…at least for a while…
As the title suggests this is an article about the impact of the pandemic on the Pagan community focussing mainly on mine and Cerri’s local groups, but I think many organisers and facilitators will also be asking themselves similar questions. I realise that many people are tired of reading about Covid-19 so if that is you, feel free to move on.
Cerri and I have, for many years, been organising events and groups here in Sussex. We started the Anderida Gorsedd at the Spring Equinox of 2000 and have gathered as a group for every seasonal ceremony since then, up until what would have been our 20th Anniversary on the Spring Equinox of 2020. We hold a conference every year at Imbolc at our local Community Centre, we have a Druid Grove who have met monthly since 1997, and of course, I play my music at conferences, but also run my own musical tour dates. With the arrival of Covid-19, all of that changed.
I’ve missed meeting together for the seasonal ceremonies at the Long Man of Wilmington. Anywhere from 50-100 people, rain or shine, gathered together to share in the celebration of the season. For the Spring Equinox, we decided not to go the Zoom ritual route. Instead, Cerri wrote a ceremony that anyone could do in their homes or gardens, then, at 2 pm on the date the Gorsedd had been due to meet anyone who wished could join in and do the ritual. As part of the opening, we closed our eyes and imagined standing in Circle with our friends on the hill below the Long Man, feeling that sense of community that still exists, even though we are maybe far apart, then open our eyes and continue the ceremony. We have a Facebook group so people then posted photos of themselves after the ceremony, and of the ritual spaces, they had created. Ok, it’s never going to be the same as being together in each other’s company, but it has continued the Gorsedd’s tradition and has brought people together as best it can under the circumstances. We focussed on Beltane and the Summer Solstice in the same way.
The Grove didn’t meet for a month or so, but then we missed each other too much so had a Zoom meet up, and decided we would meet monthly to continue our Druid Journey together, sometimes online, sometimes apart but tuning into each other nonetheless. For me, it’s been wonderful to reconnect to the Spirits of our Sacred Grove.
The same with our monthly moot. With the closure of the pub where we met we had nowhere to gather, but as the lockdown continued, and it became apparent that those doors would not be opening any time soon, we took the moot online, and like many groups, met up on Zoom for a ‘Talking Stick’ moot. We’ve only had one but it worked very well, so it’s now back to a regular monthly thing.
I feel so lucky and blessed that I had the opportunity to go to three Pagan events this year before the lockdown. The Enchanted Market in Bracknell, our own AnderidaFest conference here in Sussex, and the Pagan Phoenix South West conference in Cornwall. There must be thousands of you who didn’t get that opportunity and have seen every Pagan event gradually cancelled. When we gather together in our groups and share space and time together, that is when we can truly know that we are part of a wider community. Pagans, like so many other groups, are often not at our best in Facebook groups. With no face-to-face contact we can argue, fall out, clash on almost anything, but these things don’t happen as frequently at physical gatherings. As a community, we need to feel that sense of coming together and mass celebration.
When I looked out from the stage at Bracknell and in Cornwall I had no idea of the impact the approaching lockdown would have. Pagans hug each other as greeting. It’s one of the things I’ve always loved. It’s hard to imagine a Pagan event where hugging is absent. But there are other things that, for so long, I have simply taken for granted, and this makes me now look to the immediate future.
So this leads to the questions I spoke of in the first paragraph. As the lockdown eases, any organiser, of any event, will probably be asking themselves similar questions. What can we do, what needs to happen, and what changes will need to be made, for us to begin to return to this ‘new normal’ we’ve been hearing about?
Already, me and Cerri have been asked when the Gorsedd will return to the Long Man? Will there be an AnderidaFest 2021? When will the pub moot return? Good questions. And right now the only thing we can say is that we are watching how things develop. There simply can’t be an unequivocal response, because anything can change, at any time.
Maybe it’s best to look at some of the challenges we face.
For 20 years the Gorsedd has been meeting, hugging and welcoming, standing close in a circle, holding hands, sharing food and drink, then going off to the pub for a social pint. How on earth can those things happen right now?
How hard is it going to be to meet, but not hug each other in welcome? It sounds easy, but when it is part of a way of life, I’m not sure it is.
The hill we meet upon beneath the Long Man just about holds 80 people standing close enough together to hold hands. That same circle standing 1 metre apart to respect ‘social distancing’? That would be difficult, especially if more people turned up. There’s never any knowing how many will be there as it’s a completely open ritual. It’s always been the foundation of what it’s been about. Friends have met there, people have met their life-partners there, we have all shared so much.
So the circle with social distancing is one thing, but the holding hands? It’s part of almost every Pagan circle – joining…as a circle! We hold hands to say the Gorsedd Prayer, we hold hands to say the Druid Vow and chant the Awen, we hold hands to share three breaths together. Three breaths together! “We swear, by peace and love to stand, heart to heart and hand in hand,” but not standing hand in hand? Weird.
Then of course there is the sharing of food and drink. Something central to so many spiritual traditions. There is not a chance we would be able to do that right now. And all of these things are the moments that join the community together. So these are challenging times for any community.
These moments are common to so many Covens, Groves, groups, events, conferences, open rituals, I’m sure I can’t be the only person asking myself these questions. Of course there may be some people who might just say “Oh get on with it!” But I’ve never been that kind of organiser. If I just said “OK, let’s just meet up and see what happens” I would never forgive myself if someone, or many people, caught Covid-19 because of that decision. At the end of the day the responsibility rests upon the shoulders of the organiser/s, and me and Cerri have never taken those decisions lightly.
As time moves on, and the restrictions are gradually lifted, we will all know more about the measures that need to be taken so that this ‘new normal’ can begin to emerge. But right now it is simply too early to know exactly what those measures might be, or what that ‘new normal’ might look like. In the mean time we continue to nurture our communities online, on Zoom, with Facebook Live concerts, online conferences and gatherings. We are so blessed to have this technology available, and it’s been amazing to see the creative ways people have been using it.
When I saw all of my concerts disappear literally overnight I was worried. In truth I still am because that’s another whole lot of questions about when small Arts Centres might open, and how we will be able to see live music again. But I thought, why not do an informal house concert on Facebook live? It might be fun. I had no idea how many people would watch it but we’d have a good time, despite the lockdown. Well, those little house concerts have been amazing, not only for me as a singer but also for the community. I just didn’t see it coming – that I would be playing to my largest ever audiences, whilst sitting in the peace and quiet of my own home! I’ll continue to do them, even when I can get back to playing live in person. They’ve been a light in the darkness.
One day I am sure we will all be able to stand in Circle again, holding hands, sharing food and drink, and hugging each other. Until then we will have to get creative and re-imagine what it means to be a Pagan, in community, sharing space and time with each other. I adore our community. I love the way we have risen to the challenge we have faced. And I look forward to the day we can sit down together over a bottle of mead, or a glass of ale, and reminisce over the year 2020, and how the Pagan community arose to the challenges it faced, and moved through the crisis.