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.

Songs for Samhain

The folk tradition offers a wealth of material that works very well in a Pagan setting. Yes, there is more out there than good old John Barleycorn! Folk songs speak of the dead – the heroic dead, the war dead, epic accidents and tragedies, mundane passings away, execution, and rather frequently, death by over consumption of alcohol. Death is a common theme in folk songs, it being the one bit of drama every single life can be relied upon to produce.

If you’re on the bardic path, then seasonal song is something you may be thinking about. However, the most famous folk song mentioning all hallows eve isn’t about the dead at all, but about faerie. Tam Lin is the story of a mortal man captured by faeries, (which allows him to spend his time seducing young ladies at no cost to himself). When he gets young Janet pregnant and tells her the faerie horde mean to sacrifice him to Satan at Halloween, she undertakes an epic rescue mission and wins his freedom. Our mediaeval ancestors invested a lot of time in figuring out how the faerie realms and the Christian representations of evil related to each other – a topic bound to give anyone headaches, and much less of an issue for the modern Pagan.

I don’t really celebrate all of the 8 standard festivals at the moment. I’ve always struggled to work up any kind of enthusiasm for the fleeting balance of the equinoxes. Imbolc and Lugnasadh don’t especially resonate with me either. Solstices, Samhain and Belatain I tend to quietly honour whether I’m part of a celebratory group or not. Having songs to sing as part of that, has always been important to me. And so I ended up writing this one, quite some years ago, and singing it at my folk club and at rituals. It’s one of the few songs I’ve written and not discarded. It’s recorded in my ‘home studio’ (ie the bedroom). Drumming is also me – it’s a small Turkish drum borrowed from my son, and the whole thing was laid down in one go. Partly because I have no mixing desk skills, partly because, being a folk person, I like that raw, one take approach to music.

You can listen for free as often as you like (assuming you like) there’s a small charge for downloading.

 


No martyrdom in Druidry?

I have on a number of occasions described Druidry as a tradition which does not reward or encourage martyrdom. There are no tales of Druid martyrs, and there is no encouragement to suffer. Except…

I’ve also been thinking lately about how many Celtic stories feature heroic death. Heroism was celebrated in many of our ancestral cultures – the Germanic and Scandinavian peoples were big on it too. Proper heroes risk death, for a cause, for the tribe, for glory, to uphold their honour… and may well encounter it.

Martyrdom and heroism both work on the same basic principle that acting well and upholding your beliefs regardless of the risk or cost, is more important that whether you suffer or die. We tend to see martyrdom in religious terms and heroism as more worldly, but when your spiritual path doesn’t separate the spiritual from the physical, that division isn’t worth much. Heroism suggests personal glory, martyrdom is supposed to be more self effacing… except I think we know that doesn’t hold up because religions with martyrdom elements celebrate their martyrs.

It’s not even clarified by the issue of death – yes, martyrs normally die for the cause, but the Celts invented the White Martyrdom – leaving your ancestral community for the church, which was such a huge personal sacrifice that it counted as a form of martyrdom.

In fact, regardless of which term you favour, ‘sacrifice’ or the willingness to be sacrificed is definitely part of the deal.

‘Martyr’ can be flung as an insult where ‘hero’ lends itself far less. Calling someone a martyr can imply needless suffering, a form of attention seeking, smugness, holier than thou attitudes and other less desirable things. To make ‘hero’ an insult depends on using it ironically, and does not come so easily, I find.

Both are social constructs. If no one is looking who cares as you bleed to death, you will be neither hero, nor martyr, just corpse.

I realise that I would like to be heroic. I would like to do potent, risky things for good causes. I would gladly risk my life to protect others, or to make the world a better place, but there’s just not much call for that where I am. I know other parts of the world could use heroes, but my lack of language skill, physical prowess and political insight are something of a barrier. Dying uselessly for a cause has never seems that appealing. And so, unable to express anything heroic, I step up to things that look a lot more like martyrdom. Things that come into my life as slow exercises in being stripped of skin and bled dry. It’s not proper martyrdom, because there is no one to celebrate it, the way (for example) the quiet martyrdom of many mothers of small children goes unnoticed. The martyrdom of those who go without in small ways so that others can have what they need.

It might, on the whole, be a lot easier for me if Druidry did offer a martyrdom tradition that would allow me to feel differently about what I end up doing. The concept of martyrdom can, at least, convey a degree of dignity and nobility to situations that are otherwise entirely devoid of those things.


The allure of victimhood

There’s nothing attractive or desirable about suffering a crime, cruelty, or oppression. However, there are attractions to casting yourself in that role, or staying in it if bad experience puts you there. Some of those attractions are more problematic than others in terms of impact on your own quality of life, and impact on people around you. I write this probably not exhaustive list all too aware that I’ve done at least one of these, and seen all of the others in action. That most reasons make sense (from a certain perspective) makes them all the more alluring. They tend to harm the victim more than anyone else.

  • It’s the biggest thing that has ever happened to you, perhaps the only thing you consider to be of interest or note, the only thing anyone has given you attention for. It becomes tempting to stay, and easy to have it be the story that defines your life.
  • Having little or no self-esteem means that victim status confirms that you are undeserving. This may be more comfortable than considering unfamiliar alternatives.
  • It is the only way you have found to elicit compassion, kindness, help, comfort or attention.
  • By taking the role of the victim, you guilt trip your elected oppressor so that you get your own way. Especially productive if you favour passive aggressive approaches to relationships.
  • You are in a culture that competes to be the most martyred, the worst off, the most mired in drama, and so you feel socially rewarded for being a victim.
  • You genuinely believe your life is ruined and/or entirely defined for the future by whatever has made a victim of you. (Especially likely in the short term after trauma, but possible to recover from nonetheless).
  • Your spiritual path rewards martyrdom, or you see suffering as innately noble and therefore worth hanging on to.
  • Your victim status is used to explain (at least to yourself) every other thing that goes wrong, or that you do not do. It becomes the ultimate, unassailable excuse.

There is a time, after any injury to mind or body when a person needs to hole up, whimper a bit, heal, grieve and generally get to grips with the experience as best they can. We are all wounded in some way and at some time in our lives. No one gets through unscathed. There is no universal right answer for how long that takes, or when you should start to feel safe and more functional again. Having time to take whatever healing journey you need is really, really important. There are some experiences that don’t heal readily, or perhaps ever, but there is a huge difference between carrying wounds and scars, and carrying your victimhood. With one, it is still possible to go on and make a life, with the other, it isn’t. Victimhood seeks pity. Wounds seek compassion. Victimhood seeks power over others, in slightly perverse ways. Scars seek peace.


Surfacing

I thought I knew the tides and habits of my own depression. Normally I can see it coming and take evasive action, or just slog through, knowing it will run its course. A few weeks ago I found myself like a cartoon character, running madly in mid air having overshot the cliff edge, and then plummeting to the inevitable crash. There had been no real warning. Sure, I knew I was low and struggling, but no more than usual. Apparently these things can be cumulative, too.

Knowing I was short of options, I pulled back from everything that was being too difficult, rested more, slept a lot, moved gently, got in extra time outside and walking. It’s taken me several weeks of really working at it to even stabilise. I usually pull away from social contact when I’m down, but I’ve not even wanted to spend time with people I am usually very comfortable with and fond of. Going in to town – I had an eye test – was a real challenge, and strangely exhausting. Through those weeks of struggle, I knew that I had to be well and together enough by the evening of the 26th October to get up on a stage and read an emotionally difficult story to about 80 people.

No pressure, then!

I managed that, and to honour a firework meet-up that enabled my son to hang out with some old school friends. The fireworks were amusing. My body does not handle loud explosions well at the best of times, but getting those reactions without the usual side-order of adrenaline is just plain weird. Poking about online, I have all the symptoms and then some of adrenal burnout, a condition that mainstream medicine is clear doesn’t exist. Fun and games! Fortunately, the ‘alternative’ cure for this ‘fictional’ problem is primarily rest, and stress reduction, so all things considered, I have nothing to lose.

I know I have to surface. I know I have to invest care and attention in fixing my burned out mind and compromised immune system. Stress is not good for your ability to fend off minor ailments, and I just roll from one bug to the next with a few days respite in between. That has to change.

There are questions to ask about why I get into these cycles in the first place. They are not comfortable questions. At some point I need to deal with the answers. There are questions (not unrelated) to ask about the sort of person I am, and the sort of role I might have. This recent round of crash and burn is just one in a long line. It was more physically dramatic than usual, with anxiety induced chest pains and heart palpitations – things I’ve had before, but not on that scale. It was a bit of a reality check.

It’s left me thinking something that, for me, has largely been unthinkable. I am thinking that being this ill is not an acceptable price to pay. I’m thinking that perhaps I do not deserve to be pushed to breaking point at every available opportunity. I’m looking at the kindness and support that has come from some of the people around me, and although I’m resisting it because I don’t really want to go there, I know I need to sit down with that, and how it compares to some of the historical stuff, and see if I can imagine myself on different terms.

I don’t want to be here again. I don’t want to live in this burnout cycle anymore. It is no longer enough to be increasing the time between collapses. I want out. It’s not going to be an easy path to walk, but I need to start believing that it is walkable, rather than assuming it would be futile to seek after anything different.


Relationships, seen and unseen

A relationship between any two entities can be curious indeed. You have the point of interface, interaction and connection, and then you have what the two entities involved make of that interaction. This seldom occurs in a vacuum, so that wider networks of interaction and involvement impact on how any two things get along. This applies to human relationships, to our relationship with land, ancestors, wildlife in general, and all other things, seen and unseen.

All I see of my multitudinous relationships, is my side of the equation. I may not even notice the other side. I may, with empathy and imagination, try to figure out how things are on the other side of relating to me, but at best I am guessing. I may very easily bring fantasy, need and even delusion into that equation – in fact I think most of us do sooner or later. Our shared relationship with the earth is a fine case in point. We treat as infinite resource something that is finite, precious and desperately in need of our care. If that isn’t delusional… I’m not sure what is!

We are more connected to everything and everyone else than our little primate brains are ever going to be able to meaningfully contemplate. Of necessity, we can’t think about all of it all of the time. We make choices about what to pay attention to, which relationships to prioritise and which ones to ignore. Those choices may or may not be conscious.

Most of us want to be thought well of by others. Whether we seek to earn that through our good and reasonable actions, force it by taking power over others, or cheat and delude them into liking us goes a long way to defining the sort of person we actually are. In our heads we may all be romantic heroes, wise and poplar leaders, respected members of our communities. In our heads, we may be beloved of the gods and favoured by the fates. It’s not much measure of anything, given that in our heads, we can be anything at all.

What defines us is not who we think we are. It’s not who other people think we are, either. Our truth, our authenticity, lies in what we do in each and every relationship we have, recognised and unrecognised. The odds are this truth exists invisible, unseeable, unknown – unless you postulate score-keeping deities with omniscient oversight (which mostly I don’t). That truth of relationship underpins the reality we are all engaged in creating. It manifests in the world, even if it is beyond us to fully understand it.


Flat farming review

Over the last year, I’ve explored growing food and other useful things in the flat. I have four windowsills – less than 20ft of narrow growing space all in, light for only part of the day. Clearly self sufficiency was never going to be an option! So, what is possible in a space like this? Here’s a rundown of what I did and how it went.

Tomatoes: One tiny crop of tomatoes from one small plant made for a side dish at a single meal, but I was rather pleased with them nonetheless.

Pumpkin: Given to us as a seed, it grew unexpectedly well, and produced beautiful flowers. Due to lack of bees and other pumpkin plants, there was no fruit.

Watercress: Growing in jam jars on windowsills. One crop so far, slow growing, but as it’s both tasty and expensive to buy, I mean to keep on with this.

Thyme and mint: Doing fine, tasty, low maintenance, windowsill herbs are definitely a win.

Aloe Vera: Not edible, but you can use the sap in the leaves for hand-cream.  We haven’t started cropping yet, but have a profusion of plants (they make good gifts, too). Definitely one to stick with.

Chilli pepper: The best by far. Lovely white flowers, cheery red chillis, plentiful spice for cooking and enough bounty to have given some away.

I may pick up some more herbs. I mean to have a go at potatoes in a bucket in the kitchen and I’m considering trying ginger – so that I can use the stem.


Encountering landscape

Experiencing landscape is a full on sensory activity, engaging everything you’ve got that you can work with. For me, it’s all about walking, but anything that allows you to be present and slow enough to see things should also work. Sitting, cycling, other kinds of wheels. I think car driving is too fast, and too insulated, as are trains.

The physical shape of the land impacts on you as you try and move through it. There’s a huge visual impact to landscape, which for me is important in terms of shifting and widening my perspective. However, the sounds, smells and feels of a place are also intense and significant. On the hills, the wind buffets. Down in the valley, in a sheltered lane with the rain falling yesterday, I could not hear any traffic noise at all. In these encounters, the world comes alive to us, and we to it.

I am convinced that something happens biologically when I walk for hours. I think the rhythm of walking affects how my mind works, and tends to sooth and stabilise me. I know walking has good effects on things like cartilage repair, and no doubt there are endorphins from the exercise. Beyond that, a really long walk leaves me with a feeling of peace, and cleanliness, as though something has been washed out of my body. I’ve poked around in some online science, there are some studies suggesting walking affects biochemistry, but that’s about as far as I’ve got. It’s like a reset button for my mind; if I do it for long enough, out of kilter things click back into place. If I do it through beautiful landscapes, my soul is soothed, and I am inspired, and uplifted. It’s reliable, so long as I am well enough to walk.

There is always more going on than I can pay attention to. The sky and the distance views, birdsong, skittering undergrowth, fossils and quartz in the soil… the more alert I am to one thing, the more risk I’ll miss something else. This is one reason for not walking alone – with alert and likeminded walkers, you see more, because they see differently. I like that sharing process, too. Finding out what inspires someone else, what they notice and want to direct me to. I tend to have a much richer experience walking with people who are also keen.

Then there’s what comes of moving through the land. Recollections and stories sparked by locations and things witnessed. Speculation – reasonable and fantastical as the fancy takes. The sharing of knowledge and insight (what kind of bird was it, what sort of toadstool, is that berry edible…). If you keep walking the same landscape in different ways, you see familiar things from different angles, which is enlightening, you find new paths to walk… remember when we came here last time and went left? Let’s go right today… and so the walking of the land makes a story that connects to other stories you’ve walked, and to stories you tell, and knowledge stories and mad speculative what would happen if there was a bear stories.

I’m inspired in this by Robert McFarlane’s awesome book ‘The Old Ways’ and by the epic team effort that is ‘Story Telling for a Greener World’. To me it seems intensely Druidic, this weaving together of place, knowledge, inspiration and through that making new things, in community.


The crappy meditator

Meditation has been a part of my path for a long time. I’m supposed to be good at it – I’ve run workshops and groups, I even went so far as to write a book, and recently I’ve been involved in the Contemplative Druidry project. The truth is that in recent months, I’ve been bloody useless when it comes to meditation. I’ve not made regular time for it, and when I do, mostly what happens is that either I obsess over things I should be doing, or I stare vacantly into space.

Meditation is not a goal in its own right. It is a tool to use. The important thing is not the sitting around looking all spiritual and Druidic, the important thing is what you can do with the experience. Sometimes, it isn’t the right tool for the job. There are things you cannot fix with meditating, and things better tackled by other means. For me at the moment, walking and rest are more productive in terms of fixing my life and my inner state, than meditation is. As a result, I’m mostly not meditating, and I’m also not beating myself up for this. There is more to life than contemplation.

I tend to seize up if I sit still for long. Thus any meditation requiring me not to move for more than about five minutes is out, and any space where I can’t seek relief in stretching and careful fidgeting is also out. I can sit with the Contemplative group because no one minds if I need to wriggle now and then.

I have very little focus. This is a symptom of wider issues, not a cause. I will not heal my lack of focus by trying to force my mind to focus. I need to work through what’s going on, and I need the space in which to flail about randomly. Right now, I cannot afford mental discipline, I need the benefits of unravelling. I also need my autonomy and the right to self determine, so am likely to give short shrift to anyone who thinks they know better than me what I should be doing right now.

I can’t afford to be working with high levels of awareness. My body hurts, and I need to ration my consciousness of that or I just end up crying a lot. I can’t process all the things that are issues in one go, I need to deal with them gently, and this means I need to be cautious about entering contemplative states in the first place. Overwhelming myself isn’t helpful.

I’m not doing any of the more creative meditation work either – partly because I don’t have the concentration, partly because emotional unwellness and this kind of work do not go well together. Meditation isn’t perfectly safe, and if you don’t feel safe about doing it, that’s a very clear sign to stay away.

The spiritual life is part of life. That means if life gives you things you can’t work through meditatively, there is no failure in going another way. If too much awareness is unbearable, it is ok to move gently. If you have no concentration, beating yourself up with an aim to achieving focus is not a good plan. Meditating is not the be all and end all, there are times for all things, and times not to step up.


Druidry beyond experience

As a fiction author, mostly what I do is write beyond what I know. There isn’t enough raw material in my life to sustain decent plots for long. I pay a lot of attention to other people, but even so, mostly I make stuff up and hope it seems plausible. For fiction, this is plenty good enough and ‘plausible’ will do, but with the Druid hat on, the issues of being outside personal experience are much more complex.

There is one heck of a lot I do not know. I’m very conscious that every place, country, landscape, eco system is unique, and what works for one may be a bit loopy and unhelpful in another. I’m conscious of diversity of life experience, too. There are things that, as a seeing Pagan, I write about visually, that are going to be a tad unhelpful for a Pagan who cannot see (and thank you Eilis for making me more sensitive to this). What I think I know can be a long way from the whole story

My understanding as a woman who is a parent and who knows her ancestral line became an issue during Druidry and the Ancestors. What could I usefully say to those who are by choice or fate, childless? What could I say to those who have been adopted, or have no knowledge of birth family, or are estranged from relatives? And what right did I have to speak, in my ignorance, to that experience? I started asking, and people were generous with their stories. I listened, and I came out a bit the wiser and very clear that I have no right or authority to tell someone with a totally different experience set how to go about relating to the issue of ancestry. I can offer ideas and suggestions, but my limited insight is an issue I need to be alert to.

We each walk our own path, in a unique place, and with a unique history behind us. We have common ground in our humanity, which can bring us together, but we are all individual. We can share, and learn from the sharing. Maybe sometimes what that leads to is the realisation that no, you wouldn’t do it that way – which has to be fine. Your life, your path, and therefore your authority. I can use my imagination and empathy to offer advice to people, but it would be arrogant indeed to imagine that I know best.

I’m excited by the enormity of all that I do not know. I love hearing other people’s stories and experiences. This helps me be alert to the limits of my understanding – not that I always get it right of course, but it helps to be looking! When we tell each other what to do, we are only speaking from personal experience, and that isn’t universal. This is why it’s so important to avoid getting bogged down in dogma and authority in the first place


Spirits of air

I have mixed feelings about the autumn. Crisp and colourful autumns can be delightful, but the years where storms tear the leaves off early, and the damp, grey autumns I find tough. However, there is something that becomes visible when the leaves are down, and that’s a truly magical thing…

Today I watched as a tiny whirlwind danced its way across the grass near my flat. Tiny in the scale of whirlwinds, but perhaps four foot high at its peak. I could see it, because of the fallen leaves. No doubt the wind spirits are at play throughout the year – I do sometimes see them dancing in old leaves and playing with litter. There was one in the doorway to Gloucester Cathedral, some years ago. But, when there’s a thick carpet of leaves to whip up, it is so much easier to spot them passing.

I’m sure there are logical explanations involving wind, the shape of the space and so forth. Rationally speaking, it’s just a little whirlwind. But I can’t see the world purely in those terms. I can’t watch that wild, dancing column of leaves and not feel a sense of awe and wonder. It doesn’t matter what the explanations are, or how explicable it all is – this is nature. This is energy. This is something real happening. For me, it is magic.


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