Being professional

What does being professional mean to you? There’s some obvious points around getting the job done well, to meet deadlines and budget, and mostly that’s not something I have any trouble with. I’ve spent more than a decade now writing to word count and deadline, finding words to promote other people’s work and generally making myself useful.

It’s the personal side of being professional that most often foxes me. Most of my adult life, I’ve worked independently. Often I have been part of teams, online and in the real world, but people-contact has tended to be by email, or in short bursts. I realise I’ve not had much exposure to workplace culture, and I don’t have much idea what normal people do when they’re at work. Except that friends with normal jobs seem to be on facebook all the time.

I find the ways in which we modify ourselves according to space are fascinating – perhaps more so because I tend to do it less than I think is normal. Who are we for our families, and is that the same as who we get to be at work, and is there another person who we let ourselves be when socialising, and does that change if we’re drunk? Is there another, secret person who lives inside our heads and is far better, cooler, more attractive and successful than all our other selves put together?

What further muddies the water for me, around how to act in a work context is that what I do is often meant to be emotive. There are songs and stories where really what I’m aiming for is to make people cry. I found with recent audio work that letting my voice crack like my heart was breaking, or letting notes of frantic insanity creep in, was wholly necessary. When I’m working with other people – be that political, to promote a book or get an event advertised, there tends to be a lot of emotional investment. If I’m reviewing a book, I’m dealing with something that represents the life and soul of the creator.

None of my assumptions about being calm, cool and collected actually work terribly well around a lot of the work I find myself doing. That in turn has me wondering about those spaces where you couldn’t care less about the company, the output, or anything except that they pay by the hour and it makes life possible. I have done a bit of that along the way. Sometimes it feels easier not to have to care too much about the people or the work around me, but after a while that starts to feel hollow and pointless.

Stood on the outside, the cool collected professionalism that seems to be what so many people are after, sometimes looks suspiciously like not giving a shit.


Religion is people

One of the things that occasionally drives me nuts with a small number of atheists, is this idea that religion is the root of all evil, and if we could only get rid of religion, the world would be a much better place. Anyone who has read Spirituality without Structure will know I’m no great fan of organised religion, for all the same reasons many atheists take issue. However, religions are not something that have a terrible influence on people. It is important to remember that religions *are* people – made by people, and run by people.

Take away religion and the world would not magically become a better place. All of the people currently using religion to justify prejudice and cruelty would not suddenly get over it and become lovely. They’d find other spaces supportive of their hatred. Race, culture, politics, countries, languages even…there are plenty of other things humans make that can easily be co-opted to the same effect.

It’s also worth noting that while religion can be a force for good in many lives, so too can culture, politics, patriotism and all the rest. Love for and devotion to anything can turn out to be a force for good.

It is one of the particularly bat-shit crazy things about people, that we invent stuff, and then convince ourselves that the stuff we invented now means we have to do something, or can’t do other things. Not because they are right or wrong. Not because they are helpful or cruel. Not because we want to do them, or loathe the idea, but because the book we wrote says so.

It’s not religion we need to get rid of, but the idea that having power over other people is a good thing. It’s not all belief that is the problem, but the more specific belief that in some circumstances, cruelty, violence, abuse and prejudice are perfectly acceptable. If we could shake off the idea that there can only be one truth and that making people believe yours is therefore acceptable, religion would be no problem at all.

People make religions. That gives us the possibility that we could do a much better job of it, and while we’re at it, a much better job of all the things we’ve been using religion to disguise.


Something cyclical, something ceramic

It’s an odd thought that this time a week ago, Andrew Wood was nothing more than a name on a rather unusual job-poster, and I knew nothing whatsoever about fine-art ceramics. Both have rather taken over my time and attention since then. I have a knack for finding opportunities to get entirely out of my depth in short time frames, so that in itself comes as no surprise at all. Looking back it occurs to me that most of the important things in my life have come about from sudden decisions to jump into things I was in no way equipped to deal with. Apparently I like the challenge of a steep learning curve, and opportunity to see the world from a new angle.

Andrew Wood is a Stroud-based ceramic artist with quite a history, which I am now in the business of becoming fluent in. I confess this blog is partly a warm up because later I will be writing press releases for his open studio event in May. I did not know, until after I’d landed myself this opportunity, that Andrew founded Prema arts centre, in Dursley. Prema is where I saw The Tempest, with a minimal cast and a lot of hat swapping. It’s where I studied Tai Chi for 2 terms – both significant events in my life. An arts centre in a village, Prema was a place of magical possibility and wonder in my childhood and I can’t begin to unpick all the threads of influence there. Grow up with an arts centre on your horizon and the world is a very different kind of place, and being a creative person seems like a much more viable option.

I’ve always loved clay work. I have something bordering on a fetish for hand-thrown pots (there was an awesome potter in my childhood as well) and nowhere to put them. I have a longstanding fascination with the fine end of art, although I’m fairly uneducated, but I like to look. I did once hold a ceramic ash-tray made by Picasso. What I’ve never encountered before is clay worked very much in 3d and yet presented on a wall almost like a flat piece of art. I’ve also never previously encountered anyone painting onto clay with oil paints. The art I’ve been looking at over the last week is like nothing I’ve seen before. I’ve dusted it, getting to know the colours, textures, shapes. I am reminded of the suggestion that writing about any other form of creative expression makes about as much sense as dancing about architecture.

You can see some images of Andrew’s work here – http://www.andrew-wood.com/the-shape-of-things-to-come but it really doesn’t do the experience justice. The photographs don’t capture the intensity of colour or the physical scale of the work – it’s big. The free-standing piece at the bottom is nearly as tall as me.

One of the things I’ve learned in the last few days, is that a process has been underway in the fine art world that seems entirely comparable to what has happened in publishing and music. A narrowing of possibility, a closing of doors, a caution and conservatism that limits scope for everyone involved at the creative end. Twenty, thirty years ago it was a lot more viable to make a living by making art – be that fine art, literature, theatre or music. It was also a good deal more feasible to make a living at the popular end as well. Something has gone awry there, and it is right across the creative industries. I had been nursing a hope that some other spaces might be different, but the recent crash-course and what I’ve been picking up about high brow literature and theatre indicates a depressing universality.

Perhaps it is in part because I grew up with an arts centre in my awareness that I am so convinced that collectively we need art, and we need it to be viable for creative people to make a living out of what they do. There’s a curious circularity to all of this.


Unfriending

Once upon a time if you fell out with someone, there was no simple mechanism for expressing this to your wider community. No symbolic divorcing was available, and either you avoided them in person, or you couldn’t and life went on. The word ‘unfriend’ did not exist, nor did the concept. I am fascinated by the way facebook has changed things for those of us who frequent it – and those other social media sites as well.

There have been seven people in my life who were known to me personally and whom it became, at various times over the last five years or so, necessary to unfriend. We’ll leave aside the spammers and the random internet connections that didn’t work because those would never have existed pre-internet anyway. Seven people I just didn’t want to interact with any more. There were reasons, some more serious than others, but it boils down to a quality of life thing and not wanting to be messed about or made needlessly miserable. In many ways the whys are irrelevant, and also too personal to share. The mechanics of it are the more interesting bit, along with the emotional impact.

Unfriending is in many ways a ritual and symbolic action of rejection. If we have friends in common and do not go so far as to block, there will remain a degree of mutual visibility. Even a blocked person in touch with mutual friends does not disappear entirely, sometimes. So the tools of the internet do not deliver total separation and freedom from the person who was driving you nuts, if they are part of your wider network.

Phrases like ‘you’re not my friend any more’ have echoes of the school playground to them. The youthful ease of acquiring and rejecting people perhaps has online parallels. Perhaps the ‘adult’ version is to be more tactful, less honest, more passive-aggressive in our dealings with people who are physically present but no longer liked or valued. Perhaps there was more honesty, integrity and utility in the childhood drawing of lines, the willingness to be affronted and the aptitude for walking away. Perhaps being socialised into tolerating what drives us mad, accepting what wounds us and putting up with those we find offensive is not as wise and mature as it’s presented.

I’ve tried it both ways, online and offline, and I am increasingly a fan of deliberate, considered unfriending where appropriate. The world is a big place and there are more people in the small town I inhabit than I could ever meaningfully interact with. Why not walk away when people do things I am really uncomfortable with, hurt by or unhappy about? We are not such a small tribe that we must of necessity work together.

The counter arguments are many. The challenge is supposedly good for me, they’re doing me a favour really. Well, I’ve come to the conclusion this is for me to decide and not for anyone else to tell me. I’ve run into the ‘this is a good person so you shouldn’t be hurt by what they do’ line a few times. That’s bullshit. If it’s necessary to defend someone as ‘a good person’ I think there’s very good odds they’re a lousy person who makes a lot of noise about how good they are. I get plenty of helpful, meaningful, growth-inducing challenges from people who do not make me miserable, so I’ll be sticking with those. I’m very suspicious now of anyone who thinks I’m so crap as to need taking apart and knocking down, but who still wants to be around me. That’s a combination I now run away from as soon as I spot it.

The other argument is that maybe these people need me in their tribe, to challenge and help them. I’ve had it suggested to me, and I’ve given it some thought. I just don’t have enough of a Jesus complex to hang around martyring myself for people who don’t seem to like me much, or value me, or have any actual use for me. There are plenty of other people, why expend all my energy on the high-maintenance few who don’t even like what I do? That’s just silly.

The ritual of unfriending has a lot of symbolic and magical power. It is a strong statement, not to be used lightly and better not deployed in haste or in anger. But sometimes, drawing a line and saying ‘enough, thank you,’ is a powerful and liberating thing to do. Now, onto the good things with the lovely people…


Druidry and destruction

One of nature’s lessons is that new life depends upon the collapse, death and decay of the old. Destruction and creation go hand in hand and are mutually dependent. Nothing grows forever unchecked – even the cancer will have to cease expanding when the host dies.

We tend to celebrate the growth and the up swings. Partly because they make us happy, but I suspect they also make us happy because they are socially reinforced. To be in a decay stage, falling apart, diminishing, withdrawing, and the such is associated with failure. Our stories link progress with growth, expansion, accumulation and increase. Therefore if we’re going the other way, there’s something wrong with us and we should hide it and feel shame.

I’ve spent my adult life with phases of burnout, meltdown and full-on collapse. I’ve spent a lot of time hiding them, and I’ve spent time dealing with how uncomfortable some people are if I even admit I have problems. Gods help you if you want to work with the falling away, because then you’re self indulgent, wallowing in it, feeling sorry for yourself. When did we mostly agree that being relentlessly cheerful and progress-orientated was the way to go and that anything else is suspect?

Breaking down is part of the process of being alive, and it is utterly necessary. You have to break open a seed before it can shoot. You have to break down the old leaves to make new soil. Changing our minds, feelings, world view is a big process and you can’t do that without dismantling the self. These are the autumn and winter parts of the soul’s cycle. Our Wheel of the Year stories do not tell us to howl, go mad and burn our house down. They tell us to rest, to be still and quiet through the gentle darkness, not screaming and rending.

There is a needful place for the tearing and yelling, for the breaking of things, of self and mind. Those lovely fluffy chicks of spring do not get to hatch unless they can savage the egg they are in. Consider what that might be like, when you’ve lived inside an egg your whole life and now you have to destroy the egg, or die.


Disillusioned with Druidry

I’m writing this one on request, not as a reflection of how I currently feel. I’ve been there, but in those bouts of feeling at odds with my path and community, I wouldn’t have talked about it. Some things are hard to work with when too raw and immediate, and feeling disconnected from your chosen path and/or the people who do it, is painful enough without exposing the sore bits and risking other people’s reactions. Currently I’m fine, so perhaps I can speak to this.

Some people are shitty. We get them in Druidry, too. The self-important, the dogmatic, the folk who think that knocking people down and picking holes is reliably useful. Sometimes challenge is good, sometimes a bit of tea and sympathy is better. There’s a lot of diversity in Druidry, and we can disagree, and if you get in a space where you make no sense to those around you, it can be alienating. Remembering there probably is a place you fit, and keeping looking for it, is most of the trick to getting through this. Not letting one or two negative voices crush you is easier said than done for some of us, but there will always be negative voices.

Then there are the people who, in the name of Druidry, or wearing their Druid hat do things that sicken and distress us. The ones who talk about honourable relationship while sharpening their knives for a good backstabbing. The ones whose claims and titles embarrass us, or whose version of past and present alike is so wonky as to be alarming. There aren’t many of them, but they make a lot of noise.

It is so important to know who and where your people are, and when you run into the sorts of Druidry that make you uncomfortable – for whatever reason – retreat is good. Go back to the safe spaces and reflect from there. We do not all have to like each other or agree. There is plenty of room for difference, and so long as no one is illegal or genuinely a risk to others, backing off and moving away is often a good response to the level of difficulty that can have us wondering if we really are Druids after all. All it means is we are not that sort of Druid, then, but some other sort.

Falling out of love with a spiritual practice can mean it wasn’t right for us, or we’ve moved past it. What makes sense when you’re first learning may not serve you a few years on. It is ok to do this, to change, to let go, to try something new. It is not a failure of you or the path to find that your life requires something a bit different now. If you are unhappy with what you’re doing, change. There are many different approaches out there, exploring more widely will be educational and no practice has to be forever.

Sometimes we can fall out of love with our gods, lose our sense of connection to spirits of place, to the ancestors, the awen, the land or the tribe. The first thing to look for is whether this indicates depression, exhaustion or other unwellness. Illness and burnout can draw all the colour and energy from our lives, taking all sense of the spiritual as well. It is a harsh loss in the midst of whatever else is going wrong. However, the cure is rest, gentle time, stress reduction. There are herbs, meds and experts who can help.

Disillusionment can be part of the natural cycle. It can be a dying of the old that allows us, after a time, to step forward into something new. Changing your understanding of the world can be a shocking process, and is always dramatic. Sometimes old ideas suffer prolonged deaths as we fight our way towards some new way of being, doing, thinking and feeling. Often this is only apparent after the event, and during the collapsing period, all you can see is the chaos. I’m going to explore this in more detail in the next few days.


The ethical marketing department

Larger businesses have marketing departments spending money on getting their products into your awareness. Not only do they sell you products, but they sell you ideas about lifestyles, identity and aspiration to make you want their stuff. We’re encouraged to be dissatisfied with what we have, so that we keep wanting new things. We’re taught that to be left behind, old fashioned, out of date, behind, is a dreadful, stigmatising failure. This all helps to keep us spending.

In some industries, the influence of marketing is truly pernicious. There’s big money in pharmaceuticals and precious little in preventative medicine. On the whole not getting sick in the first place is far better for you than having to mop up the symptoms after the event. Guess where the money gets spent.

If, as a species, we are to have a viable future, we need to consume less, and to do that, we need some kind of counter-narrative to the marketing stories in the mainstream. We need an ethical marketing department that champions sustainability, re-use, reducing consumption, making healthy choices. We need a marketing agency that gives the small producers the visibility they need so they aren’t drowned out by the incessant shouting of big brands. This marketing department needs to champion things that make life better at no cost. It needs to run advertising campaigns for compassion, honesty, friendship, going for a nice walk and the such.

No one is going to pay the ethical marketing company any real money. No one is going to have time to properly organise it or write plans for it. That’s ok, because we can do it anyway. Take a job with the ethical marketing company. No previous experience required. Start today. Take whatever opportunities you have to be the PR person for stuff you think matters. No one will pay you, but the hours are good and the job satisfaction considerable.

Let’s tell some new stories about what we’re worth and what we deserve, and who we are. Stories that are not centred around a brand and that aren’t designed to have us relentlessly consuming. Let’s challenge the story that any brand is ’exciting’ because most of what’s out there in the mainstream is obvious, tedious, monotonous beige cardboard wrapped in cheap plastic. Including far too much of what passes for entertainment. We need new stories all round.


Everyday Druidry

How might we make Druidry more of our daily lives? Do we need to insert more periods of meditation into the day? Does prayer need wrapping around the day’s activities, bringing sacredness to everything we do? Should we be looking for the service in all things? The opportunities to be more innately useful to our land, tribe and gods? How about bringing more beauty into the world by approaching every mundane daily task with grace, style, inspiration and a sense of wonder about the sheer amazingness of being alive and being able to launder the wondrous ancestral creation that is underwear…

Every word we say can be a prayer, an expression of our bardic creativity, a manifestation of integrity. That’s a hard thing to pull off, especially when you’re ill, struggling, tired, stressed, surrounded by idiots and otherwise not feeling much love and awen. There’s nothing like suspecting you ought to be feeling more love and awen to quietly build a sense of frustration and resentment. Other Druids are no doubt doing their dusting from a place of insightful enlightenment, and pick up what few groceries they do not grow themselves in a state of mindful calm that is at peace with other people’s screaming children and untroubled by long queues and the BO of strangers. You know who I mean, the *other* druids who have it all figured out. The ones we haven’t met.

It took me some hours of wakefulness to get this blog post started. Today I am tired. I don’t feel like being inspired or making beauty. My body is sore. It may be sunny but communing with nature takes effort, and I am woefully short of energy. Service – well, I’m writing stuff for people, I’ll try to be useful, but I feel a strong desire to be bloody selfish and lazy today. I’d like to sit somewhere warm and do very little. There are, if I am honest, more days when I feel like this than when I feel like gracefully dancing with the awen through everything I do. There are more days of wanting to be a grumpy hermit than there are times of wanting to get out there and experience the different songs of life, harmonising in all their… that stuff… you know… enthusiastic, poetic things animists say.

If I’m honouring nature, then I also need to honour that as it manifests in me. Today, my animal body is tired and sore. Doing anything is an effort. My concentration is shot, finding words for stuff is like… umm… trudging. Through something that does not lend itself to being trudged through. While carrying a heavy thing and wearing stupid shoes. This is not a day for grace and beauty, or for singing the songs of my ancestors and embodying the animist poetry of existence.

This is what I’ve got. I’ll push to do whatever must be done, and to assuage my tendency to feel guilty on the not productive days. Because I’m not made of clever, I have no idea what the answer is to how we do our Druidry on the days of feeling like a pile of poo. If you have insights and are moved to share, do pile in to the comments section.


Eating seasonal

There are a lot of advantages to eating seasonally. Often it’s cheaper, it’s definitely greener and it gives you a stronger connection with the seasons. Finding out what grows seasonally where you are, and what comes in seasonally from further afield is an education in itself.

One of the big seasonal issues for me is whether or not I cook. During the winter months, hot food is very much needed – we walk for transport, are out a lot and hot food makes a lot of difference to comfort and viability. I can’t claim that I love cooking. I do it from scratch most days, and there are days when that’s a bit of a grind if there are a lot of other things that need doing. What’s been a real sanity saver this winter, has been the slow cooker. A few minutes of throwing in whatever’s to hand, a few hours of it chuffing along, and some kind of veg heavy delight emerges.

Now we’re moving into salad season. When it’s warm, there’s something delightful about eating raw; there’s a freshness and immediacy to it. Better still if the food has come out of local soil, but not having a garden, that’s slightly trickier to do. There is a local food hub here, and I’m exploring windowsill growing –I have a few herbs on the go, and may try a few salad leaves. We’re a good area for foraging because not only is there a lot in the hedgerows (I know where my sloes are for next autumn) but also community orchards. The idea of making food plants accessible has some currency round here.

I’m eyeing up places where gorilla food planting might be an option. It’s something I’d like to explore if I can figure out how to do it – using sites that were part of the railway line, so aren’t any kind of pristine natural space, and are publically accessible. I don’t know whether edible plants put out would be respected or not – the only way to find out is by doing – but the apple trees that have been planted have all been treated kindly, so I’m hopeful.

I look around at the open spaces, the vast swathes of useless grass where very little lives, and I wonder why we devote so much space to rather sterile ornamentation, rather than letting habitats establish, or using spaces to grow food. Edible plants are not ugly, although I prefer not to have them in rows. Why have we settled on an aesthetic where only that which has little or no practical use to us or other native inhabitants, is deemed attractive? Wouldn’t it be better if we replaced lawns with gardens and had freely available seasonal food?


Inspiration for a Greener World

On Friday night I went to the book launch for Storytelling for a Greener World. Having loved the book, it was fascinating to get to see and hear some of the people who contributed to it. Having had some encounters with Forest Schools via the boy, I was really excited to get to meet Jon Cree, one of its founders. I’d not heard Anthony Nanson storytelling before, so that was lovely, and Jonathan Porritt, with his imagined future historian, talking about how we saved the world, was really inspiring. There were many other participants and great moments, but name checking everyone and talking about everything I liked would take up a whole blog.

What touched me most over the evening came from Alida Gersie. Alida was an editor for and significant contributor to the book, and I had not heard her speak before. She talked about her work with terminally ill children, and the importance of thinking about what we do now. Thinking too much about the future, doesn’t work, she pointed out.

Lights came on in my head. I’ve taken a few days to really sit with this and think about it. I spend a lot of my time on how we get there. Politically, especially, but also practically, there seems to be an alarming amount that needs to happen to get us from this mess of greed and climate change, to a compassionate and sustainable future. The right wing around the world seems to be getting ever more crazy and psychotic in its pronouncements and activities. This scares me.

I could spend every waking hour of my whole life doing everything I can think of to make a greener world, and still not make enough difference. This haunts me. It gnaws at my guts in the early morning. It eats into my hope, and undermines my faith in my own work. Got to try harder, got to do more, got to make changes, got to push towards getting there… what happens? I get ill, exhausted, demoralised, as do a lot of other activists.

I wish I could quote Alida word for word, but I was so busy being struck by what she said that I did not manage to commit it to memory. There is no point focusing on the future. What we have to do is focus on now. What can we do today? What can we do in the next ten minutes? How can we change the small, day to day things for the better?

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking over the last few days, much of it yesterday afternoon on a hilltop in the quiet company of other Druids. How would I be living if we were there already? If the political and social changes had been made, to change our collective direction. If we had already transitioned to a more viable, sustainable, compassionate way of life, what would I be doing with my time? Not working and worrying myself sick, for a start.

I made a decision. I do not know how it’s going to work in practice because figuring this out is going to be a day to day sort of process. As I find out more about how it works, I’ll come back and talk about it. What I’ve decided is to live like we’re already there. To imagine the life I would have in a post-transition, rational, politically sane, carbon neutral bio-regional economy of the necessary future, and then to live that as best I am able. One thing I am certain about is that it involves days off and changing my relationship with money. The rest, is going to be an adventure.


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