Thursday, February 25, 2016

Claremont Pagan Studies Conference - II (2016)

San Quentin State Prison, Marin County, California

This year's theme was Social Justice.

Saturday, January 24, late afternoon session:

Journalist Marsha Scarbrough, in a talk called “Calling on the Orishas to Heal Racial Injustice,” spoke of the African teachings she received and the ritual work they did with the Orishas.

Herleena Hunt, “The Social Injustice of Mass Incarceration of People of Color: Can This Be Changed?  Herleena, an employee of the Amity Foundation which serves in five California state prisons using the Therapeutic Community (TC) model, works directly with inmates within the prison system, assisting them with acquiring a GED, counseling, and reintegration into society as productive people.

Unlike Herleena, those of us who volunteer with religious communities within the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (DOCR), as I do with the Witchen circle at San Quentin, are prohibited from having personal relationships with inmates, or in fact knowing anything about their personal lives or the convictions that resulted in their incarceration.  Nor are inmates permitted to know anything personal about us volunteers.  I tried to explain the opacity of prison administration in my talk called “Into the Labyrinth: Finding the Way as a Volunteer in Abstruse Prison Culture.  For those who’d like more information, I’ve written six blogs about that work beginning here.

People tend to “find religion” after they been imprisoned, not necessarily before they entered.  Few are from Pagan backgrounds.  They explore Pagan paths in prison.  Now, due to recent federal court orders to alleviate overcrowding in the prisons, more people are being released.  The important thing to look at is how these people are integrated into Pagan society when they found a Pagan path on the inside.

I had prepared a decent PowerPoint and had notes about what I wanted to say, but in the event I just winged it and talked.  The entire late afternoon session of three presentations generated plenty of discussion, which I anticipate will continue online and at conferences and elsewhere in terraspace.

Sunday, January 25

Hannah Epstein opened with “Pagan Clergy and Unpaid Emotional Labor.”  I’m sure that all of those who run groups, circles, and covens, as well as those of us who volunteer in our communities on behalf of Pagans in interfaith and secular contexts, can sympathize.

Ayamanatara’s presentation was called “Synthesizing the Dark Goddess and the God of Light on the Internet to Effect Social Justice.  She spoke about technical stuff that was beyond me; however, she did suggest some remedies for too much involvement in online communications and too much time screen-gazing.

Lilith Nightsong’s talk was not listed in the program and I’ve forgotten the title.  However, she introduced those of who are older and/or technologically challenged to several terms and related internet phenomena which we’d be well advised to learn better.

Kimberly D. Kirner, who usually presents more scholarly offerings, this year spoke of her cross-identity as a Druid in service of justice in “Art, Study, and Service: Being a Druid and an Anthropologist Working for Justice.”  In particular, she offered a Druid prayer, evidently one commonly used, that I want to take to the San Quentin circle.

Mark Cedar Love-Williamson, in his talk called “The Activist Witch; the Virtuous Witch,” spoke about moral foundations theory, citing a book called The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt.  He claimed morality is not rational, but rather it is intuitive.  He referenced LOHAS (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability), “a market segment focused on health and fitness, the environment, personal development, sustainable living, and social justice.”  Mark said that moral elevation is when you see a good deed.  He cited a website called  I surfed around this site and registered on it.  I found it interesting enough to plan to return and explore it further.  I suggest that you who read this might also find a visit to a worthwhile investment of your time.

Mark continued with a list of Pagans whom he considered “virtuous activists.”  At least one person present who knows me well noticed that I had become agitated.  I will say a few things about that. 

One is that when you’ve been around a while, you develop histories and you know people for more than just their public persona.  Such is the case with me at some of the activists he sees as exemplary.  Some of our histories are personally painful to me, accounting for my discomfort. 

Another is that we all live in a society that emphasizes celebrity.  (See “BNPs, PPPs, & Leadership.”)  Paganism is no exception.  We do tend to look for ‘leaders.’  I’m not judging that tendency negatively or positively, simply noting its prevalence.  Annie Waters insisted that I “really oughta get it out.”  I did want to say something, but I wanted to be constructive.  I didn’t want to model a sulking person nursing her bruised ego; nothing is served by doing that.  So when the facilitator of the Q&A section called on me, I spoke to the issue of the culture of celebrity society-wide as well as in our Pagan communities, and cautioned people to keep in mind that everyone – you, me, celebrities – has feet of clay.  Just sayin’….  As it happened, I don’t think everyone was aware of the impetus of my comment.  No matter.  I felt okay about what I said and how I said it.  No direct criticisms, no accusations, no personal histories, and no ad hominen attacks.

[To be continued.]

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Claremont Pagan Studies Conference - I


Longtime pal Anna Korn and I shared the long drive to the Los Angeles area for this annual event that feeds my soul.  I’ve attended several times since I was invited to be a keynote speaker in 2009.  Last year was the first time Anna went now that she’s retired.

I find that this precious little conference (about 50 people) strikes a good balance between the American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting, which draws thousands of participants from all over the world and of which Pagan Studies and related sections (Religion & the Environment, Goddess Studies, New Religious Movements, Ritual Studies, et al.) are only a small part, and PantheaCon, which draws a general Pagan public, features a small number of scholarly presentations, and often tends to elicit fractiousness about one or another issue each year.

Each year presenters explore a theme.  This year's theme was Social Justice.

Saturday, January 24

Armando Marini, “Murtagh An Doile,” a co-founder of the Pagan History Project gave an appropriately historical talk on “Elitism and Identity Formation in American Craft and Paganism: A Historical Perspective” in which spoke knowledgeably about the underpinnings of contemporary American expressions of Pagan thought and practice found in Freemasonry, fraternal orders, early folkloric studies, as well as the spiritualist movement in 19th century America and the “goddess movement” of the 1970s.  Always fascinating to me, and always too brief.

Kellen Smith followed with a presentation of her doctoral study on “Feminist Spirituality: From Counterculture Revolution to the Feminist Movement.” Listening to her talk was like hearing one’s personal political history.  Among her visuals were images of key, dare I say “ovarial,” books such as Merlin Stone’s When God Was a Woman (1976, when I received it as a birthday gift and it turned my thinking around), Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949), and Elizabeth Gould Davis’ The First Sex (1971), along with photos of the actions of W.I.T.C.H. (Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell), among whose NY members was Robin Morgan, editor of another germinal anthology, Sisterhood Is Powerful (1970).

Kellen had difficulty locating feminist periodicals from those years.  I mentioned that I had sent lots of old issues of WomanSpirit, Women of Power, Calyx, Lady-Unique-Inclination-of-the-Night, Chrysalis, Heresies: A Feminist Publication on Art and Politics, and others whose names escape my senior mind at the moment, plus a few more contemporary ones like Bitch and off our backs, to the New Alexandrian Library in Delaware.

As it happens, after my early months meeting with a consciousness raising group – that’s what we called those intimate women-only weekly gatherings where we shared aspects of our lives not normally discussed, offered sympathy and support, and analyzed how we saw our experiences in society – I joined with others to form the San Francisco Women’s Studies Collective.  Out of that group, three of us (Sandra Butler, Carolyn Shaffer, and myself) created a resources list of feminist books and other publications and resources.  There wasn’t a very long list then, maybe six double-sided typewritten pages.  We sold photocopies of it for cost (something like 25 or 50 cents).

Marie Cartier, Preview of The Homofiles, a documentary co-produced with Kimberly Esslinger.  We viewed the trailer which had fascinating interviews of Lesbians both in and out of the closet.  Marie has presented papers at past Claremont gatherings I’ve attended and I’ve always enjoyed them, and more importantly, I’ve learned things I otherwise wouldn’t have.

Keynote: Gus DiZerega, “Rethinking Social Justice in Accordance with Pagan Values” Gus spoke enthusiastically about Aristotle, James Madison and the Federalist Papers, specifically Federalist Paper #10, and John Locke as forefathers who wrote about issues of justice.  I didn’t take notes because I haven’t yet regained the ability to write legible handwriting since my stroke in July.  However, I did manage to write down an African proverb he cited that I think is worth quoting here:  “I am because we are.”  As someone with a ‘relational’ personality and worldview, this proverb resonates strongly in me.

Wendy Griffin, ‘The New Telling”:  Last year Wendy gave a presentation on Paganism and the state of our home Earth that elicited tears from everyone listening.  This year she had reworked some of that data into a story.  She began with a framework of the Triple Goddess, saying that the Maiden asks, “What about me?”  The Mother asks, “What about the children?”  And the Crone asks, “What about the planet?”  She also cited The Journey of the Universe, by Thomas Berry, and works on eco-consciousness, specifically a film, by Yale professor Mary Evelyn Tucker.  Mary Evelyn and her husband, John Grim, founded the Emerging Earth Community.  (Small world: Way back in 1998, John and I were both participants in the Biodiversity Project Spirituality Working Group, a small gathering of religious and environmental leaders, in Madison, WI; our work informed the publication of Building Partnerships with the Faith Community: A Resource Guide for Environmental Groups.  Unfortunately, the Biodiversity Project is no longer, nor is the guide available.  The current webpage of The Biodiversity Project is a different entity.)


Annie Brigit Waters followed Wendy with “Sustainability Must Embrace the Sacred.” Annie is an active member of the Grange in Willits, California, way up in rural Mendocino County.  Mendocino County, center of Ecotopia, is a far cry from the cornfields of Iowa and the fields of the Midwest where the Grange (National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry (formed as a national organization with a local focus in 1867 right after the dreadful American Civil War) movement had its earliest chapters. 

Annie explained that the notions of Unity, Liberty, and Charity are its underlying values.  Although women have been equal members since the inception of the Grange, the founders were seven men.  They chose three Latin goddesses to symbolize their values, or as I would see it, as the matrons of the organization: Flora, Ceres, and Pomona.

Grange halls around the country contain art and decorative architectural embellishments featuring imagery of sheaves of grain, baskets of apples, cornucopia, and Romantic images of these goddesses.

I’m given to understand that the founders of the Grange wrote a series of rituals that in some way incorporated these goddesses.  I haven’t been able to find any online.  Regardless, however, what especially thrills me about Annie’s work with the Grange is her creation and performance of rituals devoted to these three goddesses.  These rituals can bring participants and viewers into new relationships, new understandings, new reverence for the gifts to humans that Flora, Ceres, Pomona embody. 

[To be continued.]