Reflections on Paganicon 2018

Paganicon was my first foray into hotel-based Pagan conferences. Overall, it was a positive experience. It took place at the Doubletree Hotel in St Louis Park Minnesota over three days. It included workshops, lectures, book signings, demonstrations and panels. There was a vendor room and two evening entertainment events.

There were something like 750 people in attendance or more. Apparently, the conference has grown in recent years, because they appeared to be at the limit of what this venue could accommodate.

I was very pleased to sit in on a workshop lead by Ivo Dominguez, Jr. on Political Magick. I also had a chance to meet and talk with Ivo afterward. I found him warm and generous, and it was wonderful to meet him in person after years of being connected online.

I had the chance to catch a Sigil Magic Workshop with Laura Tempest Zakroff, which was very inspiring. In spite of the room being packed and a bit overheated, the audience was very engaged. At the end of the presentation, a woman in my row turned to her companion and said “I can do this!” That’s pretty great praise for an instructor.

I had a chance to sit in on Diana Paxson’s talk on the various natures of Odin. Diana is a very well-known author and was one of the guests of honor. I enjoyed this presentation too, particularly when Diana sang the runes for us.

On Friday evening, there was a performance by SJ Tucker, who put on a great show. She is well known and loved as a performer in the Pagan community so it was no surprise that it was an engaging performance. I particularly liked “La Sirene”, which is not yet on any of her albums.

Saturday night was the Equinox Ball, which featured a fun funk/pop cover band called TTime Machine, as well as a costume contest. Many of the attendees were creatively dressed, in everything from Viking attire to something that looked like Dr. Suess characters. There were kilts, flowy goth dresses, wizard capes, and more than a few sets of horns. Lots of people enjoyed the dancing, and it was a joyful event.

A few general observations:

There were a lot of Heathens in attendance. I don’t know if this is just part of the character of the conference in general, or if this was because several of the featured guests were from Heathen paths. Next year the featured guests will be Druids so I wonder if that balance will change.

A large bulk of the guests appeared to be locals, coming from within a few hours drive of the Twin Cities. Several of the panels that I sat in on had a very localized flavor, to an extent that I felt very much an outsider to the discussion.

They have already announced that they will be moving to a larger venue next year which is good since both the vendor room end the workshop / panel spaces would benefit from more space.

Paganicon Conference 2018

I am diving into the world of Pagan conferences next month when I attend Paganicon

I considered both ConVocation in Detroit and Paganicon, since both locations would be manageable for travel, and I have heard good things about both.I decided on Paganicon, simply because I am more familiar with the Twin Cities.

I am not entirely sure what to expect, but I am looking forward to seeing and hopefully meeting some writers and entertainers such as Ivo Dominguez, Jr., SJ Tucker, Diana Paxson, and Laura Tempest Zackroff. There are also panels and presentations on the schedule that sound promising.

I will share my thoughts on the experience after I attend. If any of my readers are planning to attend, I would love to connect!

The Shape of Water – movie recommendation

The Shape of Water works on many levels. It is an adult fairy tale. It is a dark romance. It is a sumptuous visual feast, with excellent writing and performances. The frankness of the sexuality from the first few minutes tells us this is not a Disney story, and it does not shy away from scenes of bloody violence.

The setting is Cold War-era Baltimore. It takes visual cues from classic Hollywood – from horror like the Creature from the Black Lagoon to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musicals, along with echoes of the Bioshock video games.

But I wanted to highlight a certain theme in the movie, which is of interest to Pagans. Trying not to give too much away, the creature at the center of the plot was brought from the wilderness of South America. The man who brings the creature to Baltimore, a stern paragon of American Imperialist virtue, says the natives worship the creature like a god. So from the beginning we begin to wonder what powers are contained here. And we are not disappointed once we see them in action.

We see the modern reductive reaction to an encounter with something divine – to dissect and destroy in an attempt to understand the new power. But our heroes are open-hearted and open-minded enough instead to the experience of encountering a god and his power.

Guillermo del Toro has beautifully woven in pagan and supernatural elements in his previous movies. Pan’s Labyrinth famously gave us mandrakes prescribed for healing, and a visual feast of fauns and monsters. The Devil’s Backbone was another of his films that is possibly my favorite ghost story – both ominous and beautiful.

I highly recommend The Shape of Water for everyone, but especially for Pagan audiences, who I think will appreciate this magical story.

Update for November

I wanted to pass along some recent developments and upcoming events.

Fellowship of the Phoenix continues to be my biggest spiritual project. In many ways, we are still digesting our recent changes.

The most visible change from the outside is the opening our order to LGBTQ+ people of all gender identities, and that process has worked surprisingly well. A number of members who had questions and reservations about those changes have remained connected and are working through their own process of acceptance.

We’ve also been going through some internal structural changes that are less visible to those outside our organization. Some of the internal hierarchy has been dismantled, and hopefully this will free the channels of engagement. This has provided some challenges to me, as a leader within the group, as I figure out what my role is in the new structure, and as I help others to understand their own roles – and what opportunities the changes afford.

Ultimately, I think we’re on the right track, though, and I’m really pleased with the way we’re embracing changes. There seems to be more freedom and energy coming into the organization, and I hope this trend continues.

 

So, I want to share a few upcoming Fellowship of the Phoenix events. In Chicago, November 18th, we will have our ShadowDance event. One of our clergy members is Rev. Chris Allaun, who just had his second book come out on the subject of the Underworld and Ancestor work. He will be hosting a workshop on the topic and leading the ritual. As usual, it will be followed by a potluck.

More information is here:

ShadowDance 2017 – Chicago

 

Outside my role in Fellowship of the Phoenix, I am also taking some personal initiative to connect magical Queer people. I have created a Queer Magic Bazaar on November 16th.
From the event page:

“Queer Magic Bazaar is an event for Queer Magicians, Witches, Pagans, Occultists, and all those with interests in related topics.

This is a meetup for interested parties and a chance to make connections in our community. From beginners to adepts – be welcome to this gathering!

There will be vendors with magical items, divination, and other things you just may fancy.”

This is my first venture into creating this kind of event, so I’m hoping for a good response. There has been a lot of interest on Facebook, at least.

Queer Magic Bazaar

Divine Parents – Do we ever grow up?

Parents have a job that ends.

Unless something doesn’t go according to plan, and then sometimes a child may remain physically or mentally dependent on someone to care for their basic well-being. I can’t imagine any parent hopes for that kind of scenario. And, realistically, even that job ends eventually, even if it is by the death or disability of the parent, rather than the child growing out of the need.

Many young people, and even some who are not so young, speak of the challenges of “adulting”. This may mean that they did their own laundry or paid their own bills. It may mean something more advanced like signing a lease or buying a major appliance. It may even mean buying a home or getting married.

It essentially means doing something that they would not have been expected to do as a child. It means maintaining one’s own life without the intervention of a parent. And claims of “adulting” are often followed by “adulting is hard!”

On some level, being taken care of is profoundly appealing. Tuning out from the daily frustrations and concentrating on TV or video games, hanging out with friends – who wouldn’t want to avoid being the adult.

But parenting ends. The child grows up and takes on the practical reality of managing their life, and most parents realize that one of their goals as a parent must be to enable that.

 

For all meaningful purposes, my parents are gone. My mother died over ten years ago now, and had been far too ill for years before that to do any physical care for any of her children. My father is still alive, but has slid so far into dementia that his ability to care for himself is long gone.

So I am feeling acutely the reality that most of us will eventually no longer have a parent, and that loss can be difficult even if we are reasonably competent at “adulting”.

 

So now I wonder about divine parents. Many traditions see Father gods or Mother goddesses. This is probably one of the most common conceptions of deity. But what does that mean to have an eternal parent when the goal of parenting is for the child to stand on their own? Does the Father want you to grow out of dependence? Does the Mother want there to be a day when you figure it out on your own?

Or are we as humans doomed to never be spiritual adults, never really taking on responsibility for our own maintenance?

Or is there something wrong with the metaphor of calling them Mother or Father?

Does their divine parenting end? Do we ever grow up?

Paganism is free? I disagree.

Emma Kathryn wrote this piece for Gods & Radicals When is Paganism not Paganism?” and I agreed heartily with a part of the message. Being Pagan doesn’t require collecting the most tchotchkes, especially if that means items manufactured in China or ecologically destructive items.

But the line “Paganism is free” made me stop. This statement seemed utterly incorrect to me. In fact, it seems badly misleading, even destructive.

I agree that many of the most rewarding parts of a Pagan path do not necessarily come at a monetary cost. Connection to natural places, connection with other people – these can be gained in ways that don’t take much or any money. We may be able to make offerings, divination tools, or ritual items out of items that are found, scavenged or gifted to us. We may even be able to get books from libraries or friends without exchanging money.

We can also take modest ingredients and add our work to make them valuable. Art, crafts, cooking – these are all tools that can make modest materials into beautiful and worthwhile items to share and to be offered.

But to think that you can get a spiritual path without paying a cost is incorrect. Even if money is scarce for you, you must be willing to make payments in terms of your time and effort in order to gain something in return. And if someone else is paying a cost for your gain, you need to be aware of this and have gratitude.

For those of us who live in cities, just a connection to nature may require some cost and effort. Getting to parks or natural places may take an investment of time and often, money. And shedding the cares and stresses of the modern, disconnected world takes an effort as well.

Finding other Pagans can take significant effort, depending on where you are and what kind of network you have. Even looking up groups over the internet takes the money involved in having an internet-ready device and connection. And many times, Pagan events and groups have costs just to operate public events – space rental, ritual supplies, speaker fees, etc. You may be able to find those that don’t require an admission fee, but you need to understand that someone is paying those costs, and without that, the event or group would not exist, or at least it would not be open to the public.

Even reading a book, given to you or purchased inexpensively, requires your effort and concentration to learn its lessons.

To end on a theological note, Paganism is not like Calvinist Protestant Christianity. Belief is not enough. Faith is not enough. You have to “do” Paganism, which requires effort on your part. And effort is not free.

Brotherhood, Fellowship, and Transformation

As my readers know, I have been involved with the Brotherhood of the Phoenix for a number of years and I have recently been in positions of leadership – Magister (President) of the Chicago Temple and Bursar (Treasurer) for the national organization.

We have had some major changes bubbling inside our Order for a while now, and they are just starting to break the surface, so I think it is time for me to start writing about them here.

We were founded in 2004 as a neopagan order for men who love men. Since I have been involved, that has meant inclusion of gay, bi, trans, and queer male identities. Our cosmology, our deities, and our rituals specifically avoid the forms of heterosexual male-female duality that is common in many Pagan traditions. Some of our Brothers have had a strong interest in “male mysteries” and explorations of masculine sexuality as it relates to and embodies the sacred. To be honest, this aspect has not been central to my experience of the Brotherhood.

It has become increasingly clear to us that many people who don’t identify specifically as men are interested in our tradition. Women, non-binary, and genderqueer people have been supporters and close allies. At the same time, many of us have become uncomfortable with drawing the line which leaves these seekers outside of our group. There is a value in exploring and celebrating the spiritual dimension of male sexuality – but the mission of our group is larger than this. Many of us have experienced this message from our deities. There are even those within our group who have stepped away from identifying as “men”, which has brought the challenge of inclusion to the fore.

At the same time, two of our long-time Brothers recently moved to Seattle and are dedicated to expanding our group there. However, they wanted to start that group without the gendered limitation that we’ve had in Chicago. They wanted to be – from the beginning – open to LGBTQ/Queer people of all gender identities. And with a lot of discussion, the national organization is supportive of that. But it meant, among other things, figuring out a name for the organization that doesn’t limit/define gender.

So, the first announcement is that our national organization will be changing its name to “Fellowship of the Phoenix”. It is going to take some time to figure out all the official things that need to be changed in order to make that happen. The Seattle group will be using that name from its inception. Their first public ritual will take place on August 19, 2017.

For the moment, our Chicago group is still processing this – the cauldron is still bubbling. We will have a vote next month about adopting both the name change and changing our definition of who is invited to all public events, our novitiate program, and to apply for membership. I don’t want to tell you that Chicago will definitely adopt all these changes. It will be the decision of the group. But I do know that many of the active members are ready for these changes to be adopted. Others feel like there is something special that we will be giving up by changing our focus and broadening our target audience. Emotions have run high at times. Letting everyone have a voice in the process can be frustrating, but it’s necessary.

So, for now, we will have a “Seattle Fellowship of the Phoenix” and a “Chicago Brotherhood of the Phoenix” under a national umbrella called “Fellowship of the Phoenix”. At least for the moment.

The Phoenix is a symbol of transformation. This concept is central to who we are. I am personally happy that this transformation is finally starting to manifest. It will take some time and processing for this phase of transformation to be complete.

If you don’t have anything nice to say…

I have been quiet on this blog lately. I have done some writing – I wrote and submitted a piece for a queer magic anthology, which I will have more information on in the future.

I have also been putting a lot of mental energy into my new position as Magister for the Brotherhood of the Phoenix, which I mentioned on my previous post. This has taken a great deal of mental energy, even more than I anticipated. We’re going through discussions that cut to the very core of our mission and which will redefine who we are as an organization. And they have been contentious and sometimes emotional. And that intensity looks like it’s probably not going to let up for months, at least.

So, I’m getting some hands-on learning about how to help guide a group through conflict. How do I foster an environment where everyone feels heard? How do we balance the urge to hold onto what we know and value, while opening up to a broader vision? I knew these conversations were bound to happen, but they weren’t in the front of my mind when I took this position.

One of the Four Powers of the Sphinx is “to keep silence”. I have been thinking about this a great deal lately. I think a lot of people in this noisy world find this to be a very difficult lesson. Without trying to boast, I think I am better at it than many (which still doesn’t make me particularly good at it).

In much of my adult life, I have not sought to take the spotlight. I gave up music and theatre that I loved during my teen years. I didn’t put any of my writing in the public eye for years after college, even though I studied Creative Writing. It’s only in the past few years that I have kept this blog and occasionally did talks to (usually small) groups. I really made the decision to restrain my own voice. I try to think about whether my voice will contribute something in a given context before I speak up.

Now, as I am trying to navigate a leadership role in an organization, restraining my own voice has seemed even more important. If I start off a discussion with strongly stating my opinion of our path and what we should and shouldn’t do, I risk stifling different opinions. I have to find the right balance of saying enough to get the conversation going without trying to dominate the conversation. And of course, I have to watch to make sure conversations don’t descend into something hurtful.

Another aspect of this silence is that when I think about something to write about, I have been feeling empty, and a bit helpless. There are so many horrors in the world, from American politics, which seems to be lurching from one crisis to the next, to the horrifying stories coming out of Chechnya, to environmental disasters and disastrous environmental policy decisions.

I often feel the urge to run away to a remote location where I can plant a huge garden and watch over and try to protect some patch of forest. I have no idea how to change people. I don’t know how to make people compassionate or conscientious. I don’t know how to make them stop harming others and the environment. And I don’t think my voice – whether it be a blog post, a chant and a placard at a protest, a public meeting – is going to open people’s eyes to reverse the disastrous course that we’re on.

I guess we just had a Pagan holiday…

I have to admit I’ve never had much of a connection to Imbolc (or the various permutations of the pagan holiday around Feb 1st or 2nd). It doesn’t line up with anything that I’ve ever celebrated culturally or any celebrations that I grew up with (Groundhog Day is kind of a *meh* holiday).

I do like bonfires, but I don’t think I’ve ever been invited to an event this time of year centering on one. I’m not aware of any sacred wells around here. And as for the lambing time – lambs are pretty darned adorable, but as a vegan, they don’t form a part of my financial or agricultural world.

I guess all that’s left of that is the association with the beginnings of Spring. But I have to honest, early February doesn’t typically feel much like the beginning of Spring around Chicago. Most years, we’re still in for a full month or more of hard winter. This year, of course, we had an unusually mild January, so I don’t even have that severe Winter fatigue that normally accompanies this time of year.

I do like the Irish story of the Cailleach, the sacred hag, associated with the day. On Imbolc, she would indicate whether the winter was ending soon or if it would hang on for a long time. If there was still some harsh winter in the future, she would cause the weather to be bright and clear so she could gather more firewood to last the rest of the winter.

In the Brotherhood of the Phoenix, it is the beginning of a new cycle in our year. In our upcoming event called SpiritSong, we celebrate the Divine Youth, after celebrating the Elder in January. The Divine Youth gives the gift of Wonder, and that is an important one in this season of year, when the plants are dead and the skies are often gray. It is also important to remember in this political season, as so many threats seem to be lurking at our doorstep and the ungenerous hearts are the ones that lead us. We are building walls and cutting off assistance for those in need. We are lifting the protections to the environment and taking away funding from schools and the arts.

Wonder gives us the gift of seeing beauty in the simple and everyday things. It allows us to break the mundane unthinking patterns of our life and appreciate what we take for granted. It allows us to appreciate the marvelous talents that people have, and the skills that can seem almost magical. It is bound together with Gratitude and Joy. It makes us appreciate the many things that are provided to us, the bounty that surrounds us.

This gift of Wonder, tapping into something within ourselves that improves our outlook – this is something I will celebrate.

What lies ahead looks like what I have seen before

As I was reading this article about the incoming Cabinet appointees, I couldn’t help thinking that I see what is ahead of us. It looks a lot like a place where I have been before.

I came out in 1987, in Reagan’s America. Only a handful of states had non-discrimination laws for employment or housing. No one even dreamed of legal same-sex marriages. A major epidemic had taken hold because the Federal government thought it only affected gays and drug addicts, who frankly deserved to get sick.

It was a common fear for children to be disowned by their parents or forced into therapy for coming out as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. It was common for people to lie to themselves and their spouses and live lives that looked like everyday American families, but were really a kind of silent hell.

For Trans people – well, it’s hard for me to even imagine. There was so little hope for support from home, school, work – so little awareness and so little sympathy for their identity that they knew in their hearts.

For LGBTQ people of color, who faced multiple intersections of discrimination around sexuality, race, ethnicity, and religion – the challenges and complications went far beyond what I ever experienced.

And so many brave and beautiful souls persevered.

 

It won’t look like it did before. The 1980’s didn’t look quite like the 1950’s, even if that’s what many in power aspired to achieve. LGBT communities had become established during the freer years of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Anita Bryant took her anti-gay crusade around and succeeded in getting quite a few places to roll back anti-discrimination laws (including St Paul, MN, my home at the time I came out). But the community still existed and grew stronger in spite of the disasters it faced.

The “Moral Majority” was in full swing – as was the “Satanic Panic”. There was a backlash against the open religious exploration of the 1960’s as well as the increasing secularism of American culture. Here, too, the counterculture was established enough that it held on, even if it was only in casual, personal ways. Neopaganism continued to develop, although it took on a “New Age” cast that was more about self-improvement than creation of an alternative spiritual community.

 

I was too young to really understand it at the time, but the 1980’s were also a time when environmental progress was rolled back. The move toward energy conservation through the 1970’s was reversed. Protected lands were opened to logging, drilling and mining. The EPA was weakened in favor of “business friendly” policies allowing more pollution. See more about Reagan’s environmental record here

The 1980’s saw a dramatic step up in the War on Drugs, which meant increasing incarceration of nonviolent drug offenders. Of course this had a racial component – much of the enforcement was in communities of color, even when drug use was just as prevalent in primarily white communities. See more about the War on Drugs here.

It was also the time when standards of honesty and integrity of the press was eroded. Reagan played a critical role in rolling back the “Fairness Doctrine” and other safeguards to hold media responsible for their reporting. This deregulation, along with the proliferation of cable news and then the internet news sites, has led to most news outlets being highly partisan and in many cases portraying opinion and sometimes even lies as news. See more about the changes to media in the 1980’s here.

 

 

We seem to be facing all these social currents again (or, in some cases, still): Anti-LGBTQ legal actions; Religious xenophobia and fear; Environmental protections being rolled back; An increase in racialized policing; A news media system that continues to fail in bringing reliable and balanced information to the American public.

I hope the cultural shifts of the past 20 years around all these issues will be enough to hold us together through the next decade. I am worried that if I get fired from my job because of my sexuality or my religion, the Federal legal system is not likely to help me out. I am even more worried about the climate of religious and ethnic discrimination that seems to be rising. And I am most worried about the fragile balance of the environment and the climate, which already seems to be on the verge of tipping.