Witchcraft Philosophies, Action, Leadership, Humor, Outrage, Awkward Mishaps, Lovable Lessons, and a search for Grace with a clumsy Witch.
Ears First, Tongue Second
Now that I’ve got your attention, let me tell you about the time someone criticized my student and I nearly lost my friggin’ mind.
I see my Coven the way most people see swans. Graceful and lovely on the surface; pedaling like mad beneath the surface to keep all things going well. Guests may see them as the calm and friendly people who call the Quarters, take the suggested $10 donations, raise the energy, and don’t let anyone open the wine until Fellowship. What they don’t see are the hours driving to NYC (for those who live in CT or Westchester), or the local members shuffling their shoulder bags full of ritual gear onto the subway, setting the space, performing the rite, cleaning up, and then shuffling everything back onto the subway, but usually with additional baggage in tow: canned food, toys, or clothing for various drives. The life of the Urban Witch often demands long journeys on foot, up and down long flights of stairs while jostling staffs, swords, candles, and goods among drunken strangers on and off of subways. It’s work. It’s a task of the Spirit and one I believe we are all glad to give. But what guests also don’t see is how many hours are spent in Circle outside of Sabbat, working on strengthening their Magickal and Energetic prowess as well as working through and with their Personal Shadows as part of becoming better Practitioners.
About six months ago, I wrote about hearing a guest pick apart the ritual we’d just performed like it was an indi-flick they had to dissect for a film class they only took because they wanted to sleep with the instructor.
Part of my irritation came from this guest so carelessly picking apart what my Coven had selflessly given. But I put me in check reminding myself that a.) my Coveners are all adults and can handle themselves and b.) I am not actually a female bear and I do not need to rip into the guts of every perceived threat against my “cubs,” especially one that is not actually a threat, but more of a rude misstep of the mouth. I let it go that time and blogged. It was all in divine order as many people said they identified with it. Yay! Thank you, Criticism Fairy! You taught us all a lesson.
But then, Yule came around.
The Lord of Misrule was fully active and caused all kind of mayhem this year. Antics included slaying our Trance Prophecy Priestess with a lung infection two days before the Rite, which meant begging the Oak King to take the Oracle chair, and a wicked-snowstorm the day-of which meant the ritual team members in CT and Westchester, who made up most of the team, couldn’t even get there. We had 50 guests who had RSVP’d in the affirmative. Bad weather does not stop NYC/NJ Pagans, who cross bridges on foot when the subway is out if a Sabbat is happening on the other side. Yule would go on. Finally, my Covener Alice—who planned the Rite and was to lead had a tricky time getting there. By tricky, I mean that someone not familiar with NYC-Transit may have found this trickiness worthy of pulling all hair from their head, punching holes in several cement walls, and lighting all of downtown on fire. For someone who is familiar with the system, it was a bit more tricky than usual.
Alice’s travel to Brooklyn from Jersey City was delayed by the snow. For those of you who don’t know what this means, it meant Alice walked a half-mile to a light-rail station and took a train, to another train, to a subway, to yet another subway, and then walked the quarter mile from subway to ritual space, all the while carrying her ritual gear through heavy snow. All trains were delayed and packed with people who were snow-and-salt crazed, probably drunk, and more violent than usual. She did all of this knowing most of her ritual team would not be there, but the guests had already arrived. Moreover, while en route to the space, whatever stomach funk was kicking around NYC finally hit her and she had to get off at a number of stops and sit for a bit to settle the nausea. By the time she finally arrived at the space, she had a full-blown panic attack.
(Couldn’t one of us have gone and gotten her? No, as the people with cars were snowbound. Couldn’t we have been there to help her? I’m afraid the geography of being fifteen miles from her again, sans vehicle, made this quite an impossible task.)
But after some grounding and the donning of a ritual mask, Alice found her center. She led a powerful, ecstatic Yule rite for fifty guests. It was a crowning moment for me as a Priestess and teacher. It was the most hands-off I had been in any of my rituals, sitting with the drummers and playing while she did the work of the presiding Priestess. She barely needed me, which means I must have done something right along the way. After the rite, Alice packed up all the toy donations for a children’s drive and prepared for her arduous journey home while I was able to enjoy fellowship for the first time in the history of the world.
While basking in the proud afterglow known to teachers who see their students succeed, two of my Coveners rushed up to me, looking ready to hex and vex. “Someone just went up to Alice and totally ripped the ritual apart! They told her they were super disappointed, felt nothing, that a whole lot of other people felt nothing, and that they expected so much from us, and that basically the whole ritual was one big let-down.” I ran out into the hall, but the delinquent guest had already gone.
I must have looked like this:
But I felt like this:
I knew the person. I thought I knew them well. What in the HELL were they thinking? Didn’t they KNOW how damaging it is to criticize a ritual in the moments after it concludes? It affects the energy for everyone! The ritual is a living, breathing entity….not a product for review on Amazon.com! Weren’t THEY SUPPOSED to also be a leader in our community? Did they feel ENTITLED to go around me and share an unwarranted and frankly hurtful opinion?
Alice, however, was fine. “I think this is a lesson for me in learning to handle criticism,” she said, and calmly went back to collecting toys and cleaning up chips/salsa mess.
I, on the other hand, was not calm. But that wasn’t a good thing.
My students have their own lessons to learn and they don’t get the opportunity to grow and strengthen themselves if I go rushing in with a frothing mouth. Would I have learned to chill and chill again if my High Priestess had fended off every rude word that came my way? Alice turned the insult into a gift and left with a Pearl of Wisdom. Oysters take a piece of irritating sand and smooth it over until it makes a beautiful gem. Like the oyster, we can take our moments of discomfort and turn them into something beautiful. I needed to sit back and let Alice sit with her pearl.
But in the days to come, I was still bothered by it.
The idea of another leader pulling a student aside moments after their ritual was over and going through a toxic laundry list of things that were “wrong” hit me in the stomach like bad sushi. Maybe I was sensitive because of what Alice had gone through that evening, but I still felt it needed addressing. It is not appropriate to a,) pick apart a ritual immediately or b.) lecture another person’s student. To do nothing would set the precedent that something I felt was fundamentally NOT okay was acceptable behavior. Would this lead to this person adjudicating Alice after every ritual? Or my other Coveners? Would this activity spread like Wildfire in the Game of Thrones sense and ruin relationships across the community?
I felt it important to do something. I had options.
I could Vaguebook.
I could send an angry email.
Dear Person Who Pissed Me Off,
I was deeply saddened by your actions at our Yule Sabbat. I’m sure you are a good person, but right now I have no confidence whatsoever in your abilities to be a good role model for the community. What RIGHT DO YOU HAVE to lecture MY students? I’m so sorry you feel so threatened by me that you can’t approach me directly. And don’t go replying that I’m threatened by you for responding to this in an email. I just feel like I need to get it in writing so I can show people how right I am and how wrong you are when you write back, although this will ultimately serve to prove only that we’re both equally inefficient and passive-aggressive. Clearly, you correcting another person’s student is one example and me addressing it behind the safety-glass of my computer screen is another. I guess…never mind. Deleting this email.
(Angry text would have served the same purpose, FYI.)
I could vent to everyone in the Pagan community so they knew exactly how furious I was and hope they would “do the right thing” by never inviting this person to their events ever again.
I mean, it only took NYC a decade to heal from their last Witch-War and now things are totally fine. I’m sure I’ll come through this smelling like essential rose, so I’m willing to spend my life and energy in a battle of words and spells and “territory.”
I could ignore it.
And fester negative energy. And let my students think it’s okay for a teacher to let inappropriate behavior go unaddressed. That’s what Jesus would do. Turn the other cheek and be peaceful. Wait. No, he wouldn’t. He turned over money tables and yelled at rude people. I don’t know where that “Turn the Cheek” thing comes in but it doesn’t matter because I’m not even Christian. No offense, Jesus.
Here’s what I did.
I set a phone date with this person. Once we got on the phone, although I was hot in the ears and took the call outside where it was 12 degrees so the weather would balance my temper, I started the conversation with, “I hear you had concerns about our ritual.” Then, I listened. The person spoke for a while about their concerns. I didn’t agree with any of them, but I didn’t argue with them, either. The issue wasn’t about whether the person liked the ritual, but how they had treated my student. After having said their piece, the person was open to hearing my concerns.
I learned a few things. Some of them delighted me:
1.) This person had no idea Alice was a student and not a full-fledged Priestess. “You all work so well together, I can’t tell who’s a student and who’s not,” they said. (I must be doing something right!) They agreed that going forward, they would talk to me if they had concerns about my students’ work—not the student, directly without my permission.
2.) This person, although a community leader in an organizer-activist sense, practiced ritual almost entirely as a solitary and wasn’t aware of the damage that can be done to the overall ritual if it is picked apart immediately afterward. “I’m so glad you told me that,” they said. “This will make my own work stronger.”
3.) The work of public trance was unusual to this person, who was from a school in which these things were kept very secret. Alice’s choice to use public trance work unnerved them. My group’s work purposely challenges the norm. We had done it again without even realizing it. Good job, Alice! We agreed to disagree on that, but happily so.
4.) They legitimately wanted to help. I may not have agreed with their choices and thoughts, but I respected their love for the Craft and their desire to make the work even stronger. They thought they were helping by offering their opinion and while I didn’t respect the outcome, I respected the source.
What I learned….or re-learned.
Ears first, tongue second: When we’re angry, let us listen before speaking
It gives us time to breathe through what we want to say. It also creates greater space for the other person to hear us. No one likes being lectured. But people are more willing to hear if they themselves feel heard. Understanding where the action comes first creates the ground for compassion. I didn’t agree with this person, but I understood them. We were both coming from the same place: We wanted to see Alice thrive. I respected that and appreciated it.
Others don’t have to like what we do or how we do it.
No one owes my group or me their stamp of approval or a flurry of compliments. One person not liking the work does not mean it was a failure. Creating effective ritual and safe space is on the agenda. Pleasing all people is not and can’t ever be.
Criticism has its place. But then….it has its PLACE.
Rituals can’t improve without constructive criticism. But the time for that is not in the immediate aftermath of the ritual, and no leader—no matter their Degree, lineage, or how many heads they have on their neck—has the authenticated right to lecture another teacher’s students without explicit permission from the student’s teacher. This person was not aware of Alice’s struggle, panic attack, or other things she was battling. If they had spoken to me first, they might have decided to wait and share later as I would have explained it was not a good time to do so.
Live-time is Prime Time
99% of community issues can probably be traced back to miscommunication. Social media, email, texting—these are all swampy breeding-grounds for misunderstandings that prey on otherwise beautiful communities. Pick up your phone. Schedule a coffee date. The tone of voice can heal far more than the text on a page.
If the goal is growth, we have to understand one another
Listening to the nagging sense of something wrong is important. Addressing the issue directly is also important, but if we approach with the open sensitivity found in ears first, tongue second, we create space for the understanding needed to grow.
Pagans get enough challenges from the non-Pagan world. Let’s create more space to grow together, even when growth is uncomfortable.
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