Tales of a cat

10347718_736056113125649_1543153868636724075_nI had thought today I would be writing an elegy for a much loved cat. It is not quite as I had anticipated.

Mr Cat, also known sometimes as Mason Rumblepurr and a whole host of other titles, gave up on being a corporeal cat last week, having had several strokes. He was nearly 17 and had lived a good life. He came to me aged ten, from a happy home because his people were emigrating. He travelled with me, to cottage, narrowboat and finally this flat. He loved boat life, and was happiest there with the woodstove and an abundance of opportunities for sunbathing, and beating up dogs. He was a glorious and eccentric cat, partial to chilli, and with a veritable fetish for balls of wool. He was excellent company; a friendly chap who regularly won hearts.

And at this point, I was expecting to say how much we are going to miss him.

To miss something, you need to feel its absence. He was such a strong presence, and he remains that. What we have instead is the strange journey of coming to terms with a physical absence, along with a keen sense that we remain a family of four, one of whom is just a bit less tangible than previously.

I have no coherent stories about what happens when we die. I have a suspicion that it isn’t a single event, just as being born means very different things for different people. Perhaps death is as individual as life. I hope so.


Is modesty a virtue?

In many religions, modesty in dress and behaviour is considered to be a virtue. This is especially true in the sense of sexual modesty, and is often applied to both genders. Mainstream culture by contrast uses sex to sell just about everything, and favours presenting the body as object – especially the female body. Display is actively encouraged in both genders, but women are also routinely shamed for it. As Paganism tends to be a sex-positive religion, how do we begin to make sense of all this?

To be clear about my own biases, I tend to cover up. I feel more secure covered up and am averse to receiving attention that has any kind of sexual aspect to it from the vast majority of people. I cover up because I favour practical clothes and it suits me to avoid both cold and sunburn by this means. I feel less self conscious when my body is not on display. This has not always been true of me and there have been times in my life when I’ve felt free, willing and able to make my body more visually available. I am not offended by people choosing to cover up, and I am not offended by people choosing to dress provocatively.

Modesty works as a virtue when covering up enables you to hold your sexuality and your body in some very specific ways, and in so doing uphold a religious position. Where it doesn’t work is if it is forced. A person who is made to do something or who does it out of fear is not upholding a virtue. There is nothing particularly virtuous about my covering up – it is protective and about personal comfort. If I wanted to make a powerful dedication, it would probably be more appropriate to bare my breasts like a Minoan priestess – precisely because I would find that so unspeakably hard to do.

With all due reference to that iconic Minoan priestess issue, and to the images of bared breasts in Egyptian mythology, and all the bodily representations scattered through ancient Pagan cultures… there’s clearly every scope for Pagan virtue in the baring of the body. It is an honouring of nature to be unashamed of your naked self. It can be used in ritual for all kinds of reasons. But again, if we do that because we feel we ‘should’, under pressure from someone else, or otherwise under duress, it is no virtue at all. If we do it with no respect for our own bodies or anyone else’s there is no virtue.

Virtues are seldom fixed and definite things in Paganism, and there can be many ways of approaching any of them. Without knowing the reasons a person does something, it is very hard to judge if they are being virtuous, or acting for their own convenience, or are afraid. Judging each other tends to be a total waste of time and energy. Is there any virtue at all in doing what comes most naturally to us, or is that the most virtuous thing a Pagan can do?


Druidry and the day job

I’m not a full time Druid in the sense of it being a career for me, I’ve never sought to be and do not think I ever would be. For a start there is no need round here for me to do that. Nor am I a full time author – and again, never have been and never will be. Partly because it’s useful to have some steadier income streams that do not depend wholly on my creative skills. Partly because I get bored and seek challenges. I also tend to say yes when people need volunteers.

Earlier in the year I started talking about how I was struggling with my creative work – I’m still struggling, but seeking ways forwards. I was very surprised by just how many people assumed I must be trying to make a living full time as an author. Very few authors are actually full time, partly because there’s seldom that much money in it, and partly because of the need for something to write about. You have to live a bit, I’ve always thought, if you want a reservoir of raw material to draw on.

I’ve done a lot of voluntary work along the way – Druid Network, Pagan Federation, school PTAs, tree planting, running a folk club, moots and rituals. I spent a lot of years being an editor.  For the last year I’ve been a press officer for the Green Party, (part time). I’ve busked and gigged, I do a lot of stalls, talks, workshops… and of late I’ve taken on running several blogs for John Hunt Publishing – more an administrative role than a creative one, but I get to support excellent people in getting their work better known.

The Druidry does impact on the day jobs. It makes me reluctant to show up to anything that I consider unethical, or that isn’t worthwhile in some way. It inclines me to say yes to jobs that need doing even when there is no way anyone can pay me, or pay me what I’m worth. Charities and community groups can’t afford flashy marketing people. I prefer being self employed because I can fit that round being a parent and this is important to me. I did not have a child so that others could raise him. I’m not that invested in material things – again connected to the Druidry – so I don’t hanker after vast paychecks.

I find it curious that we so often tend to define ourselves and each other with one label – and that it is generally assumed that one label defines our working lives. ‘Author’ for so many people means ‘full time paid author’ with the only alternative being to have failed because you can’t get it to pay all the bills. We are also too quick to equate ‘unemployed’ with ‘not doing anything useful’ – failing to take into account the vast array of social and volunteering contributions made by people who are not working or money.

Many of us are more than one thing. It makes for a richer and more interesting life to be a number of things. At the moment I spend more time making rag rugs than I do books. That’s all about re-use, creativity and sustainable living, which is all about being a Druid, but not in the sense that anyone pays me for it. Of course if I was able to sell rugs for hundreds of pounds a throw, no doubt I would become a rag rugger who happened to be a Druid, in some people’s minds.

Who we are should not be defined purely by what someone else will pay us to do.


Funeral Urns

Here’s something a bit different for you: Funeral urns.

DSC_0303I met artist Varda Zisman through Stroud’s Death Cafe’s, and then during the Clocking Off Festival I became aware of her work around urns.

 

For those who have loved ones cremated, the keeping of ashes can be a tricky thing – what do you keep them in? I think these pieces are a perfect answer – something beautiful, personal, life affirming, something that can convey stories and feelings and hold the remains in a good sort of space.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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You can find out more about Varda’s work here www.vardazisman.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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All images in this blog post copyright Varda Zisman and re-used with her permission.


Contemplating my process

I’ve not had a good relationship with my fiction writing in the last year or so, if not longer, and figuring out what’s going wrong there is an ongoing issue. Writing fiction used to be my passion, one of the great loves of my life, so the loss of it is really hard. I’ve been finding it increasingly difficult to make stuff up. It’s a loss of self, as well as the creative impact. So, what went wrong?

I spent a lot of years trying to write commercially, and while this works for some people, it doesn’t work for me. The bottom line is that I have to write for love – love of the work, and also love of the people I am writing for. I’m not talking ‘love’ in an exaggeration of ‘rather like’ here – as it is too often used. I’m talking passionate, devoted, slightly deranged, obsessive, driven, overwhelmed and absolutely have to write in order not to be entirely drowned by that sort of love. It is not an easy thing for other people to deal with, which is probably why somewhere in my early twenties, I stopped trying to work this way and started trying to be all professional, grownup and sensible about the process. That’s not working, and I am increasingly clear that the only way forward for me involves a willingness to be utterly vulnerable.

I work best when I’ve got a very specific audience in mind. Ideally it needs to be more than one person and if I’m writing for a couple of people whose needs and tastes don’t neatly match, then that creates a really exciting kind of tension, out of which things happen. My other half is fantastically supportive, but there’s just the one of him, and things I write for him or because of him can be too immediate and intimate to want to share more widely. I need more people in the mix.

I need feedback. I’m a bit of an attention junky (not an uncommon trait in writers and performers). Having people who will interact with my work, talk to me, read it, tell me what works for them, and generally get active about being my audience makes a world of difference. The odds are that anyone undertaking to do this simply becomes one of the people I write for.

Muses. These are always actual, alive people who are present in my life. People who inspire me both creatively and emotionally. It has to be both, because when this works for me, the two things are largely interchangeable. Love is inspiration, and inspiration is love.  People who catch me that way are few and far between, especially in a sustained way. Odd flashes of inspiration are more normal than the sustained stuff, and what I need is the sustained.

In an ideal world, I’d be interacting with people who are willing and able to be all of those things to me. That’s a very big ask in terms of time and commitment. More realistically I can think about the people in my life I could be writing for, and give myself more opportunities to be in spaces with people who inspire me. Those are the bits of the underpinning process I have some control over.

The short of it is that I think to fix my relationship with my writing, what I’ve got to do is invest a lot more time and energy in my connections with people. I spent too long being a hermit, and this is the toll it has taken. I spent too long trying to be safe, inoffensive and palatable when what I should have been doing was looking more for the people who can say ‘yes’ to all of this.


Away with the Druids

I’m not really here. Posts this week were set up a while ago, in a fit of being organised. I am in a field in the Forest of Dean, doing Druid stuff, and next week will no doubt have a veritable ton of things to reflect upon and enough inspiration to keep me blogging for weeks.

In the meantime, here is a flier. It’s not a really real Druid camp flier, even if it is on the website, because in no sane reality would I be the headline at an event like this. It was very kindly made, I think because I’d said that one day, I hope to reach a point in my life and work where I’ve done enough to be worth someone putting on a flier. To be thought warmly of by a friend, and honoured in this way is no small thing, and it was a humbling sort of experience to see this.

In reality, I will be helping out with bits and pieces as needed and generally trying to make myself useful. Just once in a while though, it is nice to be able to pretend, and the fragile ego and hunger for recognition are just things that I have to learn to work with.


Desiring Dragons, author stories

It would be fair to say that this is all a bit complicated. I love Kevan Manwaring’s work – I discovered him about the time Windsmith came out, and have picked up his fiction and non-fiction titles ever since. His wide ranging writing, interest in folklore, mythology, storytelling and the eco-bardic vision he expresses are things that I have enthused about before.

The tragedy is that we just rub each other up the wrong way in person. Finding, after years of adoring his work, that we just tend to push each other’s buttons when in the same space, was tragic. These things happen, and sometimes the only choices are to compromise who you are, or step away. It’s not something I’ve talked about publically much.

Then the opportunity came along to review Kevan’s latest book – Desiring Dragons, for Pagan Dawn. I’ve also put some perspectives on the writing side on the JHP blog, but saved the more personal thoughts for here. I still love the writing, the passion and insight, the willingness to push the edges and resist the conforming pressures of the market. Desiring Dragons is a good book. I think it’s his strongest non-fiction to date. It’s not a ‘how to’ – but a reflection on what fantasy is and could be, an exploration of the writing process, and a lot of good sense and insight about the industry. There’s a lot of good stuff, and a lot about Tolkien, for those of you who get excited about that sort of thing!

It’ all too easy to read a person’s words and think we know them. It’s very easy as a writer to sound other than we are, or to have a writer identity that just plain isn’t how we come over in person. There need be no dubious intent to result in the written self being different from the actual self. Of the two of us, I’m probably the one with the more deliberately constructed author voice. Actually, author voices. It depends on what I’m writing.  In person, I can be awkward – especially if I’m not feeling too confident or my body is sore. My body language can be odd, and I’ve had more than one difficult conversation with people about how I handle physical contact. The writer self is not always the actual self. I don’t think I’m as evil in person as I am on the page, for a start.

Then there’s the issue of what we bring with us when we read someone else’s work. All the baggage and emotion, the expectation, and how we plug our own stories and beliefs into the gaps the author leaves. We can read each other, and construct each other like characters in a story, and sometimes that goes wrong. Many authors are not very glamorous in person – quiet introverts who don’t want to socialise with strangers. Kevan has a very strong story telling persona, but that’s not ‘the real him’ either. I suspect that some of us don’t have a single, coherent ‘real me’ anyway, and those of us who spend our working lives imagining and pretending to be other people can be especially tricksy, Many performers are not the same people offstage and I’ve heard the same said about some politicians when out of the public gaze.

How authentic is my writing voice as an expression of self? It might be more open and honest than what you get in person. The pace of writing and the ease of not having to see your eyes when I share can make it easier. I don’t really know how the writer self and the in person self compare. I suppose none of us ever do get to know how we seem to others, in our various hats, masks, identities and selves.

 


Beyond the fields we know

Most life happens at the edges, most growth is at the margins. They are often fertile places where the interplay between different environments creates maximum possibility. Something similar happens in the inner landscapes when we move to the edges.

There are three different things at work here, and they are all equally essential. The comfort zone, the unknown and the boundary. Having space – physical and psychological – where we feel safe and relaxed, is essential. I’ve tried doing this the other way, (not deliberately, it’s just what I got) and it turns life into a perpetual, exhausting battle ground. Without much of a comfort zone, there is no rest, nor peace, and if everything is allowed to become a bit other, a bit threatening and untrustworthy it’s a form of insanity as likely to paralyse a person as anything else. These are all things we learn how to construct, but might not notice ourselves making. The comfort zone, the otherness and the borders are largely of our own devising.

The author Lord Dunsany used the refrain ‘beyond the fields we know’ to allude to Faerie. I find it a very helpful thought form.  The fields we know are familiar, close to home, part of our landscape. Things can happen there that are interesting and engaging, but they fall within a predictable framework. Beyond the fields we know, all bets are off. Nothing can be relied on to function in the same way. For Dunsany, the border between the two is shifting and unpredictable as well, and that’s an important point. Where we feel familiar, and comfortable, where we feel uneasy and exposed can change and it’s not always obvious why. Our own borders and edges shift, sometimes they are easily crossed, sometimes painfully difficult.

As a walker, I have learned the enchantment of going beyond the fields we know. Even a short detour on an unfamiliar track brings a sense of magical potential. To see a familiar landmark from an unfamiliar angle is to see it anew. Going into the unknown, we can look back and get a whole other perspective on the things we thought we knew.

Going too far into the unknown, without maps or references, can result in an overwhelming, overload of experience that we can’t always make much sense of. Too much of the unfamiliar at once can be hard to take. At the point where we are lost, confused and exhausted, the adventure sours into something miserable. We have to cross back over into the place we understand. And here’s another lesson from Dunsany, because if you start out in Faerie, with that as your comfort zone, then the fields you know are other fields entirely, and Faerie becomes the safe space to retreat back to. It is not the landscape that is inherently strange or mundane, it is our experience that makes it so. In several Dunsany tales, otherworldly things return to their otherworldly places because this world is just too much for them. We who live here all the time do not notice the things that might make it wonderful to someone else.


Lessons from walking

One of the big issues around social interaction, for me, has always been how much compromise is required in order to fit. How much of me will it be necessary to hide? How much will I have to tolerate that I find difficult, uncomfortable, even painful? How much humiliation will I have to endure? How is the trade off going to work here and what’s the cost going to be, and can I sustain it?

As illustration, I love walking and there have along the way been opportunities to walk with various people. However, there are a few things that make me a less than perfect walker – poor depth perception and lack of physical confidence mean I struggle on rough terrain. Some days I am stiff and achy such that walking is hard work. Other people are a lot fitter than me. So in some situations, walking with people has required me to hide what I was struggling with, face terrain I found alarming, hold paces I found uncomfortable and endure being humiliated over anything I found difficult. Forever embarrassed, struggling to keep up and not even feeling it was ok to name the problem for fear of further ridicule, or outright rejection. If you won’t compromise to fit in, they might not take you with them.

Then there are the other walking experiences, with people who are happy to take things gently, and if I struggle, offer help. That’s a whole other world, and one I did not grasp even existed until these last few years. That it is possible to find people who like having me around such that some compromise can flow the other way, is a revelation. If I struggle, the pace can drop to help me manage. My shortcomings cease to be a source of embarrassment. Rather than feeling like a barely tolerated extra, I get to feel like part of the tribe.

From as far back as I can remember, my impression was that in all situations I would have to obfuscate my inadequacies and try very hard in order to fit. I would have to quietly accept whatever was asked of me, or done to me, while trying not to ask for anything or cause anyone else any discomfort whatsoever. I never had any sense that there was a place that belonged to me, just that with enough effort, it might be possible to be tolerated. It’s a belief that has coloured all of my relationships and left me vulnerable. With that belief set, it has been very easy to be at the mercy of people who were less than kind, while feeling grateful that they bothered with me at all.

There are plenty of people for whom I am not good enough. I get to hear about it, when I seem too… difficult. Inconvenient. Attention seeking drama queen, melodramatic, unreasonable, demanding… I’ve had plenty of that along the way. I’ve come to the simple conclusion that this is fine – other people are entitled to feel that way, and anyone who dislikes how I am is not obliged to interact with me. (I wonder what it says about the ones who dislike and yet want me to stay around?) I don’t need everyone to like me. So long as there are people to walk with who do not mind my downhill pace on uneven paths, I do not have to walk with people who find me too difficult.


Climate Change

The last two nights have brought two thunderstorms on an epic scale. Today the amount of water falling from the sky caused localised flooding. Some paths were impassable. Just a freak weather event. A one off. No big deal. Like all the other freak weather events this year. And last year. And the year before. I’m not taking detailed measurements, but in the last few years I’ve seen my coldest winter ever, several contenders for wettest winter ever, more frequent storms than ever, more high winds, and we’ve had some stinkingly hot days too.

Climate change seems bloody obvious to me. And yet there are people in positions of power who are adamant that this is just normal climate variation and we can all carry on as usual. Business as usual, to be precise, in which we should all carry on increasing the amount we consume so that profits can be made. Never mind that the planet cannot conceivably support our greed. Never mind the flooded path, or the lightning. Buy another thing and forget about all the rest of it.

Why aren’t we angry?

Why aren’t we worried enough about the future to be demanding radical change?

Why aren’t we conscious enough of what’s going on to be trying to make all the differences we can in our own lives? Yes, I know some people are, and that heroic efforts to protest and transition are under way, but for most people, business as usual seems to be where its at.

Why?

Do we imagine our voices wouldn’t count or that our actions don’t contribute? Do we imagine it doesn’t matter? Or are we in fact doing our damndest to avoid imagining anything in favour of that sinister ‘keep calm and carry on’ meme?

All it takes to change the world is everyone individually deciding to do things in a different way. It’s not difficult, really. If we all got up tomorrow and started doing our level best to live more sustainable lifestyles and help other people do the same… we’d have most of this licked by the end of the week and be well on the way to world peace, as well.

All the big issues are made out of small actions, tiny details, single people doing or not doing things, multiplied by millions and by billions. Individual people. So, regardless of whether anyone else is playing, undertake to change the world. Do it. Make a change. Speak up more. Be more sustainable. We have nothing to lose for trying, and everything to lose by not stepping up.


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