I was able to interview M. Macha NightMare as she waited for a plane to MSP airport, I asked her;
“What have you been up to recently?
Well, Cherry Hill Seminary, which I am always working on. I hope will develop into a more stable foundation. It is something that needs more support from the Pagan community. They have wonderful teachers and students.
I have been working on a Pagan elders study. I did a survey on survey monkey, and got over 800 responses and have been analyzing that data. I have been starting to present on that topic. We have never had elders because we are a new religious movement. We are not a tribe in the conventional sense, and we really don’t have any role models. We have to look elsewhere for models. There are two different kinds of elders, one is older people, and another is people who have been in a community for a while and have some perspective and are turned to frequently for counsel or lore and things like that. Those are the ones I am thinking about. It is not defined and very haphazard. I think it behooves us to examine what our assumptions are about elders and try to put some things in place within our various communities.
What do elders actually do?
That is one of the things that I believe we as the Pagan movement have to determine for our communities. Who are the elders accountable or responsible to? What kind of matters do they address, if any? I got a lot of answers, but they are all over the place. Any human community has occasions and individuals that are not healthy for the well-being of the whole group, and may be dysfunctional and that may be unacknowledged. Some people see that behavior and may be frustrated or alienated. They may withdraw from a community instead of fixing it, or they may not know where to turn to get it addressed. I don’t have the answers. What I have is a lot of questions. It is not up to me to determine what the answers are. I can share some of the answers I got in the survey. I have my own ideas, but I don’t have a nice tidy description of what an elder is yet, because of all the input I have been given. It is pretty interesting. I come at this from a selfish perspective in that people have turned to me as an elder, and have not really known what my role is. I want to respond in an honorable way, or refer them if that seems appropriate.
Where is this study going?
I am not quite sure where it is going. I have a ton of material and I have been sifting through it and analyzing and categorizing it. Some people say, “There can be no community without an elder, how can you even be asking this?” Others say, “This just speaks of popery” at the other extreme. Many Pagans come from a mainstream tradition that may have been confining, or dysfunctional, or hurtful. They bring that emotional association with them and want to avoid it in choices they make in terms of Pagan affiliation. The people who think we don’t need elders are not really being realistic when we consider the sustainability of any movement or any community. We are not sustainable if we don’t have a place for the whole spectrum of humanity that goes from the unborn to the passed away and everything in between. There are many of us that are moving into elder age, but that doesn’t mean we are “elders” in the sense I referred to earlier in terms of counsel and lore keepers. We may just be older and never develop with wisdom. Some people are younger and may be compassionate and see the big picture. Generally I think that in order to function as an elder you do need some seasoning, but that isn’t the only thing; you need lots of other qualities. I asked in the survey what some of those qualities might be. I got a lot of thoughtful answers, and also a lot of virtual “middle fingers” in response.
Who determines an elder, other elders or communities?
I believe communities make elders because that is who people turn to. We might benefit by examining it more closely and possibly setting up a system for individual Pagan communities or traditions. People don’t behave sometimes as well as they should, and how do you hold them accountable? It is really interesting, and I have been presenting it occasionally, but at this stage it is mainly stimulating a lot of discussion within communities about what their own needs for definition are. The research has not been to give a definitive answer but to get us to look critically at the issues.
Is this leading to a book, or as a service?
It could become a book; however, it is so specific to a small demographic that a publisher may be hard to find. This will be the third time I’ve present the material and each time it expands. It may have to be split into several presentations to really cover the material.
How are you involved in the SF Bay area Pagan community?
Well mainly I am involved within my own tradition, but I have been involved in interfaith work, and it is very satisfying. I was involved in an interfaith event called, “Beyond Memorial Day, Understanding the Hidden Wounds of War.” It was created by several interfaith groups, under the overall aegis of the Interfaith Center at the Presidio. It was to address the needs of returning veterans and their families. It was designed to help clergy and community understand the unique needs of veterans in order to help them to re-integrate with their families and communities. It wasn’t to fix everything, but to understand the situation they face. Veterans have unique experiences that most of us don’t have, and they need to be articulated, even if we can’t truly understand them.
We had veterans and chaplains and local church people participate. It was unfortunate that in this first, one-day program the participation was overwhelmingly Abrahamic. Pagans had five minutes, and we talked about ritualizing returning home. I thought the creative ritual aspect was what we could best bring to be considered at the interfaith table. Most mainstream faiths don’t look at ritual as the creative art form that I believe it can be. They have ritual formulas and they may not have any relevance to returning veterans.
Were the Pagan ideas for ritual well received?
Actually they loved it! They asked to put it on their website, and so they have. Don Frew had some concerns about the function of ritual that comes out of an Abrahamic mindset, that it is relevant to the Pagan approach to ritual. He is on the board of the directors for the Presidio Interfaith Center. I did manage to get a Hindu colleague the opportunity to offer a prayer during the day, but the conference was dominated by Abrahamic faiths. An Imam speaker made an impassioned speech asking. “We are Americans (in his congregation) yet we are badly treated every day. What do we have to do to prove their loyalty to the United states?” They still get harassed and discriminated against even though they have nothing to do with any political disruption anywhere in the world. They are just trying to be good Americans.
This event was very satisfying to participate in, and we plan to do it again. Veterans spoke and there was a lot of tears and pain among the participants. Veterans return home into every community around the country, and this was the first conference that we know of designed to try to address this need. We hope to do another in the Silicon Valley later this year. We had a lot of material from the VA and other government agencies to help veterans. That is just the military material, not the spiritual content.
One of the things that has struck me about the damage that has been done to our young people who have been to war is the statement, “I just want [soldier’s name] back, back the way they were”. You are not going to get them back. They have been drastically changed by the experience and they are not going to be the person you said farewell to as they left to go into combat. They have been changed, and we all have to change to help them. Pagans do a decent job with their returning vets but they are very much ill-served within the military. I just hope we can learn from the successes and failures of other religious organizations and use their experience or adapt it as appropriate, and just ignore the content that is irrelevant to us.
M. Macha NightMare is appearing this week at Summerland Spirit Festival in Western Wisconsin, look for details of her presentations .