Witch at Large: Ruminations from a Grey Perspective
Seeing Paganism in terms of being a movement, explorations of our history, societal context, comparisons to other religious movements, and general Pagan culture.
Aline O’Brien (M. Macha NightMare), Witch at Large, has circled with people of diverse Pagan paths throughout the U.S., and in Canada and Brazil. Author of Witchcraft and the Web (2001) and Pagan Pride (2004), and co-author, with Starhawk, of The Pagan Book of Living and Dying (1997), Macha has also contributed to anthologies, periodicals, textbooks, and encyclopedias. A member of the American Academy of Religion, the Marin Interfaith Council, and the Nature Religion Scholars Network, Macha also serves as a national interfaith representative for the Covenant of the Goddess (CoG) and on the Advisory Board of the Sacred Dying Foundation. Having spent the last eleven years developing and teaching at Cherry Hill Seminary, the first and only seminary serving the Neopagan community, Macha now serves on its Board of Directors. An all-round Pagan webweaver, she speaks on behalf of Paganism to news media and academic researchers, and lectures at colleges, universities and seminaries. www.machanightmare.com
San Diego, CA
Day One: Friday
The Pacific Surfliner Amtrak train arrived in San Diego at 1:00 a.m. on Friday, having boarded the Coast Starlight in Emeryville at 6:10 a.m. on Thursday. Due to confused arrangements for lodging, I had no place to stay. Took cab to home of my niece Ally and crashed on inflatable mattress in their living room. The good news is that I got to spend a little time with her, her spouse Lisa, and their darling little Rockwell, aged 19 months, on Friday morning. I taught him a new word. He was identifying animals in one of his picture books. He liked to go “hoo, hoo” when he saw owl. He could say something approximating “sheep,” but didn’t have sheep’s sound. I said “baaa, baaa” in a really croaky sheep voice, and he cracked up. Now he has another word in his vocabulary: “baaa.” Meaning I blew off the early Friday sessions I’d planned to attend.
Ally dropped me off at a hotel where I was staying for one night, thanks to my friend Megory Anderson of the Sacred Dying Foundation. Checked in and made my way to the colossal San Diego Convention Center, where I picked up my nametag and bag. (Purple this year, and sturdily made.)
Feeling a bit lost in the vastness of this convention center, I headed for familiar territory and found myself at the Forum on Religion and Ecology, Yale University, annual luncheon. I decided to stay for a while because the luncheon was headed by John Grim and Mary Evelyn Tucker; John Grim and I had participated in The Biodiversity Project Spirituality Working Group at a small retreat near Madison, Wisconsin, in 1999. The first person I encountered whom I knew was Bron Taylor, headed for this luncheon. I was fortunate to have a little time for one-on-one with Bron, when we shared optimism about the emphasis on climate change at this AAR, and considered more recent changes in radical environmental activism with the death of such notables as my friend Sequoia in 2008. I chatted with some of the organizers for a while because we were early, and learned that one of them, a man from Vermont, has a son who is a grower in California. You never know.
Soon we were joined by Graham Harvey, Doug Ezzy, and others. As I listened to every person in the room -- I would guess more than 100 -- introduce her or himself and say something about where they were working (universities, graduate students, NGOs, et al.), I was pleased to hear all the references to ecology, nature, climate change, and the like. Of course, some went on and on explaining what they were doing, and that had to be checked so there was time for everyone else to speak. I said I was from Covenant of the Goddess and Cherry Hill Seminary, indicating that CHS was the first and only Pagan seminary and that it operated in cyberspace (green, ya know), and that I lived in a county in a metropolitan area that, thanks to some far-seeing wealthy environmental activists and not to me, is zoned 70 percent open space.
I wasn’t able to stick around for very long because I left for a tête-à-tête with a Pagan pal from Colorado before the conference got too crazy.
Here are examples of a few of Friday’s sessions that intrigued me but that I couldn’t attend
★ Religion and Media Workshop, “The History and Materiality of Religious Circulations,” a day-long seminar “designed to foster collaborative conversation at the cutting edge of the study of religion, media, and culture…[exploring] the history and materiality of religious circulations.”
★ Dharma Academy of North America (DANAM), “Polytheology: The Vision of Plural Divinities,” featuring, among others, papers on “Conceptualizing Divinity: One, None, or Many”; “Conceptualizing the Divine: How Hindu Deities Are Presented in High School World Religions Courses in Canada”; “Devotions of Attachment and Detachment & the Myriad Divinities of Jainism”; ”When Hanuman Became a Jain: The Miraculous Story of Babosa”; “Deities, Bodhisattvas, and Buddhas: Nontheism in a Theocratic Universe.”
Here’s something I’ve observed that I think may be a common phenomenon within many groups of people working together. It has to do with compatibility, honesty, and integrity.
Your group is open to anyone who wishes to join in your shared work. There is no method by which individuals are vetted for membership. They simply attend meetings. Well, that’s mistake number one. No filtering to avoid antagonists....
One Saturday when I was chatting with the Native American chaplain who sponsors our Wiccan circle at San Quentin, he handed me a book. He’d received it from the Jewish chaplain who’d been our previous sponsor. Wicca’s Charm: Understanding the Spiritual Hunger Behind the Rise of Modern Witchcraft and Pagan Spirituality, by Catherine Edwards Sanders. I said I was unfamiliar with the author and had not heard anything about it, although I generally keep half an eye open for newer Pagan publications.
He casually mentioned that according to this book, and according to the chaplain who gave it to him, ostensibly for the small library we keep in the Wiccan storage locker along with our ritual supplies, Wicca was for women and had little relevance here in an all-male prison. Not that he thought that, but that the book made that case. He gave it to me to take home. Book sl-t that I am, I took it, thinking that with all the reading material stacked around my house awaiting my attention, it would be very low priority....
Well, the answer, in my experience, is all too often.
The most common problem I’ve encountered is what I will indelicately term the ‘bully factor.’ It’s always deliberate, if perhaps unconscious. It’s simply a fact of life that some voices carry more weight than others. And it has nothing to do with volume....
Some More Ways in Which Inmate Circles Differ from Civilian Circles
In previous blogs I’ve mentioned various differences and restrictions that affect how we can work and what we can and cannot do. We can burn candles and incense, and we have created a temporary temple space....