The Community That Wasn’t: A First Timers Reflections on PantheaCon

(This is the first in a series of posts about my experiences and thoughts following my first PantheaCon. This post is meant as both a recap and general critique of my experiences – and my experiences alone. Future posts will delve more in depth into specific topics.)

I passed through the double sliding doors, and immediately made eye contact with someone I knew – a person with whom I had engaged in a few meaningful conversations online and via Skype, and shared physical space with a few years ago. I smiled as this person locked eyes and recognition flashed across their face; then, without any additional acknowledgement, looked away and returned attention to the congregation of Big Name Pagans.

This was my first time attending PantheaCon. I’ve lived on the West coast for almost 5 years, 3 of them in the Bay Area. I’m originally from the Southeast, where the stuff that happens on the West coast doesn’t feel particularly important. I’m also an experienced Witch that has been actively learning, teaching, and participating in communities for almost 18 years, though I still fall under the “young leader” umbrella (more about that later). I never felt like attending PantheaCon, and honestly it felt both overwhelming and irrelevant. As I started to engage more within the Pagan blogosphere and social media, and became more familiar with West coast Paganism, all I could imagine was that a national indoor conference of 2500+ Pagans would be a massive clusterf*ck. And a place where those we elevate enjoy their position on the pedestal and the rest of us sit at their feet.

Over the last few years, a lot of things have been shifting in my world. I’m at a place where I once again have more questions than answers, where my Saturn return has left me feeling at the beginning of another Journey of the Fool and my nearly two decades of experience is from another lifetime. Then again, I’ve been known to be hard on myself. In the past several months I have been receiving a lot of internal and external affirmations of my path and place within this grand scheme of life. It came to occur to me that I really should attend this conference at least once, that it could be a very clarifying experience, and if I was going to do it now was the time.

It was clarifying, and confusing. Intense, and interesting. I’m not going to tell you that you should attend at least once too. But in many ways I am glad that I did, criticisms aside. I don’t know if I will return though some friends and I have some fun ideas about shaking things up a bit.

I wanted to know, would this feel like community? Would I walk into any of the spaces at PantheaCon and immediately feel like I was surrounded by my community, my tribe, by people that welcomed me? Would I feel accepted?

The first session I attended was Gods and Radicals: Anti-Capitalist Resistance and Pagan Practice, by Alley Valkyrie and Rhyd Wildermuth. I consider Alley a friend and comrade, so I was glad to start my official PantheaCon experience with a welcoming hug and diving right in to one of my passions. Surprisingly, the room was filled beyond capacity and discussions remained thoughtful and civil, even with the stifling heat from a room that had not been cooled. There was an obvious yearning for more discussion and action around anti-capitalism as it intersects with spiritual practice. I am hopeful that maybe Pagandom does care about issues that aren’t just the latest hot topic, that there are Pagans ready to get at the core issues of power and oppression and empire. This felt good and safe and welcoming.

The times in between sessions and over lunch and dinner are chaotic. I was prepared for large crowds and was well shielded to be surrounded by 2500+ Pagans and magic workers for 3 days; I can have a pretty imposing presence and solid boundaries when I choose to. Where I live now, there is a nasty practice by some witches who feel entitled to poke and prod at another witch’s energy body anytime you share space with them. I hadn’t encountered much of this before, and thought it was just a local thing. But at PantheaCon, I felt it. The little tugs, the pokes, the feeling of being ‘undressed by someone’s [energetic] eyes.’ Nope, this was definitely not community.

In the afternoon I attended Turning the Wheel: Nurturing Young Leaders and Embracing Change. I was excited for this panel, as it is also a subject I care deeply about and I have a lot of respect for several of the people that were on the panel (specifically Thorn Coyle, Jason Pitzl, and Shauna Aura Knight, who I am the most familiar with their work). I’ll have another piece up about my experiences of and thoughts following this panel, but for now suffice it to say I left with more questions than answers and still wondering “is this really my community?

There were several people I wanted to connect with face to face during the Con, for various reasons. Accomplishing that task was a bit more difficult than I anticipated (and I anticipated it would be very difficult). At the end of a session, there was generally a rush of people to snag the attention of the presenter(s), and then little groups that break off of folks already familiar with each other. If you’re not fast or already a part of a little clique, getting some face time is challenging. You can try to snag someone during one of the meal breaks, but personally I would eat someone who came between me and my meal if I was hungry… so that wasn’t a good option for me. Mostly, it just seemed to happen by synchronicity or through sheer patience.

Saturday evening I attended the Bringing Race to the Table panel. I found a seat on the inside edge of the room, so I could be best positioned to listen and hold space and fade out of the way if I needed to. A lot has already been shared about what happened at this panel. I will say I was very glad to see a panel again own up to the fact that they were a very poor representation for the discussion, as only one panelist was a person of color Xochiquetzal Duti Odinsdottir, in addition to the moderator Crystal Blanton. The discussion was intense and often uncomfortable and sometimes frustrating. I was sitting next to Luna Pantera, and when she stood to speak for the trauma and pain she was experiencing, it washed over me. When I heard her battle cry for us, as magic workers, to get up and do some damn magic, I threw my hands and energy into the air in support. When she sat down again, sobbing as I felt the waves of pain rolling off of her, I did the only thing I could do and breathe slowly next to her, sending my pain and I hope a little of hers back into the Earth with a prayer. At the end of the panel, as Luna’s friends came to comfort her, I met my eyes with one woman in particular, we smiled at each other, and I quickly and quietly slipped out of the way. That was the best way I knew to be of support in that moment.

I was curious about the hospitality suites since they get talked about so much, and wondered where they would be located (this hotel must have a lot of meeting rooms!). Actually, the suites are located in regular hotel rooms or larger hotel suites – which made sense once I realized it, but for me poses a bit of a problem. A bunch of people I don’t really know crowded into an unknown hotel room (with or without beds) – yeah definitely trigger material. So that was a barrier to me accessing those spaces, but I did make a go of it.

Walking into the suites, I felt awkward and received varying degrees of welcome. If there were already intense discussions or an event happening, it was much more likely I was ignored. If it was fairly quiet I was invited to sit and chat and have a drink, until someone came in that was more well-known at which point I was pretty much ignored even as I tried to engage. I left most of the hospitality suites feeling like a stranger in a strange land, and wondering just how we define hospitality.

Since I attended all social justice events on Saturday, I decided Sunday would be a day for me to attend events more focused on spirituality and practice. I started the day by donating blood; I thought it was amazing that this had been coordinated as a spiritual offering for the Con. The process itself took way longer than I expected so I missed the first event I had planned for. But, this opened the space for me to socialize and I made some of the face to face connections I was hoping for. Jason Pitzl was one of those people and I had a very enjoyable conversation with him and a friend. There are people at PCon, well known people even, who are genuinely open and excited to meet others and it is the interactions with those individuals that led me to feel like there was some community to be had.

Oddly enough, I frequently found myself hanging out in Vendor Land as a kind of safe space. I’m not going to unpack that much, other than I did have a couple of friends/acquaintances with booths so I would hang out there for a little while wandering. But it felt comfortable, like I could be there without needing a reason to be there.

I hadn’t seen Starhawk in a few years, so I attended her ritual workshop on Ritual and Storytelling. I can’t say I found the material particularly informative, but the ritual we co-created was sweet. I am continually surprised, even with all of the struggle and discussions around community, when Pagans get into a ritual together we have no trouble supporting one another and sharing really private things. I am not sure if that is a good or bad thing, but it does make me wonder why we can’t carry that into all of our interactions with each other?

Humans are funny creatures.

In the evening I attended Shauna Aura Knight’s discussion on Leadership – Boundaries, Communication, and Groups. I was pleased with her facilitation and creating a safe container for discussion, but as was the case with all of the sessions it didn’t feel like enough time. By this time in the conference I had learned a little more about how to get things done, and since she was one of the people I had been meaning to connect with I waited for the crowd to disperse so we could meet briefly.

Time. Time is a commodity at such a large conference. The schedule is packed and run very tightly – so there is little time to mingle after a session before someone comes to clear the room.

I was looking forward to Kali Puja all weekend. I attended some of Sharanya’s pujas in San Francisco and have had some really wonderful discussions with Chandra. I knew the power of the puja, but wasn’t quite sure what to expect with such a large group of people. Well, I was taken by surprise. I went deeper and connected more strongly with the yearning of, for, and by Ma Kali than I ever have. As I rocked in ecstatic abandon, tears of joy and release streaming down my face, I felt the love that was in that room and the longing that we all share for connection with the Goddesses/Gods. Even as I type this, I feel the tears welling up. We are indeed so hungry, so in need of authentic connection – with each other, with the spirits of the land, with the Deities.

I don’t fully understand yet why we don’t have it, why a group of people that believe so strongly in the divinity that is all around and within us and outside of us have such a hard time building and sustaining nurturing communities – but I think back to Luna’s call for us to ‘just do some damn magic already’ and Elena Rose’s poignant thought that ‘if we’re going to stop eating each other we’re going to have to start feeding each other something better’.

In the room next to us, the Pagans of Color Caucus was happening. I observed the Ally Sentinels as they gathered while I was in line for the puja. At the time, I wasn’t aware of the other events that had been occurring. And, I knew I was where I needed to be. But during puja I had the distinct feeling that we were doing important work of support as well, creating a temple of love and joy, praying to a Goddess who had long been relegated to a position of darkness and evil, while People of Color who were experiencing such hurtful acts and incredible pain were doing their own healing.

The ironic thing about community is that by opening ourselves to it, we also open ourselves to the possibility of members of that community causing us pain. As in any relationship, I don’t think that the causing of pain means there is no community. But to be in community, there has to be trust that the pain caused is not intentional, and we have to assume the best intentions until proven otherwise. I saw very little of either over the weekend.

On Monday I attended a session that was pulling at me: Beyond the Gates of the Seer Divining the Oracular in Community. I seldom go to Seidh or other oracular rituals because it makes me uncomfortable to have a single priest/ess on a throne divining the Gods. However, I have always been a natural seer and oracle and am at a place where I am seeking more support around that. When I arrived I felt a very strong connection with the two Priestesses and realized I had run into them the day before and felt a tug of sisterly recognition and a need to speak, but the opportunity passed. I later realized I had met one of them at some Priestess events in San Francisco.

The goal to create a community of oracles felt lofty, but so important. I had an intense experience at the ritual and definitely felt a connection with some of the other strong visionaries in the room. But, as soon as the ritual ended that connection was gone, and people fled in their separate directions. I was finally able to speak briefly with one of the Priestesses, but that interaction too was cut short.

After taking some more time to ground myself, I walked through the hotel lobby area one last time, feeling out if there was anything left for me to do. No, I was ready to leave.

After we left my husband drove us out to Santa Cruz so I could put my feet in the Pacific again – this siren can’t avoid the pull of the Ocean, and indeed as soon as I stepped onto the beach a huge wave came and bathed my feet, while a school of dolphins appeared in the surf. That was the perfect end to the weekend, and a reaffirmation.

This weekend has stimulated a catacomb of thoughts that I hadn’t fully explored, and for that I am grateful. It was right for me to be there, and will be an experience I look back on and continue to unpack for many years even if I never return.

A synopsis of my thoughts and experiences:

We are a long way from creating any kind of cohesive Pagan community, and most attempts at creating huge infrastructure to do that are going to struggle while we try to figure out what community is and even if we want it.

The sessions at PCon help create a very brief sense of community – but in my experience were fleeting as people rushed off to ‘the next big thing’.

I don’t care who you are, nothing excuses blatant rudeness.

More effort needs to be made by those who are well known to welcome and create space for those who are struggling to find their place.

For all of its massiveness and amount of coordination, I did feel that overall PCon was more “for the people, by the people” than I expected. But, my expectation was very low.

My suggestions to other first-timers:

Don’t carry any expectations about what is going to happen. Let intuition and synchronicity guide you.

There are moments of opportunity for authentic connection Seize them, treasure them.

Don’t attend something just because you feel like you should or because there is a big name on the presenter list. It is unlikely you will get to connect individually with them. Attend what calls to you – you may be surprised at what you get out of it.

If you have any challenges around attending events by yourself, bring a friend. It could be overwhelming and feel a bit lonely if you don’t know anyone.

Be prepared to push yourself and the edges of your boundaries. Let the experience move you.

Don’t be ashamed to ‘check out’ if you need to – find a quiet spot, go back to your room, opt out of some events. The more self-care you practice the more you will get out of the event.

Feel free to love it or hate it, to agree or disagree, to feel like it is the most amazing event ever or complete bullshit. All of it is ok.