Sunday, 30 November 2014

How I Became An Iconoclastic Traditionalist, Part I

I was an only child with little in the way of extended family and even less in the way of the kind of social acumen that might have netted me another type of familial structure. Growing up amidst the polyester excrescences of 1970s America, I came of age without a firm sense of identity, history, or ethnicity. Even religion, when it came in my early grade-school years, was the blandest non-denominational Christianity, completely lacking in the color and drama and pageantry that my encyclopedias had assured me were features of other cultures' faiths. My life was singularly lacking in color and drama and pageantry, and I yearned for something more. Having tolerant, if bewildered, parents, I came in time to conduct little ceremonies of my own, but that still wasn't enough; I might have been a loner by choice as well as design, but I still wanted to be a part of something bigger than myself.

Unfortunately, it would appear that by choice and/or design, I am also somewhat unsuited to being a part of anything too structured. When I at last found myself an initiate of a Wiccan tradition with roots and structure and customs...well, the results were mixed.

It turns out that, even in a loose confederation of decentralized small groups, there are still self-appointed arbiters of the Right Way of doing things, and you run afoul of them at your peril. Having never been in in my life (beyond a brief foray with the French Club in high school), I was staggered by how easy it was to find yourself on the outs for what seemed the most trivial of reasons. I had run mostly unopposed throughout my formative years, my parents rarely reining me in unless grave bodily injury or death appeared imminent (and perhaps a psychologist would read in that the seeds of my innate need for structure and discipline), and suddenly finding myself surrounded by what to me were interfering busybodies telling me I had to do things This Way and not That Way or I couldn't be in anymore was maddening.

So what if I do this but not that? It's not written down anywhere!

(It's oral tradition.)

But I've heard/read/inferred that other people in a different city/lineage/coven do that instead of this!

(They're either oathbreakers or liars.)

But this is all petty details. WHY is doing/saying or not doing/saying this or that so far beyond the pale?

(Because this is how it's always been done.)

As you can imagine, these answers did not sit well with me. I was not at all, then or now, of two minds; on the contrary, I was and am entirely single-minded in wanting it both ways. I wanted both the traditional and the innovative, long-held customs with the freedom and flexibility to modify and adapt where applicable. It just took me an inordinate amount of time to figure out that there would always be resistance to that.

Secrecy, Mystery, and Transparency

The traditional forms of the craft predate the Information Age and were in no way designed to function optimally in such a wide-open field. If you'll indulge me in a bit of cane-shaking, back in my day when I made my first foray into the wider world of witchcraft and pagan practice, it was very much up to chance as to who you might meet and how and when. Lacking the internet with portal sites and seekers' email lists and Facebook groups, your resources were limited to word-of-mouth, the recommendation of a local shopkeeper, a flyer put out by a brave coven, or a discreet ad in the back of one of the few major periodicals available in the local chain bookstore. Even so, if you managed to make a tenuous connection, you were mostly on your own, with only your own instincts to guide you as to whether or not the people you met were legitimate initiates of X tradition; and your only knowledge of X tradition was likely to come from said people, written material being scarce and hard to come by. It's difficult to seek further information if you have no idea where to look for it, or even what questions you need to be asking. The tide was shifting by the early to mid 1990s when I was initiated into my first trad, thanks to the explosion of popular pagan and Wiccan books, but it was still a very different time. Secrecy and mystery were experienced in a far different way.

Here in the 21st century, information is out there--in books, on web sites, in blogs and podcasts and every other form of social media. Where in older times the prospective initiate was the one who was being interviewed for a position, so to speak, now it isn't at all uncommon to see seekers quite openly checking up on the bona fides of the coven leaders and teachers they meet. There are email lists and open Facebook groups that exist specifically for such exchange, allowing cautious cowans to ask questions about tradition-specific practices and even about the lineages of specific people. When I was new into all of this, such exchange was all but unheard-of, and perhaps in some cases it still is; there are traditions still in which one's initiatory lineage is a secret only discussed with other initiates, where even the craft pseudonyms of one's upline are not mentioned among those outside the trad, but in the free-market of ideas that is our modern age it is only going to become harder and harder to maintain such secrecy. Seekers today are far from the tabula rasa of those from earlier eras; they read, they listen, they interact in a vastly interconnected way, and they come to pre-initiate practice with ideas and understandings their predecessors lacked. The challenges, then, for the teachers and leaders of today are amplified over what their own teachers faced back in the day.

I'll admit that I do not know the best way to navigate these challenges; much of this is still uncharted territory, still changing every day. Each tradition, each group, each person will ultimately decide for itself how much to reveal, and to whom, and when. Because there are no central registries, or for that matter any truly unbiased sources, a vouch is not always going to be available; and some initiates will be unwilling to reveal too much of their background to a questioning stranger. Documents can be easily faked. Ultimately a seeker is left to his or her own instincts as to who they can trust, who they want to work with, whether or not they can ferret out any information about their prospective teachers beyond what those teachers themselves are able or willing to share. In that way, at least, perhaps things haven't changed all that much from earlier times. More information may be available in our age, but more doesn't necessarily equal better. If anything, the technological revolution has made it easier to create and distribute misinformation, lies, and rumors than ever before.

So the need for secrecy--though I would personally term it confidentiality--must be weighed against the equally-vital need for transparency, and a balance must be struck. I would argue that there are things that a prospective initiate absolutely has the right to know upfront, things that trump concepts of "it's a secret" and "that's oathbound"--for if your oaths require you to lie to people about what will be expected of them, then that is an unethical oath, and you become an unethical leader by upholding it. (For the record, the oaths I've taken were all rather damnably vague about just what the "secrets" I was to be keeping were; oral tradition, I suppose, with variable mileage between trads and lines!) There are things that people want, and need, to know going in, things that in our modern age particularly simply cannot be swept aside as being degree-specific secrets. A balance between maintaining sufficient confidentiality to neither reveal too much of a trad's practices (thus spoiling the esoteric effects thereof) and allowing adequate accountability so that the seeker goes in confidently aware of what will or will not be expected of them (primarily in those areas about which seekers are always most concerned: sexually, physically, psychologically, monetarily). If your trad works heavily with entheogens, for example, and their usage is expected and required of initiates, then those seeking initiation need to be clearly aware of that upfront; and if they have read of the trad's usage of psychoactive substances and ask you about it, only to have you deny said usage categorically, then you have acted unethically, and betrayed your position as a leader. Denying things that are now common knowledge makes you look untrustworthy when the time comes that the truth is revealed.

Balancing the need for confidentiality, the desire to preserve mystery, and the necessity of transparency and accountability is difficult, but not impossible. It requires discipline, honesty, and integrity, all of which are important qualities in an initiate. You can preserve tradition, preserve the craft, and still be an ethical person, upfront and accountable.

Monday, 14 July 2014

It's Been Awhile

Almost a year? About three months after that last post, I lost my mother--a lovely capper to a sensationally craptastic year. (I will point out that, true to form, just days before she went into hospital I saw the first episode of Buffy I'd seen in years, walking into the room where it was playing just at the point where Buffy discovers her mother--who shared a name with mine--dead. FML times infinity.) But I'm still here, still functioning, and maybe even finally coming out of the fog of depression and exhaustion. I say maybe, because I'm frankly afraid to say much of anything at all. Talk about sleeping with the metaphorical lights on.

I do have some things to put up here, so I hope you'll stick around. I will try to be back before another year goes by.