Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Growing Pagan Elders: An Exploration of Sustainability

I began exploring the notion of Pagan elders about 15 years ago when the then-editor of The Green Egg asked me to write an article. I'm pleased to say that the article made it into the Green Egg Omelette, an anthology of the best of GE over the years.

In the Fall of 2010 I created a survey on Pagan attitudes about elders on Survey Monkey. Between then and January 2011, 627 Pagans responded to that survey. I allowed plenty of room for comments. This volume of responses allows us to begin to assess how Pagans feel about this subject.

I come to this subject from personal motivations.

As Carol Christ has said, and as I have often repeated – and I paraphrase -- it’s not enough to reject the ways we have been given if we find them unsuited to who we find ourselves to be, because in times of stress we will turn back to those ways. Rather, we need to create effective alternatives. That was one of the motivations for our writing The Pagan Book of Living and Dying, and it is my motivation in exploring the notion of Pagan elders.

I believe that in order for a community to be sustained, it must include the full spectrum of ages, from the ancestors to the unborn. In between, babies, children, youth, young adults, parents, and elders. Elders may simply be older members of a community. Or there may be an acknowledged group of individuals who play a more formal role in community life.

We Pagans often speak of ourselves as belonging to a tribe, and in the broadest sense I feel that way, too. But we are not like the tribes of our Native American contemporaries or of our (mostly) European, African and Asian ancestors. Pagan groupings are not like the clans of the Celts or the tribes along the Rhine; not like the villagers in Tuscany or Malta. We lack a common familial ethnicity, mores, lore, culture, foods, songs. We contemporary Pagans do, of course, share lore, music, customs, and a language, but not nearly to the degree that tribes do.

We arose primarily from the counter-culture. We were seeking meaning and connection in a rapidly modernizing, culturally diverse, and frequently socially fragmented world. In essence, we sought a tribal identity. And we found it -- only the state in which our tribes find themselves is inchoate, rudimentary, immature, not fully formed. We lack the cohesion of a tribe.

If a tribe is
a social division in a traditional society consisting of families or communities linked by social, economic, religious, or blood ties, with a common culture and dialect, typically having a recognized leader : indigenous Indian tribes | the Celtic tribes of Europe.
then you can see that we are missing several characteristics of tribe, while others exist in a rudimentary form.

When I was “coming up” as a Witch in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1970s and ‘80s, there were few real distinctions made among traditions and few elders. We were all Witches. Some of us were Faery Witches, some NROOGD, Garderians, Alexandrian, Georgian, Majestyc, Tower Family, and plenty of unspecified. The only “elders” of which I was aware were Victor and Cora Anderson (Faery, now spelled Feri) and Grandma Julie of the Tower Family.[1]

In my particular case, I had been doing ritual and magic with a coven, Holy Terrors, and a larger, more public group, Reclaiming Collective, until after some years this particular style of Craft grew to become a tradition in its own right, called Reclaiming.[2]

Well, a few years down the line and matters began to arise that called for the involvement of what, for want of a better term, one might call “elder.” As a member of CoG who met the criteria CoG sets for the issuance of Elder credentials, to wit: “capable of perpetuating the tradition,” I have long held CoG Elder credentials. I officiated at weddings, memorials, baby blessings, etc. I think this criterion is a valid one, but it leaves the matter of what knowledge, skills, and characteristics an elder must have up to the covens and traditions, since CoG is primarily a federation of covens rather than individuals.

But I wasn’t very old, only in my 30s.

I never felt I had anywhere to look, anyone to consult, when difficult community matters arose, not to mention when I had questions about my own psycho-spiritual experiences encountered during the development of my personal and group practice of Craft.

What happened was that I gradually accrued a circle of friends, a series of friendships, with co-religionists I liked, respected, and admired. They were not necessarily from within my own tradition, although frequently they were. Most were active in other Pagan communities, so they had a similar set of experiences upon which to reflect and proffer conclusions, yet were not directly involved with some of the things about which I sought counsel.

These same individuals reciprocally consulted me about matters in their own communities.

For the most part, that practice has worked well. But it’s not appropriate for many matters. For instance, when someone within one’s community (using the term “community” very loosely) feels an injustice has been done, or that someone else has behaved in an inappropriate manner in the context of community work. In the case of Reclaiming, that might be about something someone did or that happened at a WitchCamp or in a class or public ritual.

One of our attempts at addressing such issues is to have a “listening circle. This is especially helpful if there are two or more parties to a dispute and only one of them wants to resolve it. There is, or at least has been, no way to compel anyone to come parley. Yet if there remains someone who feels dissed, unheard, disrespected, or in some other way offended or transgressed upon, I do not think it’s helpful to disregard that person’s, or those people’s, grievance. In such cases, the aggrieved party seeks out others from within the trad whom she sees as fair, and asks them to sit in a listening circle. Those sought out are always people who have been part of the particular tradition for a long time, often since its beginning. I am unaware of any young people having been asked to serve in a listening circle. All of which is not to say that those sitting in the circle are Elders, per se.

These listeners usually reflect back to the offended what they hear, and perhaps offer suggestions of either coping or eventual resolution.

Listening circles do not have the authority of something like a panel of judges.

How do we assure accountability for one’s actions within a trad? Is this a function of elders?

There is also the option of mediation if both parties to a dispute wish to resolve it. In that case, an outside professional may be hired. Alternatively, a group of three to five specially selected “elders” might sit in discussion. Discussion usually opens with some informal ritual, lighting a candle, setting or creating sacred space – such a conference may be done in the context of a sacred circle – or with a prayer or solicitation to a particular deity.

This whole question of Pagan elders is an open one, and will remain so for years as we grow our communities and work to keep them healthy. I have suggested some of the criteria that's been used, or might be used.

The elephant in the living room is what happens to Pagans when they grow old and less able to care for themselves. Should we consider gathering funds for their care as many communities do? Should we begin establishing homes or retreats or other places where we can house our elders in comfort as well as assuring them space at our gatherings and in our homes?

Although this is a subject for another blog, and much, much more discussion, I believe, as I said early on in this blog, that if our communities are to survive and thrive, we need to address the notion of elders, both as a precious resource that can contribute and enrich our lives, and as a group we need to assist as they age.

* * * * *

[1] Today there are several lines of Faery and at least two lines of Tower Family.

[2] Some consider Reclaiming to be a line of Faery/Feri.

Monday, June 20, 2011

MIC Annual Meeting -- Vote Your Values

On a hot evening in at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in San Rafael, Marin Interfaith Council held its annual meeting. Executive Director Rev. Carol Hovis updated the gathering on the status of the council -- what MIC has sponsored, review of budget, thanking various members for specific work, honoring outgoing and incoming officers, etc. Author Nafisa Haji, whose second novel, The Sweetness of Tears,1 has just been published, and who represents the International Association of Sufism, has concluded her term as President and is now freer to promote her book and work on new ones. The Rev. Rob Gieselmann of St. Stephen's Church in Belvedere takes over. Other Board members' terms are completed and new members have come onto the Board.

Among the announcements, Robert Plath,2 founder of Worldwide Forgiveness Alliance, invited everyone to the 15th annual International Day of Forgiveness on August 7, preceded by workshops on August 6. The honorees share incredibly inspirational stories of forgiveness in their lives. I hope this event is widely celebrated in other towns and cities as well.

Anne Ryan, a former intern with Marin Interfaith Counsel and recent graduate of Dominican University, who now works for CompassPoint, gave a presentation entitled "Vote Your Values: An Interfaith Conversation about the California Budget Crisis." Using a power point presentation and giving more relevant facts about the state budget crisis than I could note, Anne also had us do some role-playing and small-group discussions at our tables.

As a result of one of these discussions, when we were talking about the prison system, I made the point that there are only five religions recognized by the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation: Protestant, Roman Catholic, Judaism, Islam, and "Native American." Five Abrahamic faiths and one vague name for several belief systems, but one that benefits Native American inmates, and sometimes can benefit Pagans. I pointed out that in that room there were far more than five religious traditions. Perhaps it is assumed that Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, and others don't commit crimes? I spoke briefly about Patrick McCollum's lawsuit in the 9th Circuit. News of this situation was met with dismay.

Among the few facts I managed to note were:
  1. A one-half cent sales tax would generate $3 billion in one year. Of course, this would impact the poor more severely than the wealthier population.
  2. California ranks 48 in the nation on education (spending per student, and teaching results). For a state blessed with so much wealth, this is shameful. It would be shameful even if California were not so prosperous. It's just flat-out shameful! We do our children a disservice by leaving them ill prepared to earn their livings and to compete for jobs.
  3. Among the states where oil is extracted, 21 of them tax the oil companies. The only state that doesn't is California. Imposing such a tax seems an easy partial remedy to our budget shortfall, and a no-brainer but for the pressure of oil interests on legislators.
  4. The state income tax rate for income exceeding $250,000 per year (only on the income that exceeds that amount) is currently 9.3%, which is very low. Increasing that tax to 10% would generate an additional $6 billion in revenue and would affect only 2% of the population. Another no-brainer were it not for political opposition.
  5. California legislators are working on a domestic workers' bill of rights, guaranteeing minimum wage and other benefits commonly extended to wage-earners (as distinct from salaried employees). This can only be a good thing.
  6. Eliminating the death penalty would save the state $125 million annually.
  7. Nonprofits are the second largest employer in the state.
Among the questions she posed, one was, "What did you learn in your home about taxes?" I didn't hear anyone say s/he had learned anything at all about taxes. (Americans are so uptight about money. They would rather reveal intimate facts about their sex lives than speak about their earnings or their personal wealth, not to mention the same if they were to admit to being overextended and/or impoverished.)

One of the Jewish members explained their attitude towards charity, saying that they contribute to organizations in order to preserve the pride of the individual recipients of largesse.

I have known for many years that California has the eighth largest economy in the world. What clicked for me most strongly as a result of Anne's talk was that the money is here! It is in this state, and it just has to be channeled, by way of taxes, into schools, infrastructure, social services, and the many other needs of a large and diverse population.

As always, MIC has provided its membership with valuable knowledge to help us set priorities and work towards a more just world for all.

Other groups can avail themselves of Anne's presentation by contacting CompassPoint.

1. I enjoyed reading her first novel, The Writing on My Forehead, from which I got a better sense of the Pakistani American experience.
2. Bob and I first met in San Francisco in 1964, in what was a previous life for both of us.