6 Lessons from 6 Months of Online Outer Court

I’ve been meaning to make this post since January, but life is full-steam ahead, and I just haven’t had time to add all the additional epiphanies. While this post is dedicated to other Coven Leaders either running online O.C.s, or considering it, I hope this information is also useful for Seekers wondering if an on-line OC is the magical solution to their Seeking challenges.

Hawkfire’s Outer Court is passed the six-month mark. Writing that feels juvenile. (Like when middle school me counted the number of days I’d been going steady’ with a certain special 9th grader. Yet here I am now, married for 15 years and I know we’ve only just scratched the surface of what ‘marriage’ even means.) Basically, every week I learn something new about running an Outer Court. And I learn something new about why doing it online is much, much harder.

Maybe there will be a day when I look back, kindly, but with a certain degree of amusement at myself, for counting the months of my outer court.

Or maybe there will be a day when I look back, somewhat appalled and amazed that I was doing this thing at all. (Prognostication is not one of my magical talents.)

Since I launched this online OC in the Summer of 2020, Hawkfire has gained some people and lost some people, but I couldn’t be any prouder of each and every one of them. I really mean that.

The ones who are in the OC now are doing the work, the hard work, during incredibly hard circumstances. They’re leaning hard into the challenges of this work, and I’m learning so much from each of them all the time. But the ones who have left the group are also doing the work. They left for different reasons, but the left because their own growth and development took them on different paths, and I’m just honored I got to be part of that for a small-time. Do I selfishly hope they end up back in Hawkfire someday when the time is right for them and Hawkfire? Sure, of course. But do I hope even more that they find paths where they are challenged, grow, and actualize their Will? Yes, even more.

The last six months have taught me a lot about running an Outer Court. Some of this is probably stuff all new coven leaders learn (read: the hard way). But other things are definitely unique to the online context.

1. Teaching Online is Harder (and don’t think otherwise until you’ve tried it).

I was reading my course evaluations from last semester and was a little appalled when one student commented on how online courses were easier for faculty to teach. They clearly weren’t living the life I’ve been living. But the other comments clarified that assumption for me – the majority of students appreciated the tutorials, notes, individual videos, and audio feedback I gave them. But I know they appreciated it because they were taking online classes where faculty were struggling to “pivot” (damn that word) to the new online environment. The fact is, to give a student the equivalent experience to an in-person class, a teacher has to put in two to four times more work per student. Believe me, if the inverse were true, I’d be throwing myself into online ed. But I’m lazy. So I can’t wait to get back to the classroom.

The other problem is burnout. Constant zoom meetings, phone calls, and emails burn through our eyeballs and brains at a much faster rate than the gentle, in-person conversation (or ritual for that matter). By the time I’m done recording the fifteen 5- to 10-minute-long video feedback for one of my university students, knowing I have another fifteen more to go – I’m beaten. The videos get shoddy. I can’t talk/think as clearly. But I still somehow have to get in the same amount of material in a semester, so there’s no rest for the weary.

It’s the in-person interactions that give you ‘juice’ to keep going in a traditional classroom. And in a traditional classroom, some of those conversations simply go faster. The student tells you what they’ve already learned after listening in on your other conversations, and what would have been 10 minutes, turns into 2. You’ve got nothing else to add – they’re learning! They’re doing the work! Great! Even more important, sometimes they realize they have a totally different question, so you spent those two minutes on a topic that just doesn’t even come up in the online context.

2. Running an OC online is Harder (but don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it).

My experiences teaching online (even before COVID) have given me a lot of help running an OC. To be clear, I don’t have a syllabus or curriculum for my OC. It’s not a classroom. There are concrete things I expect them to accomplish before initiation, and they know these things up front. From there, everyone’s learning/growing process is unique. Besides online rituals once or twice a month, I talk with them on the phone, exchange emails, texts, and we have a WhatsApp group.

There is much less group interaction than traditional in-person OCs. Unfortunately, that’s by design.

Zoom meetings are exhausting, they burn us out. They’re effective substitutes in a pandemic for in-person meetings, but they are utterly draining and seldom recharge us.

And while I love our conversations and rituals, I know that not being able to interact in person runs the risk of burning me and them out. Hawkfire is a long game for me, so keeping us from burning out is a big priority, especially when some of the OC members are in and out of lockdowns, quarantines, or other upheavals gifted to us by the global pandemic.

Zoom rituals work, magically, and they work for the OC training. But they’re draining for all of us. The virtual ritual doesn’t ‘give back’ to the HPS or OC members what an in-person ritual can.

Fortunately, my OC doesn’t know the difference yet – the only rituals they’ve done have been on-line. But the minute that changes, they’re going to know what they’ve been missing – and the Zoom rituals will get really, really hard to stomach.

3. Approaching Things from a Place of Love (*Barf* #SorryNotSorry)

One of the things I’ve learned since being initiated into Gardnerian Wicca (and the pandemic has really solidified for me) is to teach from a place of love. Yes, that’s as cheesy and gross as it sounds. Go ahead and cringe. But read bell hooks Teaching to Transgress and then bear with me on this.

When I first started teaching, I was in my mid-20s, not terrible looking, and female. I found out very quickly that I had to “rule with an iron fist” or my (often male, often close to the same age) students tried to run rough-shod over my class policies. Then I got stalked by a student for a year and was told there was nothing I could do but “keep a paper trail”. That is, there was nothing the administration could do, but if I was assaulted, then they could use the stalker emails in a court case. (This was not my current institution, by the way, and I imagine policies have changed at the other school in the last 20 years.)

That self-defense-as-iron-fist lasted for more years than I care to admit. Even as I got older, saggy, wiser, and better shielded by policies preventing workplace harassment, I tended to be rather draconian in my policies. Why? It was just a habit. It’s what I knew.

My practice in Gardnerian Wicca forced me to take a hard look at a lot of my own assumptions and behaviors – it’s one of the reasons why I love Jason Mankey’s title Transformative Witchcraft. Witchcraft transforms you. It’s been a gradual process, but learning to organize the classroom around an ethos of love and encouragement (even when there’s failure) rather than an ethos of achievement and rigor (despite failure) has made me a better teacher and, frankly, a better human being. And you know what? My students are actually doing some of the best work I’ve seen in my 20+ years in education. Teaching from a place of love also helped sustain me with over-enrolled on-line classes, and students who struggled socially, economically, and personally.

I decided to start an online OC from this same place of love. I saw individuals who couldn’t follow their path for reasons well beyond their control, yet I was in a position to help. I wanted to help. This ethos has helped me maintain enough ‘spoons’ when the Zoom meetings start burning me out. And when I say from a place of love, this isn’t the ‘anything goes’ blithe disregard kind of love. I have to practice close and careful listening, I have to be reflective, and I have to sometimes ask hard questions.

There are days I want to give up on the online OC – it can be exhausting and for totally inexplicable reasons. I know running an in-person OC can be draining as well.

But reminding myself why I’m doing this, and then doing this from a place of unconditional, open-as-the-sky love – the love of our goddess I’ve experienced in a few rare moments – is what keeps me going.

4. Wait, what are your hands doing now? (Also, I was promised flying cars and a full VR experience).

Okay, I’m literally teaching myself Unreal Engine because I want to program an XR experience for my OC for ritual. Not that any of us can afford an Oculus Quest, but still.

I swear, back in the fall I made my OC this super cheesy, low-quality VFX video of the ritual sequence, trying to demonstrate what the full ritual space looks like with an HPS, HP, and a coven mate. All played by me. Yeah, I literally wore a Halloween mask to make it clear which ‘me’ was the HPS and which was the HP.

It’s kind of a hilarious shit show, but it’s what they’ve got right now.

During the ritual, to keep them engaged and active (and to also make sure their own ritual spaces are getting charged), I have them do most of the ritual along with me, with them visualizing other parts as I do them. We started this from day one, and I keep discovering random blind spots in my instruction. (I really wish I had experience teaching dance – I think that would help the translation process quite a lot.)

The point is, I’m realizing it’s a four-step process – I explain what’s about to happen, I show them, they do it with me, then they show me. I’ve been slacking on step four since my focus has been on, well, just having good rituals. But I’m realizing all these steps point to building muscle memory. And I should probably jump in to see what muscle memories they’re actually building!

Sure, this is the OC ritual so the ‘stakes are low’. But I’d like to push against that. It’s a very comprehensive, and effective ritual on its own, and we’re building egregore every time we circle. And they’re building that practice every time they do the ritual on their own.

In my own OC experience, at a certain point, we had the ritual memorized and then we performed it. And I’ll always remember that particular circle, because it reaffirmed for me what people say, but is hard to know: That you are already all the witch you’re ever going to be. Figuring out how to manifest that, how to shape it, is what magical training can provide.

So I’m starting to nag my OC to set up Zooms with me where they’re going to demonstrate the ritual to me. They can read the text, that’s fine – but without that fourth step, the previous three aren’t much use.

5. Cowans and the Covenstead (Read: Aunt Petunia, will you please stop knocking on the door offering snacks?!)

Each member of my OC is doing something that most Gardnerians don’t have to even think about until they’re second degrees: they’re running a secret witchcraft ritual at their own home with other witches in attendance.

When I realized this, my mind was blown. (Let’s go back to point 1 and 2 – Online is harder.)

When I was in OC, I’d tell my cowan spouse and child I was ‘headed to the witch posse’ they’d wish me fun, I’d go to my High Priestess’s house, have awesome naked witchcraft, and then be home shortly after midnight. Easy peasy.

For my on-line OC, however, it’s much more socially complicated. They all live with others who are cowan. In some cases, roommates/family don’t know about the witchcraft and they’re doing this all ‘in the broom closet’. While I’ve encouraged them to talk to roommates/family, this is a very personal decision and process. Many initiated Gardnerians have family who don’t know about their practice, so I’m not about to deny someone training for that reason alone.

In some cases, they’re ‘out’ to family/roommates, but nevertheless have to make arrangements to be left alone for several hours while we do a ritual. Often this involves kicking family members out of kitchens or living rooms due to small living spaces. Other times, music has to be adjusted to not wake up sleeping residents.

Other times, family members were overly curious – especially when broom closets were involved. For some people, this prompted those first, hard conversations about having an occult, pagan practice. For others, it required hard conversations about privacy and boundaries.

Sure, it’s on-line. But there are still three to five people showing up, talking, laughing, dancing, playing music, and doing, well, witchy shit. Now do this twice a month, in the middle of a pandemic when family members can’t just ‘go out and watch a movie’ and you’re suddenly asking a lot of someone in Outer Court.

Needless to say, when I was in Outer Court, I didn’t even have to think about any of these things. How many OC members ever have to do that? Shoot, how many first degrees have to do that?

In many ways, however, I think this will make other aspects of craft practice easier for them down the road. They are carving space for themselves and their craft practice in both physical, social, emotional, mental, and magical ways. This is very hard work, but they’re all doing it in a way that makes sense for their circumstances, even those who have since left the Outer Court.

6. Witch Camp (and the danger of the ‘good stuff’.)

We’ve all been furiously saving money since August, and with vaccinations in sight (even if it still feels like a long way away) we’re making plans for our first in-person ritual sometime in Fall 2021 (knock on wood).

Since some OC members are coming from other parts of the world, it makes sense to make a week-long retreat of it: Witch Camp! The current plan is that they’ll all come to North Carolina, and we’ll start off with ritual right away (riding on that most magical of altered states: jetlag) and do ritual every night for a week. Outer Court Boot Camp! During the day, we’ll probably just mostly recover from the night before, hang out, and go sightseeing. I’m hoping they’ll have enough funds to travel a little longer through the Southeast/United States after Witch Camp concludes. North Carolina really is a wonderful state.

But I have a gnawing concern about Witch Camp, and I’ve spoken about this frankly with them.

Zoom rituals are especially taxing for me in part because I know the difference. I know just what an in-person ritual feels like, how you feel after, and I know just how wonderful it is. Zoom rituals actually work just fine – but they also take more spoons than they give back.

When the OC members have this same realization, it’s going to make going back to Zoom rituals incredibly hard. (This isn’t prognostication: it’s common sense.) After all, when the pandemic ends, this will still be an on-line Outer Court. The challenge I’ve put to them is to be honest with themselves, especially after Witch Camp. If the Zoom rituals are too much, and their circumstances have changed such that they can get to a physical coven nearby, wouldn’t it make sense to do that?

They hate it when I bring this up. And that makes me selfishly glad – it means the OC is working for them, that the egregore is getting really solid. But it would be irresponsible for me to not remind them – they can leave Hawkfire, yet still pursue the Craft. I’ll support them, either way.

Looking forward — but not too far forward

In my fantasy world, I someday initiate those who are ready and we have wonderful Witch Camps once a year, and forge this charming little magical community. But I need to be realistic. In another year or two, many of them will have moved, taken on new jobs, gotten pay raises, had new Gardnerian covens launch nearby. Odds are, they will be in a circumstance where they can Seek with an in-person coven. And they’d have my blessing (whatever my own, personal feelings).

I have to be careful not to make self-fulfilling prophecies, of course. But my goal as a Gardnerian High Priestess is not just to make more Gardnerians: it’s to cross paths with Seekers, and help them on their paths however I’m able.

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