Always with One Foot in the Broom Closet

I managed a coffee shop for nearly ten years when I lived in Michigan. While most of us think of coffee shops as small slices of bohemia, the one I worked at was quite different. We were right next door to the Michigan House of Representatives, and even when the Democrats were in the governor’s chair there was a decidedly conservative bent to neighborhood. The store was also owned by two conservative Evangelical Christians. It was a strange mix of personalities and identities, but there were more successes than failures.

Working in such an environment led me to live large chunks of my life in the broom closet. Obviously I wasn’t going to wear a pentacle the size of a hub-cap to work, but it effected me in other ways too. I used to have this awesome collection of Pagan-inspired t-shirts, and when I took over as manager of the coffee shop those went into storage. Since the town I lived in was just small enough that I’d always end up running into a customer at Target, a lot of my existence was spent in the broom closet while off the clock. People are so touchy and strange about religion, (especially when it’s a faith they don’t understand) that I was always worried about losing a customer for wearing shirts with mottos like “Have you accepted Pan as your personal lord and satyr?” (That was really just an example since I don’t actually own that shirt, however you can remedy that if you’ve got an extra twenty-five bucks in your wallet/purse.)

Even before this blog I had a life as a Public Pagan. I spoke at a lot of festivals, and was interviewed by the occasional newspaper or two. A quick google search of my name yielded all kinds of Pagan results. In actuality there was no way I could live as a closeted Pagan, it was always there for the seeing, but in public everyday life one foot remained firmly in the broom closet. In a lot of ways I still live that way.

This past weekend one of our neighbors introduced herself to my wife and I. Of course the question “what do you do for a living?” came up, and I proudly said that I write for Patheos. The part I danced around was what I write for Patheos. That’s not because I’m ashamed of my beliefs, or most of the things I’ve written, it’s just because I don’t want to be instantly judged for one thing: being Pagan. I’m a husband (and sometimes not a horrible one), a sports fan, a fair cook, the shepherd of two cats, a connoisseur of fine hard ciders . . . . I’m not just a Pagan.

Religion and politics always seem to result in instant judgements from a lot of people (and I’ll admit that I can be one of those folks). “Oh you’re a conservative Evangelical Christian? Well we are certainly going to hate each other,” but that’s not always the case. I have some great friends who are Evangelicals, and yeah we sometimes argue politics and faith, but those beliefs aren’t all they are. They are also Moms and Dads, environmental stewards, sci-fi fans, and all kinds of other things.

So when meeting my neighbor on Saturday I refrained from saying that I’m basically a full-time Pagan* out of the fear that suddenly I would just be strictly a Pagan. Just being a Pagan wouldn’t be a horrible thing (though I’d badly miss football), but I’d alway rather be judged as a human being first, and as a label second. My wife likes to say that we “walk between the worlds,” but she’s not referring to the world of spirit when she says it. We’ve always been able to navigate mundania fairly well, with a large and diverse group of friends from both the Pagan and non-Pagan spheres.

I’ve never hidden my Paganism from anyone. It shapes my life in all kinds of ways, from how I treat other people to how I decorate my house. I’m not sure it would even be possible to invite someone into my home and keep them from figuring out my religious beliefs. While there’s not a twelve foot pentagram hanging above the fireplace mantle, there are a lot of bookshelves, ritual tools, statues, chalices, and other assorted Pagan odds and ends floating around my living room. By the time I tend to invite someone into my house they’ve already made a judgement about me, and at that point Paganism is just going to be one more thing about me, and not the only thing.

I’ve also found that people are more receptive to talking about (and accepting) Paganism when it’s not the first thing you spring on them. If people have already established that you aren’t sacrificing family pets in the backyard, conversations are a lot easier. It’s always best to avoid beginning the “Pagan Conversation” from a defensive standpoint. When people know you as you, instead of as a stereotype, it’s harder for them to be judgmental. “This guy is my friend, why would I ever think he’s a Satanist?**”

Sometimes even a more cautious approach to introducing Paganism produces poor results. There will always be numb-nuts who refuse to accept anything outside of the Judeo-Christian sphere, and that’s always especially hurtful when it’s family or an extremely close friend. I’ve lost girlfriends because of my religious choice, and I can’t say everyone in my family has always been especially excited about it. My wife’s grandmother refused to attend our wedding because we weren’t getting married in the Catholic Church (Paganism was only the beginning of her problems . . . . but she did give us a Bible as a wedding gift-woohoo), so we’ve been there. We still live in a society that’s only slowly coming around to accepting alternative spiritual practices (but it’s already a lot better than it was twenty years ago).

Blogging has made my life more difficult when it comes to keeping certain parts of my Paganism away from public consumption. My father reads Raise the Horns and he made the comment recently that he “sometimes learns far more” about me than he ever wanted to. It’s one thing to hear me say that I worship Greek Gods and another thing to read about it in overly personal terms. Maybe that’s why I’m cautious when discussing my blogging. It’s one thing to share those adventures with my tribe, another thing entirely to share them with the little old lady next door.

*I work twelve hours a week at a local bookstore to retain my sanity and talk to other human beings during the day.

**Which, when I think about it, Satanist is nicer than some of the things people have said about me over the years.

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About Jason Mankey

Jason Mankey has been involved with Paganism for the last twenty years, and has spent the last ten of those years as a speaker, writer, and High Priest. Jason can often be found lecturing on the Pagan Festival circuit, so you might just bump into him. When not reading and researching Pagan history he likes to crank up the Led Zeppelin, do rituals in honor of Jim Morrison (of The Doors), and sing numerous praises to Pan, Dionysus, and Aphrodite. He lives in Sunnyvale CA with his wife Ari and two hyper-kinetic cats.