Seeking the Grail: Seeking Community and Connection at Pagan Conferences

Seeking the Grail: Seeking Community and Connection at Pagan Conferences March 21, 2016

I often write about some of the difficulties and challenges in the Pagan community, but it’s really exciting when I get to write about something that’s just plain good. This past weekend I was at Paganicon, one of the newest large Pagan conferences. I was there for their first year, and I have been a guest presenter last year and this year and I’ve seen how fast they’ve grown in just a few short years from around 200 attendees to almost 550. However, it’s not just the number of attendees that have grown; they’ve added in programming, added in more guests of honor and featured presenters, and they’ve also added in things like the art show, as well as expansions to the art show.

Courtesy of Shauna Aura Knight
Courtesy of Shauna Aura Knight

It’s worth looking at what draws people to these events and what function they serve. Because, there are a lot of different Pagan events out there, and I’d go so far as to say that many of the conflicts in the Pagan community end up being connected to infighting around organizing those events. I’ve written a bit about the pitfalls of event organizing, as well as general group dynamics and Pagan leadership, and there’s really nothing that brings conflict to a head than two or more people who want things to be done Their Way™. Now, speaking as a stubborn event planner myself, I know that these things happen. I also know that one of the most common question/complaint I hear when I teach leadership workshops is, “I’m trying to organize ABC, how do I get people in my group to actually volunteer/actually do the job they agreed to?”

But it is interesting to see how Pagans are compelled to keep trying to organize festivals, conferences, rituals, and other events. Certainly there are those of us who have what I call the Event Planner Bug. We like to organize things, we’re compelled to. But what keeps us doing it even when it’s difficult? Even with the clash of personalities, even with volunteers dropping the ball, even with how financially daunting it is to try and run an event without any startup cash?

I go back to community and connection. I think that almost all of the people I know who organize events remember what it’s like to be a lone Pagan, to remember that first time we found other Pagans and we suddenly felt like we were coming Home. We finally found people like us, a place we belonged. We weren’t alone in the universe any longer.

I’m often moved to tears when I lead a public ritual and I ask, “Is this anyone’s first ritual?” and people raise their hands. I know what that’s like to be there, to be curious and nervous and unsure but seeking, wishing, hoping. I feel this huge sense of responsibility to help make it a good experience for them.

I spend a lot of time online doing Pagan networking, and specifically, helping Pagans connect to other Pagans. I so often hear from people who say, “There are no Pagans in ABC area,” and I comment back and tell them the three groups I know in their area. Pagans are very often seeking community, seeking connection, seeking the intimacy of friendship and collaboration and spiritual work with other human beings and yet bound by the difficulties inherent in a minority religion. The conversation came up a half dozen times this weekend how Paganism is still very much a “handshake” community where you have to know someone who knows someone to find a group.

And that’s part of why I think events like Paganicon and the other conferences and large festivals are so important. They provide a very public place where new Pagans can explore things, where Pagans who are solitary can connect with others and gain access to resources like education, where Pagans who are seeking can check out different paths. For that matter, may times we aren’t even necessarily seeking Powerful Ritual or education or a group; sometimes we’re just seeking friends who “get” us.

I came face to face with a bit of that this weekend. You’d think, given I travel and teach at Pagan events around the country, that I feel like I’m connected to the Pagan community. But the truth is, I don’t have a working group. I was starting to build something like that in Chicago when I moved back there in 2008, but then I moved up to rural Wisconsin just north of Milwaukee in 2012. I’d always intended to return to Chicago, but my stay here in the sticks went on for a lot longer than I planned, and now I’m moving in with my boyfriend and his wife (we’re in an open relationship) in a nearby town that is even more rural than where I’m at now.

And, even though when I’m not traveling I’m a total recluse and I hermit myself for weeks at a time, I do miss having the option to go hang out in person with friends.

Every once in a while, someone will ask me, “So are you excited for XYZ event?” Typically they’ll ask me this in the days before I’m heading out of town to teach at an event like Pantheacon, Convocation, Paganicon, or any of the other conferences or festivals I’m at, or even when I’m running an event like a public ritual I’m never quite sure what to say, because “excited” isn’t really the word for it. I’m an author and a teacher and an artist. When I go to a Pagan event, I’m working. I’m teaching workshops on leadership to follow my calling to bring those skills out to people who need them. And when I sell books, I’m doing that and also bringing in some income. And similarly with my art, I’m providing something tangible that helps people with their spiritual work and brings beauty into their lives, and that brings money into my life so that I can continue writing and painting and teaching. I love doing it, but, it’s work. It’s also work when I’m the one running the event.

Truthfully, I’m not even sure how many events I’d be attending if I weren’t working them. I’m an introvert, I deal with social anxiety, and when I come back from a trip I’m a wreck. I’m exhausted. I wouldn’t do that to myself if there weren’t a really compelling reason.

When I’m prepping for an event I’m often stressed out, adrenalized. I’m not excited in the sense of how I figure these folks mean it. Happy, thrilled, looking forward to the event. Honestly? I’m in my introvert cave in the days before an event, fervently wishing I didn’t have to do my laundry and pack my suitcase and get on the road again. I’m wishing I had another week to finish more paintings, I’m wishing I had a few more uninterrupted weeks to finish up one of my in-process books. I really hate leaving when I’ve been hermiting. I’m not really nervous about the classes I’m teaching either. Not that I don’t have the occasional “ritual disaster” dream, but the upside of being a professional presenter with a lot of experience under my belt at last is that I have a certain confidence that what I’m doing will generally go pretty well. I know that nervousness before teaching at an event can sometimes add an energy before an event.

So yeah, “excited” isn’t the word that really describes where I’m at. And I suppose part of that is the downside of what I do–it’s a job. It’s work I love, but it is work, and when I’m at an event, I’m working. I’ve written other posts some of the challenges I have with the word “happy,” and some of that is connected to my own longer-term depression. And likely related to my own reaction to childhood bullying and how I had to cover over my emotions to cope as a kid. Happy’s just a difficult word for me, as is fun. I guess “excitement” is too.

All that being said, I realized something pretty cool this weekend. I often say that one of my favorite parts about doing events like Paganicon is all the little side conversations. Not that I don’t like teaching–I do. And teaching workshops on leadership and ritual techniques almost always flows into those side conversations. What I love is spending four hours on the atrium talking to people about their leadership issues, about ritual techniques, about all the other stuff that comes up in between. I like talking shop, but what I love is when I’m talking shop (or talking about other things) and it’s with people I genuinely connect with. Where it transcends “work” as the daily grind and becomes “work is love made visible” (to quote Kahlil Gibran). Sometimes talking shop on leadership techniques is difficult. Maybe I have no connection to the person. Maybe I am realizing that they are the source of their own problems but they aren’t going to hear that from me. Other times, I’m talking to someone and we’re talking shop but we’re also connecting as friends.

Friendship can’t be forced any more than romantic attraction can be forced. Unrequited love is a sad thing and I’ve experienced it; one person falls for the other but it’s not reciprocated. And friendship and community is the same way; just because I connect to someone doesn’t mean they connect to me. But sometimes there is that real authentic intimacy that happens, that deepening, and talking is…exciting. Fun. Happy at a deep level.

I’m not much for parties, but last night after Paganicon was closed up, I ended up hanging out with folks at the restaurant for dinner, and later, wandering over to what was the hospitality suite for the conference. Many of the presenters and organizers were hanging out there. It had that party energy; lots of people packed into a small room, excitedly talking, even though many were clearly exhausted.

And I was exhausted, mentally, even though I was still wired. I wanted to head home, but I found myself drawn to hang out and talk to folks that I had really, genuinely connected with.

It was somewhere in there where I realized that I’d found my excitement. I’m not generally a really emotionally demonstrative person, and I fully admit that I suck at sustaining friendships. Granted, it’s difficult to sustain deeper friendships long distance, but being a hermit, I often don’t have time to get together in person anyways. But there in that room, and in so many other moments at Paganicon, I found those little moments of connection with people I would love to have talked to for hours and hours. There’s never enough time at a conference to hang out with all the people I want to and get that one-on-one or small group connection, but there is at least the capacity to realize, hey! I really connect with this person. And to experience the joy of that, because it’s really a pretty awesome thing.

We travel to these Pagan events often seeking something we can’t name. Maybe we are there to take classes, maybe we are there to teach them. But I think that underneath it all is that desperate yearning to connect.

I’ve led a few rituals where there was someone (sometimes myself) holding the role of the Witness, veiled and waiting for people to speak their secrets, their dark pain, their old wounds. Over and over I have heard people say the same thing. “Will I be alone forever?” “Will anyone ever love me?” “Why does it hurt so much? Why can’t I find people who….” Over and over. And I weep for them, and I weep for myself because I have felt that loneliness too. Over and over.

I often say this at the end of the ritual, when people are weeping and staring across the circle at one another after an energy raising. “You are not alone. You are never alone.”

At Paganicon this weekend, I really felt that for myself. Though I spend a lot of time alone, and though I don’t have a local group or access to hanging out in person with most of my friends, I’m not alone. There are lots of people out there that I care about and that care for me, and–though it’s stressful to leave my cave and go out to events like this, I really do love those late night talks. (Yes, even if they mean it’s going to be rough waking up at 8am so I can warm up my voice to lead a chanting workshop at 10am!)

I’m really excited to see Paganicon grow and thrive. If you’re looking for a Pagan conference to attend with a lot of friendly people, I’d say that this is probably one of the better events to dip your toe in, particularly if you’re not quite ready to take the deep dive into camping at a weeklong festival. I find the organizers to be friendly, accessible…and fun too! It doesn’t hurt that the event is only a six hour drive for me.

And remember, you are not alone. Many of the Pagan events out there are good places if you are on the path of seeking, whether you are seeking education, communion with the divine in ritual, or communion and connection with your fellow human beings. Pagan events are one of the best places to find friends or people to connect with in a local group. Sometimes attending these events is a risk if you’re nervous, but I think it’s worth it. I might be grumpy about leaving my introvert cave when I start out, but I’m almost always glad to be there once I arrive and get into it.

Pagan community is worth it. It’s worth seeking, it’s worth building, and it’s worth risking for. It’s worth stepping outside of our comfort zones to make these connections.

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