Tuesday, December 23, 2014

An Example of Poor Group Process

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.

Due to this loose policy, enters Starflower, a sweet person with a lack of boundaries and a casual attitude towards commitment.  She may volunteer for all sorts of projects and jobs, yet it seems that as soon as she leaves a meeting, those commitments evaporate.  She cannot be counted on to do what she said she’d do.

Veteran group member Bubastis works hard at teaching and taking care of the group’s funds.  She collects the money paid for classes and events, and then pays the costs (hall rentals, etc.) and issues checks to each teacher.  She’s older and can at times be cranky, but she’s entirely standup.

Others in the group realize that Starflower is flakey.  On the back end, some are griping about her.  They don’t like her much, but, heck, this group is egalitarian and fair and open to anyone, so what are you gonna do?

However, standup Bubastis confronts Starflower about the fact that she doesn’t do what she says she’ll do.  Others appreciate this statement, but they don’t give any indication that they share Bubastis’ frustrations.  They keep quiet, stand aside, and let Bubastis do all the confronting.

Months elapse, meetings continue, all the while nearly everyone in the group disliking Starflower.  She displays her antagonism, but no one except Bubastis calls her on it.

At some point Starflower complains about the lateness of a reimbursement check from Bubastis.  Needless to say, every member of this group is a volunteer.  Bubastis has a life beyond this group, with other things that need her attention besides the group’s books.  She is timely about writing checks.  No one else has ever complained about her work.

So Bubastis confronts Starflower about her unreasonable demands and her chronic dropping of the ball.  Again, everyone else shares Bubastis’ exasperation, but in the face of this confrontation they remain mute.

This state of affairs continues, with Bubastis calling Starflower on her unreliability and the difficulty of working effectively with her.  Finally, one of those who is most annoyed with Starflower says, “You two obviously need mediation.”  So the group decides to send Bubastis and Starflower to a mediator.  They go, but nothing is resolved.  Why?  Because the problems with Starflower are not Bubastis’s problems.  The problem of Starflower is shared by the whole group.  They have merely scapegoated Bubastis in order to avoid confronting Starflower themselves.

So what happens?  Well, Bubastis throws up her hands and leaves the group.  She has not been supported.  She has been scapegoated.  And what else happens?  Starflower leaves.  Perhaps she discovered that she and the others weren’t as compatible as she’d imagined they would be.  Or perhaps she resented being sent to mediation with Bubastis.  Or perhaps her role as antagonist has now been fulfilled.  Who knows?  But whatever the reason(s), the group, in losing Bubastis, has now lost a valued member.  Not only that, but there has been unnecessary hurt inflicted upon Bubastis.  She became discouraged because she was not supported by those she’d been working with all this time.  She had proven her worth.  Evidently the rest of the group felt it was okay to sacrifice Bubastis to rid themselves of Starflower.

To me, this is a sad commentary on the health of this particular group.  Do you recognize this type of situation in your group?

Monday, December 22, 2014

American Academy of Religion 2014 Annual Meeting - I

Coast Starlight
November 2014
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[1] Spirituality Working Group[2] 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.” 

For so many reasons these kinds of discussions interest me.  My fascination with Hinduism relates to my interest in having Pagans define who we are, as different religious paths and as a movement, which to my mind is similar to the diversity of people who fall under the general term “Hindu.”  Also because I have been devoted to Kali Ma for all of my Pagan life.  Further, because concepts of polytheism and monotheism (as in “we all come from the one” or “after all, we all worship the one god” – well, no, we don’t).

★    International Society for Science and Religion:  Emergence and Complexity in Science and Religion.”… “current research on the religious and philosophical significance of scientific work on questions of emergence and complexity in cosmic and biological evolution.”  As one of those kinds of Pagans who holds scientific inquiry in high regard, mainly because scientific facts are more easily defended, can be replicated, are less likely to be colored by our personal filters, I’m constantly pondering the concordance of scientific fact with religious proclamations.

★    Psychology, Culture, and Religion Group: “Panel Discussion of Lucy Bregman’s The Ecology of Spirituality: Practice and Virtues in a Post-Religious Age.”  I have no idea who Lucy Bregman is, and I suspect she’s coming from an Abrahamic perspective; nonetheless, the topic of ecology and spirituality in an age of secularity interests me.  Now that I’ve looked her up, I can see that I’d be interested in her perspectives on death and dying and on mysticism.  I’m a bit familiar with one speaker, Kelly Bulkley, have heard him speak at a local independent bookstore, and because he does dream research and is also a homie (GTU in Berkeley), and Dr. Bregman was there to respond.

★    Women’s Caucus Brown Bag Luncheon: Ecofeminism and Earth Healing, which included, among others, “What Is Ecofeminism? Memorable Ideas in an Ongoing Conversation (1972-present)”; “Indian Women and Jainism: Toward an Ecofeminist Perspective”; and “Spiritual and Transformative Connections: Women’s Stories of Ecofeminist Activism and Artistic Expression.”  I’ve been working on a 90-minute presentation on “Mother Nature Speaks” for a webinar on ecofeminism for the Emergent Studies Institute.

★    Religion and Ecology Workshop:  Religious Environmentalism and Environmental Activism.”  This was an afternoon-long workshop, at an extra charge, examining the fusion of religion and politics and politics in religious environmentalism,” considering people of “established faiths and of eclectic spirituality … engaged in environmental activism for explicitly religious or spiritual reasons.”  Well, this is many of us Pagans, isn’t it?  The workshop claimed to look at case studies, such as “civil disobedience by religious leaders over Keystone XL, interfaith reforestation efforts in Southern Africa, indigenous resistance to fracking,” progressive movements for democracy, racial and gender equality, workers’ rights, et al.  Obviously this session was one where I could have learned and shared.

Alas, I was wiped and didn’t feel really settled because I’d be changing my lodging on Saturday, so Megory and I arranged to rendezvous at our room and find a place to get a light meal.  As I was trekking my way back to our hotel, I encountered a man waving to me across the plaza.  It turned out to be Steve Wehmeyer, who’d only just arrived.  Proceeding from a big hug, we started an animated conversation.  I told him I was on my way to meet with Megory, so he walked me back to the hotel and we sat in the lobby for quite a while having a great talk.  He said some things to me that caused me to reflect upon my identity and place in the world of Pagandom.  I’m grateful for that.

Chas Clifton had told me earlier in the day that the likely gathering spot for us Pagan scholars – presuming to apply this term to myself merely because of the nature of the gathering – would be in the New Religious Movements (NRM) suite.  We referred to it as “The Pomegranate party” because so many connected with The Pom were likely to attend.  I told Steve when and where and off he went to enjoy the party, while Megory and I sought a restaurant and retired early.  Well, not too early, since this was also an opportunity for Megory and I to visit, which we did.

[1]  In the intervening 15 years, it seems that The Biodiversity Project in Madison has changed its name to Bluestem Communications.

[2]  Something I wrote when I returned:  http://www.machanightmare.com/bcarchive/broomstick1.htm

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Hit Piece in Sheep’s Clothing


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 slut 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.

As I was straightening up around the house today, I decided to make these stacks a little shorter and try to find some shelf space for the books that were lower priority on my reading list. I picked up this book and began to page through it.  First I noticed some underlining on this text:

Ironically, neo-Paganism appeals to people because it doesn’t seem to be very commercialized.  One Pagan woman told me, “People are turning to Paganism for many reasons.  The main ones are they are tried of the judgmental hypocrisy of commercialized religions and want the freedom Paganism gives.”  But as we can see at the local bookstore, on the Internet, or on our TV sets, Wiccan is far from uncommercialized…

Then the author goes on to mention Z Budapest’s kids camps that cost $325

…for four days of horseback riding, archery, swimming, and canoeing, as well as lessons in alchemy, the creating of their own magic tools, and identification of magic rocks and crystals.

Well, I ask you: where else can one find food, lodging, planned programs, and other amenities for $325 for four days?  Regardless of who’s teaching what, at the very least it costs producers money to rent facilities and feed people.

So I thought, “Gee, she’s talking about us.  Or at least about people I’m likely to know.”  So I scanned a few more pages, only to arrive at one that said:

Much like Christian preachers, neo-Pagans have joined the speaker’s [sic] circuit.  M. Macha Nightmare [sic] offers two lectures, based on her book The Pagan Book of Living and Dying, titled “Meeting Death and Grieving Loss” and “Healing Ourselves and Healing Our Community.”  The cost for both talks is $75 to $125 per person.  [Emphasis mine.]…

Are you kidding me?  First of all, those two titles the author references are to workshops, not lectures.  I don’t lecture much.  My strength, as anyone who’s ever attended one of these presentations can attest, is in getting people to think about topics that aren’t much discussed in daily conversation and get them talking.

More importantly, however, is that I’ve never gotten even close to charging that kind of money.  I’ve occasionally arrived for workshops when not one solitary soul showed up.  Hardly commercially viable, plus empty houses keep me humble.

Based on just these few quotes, I know that the rest of the book cannot be accurate and truthful.  The book is a hit piece, pure and simple. 

I note in the author’s minibio on the cover that she writes for The Washington Times, so that should tell us how biased she is.  The Times is owned by News World Communications, an international media conglomerate associated with the Unification Church.  Rev. Sun Yung Moon says that the paper is responsible to let the American people know about God” and “will become the instrument in spreading the truth about God to the world.”  Need I say more?

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

When Is Consensus Process Not Consensual?

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.

I’ve just experienced, once again, decision-making by the ‘bully factor’ trying to pass itself off as consensus.  When there is a call for a sweeping decision that doesn’t allow for individual voices to speak on different perspectives on an issue, it’s extremely difficult for one or more individuals to voice an objection.  Even when the facilitator asks for any objections or concerns, anyone voicing such concerns risks derision and disdain, resulting in one’s concerns being dismissed.  That person (or persons) may be viewed as being an antagonistic malcontent rather than a valued contributor to the process.  Hence, alienation and a breakdown of communal trust.

I am not an anarchist, by whatever definition.  I can observe hierarchical structures in Nature.  I think hierarchy is a natural and valuable arrangement.  What I think is not healthy, however, is ossified hierarchical structures in which those invested in their own sense of power, their control over the actions of others, and seek to hold tightly to their positions of authority.  This is the downside of strictly maintained hierarchies and accounts for the appeal of anarchy (“without ruler”)[1] and consensus process

I think the sharing of power is complex, but essentially easy if one approachs the playground with the intent to ‘play well with others.’  That means that the responsibility to be sure every voice that wishes to be heard is afforded the opportunity to speak rests on everyone.  Talkers like me must take care to back off a bit and allow more timid speakers to voice their thoughts.  By the same token, more introverted folks need to assert themselves more than is their nature to do.

Two, sometimes three, other participants bear responsibility for assuring that every voice is heard.  The two are the facilitator and the group at large.  If the group is large, perhaps inclined towards contention, or even so enthusiastic about an issue that process gets lost, it may choose a temporary ‘vibeswatcher,’ to be the third party seeking to assure good process.

Underlying all consensus process is the implied power of any participant to call process when proper, agreed-upon process is not being observed.

I’m disturbed by a recent incident of what I consider bad process and allowing the bully factor to triumph.  These kinds of transgressions are more likely to occur when a meeting, or series of meetings, has been going on for a long while, like at the end of the day or when only a few items needing resolution are left on the agenda and everyone wants to be done with the work.

Consensus process does not work well in the following circumstances:

    There is a lack of mutual trust among the participants.
    The group is too large for efficient process.
   There are distinct factions within the larger group.

The first and third items above are related, in that when factions develop, mutual trust diminishes.

So for me Rule No. One for effective, honest consensus process decision-making is trust.  It’s not enough to know your collaborators well; one must respect one’s collaborators and trust in their goodwill and their good-faith efforts to achieve shared goals.  Without trust and mutual respect, groups fragment into factions, often mistrustful of each other.  Actions taken in situations of mistrust and factionalization within a group have not allowed for the best of everyone to be expressed.  They do a disservice to the group itself and all of its members.

All the flow charts in the world will not make up for lack of trust within a group.

[1]           I’m not prepared to debate the various interpretations and manifestations of anarchy.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Remembering Margot Adler

Much has been posted in both mainstream and Pagan media about the untimely death of Margot Adler.  People have spoken about the many ways she as influenced them, about her teachings, her personality, her inestimable contributions.  Just to round out the picture with yet another perspective, I share her some remembrances.  Because what is remembered lives.

I first heard of Margot when I found Drawing Down the Moon on a shelf in a local bookstore in 1979.  I took it off the shelf and skimmed through it and what do you know?  There was a chapter called “Interview with a Modern Witch” about my friend Sharon Devlin Folsom.  And there on the cover was my friend Anna Korn, clearly identifiable in the photo of the handfasting of Isaac Bonewits and Selene Kumin.

I was friends with both Anna and Sharon by way of the Institute of Celtic Studies here in the SF Bay Area.  Until that time, I was unaware that either was Pagan.  Since that time, Anna and I have shared lots of projects together (in the context of CoG as well as with a former incarnation of Reclaiming Collective), and Sharon and I have done a few rituals together.  All three of us have remained friends.

However, it wasn’t until I went to the first CoG MerryMeet on the East Coast, at Rowe Conference Center in Massachusetts that Margot and I met.  By that time my late coven sister Bone Blossom had been living in Connecticut and connecting with all manner of NELCCOG (North East Local Council, now defunct).  I seem to remember that it was Bone who introduced us.  What I remember more clearly is that Margot had heard of a ritual that Sharon, Bone, and I had brewed up and performed at Ancient Ways a year or three prior.  That ritual, entitled “Kali and Other Dark Goddesses,” seems to have had a profound effect on many people who participated.[1]  In any case, Margot in NYC had heard of it and so had my late friend Sequoia when she was traveling in India.  So I had the thrill of being introduced to Margot, this prominent Pagan whose work I had admired, and she already knew something of me.

We maintained a casual friendship over the years, much like many who may read this.  We encountered each other at events.  She had me over for bagels and coffee at her NYC apartment one time.

Sometime around 2000, both the late Judy Harrow and I both became involved with the incipient Cherry Hill Seminary, thanks to the machinations of Cat Chapin-Bishop.  Margot was Judy’s Gardnerian teacher/initiator/elevator.  In addition to being a well-respected and –loved Witch in the Northeast and beyond, Judy was also Craft mother to another of the founders of CHS, Laura Wildman-Hanlon,  So I’m assuming, although if I knew at the time I don’t recall now, that that is the route by which Margot came to support the seminary.  However, it happened, Margot has been a consistent voice in support of CHS.  For the past several years she has served on the Board of Advisors, where I’m currently proud and honored to serve with her.

Thanks to my dear friend and literary mentor, the late Patricia Monaghan, Margot suspended her standing policy of not providing cover blurbs, and wrote one for my first solo writing effort, Witchcraft and the Web.  She wrote, in part, “…she deftly shows the impact of the Web on the Craft – how it is hanging the religion’s notions of authority, leadership, authenticity, and even the way rituals are conducted.”  I’ve included the quote here because it’s germane to our shared observations about the expansion and new understandings of Paganism in our cyber age.

One of the people Margot quoted frequently in DDTM (the first edition; I don’t know about subsequent ones) was our mutual friend, the late Alison Harlow.  Although Alison was Margot’s senior by a few years, they first bonded over the fact that both of them attended a progressive City and Country Grammar School in Greenwich Village when they were children.  Alison lived in my area of the country.  Our two then-covens, Holy Terrors and Wings of Vanthi, sometimes circled together, and both of us were active on CoG.

As sometimes happens when someone is in the process of leaving this plane, their loved ones get weird.  Alison was a Witch, a fact that some consider prima facie evidence of weirdness, or at least oddness.  In any case, Alison’s loved ones experienced some intramural, if you will, discord at the time of her passing.  Feelings were raw.  Margot was in NYC and I was in Northern California, and further, I was not among those attending to Alison.  I guess I was sort of a neutral yet engaged party.  Both Margot and I paid close attention to any news about Alison’s condition.  She and I had several phone conversations about what was happening surrounding Alison’s dying and in the days following her passing.  There’s nothing like sharing in someone’s birthing or dying to bond people.

In another context, I remember a wonderful and very noisy dinner with about eight Pagan scholars (and their groupies, such as myself) during the AAR Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, city of my childhood.  Some of those in attendance were younger and fresher; some were scholars whose exposure to Paganism had been mainly in the context of their studies rather than in situ, so to speak.  But Margot and I were old-timers by that time, and both of us are talkers and really relish stories about our communities.  Oh, the stories we shared at that lively dinner!  Our gales of laughter sometimes became too loud for a shared public space.[2]

When I last saw Margot, at PantheaCon 2014, she was constantly in demand so I didn’t intrude.  However, I was pretty sure our paths wouldn’t cross again in this life.  So before the con was over, I found a brief moment to embrace her and tell her how much I treasured her.  I’m really glad I had that opportunity.


We were enjoying the CoG reception at PantheaCon 2013 when someone called for a group shot of the crones in attendance.  There was lots of passing around of people's cameras; these are the shots that were captured in mine.  It's really hard to get people to all be looking at the camera for a group shot.  

Front row: Anna Korn, Glenn Turner; back row: Magenta Griffin, Rachael Watcher, Macha NightMare, Selena Fox, Vivianne Crowley, and Margot Adler

Late.  Late.  Late.  Late.  Late.  Late.  Do you notice how often my references are to folks who have crossed over?  Six cites!  I see many of Pagandom’s early pioneers passing through the veil.  It is my fervent hope that their work, the examples of the lives they led, their teachings, their spirits survive into the future as foundational to contemporary American Paganism.

[1]   That ritual was reprised, by request, at MerryMeet in Saratoga a couple years later, only Sharon wasn’t available so Sequoia took the priestess role originally performed by Sharon.
[2]   I remember that the late Judy Harrow was also at that Annual Meeting, and we had shared dinner the night before, but she wasn’t at this particular table.

Saturday, June 07, 2014

Sparky T. Rabbit

Sparky T. Rabbit
Peter B. Soderberg
Bruner Soderberg
3 February 1954 – 2 June 2014

Back in 1982, if memory serves, I attended the first CoG MerryMeet festival held outside of California, at Circle Pines in Michigan.  I was a very young Witch (not such a young woman, but a young Witch).  I had only been to two smallish, mainly local Pagan festivals, one being the first MerryMeet in ’81 and the other one in the hot, dry coastal hills of the East Bay.  I had no idea what to expect, but I was excited.  I was there for a reason, as a delegate from my Local Council to conduct the business of CoG.  That fact gave me some assurance of who I was and what I was doing out in the woods with a bunch of unfamiliar Witches.

We held our meetings under a pavilion, where I remember shucking Circle Pines-grown corn for the evening meal.

On the first day, I was wandering the grounds between sessions when I came upon two friendly men who introduced themselves and asked my name.  When I answered, the larger bearded man who wore a long black cassock-like garment, let out a tremendously loud and jolly laugh, and said, “Oh, you’re Macha NightMare!  I love that name.  It’s one of the best names I’ve ever heard.  How did you come to get it?”

“You’ve heard of it?” I replied in surprise.  Both men had read it in the old Reclaiming Newsletter (predecessor to Reclaiming Quarterly).  The man who expressed such delight in my name was Sparky T. Rabbit; his slender friend, who has an equally wonderful, wickeder-than-Sparky’s laugh of his own was Steven Posch.  We became absorbed in a lively conversation for some while.  Throughout the festival, we found ourselves together.

* * * * *
From then on we kept in occasional letter and telephone contact.  We did our best to keep up with each other, and when I had occasion to be in Minneapolis, a guest at Steve’s house, Sparky sometimes coordinated visits.

Some years later there, I think it was 1992, there was another MerryMeet at Circle Pines.  Sparky and I really fell in love during that visit.  When I wasn’t in meetings, we hung out, just the two of us, talking, singing, sharing songs and chants, exploring our respective experiences of culture, Pagan community in particular.  You know how it is sometimes – you’re in an unfamiliar environment for a brief period, a weekend or a few days, and you meet someone who captivates you, and who is mutually interested in you and your ideas, and you can’t get enough of each other?

Twisted River Witches

I remember Sparky telling me about his then-coven, the all-male Twisted River Witches, who did, as I recall, public activist magic, maybe on a bridge joining the Quad Cities?  I think it’s a wonderful name for a coven, indicating as it does the home from which they get sustenance, the place where the mighty Mississippi twists.  I don’t know that area at all, plus this memory has dimmed with the passage of time.  There is one wicked Witch from that coven who may be reading this.  He’s generally closeted due to his employment and I don’t want to transgress and ‘out’ him.  Perhaps he’ll share a story about the magical pranks (if pranks they were) done by the Twisted River Witches.

Another all-male coven, this one I think was all gay men, Sparky told me about was Sons of the Bitch in Kansas City.  One of the songs on Hand of Desire, Lunacy’s second and final album, “Praising Her Name,” includes the lyrics “Praising Her name, praising Her name, that Sacred Bitch, that Holy Witch.”  I love it!  I doubt the coven exists today; however, if anyone reading this can tell us more about it, I’d love to learn.

Radical Faeries

Sparky had some involvement with the Radical Faeries, as evidenced by this pithy quote:

“We are the equivalent of Shamans in modern culture,” said Peter Soderberg, during an interview at the 1985 Pagan Spirit Gathering. “Many gay men want to be middle-class Americans. They want to be respected as human beings and they want their sexuality to be ignored.  But radical faeries are willing to live on the edge.  We feel there is power in our sexuality.  You know there is a power there because our culture is so afraid of us.”  Margot Adler, 2006.

I invite anyone who can say more about Sparky and the Radical Fairies to tell us.  Mugwort of Nomenus has placed Sparky’s name on the fairie ancestors list.

"Wicked Witch of the Prairies"
Master Ritualist

In her 1995 anthropological study of contemporary Witches, Never Again the Burning Times, scholar Loretta Orion rhapsodizes about a Full Moon ritual at Pagan Spirit Gathering designed by Peter Sonderberg [sic], whom she says calls himself Peter the Big Blue Fairy.  I think Sparky hated that appellation, at least in later years he did.  Maybe he gave it to himself earlier.

Throughout the book she quotes liberally what Sparky had to say about ritual.  Ritual designers would do well to consider his ideas.  They have served me well.

One of the few opportunities I had to actually perform ritual with Sparky was at a festival in Wisconsin in 1999, “The Union of Earth and Sky: A Ceremony for Thor and Freyr,” I was honored to work with him and the crew he’d chosen, among them Elvis, K.J., Sonja, Melanie, Owl, Archer, Steven, Keith – you know who you are.  For me one of the most touching components of that ritual was the Man in the Moon and the Night-Time Stars.

Steven Posch, Macha, Sparky T. Rabbit
Here’s what some have said on Facebook[1] about Sparky’s ritual expertise:

Wisconsin Witch Mari Powers says, “He taught me that ritual can really rock in 1983. I will miss him very much.”  

Washington Druid Kirk Thomas says, “Sparky facilitated a trancey ritual at a gay men’s pagan festival I attended that was pretty life changing for me.  It was the first (and I hope, last) time I was ridden (non-consensually, no less) by a god.  It opened my eyes to that deity and his power.”

If anyone who was there reads this, I’d welcome your elaboration on your experience of this ritual, either in a comment below, or I’ll be glad to add it in a subsequent post of Sparky stories.

The Pagan Book of Living and Dying and Lunacy

In 1995 Sparky contributed his song “Lament for the Queer Dead” to Crossing Over: A Pagan Manual on Death and Dying, the prototype for what HarperSanFrancisco published in 1997 as The Pagan Book of Living and Dying.  The Lunacy a cappella singers, comprised of Sparky and Greg Johnson, recorded this true lament on their second album, Hand of Desire.  This album was released on cassette tape, but at the time of Sparky’s passing it was nearly ready for a digital release.  Speaking for myself, and others I’m fairly confident, that album will be made available as soon as practicable.  Right now Ray has business surrounding Sparky’s death to take care of.  Watch this space for updates.

The Irish say that music has three purposes: to elicit laughter, to induce calm and sleep, and to elicit tears.  I may not have that exactly right, but I’m certain that music fosters and enhances the experience of mourning.  “Lament for the Queer Dead” fulfills this charge.

Canadian Witch Jane Pawson says, “Oh this is so sad.  I loved the Lunacy tapes.  I have the fondest memories of Sparky at a very early [Reclaiming] B.C. Witchcamp.  He taught and his traveling companions taught that camp a lot.  Like how to dress for ritual and Ms Cow's Maxims and chants and just a more inclusive way of being.   

As a contributor to The Pagan Book of Living and Dying, Sparky describes himself as “a Faggot Witch from Illinois.” 

* * * * *

I think it was in 2000 that I visited my late friend Patricia Monaghan in Chicago, where I was presenting at a gathering that I think was called a Pagan Expo, Chicago.  Sparky was with his husband Ray in Chicago that weekend.  After the expo, we retired to an Irish bar downstairs for socializing.  Sparky had long admired Patricia’s work, her goddess scholarship in particular, and Patricia had long heard of Sparky.  I had raved about both to each other, so this was their first meeting.  The other first was that I finally got to meet Sparky’s beloved husband Ray about whom Sparky spoke often.  Afterwards I told Sparky how cute I thought Ray was, how lucky they were to have each other.  

Sparky & Ray Jump the Broom
Sparky and Ray spent nearly 31 years together.  I only recently learned that two friends here in California whom I’ve known for maybe 25 years officiated at Sparky and Ray’s handfasting.  (I’m not naming names due to uncertainty about their ‘out’ status.)

Pagan Summit

Pagan Summit, 2001
Due to my involvement in a dictionary project initiated by the Pagan Educational Network (PEN), I learned that organization expanded to sponsor what they called a Pagan Summit (not well-chosen title, in my opinion, but nonetheless that’s what it was).  Coordinated by Cairril Adaire and held at the University of Indiana in Bloomington in 2001, the summit organizers sought to include people the organizers considered influential.  Networking fool that I am, I insisted that some others I knew be invited.  Among them were Patrick McCollum, Deborah Ann Light, and Sparky T. Rabbit.  Sparky came as a delegate from the Twisted River Witches.

Sparky served as a sharp facilitator of consensus process breakout groups, a job made especially challenging by the fact that many had not experienced that kind of decision-making.  Sparky was an expert.  Attendee Jerrie Kishpaugh Hildebrand said, “I met Sparky at the Pagan Summit in 2001.  His brilliance around the use of consensus processed was as inspiring as his music.”

Heartland Pagan Festival

The one time I attended Heartland Pagan Festival in Kansas, Sparky came, too.  He’d been there before, I think, and he knew some of the organizers, Parsley being the one I remember best.  My friend Grey Cat from Tennessee, who’s on the Other Side now too, and I were two of the featured guests.  Sparky was there to give a workshop on ritual, in which he emphasized play and spontaneity, and to perform a concert.  Sparky drove there with his pal Beal from Chicago.  We four formed an odd group -- two Midwestern gay men, one Tennessee crone, and one uppity Californian -- shared a cabin not far from the communal showers and the dining hall, but away from the tent campers.  We talked and laughed and had a great time until late into the night.

I gave a workshop I call “Chants & Enchantment.”  Though Sparky and I had been friends for years, we rarely enjoyed face-to-face meetings, so we took this rare chance to experience each other’s teaching.  This workshop happens to be one of my favorites.  In fact, some of the chants we use were written by Sparky.

The first singing I do in this workshop is a Sufi meeting dance of sorts.  I learned it from Ginny Brubaker of Chicago at that very same Circle Pines MerryMeet where I met Sparky and Steven, in fact, although it turns out she learned it from someone here in Marin County, California.  In any case, this chant involves people looking into the eyes of each person in the circle.  (I tend to lead workshops with attendees seated or standing in a circle.)  When I got to that part, Sparky discreetly left.  Later I asked him, “Too California woo-woo?” He confirmed that fact with a nod.

Sacred Harvest Festival

Macha & Sparky at Sacred Harvest Festival
In 2004 Sparky and I, along with Ivo Domingo, Jr., presented at Sacred Harvest Festival in Wisconsin.  I had designed a special ritual for that weekend entitled “Witchual: A Spell.” We cast a spell to view the dark and light, in ourselves and in our communities; to recommit to Goddess; and to reclaim and honor stereotypes.  My design concept was influenced by Sparky and Steven, so I was especially eager to learn how Sparky had experienced it.  However, I have a rule not to critique ritual – every ritual deserves honest critique so that it can become as effective as possible – sooner than 24 hours afterwards.  Sparky laughed a lot that evening that I’d made that rule because he knew I was dying for his feedback.  I made it, though: the next evening he told me he loved it, and got specific about what worked and how.

* * * * *

Much of what Sparky and I shared had to do with Craft, ritual, Pagan community, Pagan groups and organizations, the massive dysfunctions we see that drive us nuts, as well as the ritualists, activists, and artists we respect and admire.  We’re passionate about all of the people and culture we love so much.  That, of course, is why we sometimes become frustrated.

Sparky was not a candidate for Mr. Congeniality, although he was a congenial man in my view; nor was he one for Mr. Popularity, although he was popular in the sense that people liked him and wanted to be around him.  But Sparky didn’t care what anyone thought of him when he spoke his mind.  He would get on a tear about some topic and he would work it and work it and work it until he reached some understanding, and satisfaction that his points were being understood and appreciated, if not agreed with.  I’m sure there are readers who’ve known Sparky, or maybe heathenbear or Bruner, on listserves.  We both got kicked off of one list due to Sparky’s persistence in a particular discussion of het male assumptions.  I had never actually taken a position in that fight, which is what it devolved into, but evidently my friendship with and support of Sparky was enough to get me banned.

At the festival from whose list we were banned.
From time to time Sparky would have a falling out with one friend or another, or more than one at the same time.  He held his grudges in a strong grip.  Eventually, with the passage of time and some perspective, rapprochement could be achieved.  Even forgiveness and renewed vows of friendship.  I am among those who did time away from Sparky for a hurt he felt.  In the end, though – and I’m sure of this from our conversation about a week before his passing – everyone forgave everyone else and he knew who loved him and he loved them back.

He regarded his identity as an artist as sacred.  He took pride of authorship; he insisted on proper attributions; he valued honesty.  He was a perfectionist of his creations.  And he expected nothing less of others.

When I felt I had to disassociate myself from the tradition of my forming, both as Witch and as tradition, Sparky was a tremendous source of support.  He helped me analyze the things that bothered me.  He sent me articles.  He opined.  He reminded me of old feminist analyses about the tyranny of structurelessness.  He took his concerns to the leaders and organizers of the larger community, via an international listserve.[2]  He phoned frequently to see how I was processing this big change.  He was a wonderful friend to me.

* * * * *

Upon learning of Sparky’s death, my friend Ivo Dominguez, Jr. wrote:

Sparky T. Rabbit’s voice is intertwined with the roots of my development as a witch, and we still use the chants that he wrote and the chants that he popularized within our covens today.  I played the cassettes for his two albums so often that I wore them out and had to buy replacements twice.  I cherish the one time that I had the opportunity to sing with him.  It is still a luminous fanboy moment for me.  I grieve the loss of such a beautiful man and his beautiful talents, but I also grieve that so many in the current generation of Pagans have not heard of him.  What is remembered lives.  Take the time to look him up and find copies of his music which is finally available again in digital formats.  Then you'll feel the joy of discovering his music, and also share my sense of loss as well.  May he go forth shining.

Abby Willowroot says, “and yet, the music lives on and nourishes all who and sing it. Many Blessings on the passing of this uniquely creative Pagan Spirit.  May the road he next walks be as inspired and fruitful as the Path just walked.  May All who feel this loss acutely be comforted, and may they soar as they perform rituals in Sparky's memory.”

Even in just that past three days I’ve run across several posts and articles I just have to talk with Sparky about.  It’s not that I have no one to explore these ideas with; I have good friends for that.  But they are not Sparky.  They do not have his unique perception, his sharp edge, his principled stand, his unwillingness to put up with bullshit.

There’s so much more to say!  I hope others will contribute – fill in blanks, offer stories not yet told.  I know many knew him in completely different contexts than I did.  Nothing here touches on his fondness for Lord Ganesha, his explorations of his Scandinavian heritage, so many other things.

The terms Sparky claimed for himself is *argr* seidhmadhr.  I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve forgotten what he said it means.  Can someone who reads this help me?

To Sparky, *argr* seidhmadhr, I say goodbye, dear friend.  May you find peace, wherever you are.  We who remain on this side will keep your light aglow, for what is remembered lives.

[1]   I’ve taken the liberty of copying some Facebook responses to Sparky’s death in order to share them with people who aren’t on Facebook.
[2]  For any Reclaiming folks who may be reading, I had nothing to do with Sparky’s presence on RIDL.  He, in fact, asked me to sponsor him and I declined, believing it inappropriate for me to do so.