The Accidental Teacher
After I wrote the last column, dreaming of a day when I could teach someone as I have been taught, it occurred to me that I have already done that. I may not have conducted a class, lead a group or mentored someone, but I still have had teaching moments in which I helped another Pagan on their path or explained something about our ways to non Pagans. On many occasions I have been an accidental teacher.
Soon after I started on this path, I noticed that some dictionaries included the word “devil” or “evil spirits” in their definition of the word witch. I wrote to an organization called Pagan Educational Network when I found out they had embarked on a project to provide publishers of dictionaries and encyclopedias with accurate information on the meaning of the words “witch” and “Pagan”. Even though they wrote back that the project had ended, I joined the group because they were involved in addressing misinformation. This was the beginning of several years of me writing letters.
My pet project was the depiction of witches in the media. I would watch the TV listing and pore through magazines and newspapers for anything about witches, real or fictional. At that time, witches were a popular theme in entertainment and we saw Sabrina and Charmed on TV and The Craft and Practical Magic at the movies. (1) If a depiction struck me as particularly good or bad, I would write a letter praising, critiquing, or correcting depending on the situation. The same reaction applied to news stories. I was particularly pleased with a TV segment from Toledo where a high priestess talked about a dispute with neighbors over a backyard fire pit then answered questions from callers and an article in the Toledo Blade about two Pagan groups in nearby Ottawa County. Someone from the Blade called to thank me for my comments and asked if I wanted my letter published as a letter to the editor. Hopefully letters such as this encouraged the media to report on and depict us fairly and accurately. Despite the growing acceptance of our ways, their were negative depictions.
I would of course point out the error of those who claimed we worshipped Satan or performed blood sacrifices. I saw an article in a newspaper from Mississippi that matter of factly talked about African based Paganism, but next to it was an article that condemned Wicca as Satanic. Undoubtedly the worst news story was in a weekly newspaper in suburban Toledo that used one of those “satanic cult experts” who Kerr Cuhulain used to write about in his column Exposing The Lies on www.witchvox.com as its source for information on Paganism. It depicted our faith as a haven for psychotic teens bent on violence and destroying society. I laughed at a quote from this supposed expert, “One minute they are rolling around on the ground naked, the next they are trying to kill someone,” because a few weeks earlier on the spur of the moment during a late night Mabon ritual, I removed my clothes and lay skyclad on the dewy grass. Killing someone was the last thing on my mind as I experienced spiritual bliss. The letters I wrote to attack such lies at least let those responsible know we would not take it in silence. I wrote to Pagan Educational Network as well so they could include my efforts in their newsletter so hopefully I inspired other Pagans.
I saw every letter I wrote as a learning experience both for the recipient and myself. Also, I could be a voice for change. Back in 1998, Camel cigarettes ran a magazine ad depicting three women around a table casting a revenge spell on the ex-boyfriend of one of them, with a poppet used as a pincushion and several books lying around, with the titles of two of them, both Pagan books, at least partially visible. (2) I wrote a letter of protest joining about 5000 other Pagans which resulted in letters of apology from the company and the ad being pulled after only two weeks. After a few years though, I became tired of letter writing and when I wrote to Nintendo complaining about a wicked witch in the game Banjo Kazooie, I knew I was taking this too seriously. Who among us does not delight in the over the top portrayal of the Wicked Witch of the West by Margaret Hamilton in the Wizard of Oz?
Not all my letters were concerning entertainment and news. Before I had internet access, I wanted to communicate with other Pagans in other places, so I did it the old fashioned way, exchanging handwritten letters with pen pals. I placed an ad in Circle Network News (now Circle Magazine) describing what areas interested me at the time. I received almost a dozen responses, replying to every one. Most never wrote me back, but I corresponded with three of them for a while. As with each Pagan friendship, it was both a matter of teaching and learning.
There was a woman in Mississippi who went by the name Silver with whom I exchanged letters with ideas and stories of experiences for about a year. I don’t remember much of what we talked about but she told me that when she used internet access at the local library, she was told that Pagan websites were inappropriate. I encouraged her to find another way, and she was able to go to an Atheist friend’s home to use his computer. The longest running pen pal was Deb from Virginia with whom I corresponded for about two years. Besides exchanging ideas, we also taped Pagan music for each other, introducing each other to new bands. Kurt was a Californian with whom I exchanged letters for about a year and a half. When I met him, he was in prison, so I heard firsthand the difficulties that Pagan prisoners face trying to hold ritual, celebrate sabbats, obtain books, tools and supplies and receive visits from high priests. A lot of people are wary of contact with prisoners, but my experience was rewarding and he was eager to learn and make a fresh start in life. Just to be safe, I used a PO box, but I did that with all my pen pals. The last time he wrote me, he was on parole in a halfway house and excited about the future. We had intelligent discussions and I want to share an excerpt from a letter I wrote him.
“Your letter raised some interesting points and certainly has me thinking. One of the challenging things about being Pagan is that it requires one to think and examine personal beliefs in the light of reality and experience, rather than memorize the “party line”. The points you touch upon remind me of those who ponder what relevance a “fertility religion” can have in a day when family planning is the norm. The problem lies in a literal definition of the concepts of harvest and fertility. As you explained, in the past, a sufficient harvest was essential to the survival of the tribe, as well as having children and both farm and hunted animals having young. No amount of technology will ever negate the fact that we still depend on the Earth for survival and what we do to the Earth eventually returns to us. In 1988, we saw crops wither and die in the fields when it didn’t rain for about ten weeks and a few years ago, fields along Lake Erie and the nearby Sandusky River were flooded by sudden heavy rains. While it is true that nobody starved because of these events, as would have happened in the past, Mother Nature will always have the last word. It could even be argued that the marinas, resorts, condos, and Cedar Point amusement park in this area are dependant on a good annual “crop” of tourists.”
I have sadly forgotten what I discussed with Pagans I met via the mail or online, but I remember one well. Deb from Tennessee posted a message on a board saying that she had been told that a witch had to buy all their magickal tools before attempting ritual and spend a lot on them. She was asking if this was true. I posted a reply that this was not true as it was not necessary to have all tools up front and the price had nothing to do with their effectiveness. My chalice was a glass goblet I bought one Yuletide at a fast food restaurant for 99 cents, my wand a stick from my yard, and I had several items that I found or had been given to me. I summed it up by saying, “Your tools are merely the means, props as it were; the magick is in you, not them.” She thanked me for my help and we have remained in contact, although infrequently now, ever since. She returned the favor by offering my son and I advice when he informed me he was gay, as she is a lesbian. She also gave me a shoulder to cry on when my son passed away and when my first marriage fell apart. Pay attention in your day to day life and I bet that you too will find that you are an accidental teacher.
(1) Rhymes With Rich http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,285482,00.html
(2) Pagan Passion http://www.metroactive.com/papers/metro/09.03.98/pagans-9835.html