Author Archives: Nimue Brown

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings.

Objects, experiences and cultures

We have a society intent on replacing experiences with objects. We are under constant pressure to buy more stuff, to sit in ever bigger houses on ever bigger piles of things we mostly do not use. The average car is used for about thirty minutes a day, I gather, but we should all aspire to own one so that for the other 23 hours and thirty minutes it can sit there, taking up space and expressing our identity. Adverts tell us that objects are shortcuts to the things we want – the right object brings friendship, respect, love, sex, a happy home and a well behaved family. With the right object, we can do anything. Have you bought in to that?

So we cut back on experiences. We don’t go out as much. We rely on computers for both entertainment and social contact. Sedentary lifestyles make us bodily ill, but that’s ok because we can buy things to help us with that. Slimming products. Flattering clothes. A bigger sofa.  I take online surveys, and I notice that I am frequently asked which products I’ve been discussing with friends and family in recent days. This is also an aspect of objects replacing experiences. We are now expected to talk about brands, because what else is there in your life?

When a society is experiential, you can have a rich culture that reflects on those experiences. A culture coming from experience helps us make sense of our experiences, gives them context, and offers us ways of sharing them. Experience is richer for being explored culturally. Books, music, art, film, dance, even television reflecting on life lived and the possibilities surrounding us, helps us get more out of life and is a source of experience in its own right.

What happens when you have a society that is all about objects, not experiences? How do you make culture out of a discussion around the latest app, the make of your car, the exact shape of your mobile phone contract? You can’t make anything rich and rewarding out of such thin and empty material. Culture based on a life of objects is going to be no culture at all. Plot free movies full of CGI effects, explosions, pathetic dialogue and 2d characters. Endless ‘reality’ TV shows full of freak show takes on life because so many people don’t have much of a real life anymore and thus find this interesting. Endless talent shows that give you the illusion of being important by letting you vote for the winner. News outlets that feel no obligation to report truthfully, and ignore half of what’s going on. Books commissioned by the marketing department.

Look around.

This is what we get when objects replace experience.

It is absolutely essential that we stop being this ever-hungry, always consuming zombie apocalypse, and start living our own lives again.


Reviewing as an art form

I would be the first person to point out that, as a reviewer I am most ordinary. I can tell you if a book is well written. If I know the subject I can offer opinions as to whether it is any good, and perhaps put it in context in terms of how it relates to other, similar books. I will tell you if it makes sense, has structural integrity, a good plot, believable characters or something new to offer. If it’s not my sort of thing I will postulate as to who might like it. Useful enough, as reviewing goes, but nothing to get excited about. I do this sort of thing on Goodreads.

There are reviewers – rare and exceptional reviewers who take it to a whole other level. The measure here is that the review is a valuable contribution in its own right and worth the reading regardless of whether you have any interest in the book. Both Lorna Smithers and James Nichol review in this way on their blogs.

I’ve been blessed with two reviews recently that are pieces of art in their own right and should be honoured as such.

There’s a profound emotional response in Mitriel’s review of Hopeless Maine. It makes the story into something personal, suggesting the room for other people to do that, too. It touched me greatly.

And then this… Letters Between Gentlemen is a novel written mostly in letters. Here, Pablo Cheesecake reviews the book by writing his own letter to Professor Elemental. Of all the reviews I have ever had, this may well be the one I have enjoyed the most, for the sheer joy of how it’s been done… http://www.theeloquentpage.co.uk/2014/11/24/letters-between-gentlemen-by-professor-elemental-and-nimue-brown/

 

(and yes, reviewing reviewers… where will it end?)


Druidry and service

The call to service is an important part of modern Druidry. This is not an especially unique feature as most, probably all religions try to instil in followers a duty to do something their people or deity would find useful. We don’t have any clearly laid down ways of giving service as a Druid. You have to find something that fits with your ethical position and your personal philosophy, and do that.

As a community we often do a very poor job of recognising each other’s service. The work put in by volunteers who create and hold together Druid organisations is often overlooked at best. Druid volunteers are often met with demands as though they are paid employees, or as though their gift of service makes it ok to use them. Accusations of only being there in service to your own ego and self importance are also depressingly common and demoralising. So we call people to serve, and when they do so within our own community, we give them a hard time over it, and we stand by in silence while other people give volunteers a hard time. That really ought to change. If you have no other service, consider standing up for those who serve as a good contribution to make. Look after your grove leaders, order organisers, event runners and ritual celebrants. Trust me, most of them need the help and will be grateful and more able for your doing this.

The picture is not so very different when a Druid goes out to serve in the wider community. It doesn’t help that every last organisation dependent on volunteers does not have the funding or the human resources to do the job. A willing volunteer will often find the gentle refrains of ‘can you just…’ and ‘we really need…’ slowly takes over their life. How do you say no to the good cause, the much needed intervention? How do you say ‘enough’ in the matter of service? It’s very hard to say ‘no’ when you’re acutely aware of all the things that are going wrong. When you step up as a volunteer in any capacity, you will expose yourself to more stories of all that is awful, and you will suffer, and need to do more. Volunteer burnout is of course one of the reasons that charities and the like are so often short of volunteers.

Serving in a sustainable way sounds like the logical answer, but emotionally it isn’t. Yes, if you want to keep giving you have to stay well. The decision to put you first rather than homeless children, the hungry disabled, the creature threatened with extinction… that’s not an easy choice to make and the more aware you are, the harder it gets. But make that choice you must, because more broken people means more that needs doing, more care that needs pouring into the mixing bowl, and fewer people who can give. Being part of the solution requires us to survive.


Not always with the flow

Sometimes everything is easy and falls neatly into place. When that happens, it can be tempting to see it as proof that we are blessed, and moving in the direction some higher, hopefully benevolent force approves of. Perhaps we feel in tune with the universe, or that reality is bending over backwards to accommodate us. Either way, it can be intoxicating.

Nature is populated by things that create tides, and things that go along with them. The moon makes the sea tides, opening up coastal feeding opportunities, and then the predators come to feed on that which feeds and they are all part of the same tide. It makes good sense to use something heading your way, to go with a flow that suits your purpose.

Swans migrating thousands of miles ride the winds to ease and speed the journey. They could ride any wind, letting the air currents take them anywhere. To do so, would be to get lost, and probably to starve and die. Instead, they wait for the right winds, for the easterlies that will take them to winter feeding sites and safe havens. They are selective about the tide that will bear them.

The very ease of going with the flow can distract us from asking where the flow is going. We can be swept along, noting how easy it is to go this way, how comfortable and how much it is reinforced by all that is around us. We do not ask whose flow it is, whose intention pulls the tide and where it will eventually come to. It is by persuading people to take the easy way and go with the flow that mad tyrants build their tsunamis of war and cruelty. Everyone becomes so caught up in the tide that all else is swamped.

We need to be like swans, choosing the winds that will best carry us to the places we want to go. There are always many tides and currents, many opportunities to soar on thermals or glide downstream, but we have to pick the ones going the way we intended to go, or we are simply lost in the flow of some other intention, and this is not always the best idea. Not all roads lead downhill. Not all seas are smooth, and the small wave that seemed to be moving you on nicely can, on reaching land, become a vast and destructive wall. It helps to think about where our wave is going, and whether we will still be proud to ride it when it manifests its latent potential.

There is no go with the flow option that leads to the top of the mountain. There are some necessary and powerful choices that can never lead to an easy paddle in a friendly stream. It depends on where you want to go, because streams are only ever heading towards large bodies of water, and mountains are only ever up (unless you want underwater mountains, but that’s another landscape of fish). If you want to conquer mountains, there’s little point looking for streams of water to ride in.


Naming and un-shaming

My automatic response to feeling depression creeping in, is retreat. Maybe not physical retreat, but hiding nonetheless. Slap on the pretend smile, the brave face. Start telling people I’m just a bit tired, or have a bit of a cold. Bluff, deny, lie outright if necessary. I know it isn’t just me. I know the time to worry most about my depressed friends is when they go quiet, or seem uncharacteristically jolly. This is the ailment that does not want to speak its name.

Some of it is social, and a simple consequence of the stigma associated with mental poor health. Every depressed person out there has heard the ‘pull yourself together, get over it, stop making such a fuss and being such a wimp,’ lines. Even if you’ve not had one slapped in your face, you know it happens, and you’d probably rather avoid the humiliation. The people in your life who do not understand are also a consideration. The ones who think they should be able to rescue you and get ever more resentful when they can’t. The ones who interpret it as emotional blackmail, manipulation, laziness, unreasonableness and a hundred other things you don’t want to be. For these reasons too, it can seem preferable to hide it away. Lying about it beats the hell out of dealing with the consequences of other people’s misinformed, prejudiced, mistrustful responses. When you’re down, those are a lot like being kicked.

Hiding it is the loneliest path. We step into the dark alone, wrapping layers of lies around us so that what torment occurs on the inside isn’t visible. Of course sometimes this goes wrong, and something leaches out, and that exposure can be frightening. I don’t want anyone to see, or know. I want to hide my shame, my misery, my lost, comfortless confusion. I don’t want to burden anyone with getting close enough to find they can’t rescue me.

In the silence of that isolation, there are no voices to argue with whatever is causing the pain. There is no countering the futility, the despair, the dying dreams and lost direction. There is no antidote to exhaustion and feeling useless. There is no help, once you’ve carefully shut everyone out. But you tell yourself you are protecting them. You are keeping them safe from all the horrors inside you, from all your many failings and shortcomings. I suspect this is why a lot of people end up killing themselves. Not as an act of careless, selfish cruelty, but in a desperate bid to protect the world from themselves. And trust me, when you reach the point of thinking the best thing you can give is your absence, it is a truly awful place.

I’m more likely to blog about it on the downslope or in the aftermath, than when depression really has its teeth in me. Exposure, during the worst of it, is profoundly uncomfortable. It would be terrible if people thought I was attention seeking, or feeling sorry for myself… right? Shameful failings in an adult, reasons for scorn and derision. Except… except… how do you heal a wound you do not acknowledge? How do you pull a barb from your flesh without admitting it exists and hurts and needs removing? How do you make necessary changes in your life if you cannot own the problem?

The culture that is so keen to stifle the cries of those it wounds, is a culture that does not want to admit that it is harming a hell of a lot of people right now. Mental ill health is at epidemic proportions. So long as it stays a private shame, hidden away out of sight, we can all collectively keep saying that things are ok really and there is no big problem. We can pretend that our civilization does not put barbs into bodies on a daily basis. By this means, we can have business as usual.

For these reasons, I keep pushing against how I feel about my own dysfunction. I am a symptom of a sick society, not a solitary failure but a consequence of an unsustainable approach to living.


First, grow a leg

A couple of years ago I had a bit of a stint with self help material, trying to work out how to avoid some the deep holes of despair I regularly fall into. It became evident that I tick a lot of boxes for low self esteem. This has consequences. I have found it hard to say no to people. I do not cope well in situations where my wellbeing is compromised, and mentioning this might inconvenience someone else. I am attention hungry and affirmation seeking, needing fairly steady signs of being approved of just to stay functional. This, it has to be said, is not a very good way to live.

The self help books talked about how to improve self esteem. Resting more, taking time to pamper yourself and doing happy things, not valuing yourself purely on achievements and most critically, not looking for external affirmation all the time. It felt like being told to grow another leg (hence the title). Your problem, Nimue, is that you don’t have enough legs. Grow another leg, it’ll work then. But there was never any information about how to do what felt like the equivalent of trying to grow a leg. I found that less than helpful.

It’s sent me on a long journey. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far…

Good self esteem is not intrinsic. It’s a thing schools now actively work on because having it enables kids to be happier and do more. Private schools, it is worth noting, go out of their way to develop and reinforce the self esteem of every student. The comprehensive system of my childhood did not do this.

Where do we get our self esteem from in the first place? Well, my best guess is that this develops, or doesn’t, as a consequence of our relationships with our first caregivers. It’s worth noting that what a caregiver thinks will help, and what actually helps, are not exactly the same. Children are developing identity, ideas and beliefs about the world from the moment they arrive, if not before. It’s a while before they can express much of that and give you any kind of sense of the sort of person they are, and what they might need. So even when everyone is trying their best, you can, with the best will in the world, mess this sort of stuff up.

Not every child is wanted. Not every child fits their parent’s idea of how a baby is going to be. Some are a disappointment – wrong gender, not pretty enough… and not all parents respond with open hearted love and generosity to children who have something wrong or unusual about them. Not all parents have as much time to give as an attention-hungry infant craves. There are lots of ways you can start out in a well meaning home and not feel loved, valued or wanted, and gods help you if you start out not being loved, valued or wanted.

I was told, from as far back as I can remember, that I could not make value judgements about whether anything I did was good enough, and that the only opinion that counted for anything, belonged to someone other than me. Lo and behold, I have carried that my whole life, looking for people to stand in that position of authority and power and tell me if I am good enough. People for whom my being good enough might mean something, and would ward of the terror, and the darkness that exist for me in the realms of failure. I was taught to live and die by other people’s assessments, I was taught to have no inner capacity for holding self esteem.

Grow a new leg, they say.

I’m finding better ways of managing the need for validation. I’m also getting better at picking my people, and finding generous hearted folk who help me feel good about what I’m doing. Increasingly in my life there are people for whom I tentatively feel that I do not have to ‘do’ and that they will accept me, just as I am. To be good enough without achieving, without making or working. To be good enough in and of myself, for someone else. That was the thing that had not happened before, and had not taken root. It’s a very small seedling of a possibility just now, but apparently things like this can be grown from scratch, in the right circumstances.


When muggles consider magic

I read widely and encounter thinkers from many different backgrounds. Some of those trouble me enormously, and it’s taken me years to figure out why, but, here we go…

Rational mainstream thinking is all about logic. Any effect will have a cause. Any good theory produces testable, re-usable results. Once you understand something you can accurately predict what it will do. This is the thinking of the science lab. It holds up just as well in the kitchen, or wielding the wool. It is the logic of dependable physical reality and as such is a bloody good thing and generally makes life easier.

We’ve got into this habit of thought collectively. This idea of logical progressions from causes to effects, one thing meaning that another will follow. We expect to be able to unpick all of nature, uncover ever last law of physics and have it make sense. However, we’re taking that tidy, resolving approach into our spiritual thinking and into our magic, some of us. The same certainty, the same confidence that my cause and effect will work as well for you as if I had undertaken a lab experiment and proved it. We bring the logic of the mundane and predictable to something that should be neither.

The consequence of this, is the absence of room for wonder. Religions on the whole are remarkably good at tidying spiritual experience up into something safe, sensible and predictable, and by so doing, knock out all the mystery. There is no room for anything numinous to creep in when you think you have it all figured out and are confidently asserting what the rules are. Awe and wonder are, instead, part of the experience of being out of your depth, unsure, overwhelmed and unable to safely rationalise.

Uncertainty has been important to me for a long time, as an unconsidered, emotional response to spiritual experience. And lo, I have managed to bring the art of thinking rationally to that uncertainty, and have usefully found out something about what it is and does and why I need it. What reason tells me, is that if I want spiritual experience, sometimes I will have to let go of the desire to have it all make sense.


Celtic bragging culture and stuff I did

One of the bits of Celtic tradition that I struggle with is the boasting culture. It’s not the done thing these days to leap on a table and proclaim just how bloody awesome you were recently. We may, on the whole, be a lot the poorer for this. Bragging and talking up our achievements is a joyful sort of thing to be doing if the people around you get stuck in, either cheering or offering their own counter-brags.

But then, our Celtic ancestors, by the looks of it, were not afraid to be theatrical, or full of themselves. How many of us grew up being told that modesty is a virtue, and not to be too big for your boots, and that showing off is a shameful thing and that it isn’t nice to draw attention to your own brilliance?

As an author, this is a doubly complex dance. Like every other author out there right now, I have to work to sell books. It doesn’t matter how big a name you are, how famous or how good, your publisher will expect you to get out there and sell your work, and your sales figures will drop if you don’t. People are attracted to success, will pick up books that are popular and authors who have a readership. It’s the buzz, the sense that if a lot of people think someone is good, maybe it’s worth checking them out. And so authors, and other creative folk have to go up against a culture that often says ‘be modest and self effacing’ and wave their credentials, achievements and wins about like bait in the hopes of being able to earn enough to live on.

So on one side, I’m by nature a touch shy and retiring and I find it hard to announce that I’ve done a thing, much less ask people to buy it. That habit of playing down success is hard to break, but it affects my own relationship with my achievements, and I’m interested in changing that.

So, here is a thing I did (it’s free, you can just listen online) http://nerdbong.com/nerdbongs-splendiferous-stories-slumber-s01e03-skin/

And here is Philip Carr-Gomm saying things about me that caused me to make happy squealy noises.

http://www.philipcarr-gomm.com/skyclad/


Moon Poets – a review

Reviewing poetry is something I find tricky – poetry is inherently a lot more personal and subjective than other forms. With non-fiction you can say ‘this is solid’ or ‘this is full of dodgy logic’ with confidence, but a poet either speaks to your heart, or they don’t. And if they don’t, they might be able to speak to someone else’s. There are six poets in this literary gathering, four of whom I am entirely enchanted by, and the other two I rather liked.

So, here are some subjective reactions…

Robin Herne’s introduction raises the important question of how we even define Pagan poetry in the first place. For the purposes of this collection, it’s definitely Pagan authors with Pagan themes, but it is interesting to ask how we individually apply the term.

Tiffany Chaney writes intense, personal, emotionally charged poems full of evocative and enticing imagery. Something wild runs through her work. It probably has hooves and there may well be leaves in its hair.

Robin Herne is the master of poetic structures and a true wordsmith. His section includes commentaries on the poems, introducing the stories he’s drawn on. There’s a broad range in his source material and this exquisitely crafted array opens a door into myth.

Lorna Smithers is a poet deeply rooted in the landscape of Preston. In these verses, Paganism is not an abstract concept, but something lived in proximity to the soil. Eco-consciousness has her looking towards the uncertain future as well as reaching towards the mythic past.

Romany Rivers offers the poetry of ritual and devotion. There are inner dramas reflecting more psychological approaches to Paganism. She presents an earthy, tough reality of the mother archetype to counter the more usual over-romanticising of this figure.

Martin Pallot captures details of the natural world and the cycle of the seasons. There is something luminous about the world as seen through his eyes, something inherently animistic and full of life. This is lyrical, musical writing rich with insights.

Beverly Price shows how the mythic can help us make sense of the personal. Her work honours the darker tides, acknowledging the harsher faces of goddess and experience. This is soul naked writing to confront and engage our shadow selves.

Six distinctive, evocative voices. Six different ways of being a Pagan Poet. There is much to inspire in this collection and I can very much recommend it. If you’re tempted, it can be found here: AMAZON US | AMAZON UK


Encountering landscape

Walking is a big part of what I do. Walking, seeing, listening. Sharing that experience with others, and trying to bring some fragments of it back. Yesterday there was a walk, today there is a fragment.

 

Blood crimson droplets gleam against the sky

Seed-heavy haws swollen by summer rain

Birch and beech leaves flame the dying season

As cycles turn and darkness comes again.

 

Speak of the loss and grief, so vast to hold

Silence shared, there is no sense to find

But comfort in the recognition gleaned

Of all that passes, all we leave behind.

 

We carry loss and truth in equal weight

Hearts wide and willing to be broken

Bewitched by scarlet fruit on blackened bough

By stories told, and stories left unspoken.

 

I seek but for the path, the heart’s release

The blessings of both reverie and peace.

 


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