By the time you read this my household will have been self-isolating for over a month with no definite end in sight. My home county of Contra Costa, California, was among the first in the nation to initiate a lockdown of all “non-essential” businesses and to issue a “shelter-in-place” order to help ensure public safety. According to the guidelines set forth by the state and county, the storefront we run, the Mystic Dream, must remain closed and we can only do business via mail-order.
We’ve been working hard relocating products and packing materials from the store to our house so that we can more easily fulfill online orders while honoring the legal directive to shelter-in-place. We’ve been updating the website and adding products and classes, in the hopes of retaining some fragment of the income we had before the lockdown. Things are uncertain. The belt has been tightening, for us and for a lot of people.
As hard as it has been, we recognize that we probably have it much easier than most. Since we already did much of our work from home before the lockdown was enacted, we are well-suited to staying put; our day-to-day lives are only slightly affected. I still write each day, record meditations, and have long-distance sessions with students over the internet. Chas still makes products, now focused on selling them over the web. Devin is still recording his podcast and working on various projects. And all of it so that we can try to make a living while much of the commercial world slumbers.
Life at home for us is as busy as it ever was. Only when we venture forth into the outside world do we really begin to see the scope of things: once bustling streets now quiet and empty; once full grocery store shelves, now under-stocked or even barren; the emergence of professionally printed signs posted at each “essential” establishment instructing customers on the new rules of social distancing; and more and more people wearing masks and gloves in public. What was not all that long ago considered strange and perhaps even based in irrational fear has now suddenly become commonsense and commonplace. This is the new normal. It feels as if our entire culture changed in the blink of an eye, and the feeling of surrealism is still strong.
There are a lot of very spirited debates on just how long the US is supposed to remain in lockdown. There are also a lot of angry voices peddling various conspiracy theories (don’t even get me started about 5G or Bill Gates) and even some religious resistance citing “the blood of Jesus” as their preferred anti-viral shield. (I think it may take longer than 20 seconds to wash the willful ignorance off their hands, but I’m not a doctor.)
Self-isolating is the best thing that we can do right now to help ease the collective burden on our healthcare system. The wisdom has been clear: work from home, if we are able. Only go out if absolutely necessary while we await a vaccine. And above all else, we need to wash our hands. Frequently. If our jobs are considered essential, we will be on the “front-lines” during this crisis, and so we will need to take whatever precautions are necessary in order to help keep ourselves from becoming infected (masks, gloves, enforced social-distancing, and so on.)
The irony of this is that while we are keeping our physical distances from each other, this very action is causing a general decline in our mental health. Generally speaking, we need connections with other people, so the very thing that is keeping us safer is also threatening our well-being. All of this adds up to very strange and stressful times.
Just because we are self-isolating doesn’t mean we have to live in total isolation. There are plenty of ways in which we can stay connected with friends and family, even if we can’t physically connect. There are plenty of game sites and apps that encourage us to stay connected while also sheltering-in-place, sites like PlayingCards.io which makes it easy (and free!) to play card games with friends over the internet. With a chat service like Zoom, Skype, or Discord, we can still hear (and, depending on service, see) one another while playing.
On the Pagan end of things, we are seeing some online offerings to help keep people feeling connected during this strange time. Devin Hunter from Modern Witch (full disclosure: one of my partners in witchy crime) just announced a series of nightly Netflix Watch Parties hosted by his alter-ego Hunter Van Ghoul, an out-of-work horror movie host who may or may not be wearing pants. This is set to run for two weeks, so check out the schedule, follow the instructions, and let’s watch some movies together.
While many of us who are sheltering may be inclined to lose touch with a sense of normality and rhythm (“There’s no such thing as Saturdays anymore,” as Tom Hanks said on Saturday Night Live recently. “It’s just, every day is today.”) author and witch and fellow weather force Laura Tempest Zakroff stresses the need to keep daily routines, both magical and mundane. (Also check out her recent sigil offering here.)
While games and virtual hangouts are important, many of us are craving those magical connections that we perhaps shared with our circles and covens. While the thought of social distancing group Witchcraft might seem like a strange or even impossible notion, I am no stranger to working collective rites at a distance and so feel perfectly suited to this new phase. Many years ago I had the opportunity to participate in a “teleconference ritual” hosted by author and witch Francesca DeGrandis. I will fully admit that I agreed to participate for no other reason than I thought it would be a fun distraction, an interesting tidbit to be added to my metaphysical resumé, little more than a lark.
My unearned egotism began to melt away, however, once we actually began the rite. Once the introductions and niceties were out of the way, and participants began to control their breath and to focus, an amazing thing happened. Magic. As the participant charged with casting the circle began to speak and invoke, I could feel the circle being cast around me, as palpable as any done in my physical presence. The ritual then proceeded much as any other, with the exception that there were no physical actions to which others could bear witness. It was all in the mind (or on the astral, if you prefer.) And yet, it unfolded as rituals do, with power and mystery, leaving the participants inspired and changed. In short, it was an effective rite.
This revelation inspired me to experiment with other methodologies for transmitting knowledge and experience over long distances, and what I found was that what mattered most wasn’t a physical space, but more of a “space of consciousness” into which we might step and share. Long-distance training and ritual certainly aren’t “the same” as in-person interactions, but neither is it necessarily less effective than its physical counterpart. They each have their strengths and weaknesses and together offer a wider array of choices and opportunities for more of us to experience the magic of the Craft.
Those not already accustomed to this type of working may find it a bit of an adjustment. But not to worry! If someone as judgmental as myself can overcome their biases and learn new ways of making magic, then so can anyone! It just takes a little practice, and maybe a bit of guidance along the way. Here are some ideas and resources to help organize and perform some long-distance group ritual, and have it be both effective and fun.
1. Get a reliable voice chat app
Texting is a great and quick way to stay in touch, but it certainly lacks the dramatic power of the spoken word. If we are to be sharing our magic together, we should be able to hear each other’s voices. This isn’t a chat with tech support, after all. This is the enacting of living poetry. My preferred medium is Zoom but check out Skype as well. Though not strictly necessary to our purposes, both have options for using web cams which can further assist us in making those connections feel more robust, even if we may later choose to turn them off when we go to actually perform our rituals (see below). Also, apps like Discord are familiar to many gamers and have a voice channel option.
2. Plan the ritual
This really isn’t that much different from planning a physical ritual (except we don’t need to calculate how many people fit in the living room!) My advice is to start small and then build up to larger rituals in later sessions. We might begin with a simple guided meditation for grounding, or perhaps a trance-only version of a circle casting.
When I have done circle casting this way, I will generally offer it first as a complete trance-journey, describing in detail how I pick up the blade from the altar and face the north, for example, and then, when I am moving from the north toward the east, how the blue flame is streaming from the point of my knife, forming a ring, and so on. I will describe each action, each tool, and then passionately recite the liturgical devices from our tradition just as if we were all together in the same room.
There are certain things to do at this stage to help add to the sense of connection. One is to have some simple, shared practices that everyone can perform together. One example might be the “Candle Prayer” from American Faery witchcraft. When I am leading a long-distance trance session for my students, we will perform this simple rite together, each of us lighting our own candle at the appropriate time and speaking aloud the prayer in unison. This gives us a greater sense of being aligned with each other and also drives the point home to our primal selves that actual magic and ritual are being performed. (Because nothing says ritual and magic quite like actual lit candles!)
3. To Cam Or Not To Cam
Using a webcam can be a great way to get to actually see the faces of those we are talking to, which helps facilitate a deeper sense of connection. But sometimes when it comes to performing a ritual the webcam can start to feel restrictive, demanding attention when ours would be better focused elsewhere. For this reason, I will usually begin a session with my cam on for the time it takes to engage in pleasantries and to go over any instructions. But then when the work is about to move into trance and ritual, I turn it off and go audio only.
For those who decide to use a webcam, dress nicely and consider the view behind you. It doesn’t take a background in set design to choose a background that is free of clutter and maybe even a bit pleasing to the eye. But barring that, there are always “virtual backgrounds” that can hide our hoarding tendencies. (Though I’d prefer to be referred to as a “collector,” please.)
4. Establish ritual roles
Another way to add a sense of connection and shared experience is to have everyone participate in some fashion. Can one person cast and another call? Or perhaps a certain spirit or deity is being summoned, or a cleansing being done. Even if it is only performing something simple like the aforementioned Candle Prayer, having shared ritual actions will allow a group to more fully come into the shared magical space.
5. Enhancing the Experience
One way to help bring even more of a connection to shared online rites is to use tools that engage the senses. Perhaps everyone could use the same herb incense blend, or everyone has a rose quartz crystal they are holding, or everyone is listening to the same soundtrack. (Think of sharing Spotify playlists, for example.) The more senses we can engage in a similar way, the more deeply and emotionally connected to the experience we will be.
For instance, I offer my long-term students a ritual of invoking and embodying certain elemental powers, using several different flavored chocolates, which we all taste at the same intervals during the rite. (Dark chocolate with red chili pepper is for fire, that’s all I’m saying.) When we perform the rite together, we get to share in a real-time sensual experience that is aligned to our shared Craft and to our own bodies, despite all of us in different parts of the world.
And finally –
6. Have Fun
Our magic is no good if we can’t enjoy it. So have fun with it. There will likely be some technical difficulties in the beginning, and these may even “break the mood.” Sometimes this can’t be helped, but also it shouldn’t be a point of contention. If things go wrong – so what? Have a laugh and try again. We just keep going. That’s why we always say we are practicing our Craft. One day we’ll even get it right.
I hope this has been at least a bit helpful to find some additional points of human magical connection during this strange and disconnected time. Try to stay home, and no matter what, stay safe.
Editor’s note: The Wild Hunt continues to cover the impact of COVID-19 on the Pagan community. For the latest updates, see our special coverage page. The Centers for Disease Control maintain a current list of guidance to prevent the spread of COVID-19 here.
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