The Author's Corner
River and Joyce Higginbotham
Paganism: An Introduction to Earth-Centered Religions
TWPT: Spirituality is such an individual thing that no matter how many times I ask about someone's beginning on a particular path I get a different answer. Tell me about what it was that attracted you to Paganism and when it became apparent that this was "the" spiritual path that you had been searching for?
RH: In my late 20's I reached a point where I really did not know what to think about religion or God. I had grown up as a Presbyterian. I had been active in church through high school and college but after that my interest waned and I began to question the teachings and dogma. While in college I attended a class at church on comparative religions which I found extremely interesting, and ironically, made me feel less connected to what I had been taught as a Christian. The spiritual meaning behind Christian teachings and beliefs seemed hollow and no longer spoke to me. I drifted into deep personal doubt.
As my discomfort grew I began to search for something more meaningful.
I encountered the book "Drawing Down the Moon" by Margot Adler and was fascinated to learn of the neo-Pagan movement and its interest in the revival of the Craft. It was here that I read the Wiccan Rede for the first time, an ethical standard I could agree with. I was excited to think that some people lived by this simple rule but I had no idea how to find them.
As it turns out Pagans found me! I met people who introduced me to New Age and Pagan ideas and practices, including psychic phenomena. It was in a class on psychic development that I met Joyce and also my most influential teacher, Charlene. In addition to psychic development, Char taught how to find our own spiritual path and meaning. This was my first real step toward becoming Pagan.
JH: I was raised in a sect of Mormonism, in a family that was very devout and active in the church. In general, I enjoyed church and the people there, but by late childhood I began to feel that I didn't belong.
All the other kids seemed to like Bible stories and church services, but it was pretty dry to me. The older I got, the stronger this feeling became.
Between age 12 and 17 I had a series of experiences I would now call "peak experiences" that challenged my assumptions about things, and directly contradicted what I had been taught in church. I began to develop a taste for silence and nature mysticism.
One side of my family, the side I call my "relatives from Planet X", were not Mormons and were very open-minded. When I visited this part of the family, I could talk about anything--auras, UFO's, psychic abilities. On occasion we even played with a Ouija board! As I began to be uncomfortable with the Mormon view of things, I greatly appreciated and valued these moments of freedom and exploration with my Planet X relatives. The curiosity they encouraged in me helped me to continue my searching as a teen. I was interested in everything.
Eventually, my taste for silence took me toward Catholicism and the religious life, and I lived in a convent for a year in my early twenties.
However, I decided that convent life wasn't for me; and I also wanted a spirituality that was all-embracing--of the body as well as the mind, of all experiences of the Divine not just those of one faith. So I kept looking.
I did not discover Paganism until 1988, when I was 27 years old. A friend took me to a metaphysical bookstore at about the same time the matriarch of the Planet X side died and left me feeling spiritually alone.
I tried to fill that void by taking classes--in psychic development, Native American spirituality, crystals, energy work, and Wicca. I realized that Pagan values matched my own, mirroring those things I had intuitively held to be right and true throughout my life. I didn't have to change or adopt any belief in order to be a Pagan; it was a natural fit. In addition, my interests have always been very eclectic, and Paganism is one of the few spiritualities where I can be who I am freely.
TWPT: What kinds of books and reference materials did you have to choose from when you first set foot on this path? Looking back were there any particular books that made an impression on you that persists to this day?
RH: I mentioned Drawing Down the Moon earlier, the first Pagan book I encountered and which had a big effect on me. Besides it, Jane Robert's Seth books have been very thought-provoking for both Joyce and I. Circle Network News was very helpful for keeping us in touch with the community in the early years especially. Shakti Gawain's book Creative Visualization was also very influential for me. My experiences at festivals, such as drumming and dancing, were also among the most memorable and influential for me.
JH: I had not read any books on Paganism when I first went to the metaphysical bookstore in 1988. Nor did I buy any immediately. I was like a sponge with my teachers, absorbing everything they could give me, but I wanted to get it firsthand. One of the first books I read, at the urging of a teacher, was Jane Robert's The Nature of Personal Reality, which had a profound impact on me. The second book I bought was Starhawk's Spiral Dance, which I found interesting, but oddly, it did not move me spiritually.
I also recall buying books on crystals and energy healing, and later, became very interested in books on scientific issues as they relate to spirituality, such as The Holographic Universe by Talbot, Bridging Science and Spirit and The Hidden Domain by Friedman.
TWPT: Was community something that you sought out right away or did you learn the ropes before making contact with others who followed a similar path?
RH: My Pagan journey has almost always included other people. The first psychic development class I took, and the study group that followed it for several years, and as well festivals, surrounded me with other seekers.
When Joyce and I began to teach, it was also motivated by a desire to form a community of like-minded seekers. The desire to be part of a community has been a major motivating factor in our local and regional community building efforts.
JH: Outside of meeting people taking classes me with in the early years, I did not encounter a formal pagan "community". All the local covens were fairly small, fragmented, engaged in witch wars, and paranoid. There were no public rituals, Pagan Picnics or Pride Days, and I didn't even learn there were festivals until 1993.
There was a Pagan convention in town called Magickal Weekend that pulled about 75 people and was practically invitation-only. I attended Magickal Weekend as soon as I learned of it, but overall, the paranoid, insular mindset of local wiccans was discouraging. My community for many years, then, were those I met through classes, both those I took and those River and I would teach. Strangely enough, later on River and I would find ourselves in charge of Magickal Weekend, and would grow it to an event numbering about 210 people before we handed it on to others; and we pushed for the creation of a city-wide pagan planning council known as The Council for Alternative Spiritual Traditions (CAST), the creation of monthly public rituals, and the Pagan Picnic, which last year drew 2800 people to a public park in downtown St. Louis. The sense of pagan community today is far different than it was when I arrived in 1988.
TWPT: How was it that the two of you got together and how does a couple go about defining some sort of joint spiritual path from two individual paths?
RH: Charlene, the teacher of the psychic development class, was a bit of a matchmaker. As I was taking her class she invited Joyce to attend in order to meet me, though I had no idea this was happening or that they were plotting romance. Well, I took the bait and Joyce and I began dating almost immediately. We were married just seven months later. As we both were also in Char's study group, we have from the beginning found spiritual seeking to be a common interest and cooperative adventure. Our writing has grown from this continued cooperation, and our spiritual paths have grown in tandem--not identically--but more or less in harmony.
JH: River and I met through the teacher of the psychic development class at the bookstore. I had known her for awhile when River signed up for a class with her in Feb. of 1990. The teacher called me and said I must come meet this man! So I came to the next class posing as her "assistant", which I wasn't. Poor River was set up, but we really did hit it off naturally. By Sept. of that same year we were married, seven months after we met. We've now been married for thirteen years and enjoy each other tremendously. We make a great team in our community building efforts, the teaching we went on to offer, and in book writing.
Our spiritualities have unfolded as we've gone along. We talk about our thoughts and ideas all the time but have never attempted to influence each other's spiritual development or belief systems, overtly anyway. We've been fortunate that we were harmonious in that respect as in others, and our spiritual beliefs have developed together but not by design. We don't agree on every point, our perspectives are unique, but they are complementary.
TWPT: Tell me about some of your initial forays out into the Pagan community. Was it what you expected or were there some surprises awaiting you out there?
RH: The early festivals we attended were facilitated by several young women who were really skilled at creating effective ritual. Ritual that was moving, engaging, interactive and very stimulating. The work of these women, two of them in particular who remain good friends today, greatly influenced my growth in Paganism.
JH: The classes I took in the late 80's were my first experiences in the community and I greatly enjoyed them. Then I attended Magickal Weekend, as I said, and later large festivals. My first few festivals frankly blew me away--the energy, drumming, ritual, workshops, and the sex-affirming and nature-affirming attitude that was so different from my Christian upbringing.
Pagans surprised me by their diversity, range of education, talents, beliefs, and values. I wasn't quite sure how to take all that diversity at first, coming from a faith where everyone was pretty much the same. I was also surprised by the degree of tolerance and acceptance shown by Pagans in general, and the extent to which they are committed to spiritual growth.
TWPT: What is it that motivates an author to put their ideas down on paper or on their hard drives and subsequently seek out a publisher to put them into print? What is it that authors in general want to accomplish with their books?
RH: We wanted to share some of our experience and record it for ourselves and others. We also saw a need in the greater pagan community for the kind of book we had in mind. We thought teaching along the lines of our own development might help others as well as create a great learning opportunity for us.
JH: River and I taught beginning paganism classes for ten years and decided to put the essentials of that class into book form. Our motivation was to make the material available generally, and if it could help someone else on their spiritual path, then our efforts were worthwhile.
TWPT: Specifically, your book Paganism: An Introduction to Earth Centered Religions focuses on some very basic concepts within the movement. Who is a book like this aimed at and who will benefit from reading it?
RH: Our book is aimed at several audiences. The first is people who are relatively new to Paganism who may benefit from basic information, and who we hope will be helped along their path by the "permission" we give them to explore and develop their beliefs. Our book is also well suited to seekers who have not yet decided they are Pagans and want to explore whether or not they are. The book is also designed to help non-Pagans understand the basics of the Pagan movement. It is especially helpful for new Pagans who need a way to explain their beliefs to family and friends unfamiliar with Paganism. Finally, our book offers more experienced Pagans with a logical and philosophical way to tie the various Pagan paths together, and come to a deeper understanding of their own choices in belief.
JH: Our book begins by presenting an overview of the Pagan movement, covering such things as the Wheel of the Year, demographics, elements of ritual, and the Principles of Paganism as we see them. But by the second chapter we move on to what I consider the meat of spiritual questing. This involves issues such as why you believe what you believe, and how your beliefs shape your experience of the world and of the divine. What has ultimate meaning to you? What is the divine to you? What relationship do you have with the universe and what do you think the nature of the universe is? What are your values, and by what ethical guidelines do you make choices?
These are basic questions, yes, because they are so fundamental. How can we create a thoughtful spirituality for ourselves without addressing them? If we cannot stand back and view ourselves, our beliefs, and even our culture objectively, then we are caught in the stories others tell us and that we tell ourselves about who we are and the way things are. When we fully integrate where we are, we can also see the limits of where we are, and can begin to give ourselves permission to expand. This expansion of capacities is what development is about, in our opinion. So while this introductory book lays out some general concepts, its real purpose is to jog readers into a state of self-awareness that can help them see where they are now, and if they wish, prepare to leave where they are now for where they will be next.
By the way, spiritual development within Paganism is the subject of our next book due for publication in 2005.
TWPT: From first draft to final product how thick skinned does an author have to be to be able to whittle the original manuscript down into a ready for the printers book?
RH: The book as published is about 90% the same as our first draft.
We edited the first draft fairly extensively ourselves before we sent it to Llewellyn. Most of the editing that happened later was minor. We did have several friends read early drafts, and their input was quite helpful. So in our case we didn't need much of a thick skin, fortunately. One reason this was true for us, I think, is that we worked with this material repeatedly over the ten years we taught it in our classes. We knew what we wanted to cover in the book and how we wanted to say it.
JH: Because we had taught the matieral presented in the book for a number of years, it pretty much wrote itself. Very little editing was required, and we found working with Llewellyn to be a delight. Personally, I try to stay focused on saying what I feel needs to be said, and not to worry about the end product--how it will be received, what will happen to it, whether anyone will like it, whether we'll make money. I feel that as a writer my obligation is to stay centered in the message and let go of the rest. I think River would agree with me on this, and overall we've had a very positive experience in the writing and production of this book.
TWPT: Was writing something that the both of you always had in mind and if not when was it that you decided that it would be beneficial to communicate your ideas to a larger audience?
JH: I've always wanted to be a writer starting from the third grade, when I wrote my first story and convinced the teacher to put it on as a class play. As a teenager I got a few small things published, and later, wrote for professional journals and reference books. But River and I did not initially set out to write any books, about Paganism or otherwise. The idea slowly came to us after we had been teaching introductory paganism classes for eight years or so and decided the material might be interesting to a wider audience.
RH: We only began to consider writing our ideas down into a book after we had been teaching for awhile. We kept refining our topics, and learning from our students, to the point that we began to grasp that we had a message we could write down. Since our students enjoyed the material, we decided we could share it with others. I did not expect to learn so much from the process of writing; it has been fascinating.
TWPT: It seems like many authors move on to begin teaching at festivals and conferences after they have published a book, do both of you feel that the skills needed to author a book are comparable to what makes a good teacher or speaker?
JH: I think that the skills needed to be a good speaker/teacher are different from those needed to be a good writer. In my experience good teaching requires a grasp of group dynamics and energy flow, specific pacing of lecture, discussion and activities, and an ability to find ways to communicate in a variety of modes--that is, knowing how to connect with those who learn kinesthetically, or visually, or otherwise. Whether one is a successful speaker often depends on body carriage and language, eye contact, and personal charisma. Some of these skills carry over to the written word, but not all of them.
RH: It may be that some authors are indeed good speakers and good teachers, but the ability to research and write coherently does not necessarily mean one has the gift to teach. Many excellent teachers are not particularly good writers, but are great at what they do. I expect that Joyce and I will continue to teach and speak at festivals, as we did even before our writing projects began.
TWPT: There have been many authors who have risen to prominence since books on Witchcraft and Paganism became more of a common occurrence in our society, is there a danger of letting individual voices carry too much weight as they speak for the entire community?
JH: Who is it that would be "letting" individual voices carry too much weight? Is there some body or group making this decision, and if so, why do they have the authority to do it, or think that they do? If an individual chooses to give a lot of weight to this or that resource, then that's their choice, and pretty natural I would think. At different times in our lives, different things speak strongly to us. The only problem with that is if one person or group's preference is imposed on others or turned into a sort of dogma. Most authors we have met are very careful not to speak for the entire community and usually state that their views are their own.
RH: The nature of the current Pagan community is such that no one is in a position to speak for it as a whole. There may be popular voices who are also authors, but I see no danger in that. In Paganism it is up to the individual to discern their own truth and path, and decide whose voices they choose to listen to, or not.
JH: Use your common sense, exercise your muscles of good judgment and discernment. Don't let a book do your thinking for you, especially one on Paganism, or you have missed the whole point.
RH: I urge readers to think for themselves and to employ their discernment when considering any particular book. They would be well advised to remember that each book is largely the author's opinion, based on their life experience and research. While what they say may be true enough for them, it may not necessarily be true for you.
TWPT: Boudica and I had some interesting discussions with you about community while we were able to visit with the both of you at the Greening in Ohio last year. The president has to give state of the union addresses to let the country know how it has fared during the previous year so if I were to ask you the present state of the Pagan community how would you address that question?
JH: I came into paganism in 1988. Since then the community has grown exponentially and more people are comfortable being openly Pagan. Our city hosts a number of public Pagan events each year, the largest being the Pagan Picnic in June, held in a public park, to which 2800 people came last year.
This would have been unheard of even ten years ago. I think this is an enormously exciting time to be a Pagan. Some may think the risks are great, but so are the opportunities. It's also an important time to be a Pagan, as what pagans say and do now lays the foundation for where the movement will go in the next hundred years. The present state of the community is certainly not perfect, but then it's never going to be. That's the nature of things and that's okay. I see things only getting better and brighter for Paganism in the near future.
RH: Paganism continues to grow rapidly. There are many small groups popping up in communities more so than I've ever seen in my experience.
Most of these groups seem to be interested in being more open about their Pagan beliefs, which is a strong contrast to the relatively closed groups of a decade or so ago. I see many individuals reaching for deeper spiritual meaning within the context of Paganism. I see many taking their principles and living them in their lifestyles, such as in ecological activism and choices in livelihood, to name two. I see many young and bright people who are enthusiastic, and others who are struggling in efforts to get along and work well together. It's hard to know where it will all end, but it is an exciting time to be a part of this dynamic process. I think the future is bright for Paganism.
TWPT: Tell me a little bit about what you think lies ahead for the Pagan community and on the other side of that coin what do you see as some of the major challenges facing the Pagan community in order to move ahead?
JH-RH: In the immediate future paganism must find a way to survive for the next generation or two. Paganism is still in its first generation, if you mark its rise in the U.S. from the 50's or 60's. So far Pagans have only planned for themselves, but now realize they must plan for their kids and grandkids. This suddenly means child-friendly rituals and festivals, activities and classes, and maybe someday things like Pagan schools. If Paganism can survive with any numbers through our children's lives and on into their children's lives, then we think it will stick in American culture. Paganism has a distinct advantage culturally, since its values reflect the next turn on the Spiral of development, and in our opinion people are naturally drawn to what lies a turn or half a turn ahead in their development. Barring a major catastrophe for the human race, we think Paganism will remain a half turn or more ahead of the culture for several hundred years, for reasons that are too involved to go into here. (See our next book, out in 2005 which is devoted to this subject). The major challenge as we see it, will be to stay in that next turning and not slide back into earlier developmental spaces that emphasize outer- rather than inner-directed authority, and dogmatism.
TWPT: It's a question that gets asked quite often as the internet grows and attracts folks from all over the world but what effect has the web had on the growth of Paganism and the dissemination of information and what dangers are there to those who take this information at face value?
JH: The effect of the internet is incalculable, and probably has far more impact than all Pagan books ever written put together. If anyone is tempted to swallow whole whatever they find on the internet, however, refer to question 4 above.
RH: The internet has dramatically accelerated the sharing of information.
This makes communities grow more quickly, but adds a degree of volatility and impersonality. Humanity has never had this tool available to it before.
The fact that millions of people can access Pagan ideas nearly instantaneously cannot help but impact the growth of Paganism. No matter what we predict now, I think that in fifty years we will be very surprised by the effects of the internet on Paganism.
TWPT: Do you feel that being published authors has afforded you more opportunities to work with and influence the Pagan community as it moves toward the future?
JH: It can provide more opportunities, but only if we pursue and then follow up on them. The responsibility for this rests entirely on us, and how much time and energy we choose to invest in community work. But I suppose that's true for everyone, whether they have written a book or not.
It's amazing how much impact one person can have who chooses to work hard and make a difference. We are all so much more powerful than we tend to believe.
RH: I believe it does afford us more opportunities. Our concepts have the chance to impact more people than if we hadn't chosen to write. If what we have to say helps people grow personally and spiritually, we will have achieved something worthwhile.
TWPT: Many questions center on how the author impacts the community with their writings but few look at the impact that the community has had on the authors. How would you say that you have changed or grown since taking an active role in the community and having your first book published?
JH-RH: We began taking an active role in the community around 1993, when we inherited the leadership role in a local Pagan convention called Magickal Weekend. We also helped create a regional planning council called CAST--the Council for Alternative Spiritual Traditions--which at its peak sponsored 28 public Pagan events a year with attendance ranging from 40 to 2800 people.
We became so involved in community endeavors that for several years they absorbed all our free time. The book came along only recently, and has changed our perspective on the Pagan community by broadening it from the purely local to the national level.
TWPT: Do you feel that things that you learn on your forays into the community via conferences and festivals will in some manner influence future writings that you decide to publish?
JH-RH: Yes, especially as one of our future books is focused on community building efforts. We are interested in the forms communities take, their growth patterns, and the vision that inspires leadership. We also get a lot of input from the community on the content of our book and other topics that are of interest to them. We take all of this input into consideration for future writing projects.
TWPT: What kinds of reactions and feedback have you received in regards to Paganism: An Introduction to Earth-Centered Religions from your readers since its publication?
JH-RH: Generally very positive and constructive. Many Pagans are using our book as a teaching resource or required reading for their students, so we get a number of comments related to how the book works as a teaching tool. Since we taught the same material ourselves for nearly ten years, the feedback has been very helpful. It's been quite an honor to have our book adopted as the official text by the Univ. of South Florida/Tampa in their undergraduate course on witchcraft and Paganism, and adopted as an adult religious education program by CUUPs (the Covenant of Unitarian-Universalist Pagans) for use by members of the Unitarian church.
TWPT: Do the two of you have any other books cooking on the back burner for a future release?
JH-RH: Yes, the next book, which is due out in 2005, looks at sequences of personal and spiritual development as identified by psychologists and sociologists, and applies them to Paganism in general and magick in particular. Other ideas include books on community building and cooperative magick.
TWPT: Having one book under your belts, will the next book be any easier to write or is each book a labor of love from conception to publication?
JH-RH: The next book has been very challenging to write, as it required us to become familiar with a variety of psychological and sociological theories relating to human development, and then apply them to Paganism and magick.
It's been somewhat easier in the sense that we had an established style and voice from the first book, but the content has been quite a challenge.
TWPT: Tell me about how you participate in your local Pagan community in and around Missouri.
JH-RH: As mentioned earlier, since 1993 we have been extremely active in creating or helping to create many of the public Pagan events held in this region.
In addition to helping to create CAST, we also brought the concept of Open Full Moons from Denver (where we learned of them) to our area, and ran them successfully for five years. OFMs are monthly rituals open to the public that feature a different Pagan group each month, who demonstrate a ritual typical to their tradition. We headed up Magickal Weekend for several years and River did the same for Pagan Picnic through last year, when attendance reached 2800. Picnic is a two-day Pagan event which is free, open to the public, and takes place in a large municipal park. We also helped run a small outdoor festival for three years, called Wildhaven, and have served on many committees and attended innumerable meetings. It became difficult to keep up this pace while writing the book, a difficulty which has grown since its publication as we've begun to travel nationally to make appearances.
Because of this we've had to reduce the amount of time we can give to local events. Fortunately, the active and growing Pagan community here has expanded such that there are many others willing and available to step in and help.
TWPT: I know the two of you are always on the go, if folks would like to catch up with you in the next few months or during the summer season where will you be appearing over the next 6 months or so?
March 19-21 CUUPs Convo North Carolina
June 5 & 6 Pagan Picnic, St. Louis, Missouri
June 20-27 Pagan Spirit Gathering (PSG), Ohio
September 25 Pagan Pride Day, St. Louis
October 14-17 Festival of Souls, Tennessee
TWPT: Thanks to the both of you for taking the time out of your very busy appearance schedule to talk to The Wiccan/Pagan Times. We wish you the best of success during the busy summer season and safe trips on all your journeys.