Rethinking Community for Solitaries
Author: Incense Dragon
For two decades or more, I have been involved in some way with Community building among Pagans. During that time I have attended countless group meetings, attended every kind of fundraiser imaginable, seen groups build up and rip themselves apart, and watched a lot of very well-meaning people expend tremendous amounts of energy, time, and money only to see their efforts bring little or no fruit as a result. Sometimes these efforts are very successful (look at Heartland Pagan Festival or PantheaCon as examples) but sometimes they find only short-lived benefit (if any) .
After sitting out of these kinds of activities for nearly 5 years, I was drawn into this same old model once again when a local leader asked me to run for an open position on the board of directors of her organization. I very quickly found myself back with the same old problems, same old types of conflict, and had to ask myself “how did I end up here yet again?” The answer is simple: Community building is very important to me. It was important to my Pagan mentor decades ago and it has always been important to me. That hasn’t changed a bit. I am still very concerned with building bridges between all Pagans and Pagan groups.
The problem is not necessarily with the well-meaning people who start these groups. When they survive their early efforts, they can develop into long-running events or groups. These types of groups and events are critical to networking, communication, creating a broader community, and giving us ways to come together and celebrate. We need to embrace those successes, but recent events have caused me ask what other approaches there might be. Are there alternatives that would make our efforts at community building more successful?
So I began to meditate on this topic. I asked my patron god and goddess for direction, opened myself to all friendly powers, and began a process of self-examination. In the end, I was surprised by what was revealed to me. Like the majority of American Pagans, I am a Solitary. In my heart, I have always been Solitary, despite my time in a coven. I am Solitary by Choice. I love meeting with other Pagans of all walks of life and going to festivals and conventions with throngs of my fellow Pagans, Solitary and Traditional Pagan alike. But I am a Solitary and decided to walk that path long ago. So why am I trying to act like I am not Solitary?
Large organizations are essential to the building and networking of the Pagan Community. However, I believe we have really missed the boat by using this as our primary (and often exclusive) method of organizing. Large groups are a typical, conventional approach to organization. Pagans are not typical people, however, and conventional approaches may not always be the best way for us. I’m a devote Solitary but that does not mean that I cannot work in a group nor that Solitaries are unable to organize events. Those of us who are Solitary by Choice are still able to work with others to achieve common goals, but we have to recognize that we are a different breed than Traditional Pagans.
I am somewhat sympathetic to those used to the, comparatively, orderly nature of Covens who are thrust into dealing with Solitaries. Solitaries are a group in name only – the reality is that each one of us is different and it is only our basic beliefs that tie us together. Traditional Pagans are, of course, also individuals and I don’t mean to paint them as if they are just in lock-step with their HP or HPS. They view the Pagan world through the eyes of a Coven, and that is quite a different perspective than held by many Solitaries. Our inability to recognize this basic difference has led to countless conflicts, misunderstandings, and worse.
So what do we do?
We can’t possibly ask our Coven Brothers and Sisters to do all of the work. This is something that often happens. Solitaries go to festivals and conventions organized by others, but less often do the work that goes on behind the scenes. It’s completely unfair to enjoy the fruits of the work of others without giving back. We cover some of that by volunteering during the event (picking up trash, hauling wood, etc.) but many Solitaries do not know how, or do not feel welcome, to be part of the organizational side of things. For many, however, it is the feeling of being an “outsider” or feeling excluded (because we are not part of the group behind the organizing of an event) that can lead to feelings of disenfranchisement.
This is the line of thinking that took me into my two month-long meditation about my future with the Pagan Community. My personal conclusion is that I have taken the wrong approach to growing the Pagan Community for all of these decades. Some Solitaries may not be “into” large groups by their nature. This type and form of organization is not native to many of us, and for some it is downright offensive. I just went through a conflict with a local Pagan leader for whom I had the deepest respect and trust. When I failed to act within the organization as a “Covener” would be expected to act, conflict exploded. In the end it turned out to be that this leader did not understand how our email list worked and she believed that I was sending internal organizational information to the general public. It was a simple misunderstanding on her part that led to a painful several months for us both and obliterated my trust in and respect for her.
This led to a horrible conflict between us. She relied on how she was used to people communicating within the bounds of a Coven. I am an “independent operator” with very strong ethical rules and put a lot of emphasis on written communication (I live 60 miles away from the city where meetings are held) . When the Traditional approach and the Solitary approach clashed, the results were horrific. I was insulted and demeaned both publically and privately because someone did not understand how something functioned. This doesn’t mean that the leader is a terrible person. She’s simply not equipped to deal with those of a very different history and perspective. I am not like those she is used to working with. Once our perspectives came into conflict, she interpreted that as a conflict between the two of us personally. Things rapidly spiraled out of control to the point that I was ready to resign from her organization in spite of being a member of the board of directors.
The conflict with that leader will be my last of this nature. I am moving out of these types of organizations and instead I am transforming my efforts to connect and build the Pagan Community into an approach that I should have been using for 20 years. Why have I spent all of this time attempting to fit into an organizational model that I have actively avoided in every other context? I am not saying that I am going to resign from the Pagan organizations to which I belong. Even the organization where I was so heavily impacted by someone else’s ignorance is a place where I intend to keep a membership and continue to participate. I have, however, resigned from that group’s board of directors. The organizational expectations that exist there are designed for those who are prefer the Coven approach. I am not such a person. I am an independent operator and trying to be something I’m not has resulted in recurrent failure.
Instead, I want to use my Solitary approach as an advantage rather than a shortfall to overcome. I am self-reliant and dependable. In fact, it’s difficult for me to rely on anyone else outside my immediate family anyway, so why not rely on the one person upon whom I can always depend? Over the years, I have built very close relationships with a few select Pagans I have grown to trust. Between those people and myself, there is little that we cannot do within our own scale. We will never be a large enough group to accomplish some of the things that large organizations do, but we can certainly do a great deal.
Looking at the overall Pagan Community in America, it seems to me that we mostly exist as individuals or small groups scattered around the country. Think of it as the way that America looked in the 19th Century, especially along the various frontiers. Villages and tiny towns were the way that the individuals or small families who lived in the wild lands would trade and communicate. These are like small Covens or other small, local Pagan groups. There were a few large cities near the frontiers where far more goods and services were available. Using that model, the frontier is where the Solitaries dwell and the cities are the home of large Covens or other large, formal organizations. We are all part of the same society, same nation, and same general geographic area. Yet we are clearly distinct. Each has benefits and drawbacks. Nevertheless, for the nation as a whole to operate, each of these parts must work together.
It’s not a perfect analogy, but it gets to the heart of how we can work together. Cities depend on food and other materials that come from the frontiers/wild places. Raw materials are processed into goods and are available to frontiers people. Each provides something that the other needs and together we operate as a complete economy.
So where does that leave me and thousands of others in a similar situation? How can a Solitary even help to build community? What can a Solitary do that is different than the “standard model” that we have used for community for so long?
One nice thing about being a Solitary is that I have neither reason nor desire to tell anyone else what to do. Don’t look for me to tell you what anyone else should do. I can tell you what I’m going to do. First, I have resigned from all leadership positions in these types of Traditional Pagan organizations. I still think those organizations are important and useful and I will remain a “rank-and-file” member of such organizations, but I will no longer take any type of formal or leadership role within those organizations. Instead, I’m going to focus on projects that help to build community interconnectivity whether between groups or individuals. Some are old projects that I’ve had in mind for a long time, but for which I could never get support from the various organizations with which I worked. Only recently, I realized that I can do a lot of this work alone and that would give me the freedom to try whatever approaches I wish. No meetings, conferences, committees, diminution of the original concept, and no need to find “compromise solutions”. If a project fails, there are no political ramifications and nobody will accuse me of wrongdoing or making a bad decision. If I make a bad decision, I will deal with the consequences myself.
There are drawbacks to this approach. If things go wrong there is nobody else to blame. When you work alone, you have to accept all successes and failures as your own. As a Solitary you can only hope to work with others on occasion. I am not “married” to the idea that I always have to work alone, but I do know that if I plan to work alone I will never be disappointed when someone else fails to show up. Working alone, or with just one or two other people, means you have fewer “person hours” per week to work on a project, you have a lesser ability to raise funds, have to carry all of the needed equipment, set it up, and tear it down with little outside help. It is harder to bounce ideas off someone else when they are not involved in the development of the project. I am also limited by my own knowledge and experience. In a large group you often have a variety of knowledge and skills upon which you can draw.
Working alone also means that the scope or scale of your projects have to be appropriate. Although it is theoretically possible that I could plan a large event and pay for it by myself, realistically I am limited as to the size of projects that I can take on alone. A primary project I am doing currently is a Public Access television show for Pagans ( http://www.incenseboopks.com/moment.htm or http://www.youtube.com/user/PentOclockNews) . I am doing the whole process by myself (aside from the people in the videos) – I record the video and operate the camera, I do the editing, titles, voiceovers, set up the interviews, buy equipment, etc., by myself. It would be nice to have someone else along who can run a camera or just carry equipment (although it has yet to happen) , but this is a Solitary project. And it is a project that can definitely make a difference and help our community statewide. Eventually, perhaps, it will be helpful nationwide.
I am able to (and often do) travel around the state to visit my fellow Pagans and attend their events or meetings. When I do this as an active leader for some organization, like it or not, my visits to those other communities are seen as “official” by many people. As a standing officer, even if I know it’s not true, I have to accept that a lot of people would still see it this way. If the group I want to visit is in some kind of dispute or disagreement with the organization to which I belong, people can easily misinterpret such a visit. Yet if I am not affiliated with the leadership of any particular group, then those problems vanish.
I want to give one more example of what a single person can do to help build a stronger Pagan community. Casting my mind back to the autumn of 2007, I can think of something fun I did (as a Solitary) , that provided an immediate positive impact on my community. I have a friend who holds an annual “non-Event” that is a camping gathering of Pagans in central Oklahoma. This is an open event where Pagans gather at a state park for a weekend of camping, drumming, and fun without any agendas, formal rituals, or planned workshops. Beej’s Non-Event is another great example of a Solitary effort – Beej had the idea, told people, and they came. Naturally, everyone brings their own camping gear and feeds himself or herself. I asked myself what I could do, on my own, to make this event more enjoyable for everyone? There is no staff or schedule, so it truly was a Solitary situation.
My solution was to create the “Greenman Kitchen”. On Saturday morning of the non-event, I set up my canopy, fired up 3 camping stoves, and cooked breakfast for everyone who cared to get up (I fed roughly 35 people that morning) . I did the work and provided everything – it was simply my way to say “thank you” to my community for everything they did for me throughout the year. It required not a single meeting or committee or vote. I didn’t need anyone’s approval nor did I have to compromise on the menu or methods. I did something nice and fun for everyone, and it was a blast. Yes, it was hours of hard work but it was all on my own terms. Best of all, it was a huge Solitary success. I hope to one day bring the Greenman Kitchen back to life in the Oregon Pagan Community. These are not the only such Solitary activities I’ve done for the community, but a nice example of the power of A Circle of One.
Our community benefits from all kinds of people. Our diversity is possibly our greatest strength yet we so often take steps to squash that diversity rather than benefit from it. Those who work well in groups are crucial to the future of the Pagan community in America. One or two individuals simply can’t create the large, organized events that we occasionally get to enjoy. We NEED those who can work with and effectively lead groups of Pagans. They are a huge part of how we can draw closer and bring our energies together. I just hope that if you’ve read all the way to the end of this article that you can now see that YOU as an individual can do a great deal to build and improve our community. Solitaries, Traditional Pagans, and those in-between or beyond those limits can all contribute to making ours a stronger, better-connected community.
Solitary individuals have far more ability to positively impact the Greater Pagan Community than most of us have thought in the past. We Solitaries owe a big debt to those organizations that have worked so hard to create events over the decades. Now we Solitaries need to step up and do our part to help this community connect and grow. The great news is that we can do this while remaining true to our Solitaries paths. We need not try to work within organizations that run counter to how we function in order to be part of the community and to positively contribute to its growth.