Thursday, February 11, 2010

My First Pagan Festival: Orion Foxwood, Charisma and Self-Esteem

courtesy of champagne.chic, via flickrAdmittedly, I didn't recognize most of the names listed as presenters at EarthSpirit's Feast of Lights, but then I am more widely read in Druidry than in Paganism more generally, and my tastes tend towards the academic and non-Pagan in any case. But one person I was looking forward to seeing at the festival was Orion Foxwood, whose books (Tree of Enchantment and The Feary Teachings) had left me feeling intrigued but a bit perplexed. It was hard to put my finger on exactly why his writings weren't "clicking" for me, but certainly his emphasis on the Ancestors as the gateway to Faery Seership had left me feeling if not intimidated then at least unsure about how to step into the process.[1] And so I was hoping that being able to attend at least one of Orion's talks in person might perhaps give me some insight into his teachings, knowing the Tree by its fruits, so to speak.

It seems that, despite my preliminary investigations into Faery Seership, reading through Orion's two books and even getting in touch with folks who had attended workshops with him or worked with him in the past, at no point did anyone bother to mention that he was, well, flamboyantly gay. Though in retrospect, I suppose describing him as "a wonderful man" might have been a polite hint. And that he is: quite wonderful, an energetic and engaging person who is quick to laugh and eager to compliment, and who obviously loves his work a great deal. Still, attending his talk "Lifting the Spelle of Forgetfulness" (which did not include any reminder, sadly, on how to spell "spell"), I was struck by just how much his homosexuality, blended with his Appalachian accent and two-toned-goatee, cleaned-up hippie look, became part of his teaching not just in style but in substance. He careened through his talk with a certain enthusiastic charisma that rested in part on his ability to turn at once from serious spiritual insight to distracted frivolity at the briefest mention of sushi or the mere suggestion of a bad pun on "faery wife."

Having read two books full of Rivers of Blood, ancient wounds needing redemption, and beings of all kinds of mischievous, startling, mystical and intimidating natures, I suppose I was expecting someone a bit... heavier, more serious, more reticent, more grounded in the dark earth. Instead, Orion was dazzling, almost dizzying (and practically the incarnation of coffee). And suddenly those things I read in his books didn't seem so strange or difficult, the way he talked about them. His words might speak, as though in passing, of wading through rivers of blood lapping up to your knees, but his charisma told you it was all a metaphor, that it was, in fact, all about you. You are a wonderful person, a lovable person, and you have Sacredness in you. Redemption? You can do it, you can redeem all those past generations; in fact, that's why you're here, and you're here because you're wonderful, and you are wonderful simply by dint of existing.

And I'm not saying there isn't truth in this, that there isn't real soul-deep insight in his quick quips about finding one's path or facing one's shadow. But I was interested in Faery Seership because (and this is me admitting something that might be a bit embarrassing) I was interested in faeries, not because I needed a boost to my self-esteem. The message that we are all, deep down, worthy and beautiful people is an important message. But it's not one that I particularly need to hear, at least not anymore. And maybe in some ways this just means that I have done the work of centering and grounding myself, walking into the shadows and coming out whole, even if I did not undertake that work using the metaphors and practices of Faery Seership. But, as Cat pointed out a few times during our visit, there comes a point after which being "healed" is not enough, because if that's all your spirituality has to offer then either you'll soon lose interest, or you'll soon discover that you're always feeling broken and wounded and in need of healing.[2]

All of these reflections lead me to something about the role of charisma in the Pagan community, but I'm not quite sure what precisely that is. I'm reminded of the book I'm currently reading, The Serpent and the Goddess by Mary Condren, in which she speaks of patriarchal religious institutions passing on through ordination into the priesthood the kind of spiritual leadership and power that individuals once had to earn on their own through charisma, i.e. being valuable to the community. Wikipedia has this to say about charisma: it is kind of divine or divinely-inspired gift,

a trait found in persons whose personalities are characterized by a personal charm and magnetism (attractiveness), along with innate and powerfully sophisticated abilities of interpersonal communication and persuasion. One who is charismatic is said to be capable of using their personal being, rather than just speech or logic alone, to interface with other human beings in a personal and direct manner, and effectively communicate an argument or concept to them.
Now if charisma is a kind of living or embodied communication that moves beyond the merely rational (and is not, presumably, merely charming rhetoric), then I'm all for it, and I can understand why a person of charisma might serve the needs of a community engaged in the process of finding a new, trans-/nonrational way of leading an embodied and earth-centered spiritual life. If we think of charisma in this way, then perhaps Orion actually is speaking to those needs that many in the Pagan community find to be most vital and pressing (there were an awful lot of people there who were earnestly taking notes). Walking a new and often misunderstood path, it's not surprising that plenty of us suffer from even more uncertainty about our worthiness than does the general population (which is itself riddled with low self-esteem and fear drummed up by advertisers hoping to create insecure and gullible consumers). But now I'm just indulging in a bit of couch-psychology.

One last observation on Orion's talk, which would become a running theme throughout the festival: group-led ritual, discussion and presentation is, all charisma aside, an art form in itself. It can be poorly done. And while Orion's talk was engaging enough, the group exercises in breath and energy-work that he led us through at the end of the workshop left me feeling like I'd been forced to stand too close to someone with particularly bad halitosis. Imagine standing in a room with twenty to thirty other people, mostly strangers, who are being instructed to "breathe out all of your tension and anxiety" and breathe in fountains of intense energy from the sun above and the deep earth below. All that ickiness and all those issues, vented into the space between bodies being charged up with heat and energy: the effect was like baking rotting garbage in an oven. Rather than leaving me feeling refreshed with a balanced sense of center, it gave me the overwhelming urge to go bury my face in snow and breathe the fresh, clean, frigid air outdoors (I had to settle for a cup of cold water). So... note to future self (and the selves reading along): I wouldn't recommend that kind of work except in grounded, small-group settings.

[1] My family life has been pretty well defined by an absence of ancestors, to no apparent detriment, my mother's side of the family having basically cut off contact with us after I was born and my father's parents (both now dead) having struggled with alcoholism and mental illness all their lives. Orion's word of caution against inviting unhealthy presences into our lives seemed reason enough not to pursue reconnecting with these various patterns of dysfunctional relationship, most of which I feel I have fairly well come to terms with in my own way. Plus, I'm not really a gregarious people-person even with the living.
[2] I suspect that this is why all the really interesting Christian mystics talk not so much about salvation, but about love. Love is, after all, an on-going process and practice that you can't ever really outgrow. Salvation without love is like a revolution without dancing.


  1. I was hoping you would post about Orion Foxwood - he's at the top of my list of "Teachers I Want to Meet Someday" and I'm glad to get your impressions.

    It sounds like his talk was designed to be a sort of pep-talk, a "you can do it because you are awesome!" sort of thing as a preliminary to the work he writes about in the faerie books. Does that sound right? I too would have been disappointed with something like that, though I understand the need in a festival setting to keep things really simple.

    Did he actually say that the River of Blood was metaphorical, or was he simply being careful not to scare people off? I get the need to present stuff as symbolic to people who might not be ready to move past that, but if he really said that it was a metaphor, I would find that disappointing.

  2. Nettle,

    Yes, I had wondered if, in a different setting, I would have gotten more out of it. I suspect that you're absolutely right and that some things were smoothed over and simplified to suit the festival setting, and this in itself is something I also want to write about at some point, about the idea of community gatherings almost inherently being directed at the lowest common denominator and how I think we should work on overcoming this particular stumbling block so that festivals and other big group gatherings offer something for people with more experience as well as the neophytes.

    And no, I don't think he actually said the River of Blood was a metaphor. The pep-talky nature of the workshop did sort of make it sound that way, but in this particular one he honestly didn't talk much about the details of the Faery Seership work as found in his books. He did another talk later in the weekend on "Meeting the Dark Man at the Crossroads" (I think was the title), which now I'm kicking myself for not going to because it might have given me a slightly different perspective on his work... but there were so many other workshops I wanted to experience! Not nearly enough time. :-p

    I'm kind of hoping this post will provoke some people who have different experiences or more contact with Orion to step up and contradict my first impressions.

  3. I met Orion at the now defunct Spark of Spirit in Maryland. He was giving a talk on the Elements and there were 30+ of us packed in there like sardines. I affectionately and positively remember his energy as being like a pagan Richard Simmons. He meant to go 3 hours and went 4 and did not slow in any respect. At the end, he offhandedly through off a gate opening ritual, ostensibly for blessing a ritual object that was extraordinarily powerful and which I have built on over time.

    One thing to factor in with Orion is that he is a professional counselor in real life. It may be that he was reacting to a sense of your particular room. In our setting, it was constant glow and go, but then probably 3/4 of the folks there seemed to be Foxwood Tradition coveners.

    Orion was a student of RJ Stewart and Stewart actually lived in his household for awhile at a now defunct (echo there) retreat center just out of DC. The river of blood and tears and the crossroads are Stewart motifs. Of Stewart's there is the unreadable but indispensable reference UnderWorld Initiation and then directly to the crossroads and rivers there is Earthlight and Power Within the Land, but you may have read these already.


  4. "unreadable but indispensible" is how I feel about most of RJ's work - I get so much out of it and yet while I'm reading it feels like a swampy morass of things I don't understand. Until a little later, when I say, "oh!" all of a sudden. Foxwood registers as a more accessible version of Stewart.

    Ali, from my festival-going experience the stumbling block you describe has already been worked out, but you might have to go to a few more of them before you will notice that. There is always far more going on than you will see in the program.

  5. Alui - I gonna have to disagree (and object).

    I'd like to suggest that what you're reflecting is more reflective of you than Orion and his public teaching(s) & presentation.

    I'm not connected to Orion in any way. I've attended workshops presented by him for several years in a festival context (Pantheacon on the West coast). And in fact, attended a workshop w/ the same title this last week-end.

    Yes....Orion mixes what I'd call clowning w/some very serious content. I'd like to suggest that by lightening the atmosphere people are considerably more open to receive what he has to say. And yes, there's an intense difference between his writing style & his festival workshop presentation. [He's not the only author who prestents quite differently than he writes BTW.]

    I'm having a hard time articulating my response to your implications of Having Gone Beyond Needing THAT. Because it keeps coming out rude. I guess what I can that in my experience we all need to remember those 4 steps he spoke about. And in fact, the more experienced of us may well need to remember them more.

    Lastly, I do have to say that his sexuality is his business. It was shocking to see this as one of the 1st things said about him. Esp from you, from having read you for quite awhile. Whether he's gay or straight or in-between.....isn't our business at all.

    It's disappointing when a workshop (or meeting a teacher or author in person) doesn't meet our imagery of what it should be. So...seems that Faery Seership doesn't mean what you expected (as in the word "Faery").

    Sounds like you had a box all ready and prepared for what was supposed to happen, what your were supposed to be taught. And Orion didn't fit in it.

    Not a reason to basically spend a blog entry tearing anyone apart. (and not in keeping w/your usual writing. I'd suggest you look at this and what there was about this that is causing you to post out-of-character. Perhaps there's some truth in the experience you need to address, since you're reacting so strongly - just sayin')

    Character assasination is pretty serious. And you've touched your toe into that pool in your blog post.

    For anyone who's come this far: clearly, my experience of the same workshop (albeit given different time/place) & to Orion Foxwood is quite different. So naturally, I'd suggest that you take both my and Ali's remarks w/ more salt than usual & check it out for yourself.

  6. An apology for sending my immediate response to Ali's blog entry w/out really editing it (spellings etc).

    Reaction can be like that.

  7. Helen,

    I am very sorry if my post came across as "tearing him apart"--that was certainly not what was meant! I found Orion charming and interesting, and it is saddening for me that we feel the need not to mention sexuality because by doing so we somehow suddenly make that the focus of our interaction. I was not surprised or offended by Orion's sexual orientation — I was just surprised that the issue had been so carefully avoided by absolutely everyone I'd talked to, when it seemed to be a big part of his personal spiritual story. Certainly not the only part, but a big part. And I think that if Faery Seership had appealed to me, then this would have just been one more way of seeing how it functions in one particular person's life... But as I said, I had already been running up against a wall with the material and finding that it didn't "click" for me. This isn't a statement against the tradition; I have no expectation that every tradition will work for every person, or that traditions that work for others but not for me don't still have immense value.

    This was a rambling post about first impressions. It wasn't meant to be carefully worded or gentle in its critique. I think there are both pluses and minuses to the kind of in-person teaching that relies largely on charisma, as Orion's certainly does, and I tried to explore some of that in this post (I'm not sure why you seem to overlook that). One problem is that if a person doesn't feel a connection to a particular personality type, this may become a detriment to teaching rather than an asset. I admit, I tend not to be the overly playful type (and as a vegetarian, I did flinch every time he joked about worshipping sushi). This isn't character assassination but an honest attempt to give feedback. I wouldn't expect Orion to change his style of teaching (let alone his personal life!) based on a single critique, but I do think it's important to speak honestly about our experiences and reactions. I have come across several times in the Pagan community leaders who have built up an aura of untouchability, so that anyone who even suggests less than whole-hearted agreement with their views is accused of simply "not getting it." But I don't find this attitude to be very beneficial either to individuals or to our community as a whole.

    A friend of ours who attended a different talk of his told us a story afterwards about the time she actually confronted Orion, disagreeing with one of his points. After her critique, Orion thanked her profusely and even came over to hug her, saying that what she said was certainly a good point and had brought up something he had overlooked in his initial statement. So I don't think Orion himself would be offended by honest feedback. If he had a chance to respond himself here, he would probably have much to say of value and insight (as some of his statements during his talk were like the quick flashes of fish deep in a pool, though perhaps obscured a bit by the ripples of his own jocularity). All that said... I stand by my original impression of his talk as at least being honest, based on what I admitted from the beginning was my first experience in a Pagan festival setting.

    I hope this helps to clarify things.

  8. I'll add that my favorite part of the talk was at the end, after leading us in breathing exercises, when one of the participants spent five minutes bombarding Orion with questions as to exactly how far down you had to bring your hands when doing the drawing-up-the-blue-flame exercise (or whatever it's called, I can't remember the exact phrase he used). In that moment, reading Orion's expression, I felt a twinge of sympathy, because it seemed as though he might be wondering if folks so overly focused on such details were perhaps missing some of the deeper points he'd been trying to talk about. In that moment, I liked Orion immensely, because I could see very clearly that he was just another teacher doing his best to point the way without getting in the way. And in light of that, I half wonder if his charismatic frivolity and joking around is a way of trying to get people to not take him so seriously. From his books, it does seem like Faery Seership work can be intense and life-changing for those that really connect with it. If so, I can empathize even if his approach doesn't speak very strongly to me. Again, respectful disagreement is a far cry from character assassination.

  9. David and Nettle,

    Yes, I've found that an apt description of RJ Stewart's books, too. They're books that I keep meaning to go back and read a second or third time, because a part of me (as well as folks whose opinions I value, such as yours) insists that there is something really valuable in them. But... another part of me says there are a lot of other books out there worth reading and, in the meantime, deep engagement with the living, sacred landscape will probably serve me just as well as studying his books like sacred scripture. I hope I'm not wrong in that. :) There are some books that really speak to me, and others that speak to me despite being obscure... and then there are books that are just obscure and that I can't seem to find the motivation to return to, even though I know that they probably have just as much value as those that call deeply to me. In some ways, I have to admit that being interested in faery work is partly me wanting to be "trendy" within the Pagan world. Folks who can talk to faeries are just so damn cool. But maybe it's just not for me.

    Also, Nettle, I suspect that you're right about the stumbling block — just scanning the website for another event EarthSpirit hosts, called "Twilight Covening," I'm really impressed and eager to get more festival experience under my belt. Alas, the purse strings are tight these days. Still, I hope to live long enough to see all the potential that's out there. :)

  10. An interesting thing about Irish myth is the bleed between god, hero and fae. Mebh is ostensibly a human queen in the Tain yet her attributes are god-like and she is also counted among the fae. Brighid, of course, is one of the elder of the Tuatha Dé Danann and therefore one of the Kindred, yet she is also generally perceived as a goddess. So, your relationship with Brighid may have you talking with the fae.
    Not every worthwhile author will call everyone. Stewart is particularly difficult since he seems to surround his paragraphs in hawthorn hedges, which is not an unusual technique for esoteric writers:-)

  11. Ali - Maybe it's a WestCoast vrs East Coast ??

    Out here, unless sexuality is a part of what's being presented, it doesn't come up or commented on. The working assumption is that unless it's connected (by the person/people involved) we don't make that link and we treat everyone equally. If the person talking wants to link what they're talking about to their personal sexuality/experience, their choice, their call.

    As for the rest?

    Faery Seership is only one of Orion's initiations. So, when he speaks it can be from Conjure, Faery Seership or Witchcraft POV. Or perhaps insight coming from these 3 mixed together. He certainly touched on all 3 in the presentation I heard.


    I've learned that when I have a strong reaction to something it's a call to look at it again. If I've accidentally walked into something I've truely mastered, then it's a soothing review (and or a chance to be reminded of some things). My son's Karate sifu used to say to his BlackBelt Students: Wow me w/ the Basics.

    So, if I come to something I intellectually consider something I've DONE, Thank You...and yet I react strongly too: this is a flashing light calling Look Here.

    Nice to know you didn't intend to badmouth your experience. Just writing reactions can certainly end up coming out differently than we intend, can't they?

  12. Helen,

    You wrote: "Ali - Maybe it's a WestCoast vrs East Coast ??

    Out here, unless sexuality is a part of what's being presented, it doesn't come up or commented on. The working assumption is that unless it's connected (by the person/people involved) we don't make that link and we treat everyone equally. If the person talking wants to link what they're talking about to their personal sexuality/experience, their choice, their call. "

    I was wondering if this was part of the reason for your reaction. I didn't make the east coast/west coast connection, but I was immediately put in mind of my coworkers, most of whom are black. They will often casually have a conversation about what a person looks like and comment, without apparent discomfort, about the relative lightness/darkness of the person's complexion, whether they are "mixed" or other kinds of references. And yet I would feel distinctly uncomfortable talking this way, worried that it would be disrespectful or come across wrong. On the other hand, I have always had many friends in the GLBT community, and talking about one's sexuality has never been an issue of discomfort for me. The idea that merely referring to a person's sexuality could be construed as offensive didn't occur to me. Plus, Orion himself had no qualms about bringing up his sexuality rather frequently during the talk (apparently he's just met someone and is deeply in love :). To me, it seemed strange that while people had mentioned his roots in Appalachia and his "hippie style," they'd meticulously avoided his sexuality, which is something that obviously he himself is perfectly comfortable with and includes in his public talks.

    In any case, I wouldn't say that my reaction to the talk was "strong." Rather the opposite: despite Orion's engaging presentation, I just didn't feel very interested in the tradition he was discussing. It left me feeling like, "O, I guess that's nice...." And, like I said, the self-esteem boost was not something I was looking for and kind of left me feeling bored, waiting for him to get to the "good stuff," so to speak. That doesn't mean the tradition doesn't have value... I just don't think it's for me. I think I was clear on that in my original post.

  13. Pagan festivals are their own little world. Enjoy them, learn as much as you can from examples good and bad, and be sure to give yourself a lot of processing time afterwards. I really enjoyed going to festivals like Heartland when I lived in the States, but quickly came to realize most of the people were 1. nuts and 2. mostly incompetent.

    So, whatever. There's still music, mead, companionship, fire, and the wild night. And what more does a pagan really need?

  14. Ali, thanks for all your posts on the Feast of Lights. I rarely miss the Pagan community, but reading your thoughts on this gathering has given me just a twinge of homesickness. Meanwhile, I love footnote #2 on this post... and at the risk of indulging in a bit of shameless self-promotion, it makes me think you'll like the main thrust of my forthcoming book.

  15. Carl, Glad you liked them! I actually had two more I'd planned to write, but never got around to it because, well, life happened. Actually, it would be more accurate to say "other big-future-writing-project plans took precedence over current off-the-cuff writing projects"... which counts as "life" for me. ;)