in human affairs. And of course, because our deity is sympathetic it seems to validate even our most extreme views. We have now created a closed loop of influence, within which we feel increasingly justified and self-righteous about our cause.

One thing I didn’t understand when I was young is that broad cultural change happens very, very slowly. Getting involved with charismatic traditions like Reclaiming and Feri felt like having the inside track to change, and a greater collective ability to affect things. But the closed loops I experienced encouraged emotionality and discouraged analysis and debate. The more radical and inspiring the leaders, and the more doe-eyed the sycophants or initiates, the more likely that the group’s tactics will be misguided at best, and at worst potentially destructive to the very people and causes they support.

It is easy to see the shadow of our own actions and beliefs magnified a hundred-fold in the religious right today. I am so very grateful that radical activist pagans have never (yet?) been bankrolled by eccentric billionaires and thus allowed to create more harm than good in a supposedly pluralistic society. It would be hard not to see all that money and influence as confirmation that God/dess was on our side, and that now was our time to strike out against the enemies of Gaia, or any other sympathetic deity of our choice.

Fighting a religious war is no way to maintain a democracy. It’s not even a great way to maintain a religion. The challenge for pagans, today and over the long haul, is to use our spiritual beliefs to galvanize us to action, but to stay focused on the goal: a country in which politics and spirituality are NOT unified. Where the separation of church and state is intact, and everyone’s basic civil rights are valued and protected.

In closing, here is what I now believe about spirit and politics:

Things that matter most require long fights. In those fights the air, fire, water, and earth will support us. Community will ground us. But we need to hold our own center. So check yourself. In your heart, do you carry the flame of the true believer? If so, is there also space there for others to believe differently?

May our hearts be large enough to hold multiple possibilities of connection to Spirit, and let there also be space to listen and speak clearly; to learn from others; to be decent neighbors, citizens, parents, and friends; and through the long struggle, to hold fast to our aspirations of a more just society for all.

Standing in Spirit – Centeredness Through Change

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I love my work as a consultant on digital publishing and social media. It’s fun, I’m good at it, and it allows me time to write and keep up my radio show. Still, I was wondering when I’d get back into teaching, my other love. Now, it seems, is the time.

In 1999 I went back to school for a Doctor of Ministry degree, as a way to step back from all the teaching I’d been doing and reflect on what I’d learned and what I still believed. My dissertation was about women, power and leadership, with insights gleaned from dreamwork, Goddess spirituality, and the principles I’d learned while earning a black belt in aikido. I had seen a lot of examples of how not to hold power, and was convinced that it was possible to do it better, or at least avoid the most egregious errors I’d seen. In my dissertation, I started developing ideas on how to get there.

After graduating in 2003 I wrote a book proposal based on that material, and tried for several years to get it published. (I hope to publish it as an ebook this year.) Meanwhile, a friend asked me if I could teach what I was writing about—namely, how to stay relatively centered while holding authority and working well with others. The outcome was Standing in Spirit, a year-long training and transformative process to deepen personal presence while increasing outward effectiveness.

Leading the Standing in Spirit training for the first time was an amazing experience, and made me feel enthusiastic about teaching again. Then my father died, the economy tanked, and I had to stay focused on other things for a while.

But now it’s a new day, and it feels like a good time to start teaching again. I will be doing dreamwork in Chicago in May, teaching in Portland in July, and in June I am offering a daylong version of Standing in Spirit here in Bodega Bay, for anyone who might be interested. The full day is $50, and will only be open to 10 people.

You can see my full calendar of events here, sign up at the Standing in Spirit Facebook page, and even join my monthly dream group. Getting back into teaching feels great. But having something I’m really excited to teach—that’s the best.

If We Dismantle It, They Will Come

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There we stood in a park in San Francisco, about fifteen of us circled around a large ceramic bowl on the ground in which we had written the things we wanted to see increase: more money for this, more power to that, healing for her, a better job for him. Interspersed among the slips of paper was a collection of seeds, representing the power of growth. Once we had raised energy for our intentions, we took some seeds home with us, to keep focused on the vision we were growing.

Rituals like this one can be inspiring and affirming, and most importantly, show no signs of going away. But at one point it dawned on me: every altar, bookshelf and windowsill in my house was now littered with sacred seeds and pebbles, fragrant bits of greenery, beads, pieces of yarn (cut from webs we’d constructed), half-burned candles signifying something, and other ceremonial souvenirs I had brought home. The thought formed unbidden in my mind: was all that growing and visioning still taking place, if I could no longer remember the point of each stone and leaf as I dusted it?

I kept quiet about my troubling thought, but like all seeds planted in the darkness it just kept growing, eventually making it hard to see what we thought we were doing. Then some unfortunate person posted a comment to an email list, suggesting that in response to the latest egregious corporate land-grab we should all imagine planting a forest of trees so thick it would trap the evildoers and prevent them from carrying out their scheme. It would be like in Macbeth, only with high-speed internet and better candles.

At that point I felt like the Lorax, speaking for all of the trees, seeds, junk and jewels I had collected in my house, none of which I knew what to do with after charging them with hallowed intentions and bringing them home. I spoke up: “I can’t believe you are suggesting planting another damn tree in the collective unconscious. How will we find a clear place to plant, with all the rubbish we’ve left there over the years? Isn’t it about time we found another metaphor for making things happen the way we want—like, for instance, pruning and weeding?”

Unfortunately my reasoning was lost on its intended audience, due to my strong, practically violent language. But thus began my own transformation from a ritual accrualist to someone with a tidier home and a different sensibility about magic altogether. I started thinking that perhaps the best way to get help from the spirits was not to construct a grand, visionary edifice for them á la Field of Dreams, but instead to clean the place up, invite them over, and see what they choose to build.

I didn’t throw out everything all at once. These were ceremonial artifacts after all, and shouldn’t just be swept into the dustbin without any thought at all. And while several items did find their way into the compost and trash, most were eventually set out under bushes and trees in my yard, residing there until they were carted off by activist squirrels in the neighborhood.

With the clutter gone, what remained in my home were things that did have special significance, and that I actually used. It took a while to get used to this new ritual aesthetic, but over time I feel it has streamlined my access to all sorts of worlds, and made my place a destination spot for helpful spirits year-round.

Now there is a comfortable clutter of personalities on my mantle for Samhain. That seems right—this is the ancestral mixer holiday, after all. Day of the Dead figures cavort with pictures of my beloved dead, the recently deceased get the chance to meet my grandparents, and there is plenty of food, music and candles for all.

There is a place for jumble and clutter, especially while everyone is getting along. But sometime in November there will come a day when it feels like the party is over, and it is time for everyone to go away until next time. I will relish emptying the mantle then, and will live comfortably in the silence until the Solstice spirits start knocking on my door and I let them in, one by one, slowly painting my house with colors and lights for a new year.

If You Won’t Vote, I Don’t Want to Be Part of Your Revolution

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Memo to all progressives, activists, eco-warriors and Lefty paradigm shifters: I get it, I get it. Obama is a wimp. The Senate is completely dysfunctional, and your congressperson isn’t doing nearly enough. Right. Check. Now get over yourselves and vote.

I agree that the stimulus bill should have been much larger and financial reform much stronger. Yes, Democrats have shown a troubling lack of political will, and have not heeded their base on many important issues. But do you really think this will get better if Republicans gain seats in Congress this November? Are you willing to sit back and let that happen?

The standard-issue excuse that “there is no difference between Democrats and Republicans, so why bother,” just doesn’t cut it this year. It is not a question of Democrat versus Republican in this election, it is a choice between those who are capable of governing at all, versus those who are not. Today’s right-wing candidates make no bones about it: they would happily cede the entire act of governing to the likes of Charles and David Koch’s favorite charities.

That is how bad things are in this country right now. And it is never, ever a reason to stop exercising your right to vote. In college in the 1980s, my activist friends and I were horrified at how ineffectual the Democratic candidates for president were. But every election we would jokingly call ourselves “Anarchists for Mondale,” or “Anarchists for Dukakis,” and would get our radical behinds down to the polls and vote.

Here in California, this election is even more critical than usual. Our state government is broken, our roads and schools are crumbling, and the economy sucks. But if you thought things got worse on Schwarzenegger’s watch, just wait till Meg Whitman, the $100 million Stepford candidate, buys her way into the governor’s office. Do you really want to experience what will happen as she auctions off the rest of the state to corporate bidders? Will that forward your principles in some way?

I lived here under Governor Moonbeam. I can’t say I’m a big fan. But Jerry Brown cares about governing, and understands how to get an economy working. So does Senator Barbara Boxer, who is battling yet another candidate financed by her private fortune, one who can’t even run a business let alone a government. If you care about the environment and want to keep our beaches free of oil for your children and grandchildren, why on earth would you risk displacing Barbara Boxer for an utter disaster like Carly Fiorina? Why even take that chance?

Other Huffington Post bloggers have written in much greater detail about why this election is important. But here’s the thing: if you choose to sit this one out and the Democrats lose control of Congress, you probably don’t want to hit me up for a contribution anytime soon. Even if you catch me with some change in my pocket coming out of Whole Foods and ask for a donation to your pet cause, my first question will be, “Did you vote in the midterms?”

If the answer is no, count me out as a supporter. Because no matter how important your issue is, it is small change compared to what we are challenged with right now as a nation. By choosing apathy over engagement this November, you will be making all of our efforts way more difficult, and in the process demonstrating how incomplete your grasp is of the big picture. In that context, how can anyone take you or your activism seriously?

This article was originally published in the Huffington Post.