Guest Post: Preserving Our History

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[Michael Lloyd is an engineer and writer. He is a co-founder and former co-facilitator (2002-2011) of the Between the Worlds Men’s Gathering, an annual spiritual retreat for men who love men. Michael has written for Circle magazine, Outlook magazine, and The Witches Voice, and was the author of Chapter 2 – “The History of Oils” – of Lady Rhea’s Enchanted Formulary (Citadel, 2007). His first book, Bull of Heaven: The Mythic Life of Eddie Buczynski and the Rise of the New York Pagan, will be published later this year. He was interviewed on the subject of gay Paganism by Margot Adler for her latest revision of Drawing Down the Moon (Penguin Books, 2007). A long-time resident of Columbus, Ohio, Michael was named in the 2011 Who’s Who of GLBT Columbus. He has an author page on Facebook, and can be reached at]

“The loss of history is always of particular concern in minority subcultures, where change is often rapid and the accurate preservation of historical details is of secondary interest to merely living life and getting by.” – Michael Lloyd, Bull of Heaven, from the Proemium

Many thanks to Jason for his great work here at Wild Hunt and for allowing me the opportunity to address his readership during his absence. As mentioned above, I have completed and am readying for publication the biography of Eddie Buczynski, a Craft elder from New York City who passed away in 1989 from complications associated with AIDS. Buczynski was the founder of three different living Witchcraft traditions in the U.S., including one that is near and dear to my own heart – the Minoan Tradition. Working on the life story of a Craft elder, and reconstructing the history of that portion of the Neo-Pagan movement pertaining to him, has been a personally satisfying experience. It has enabled me to meet fascinating people from all over the world and from many varied backgrounds – artists, playwrights, archaeologists, actors, writers, musicians – in addition to many elders in the Neo-Pagan community. I’ve made some great friends over the nine years that I have worked on this project. However, I am sobered by the realization that, during this process, I have also watched as eight of the more than seventy people I interviewed have passed over to the Summerlands. Several others who survived their battles continue to have serious health issues, many associated with the mundane ravages of time. It is a grim thought that, had I waited even a few short years to begin this project, the effort might have been gutted at the outset.

This brings me to the point of this blog post – we are simply not doing enough to preserve our history. We are steadily losing the elders of the past generation of Witches, Pagans, Ceremonial Magickians, Shamans and the like. Those who were adults in the 1960s and 1970s when they founded traditions, fought for equality, or wrote the texts that shaped and influenced our various spiritual paths are now fast approaching (or have reached) their golden years. That, in itself, is not a cause for alarm for, as we all know, the cycle of life and death is both natural and inexorable. What is alarming, however, is the utter hash we have been making of documenting the history of specific traditions and their founders/leaders. We can thank several dedicated writers and historians for doing a decent job of capturing the general history of the movement, through the auspices of people both within the community (e.g., Margot Adler, Chas Clifton) and outside of it (e.g., Ronald Hutton). But when it comes to preserving the memories or the papers of important historical figures within the Neo-Pagan movement, we are failing, and failing miserably. And future generations will look unkindly upon us for this.

Eddie Buczynski has only been gone for 23 years, so many of his friends and family members are, fortunately, still with us. And while many of the papers which were in his possession when he passed were scrapped long ago, I did manage to locate a surprising amount of material squirreled away in various places throughout the country. What this really means is that I got lucky. But not everyone who ventures down this path with other deceased elders can count on this good fortune, which leads me to address you elders who may be reading this. I appeal to your sense of community and sense of history. If you wish to have some assurance that your legacy will be preserved after you are gone, do a favor for yourself and for those around you – indeed, do us all a favor – and formulate a transition plan that makes arrangements to handle your papers, photos, and other community-related ephemera. And why wait until your will is probated? Consider approaching an archive or university library that might be willing to catalogue and preserve your collection of papers and other materials while you are still alive and before poor health or death makes such arrangements difficult or impossible to carry out.

Even if you do not want to allow others to go through your papers before you pass, do so yourself. I have gone through some absolutely atrocious collections over the years, with papers, photos and books jumbled, folded, thrown into boxes, or exposed to sunlight, vermin and the elements, destroyed by mildew, stained with cigarette smoke, and damaged by spills or floods. If you do not have the money to preserve your papers to archival standards (e.g., acid free boxes and envelopes, mylar sleeves), you can at least organize them neatly in folders and boxes and store them in a manner that keeps them from harm. Do not underestimate the value of your papers to a future historian or writer! Cards, letters, fliers, press releases, interviews, articles, notes, handouts, diaries, datebooks, rough drafts of manuscripts, vouches and other organizational records – and now emails – are all extremely valuable sources of information. Photos are a particular concern, for their lack of preservation is a problem that I have encountered many times over the years. It’s preferable to keep photos in their original paper envelope than it is to place them in a photo album. With the latter, the chemicals in the plastic backing and sleeve eventually react with the photos and glue them into place both front and back. If you can do so, consider digitizing your photographs using a high-density scanner, and then burning them to disc or backing them up in a couple of different places so that they are preserved for posterity. Email is also a preservation priority, with so many people relying on it these days over postal letters. Routinely placing electronic records into pdf format and archiving them someplace safe is probably the best way to ensure that future generations will be able to access them.

In conjunction with Eddie Buczynski’s biography, several years ago I interviewed Harold Moss, co-founder of the Church of the Eternal Source. At some point during our correspondence, Harold lamented that no one would probably bother to write his biography (Moss passed away in 2010). If any other elders out there have a similar concern, then I would like to tell you what I told Harold at the time – consider writing your autobiography, or at least setting down your memoirs on paper. They don’t have to be published, but it is vitally important that your oral history be recorded in some manner, even if in audio/video recordings or a simple draft manuscript. Oral histories (lore) are fine for the campfire, but they are generally unreliable sources of history, as anyone who has played the game of telephone can understand. If your words are recorded, then at least they will be preserved when you are no longer able, or present, to answer questions.

And here is where I make my second plea of this article. If you do go to the trouble of recording your story, please be honest in its telling. Shading the truth (or manufacturing it out of whole cloth) may preserve your dignity and the party line while you are alive, but in the long run you’re only fooling yourself. It’s a safe bet that some future historian, researcher, or writer will eventually come along, dig out the facts, and point out the glaring inconsistencies (or worse, misrepresentations) in your story. So it’s best just to be honest. One should also try to be as accurate as possible. Memories fail us; it’s a fact of life. And we are notoriously bad at recalling dates. But details and dates matter in history and what is a biography/autobiography, if not the history of a person? If you can’t remember or reconstruct a believable timeline for your story, then your efforts will be of limited interest or use (or veracity) to others. So do the best that you can on this score.

I understand that writing one’s life story can be a daunting task. And not everyone is up to it. That is where an independent biographer may come into the picture. Speaking from personal experience, writing the biography of another person is a long, tedious and financially unrewarding process. But from the community’s viewpoint it is a necessary one, and on a personal level it can be highly satisfying intellectually. If you are an aspiring writer who is thinking of tackling the biography of a Neo-Pagan leader, I urge you to think carefully about the task that lay ahead of you. Do it only because a particular story calls to you, not because you hope to become famous or rich at the end of the process – the reality is that neither is likely to happen. It is that passion that will sustain you when nothing else does, believe me.

Approach your subject and the task at hand with humility, patience, perseverance, and gratitude. Unless you’ve been hired to write the book, you must be prepared to pay your own way, whether it’s copying and postage fees, travel expenses, long-distance phone calls, the purchase of reference materials, or any of the multitudes of miscellaneous expenses that may appear along the way. Remember that no one owes you anything, and that you will oft-times be relying on the kindness of strangers. Be respectful and fair to all, but mindful that you are beholden to history, as well as to the future generations who will be relying upon you for the truth (or as close as you can get to it). A story that unquestioningly and unrealistically praises its subject is called a hagiography, not a biography. It is the mirror image of a smear and, in my personal opinion, both are the product of hacks. Be better than that. As one of my interviewees demanded of me early in my own project – “Do a good job!”