Matters of destiny

This is what should happen.

You are out, on your own at one of those quieter times of day. There’s probably a very good reason for this – please fill in the backstory as you see fit, making sure that you find it plausible and satisfying, because all stories work better when you believe the starting point.

And there you are, ambling down the side of some non-descript bit of water, thinking your own thoughts, or not thinking, or perhaps an odd mix of the two where random things are allowed to float through your mind. But you’re not totally self involved, so you notice when the arm sticks up out of the water. Pale arm. Slender. Not drowning, but not waving either.

Up she comes. An entire, shimmering wet, river weed coated, heart-breakingly beautiful woman. Eyes of sky and water that you know are looking straight into your soul. Eyes that see all that you have been, and all that you could be. There is no judgement in her face, only recognition and you know that she’s been looking for you. She reaches out a hand and offers you…what? A sword that speaks of power and destiny? A pen that is of course mightier than the sword? A paintbrush? This is, after all, your story so it’s yours to know what a watery woman slipping into your time from the place of myth would bring with her.

Of course it is not just an object. It is an act of recognition of who you are. It is not merely permission to go out into the world and do something amazing, it is a demand. Myths do not come round and accost everyone in this way.

Be brave, she says, be bold and be real.

What happens? What really happens, when there are no ladies of lakes bearing Excalibur? What happens when one day is too much like the other and the idiots are many and the wonders few? You do it anyway.

 

(Now and then I write things for people, because something is wanted. I used to write custom fiction professionally, although usually I have more to go on than I had this time. It would work as a sort of pathworking, I think, adapted to personal circumstance.)


Small films, big ideas

This year, Stroud had its first film festival. I managed to be at the launch, not so very long ago, which included the winning films from the film competition associated with the festival, because Stroud doesn’t do things by halves!

These are all short films with local connections, and they were all played on the night, and for all of their localism, they have things to say that deserve a wider audience. In the order in which they were shown then…

What is Art? Funny, playful and also rather clever. John Bassett does a lot of local theatre, his update of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists last year sent me out to read the original novel.

Ganapati Clayman. Andrew Wood talks about art and Parkinson’s disease. I spent a few weeks last year being Andrew’s studio assistant. He’s a brilliant and fascinating person. I spent a lot of time re-whiting walls and cleaning floors, being a studio assistant not being a terribly glamorous sort of job really.

7 Miles of Pinkness is about the huge Wool Against Weapons protest last summer – 7 miles of pink knitting stretched between 2 nuclear weapons sites as we watch the government trying to claim that spending £100 billion on replacing Trident –  weaponry it would be unthinkable to ever actually use – is a good idea. Much to my surprise, I discovered on the night that I am fleetingly in this film. My abject panic does not come over as clearly as I had feared. My section had just run out of wool, we had no idea where any spare wool was, and I was stood where the wool wasn’t when a nice man pointed a camera at me. I’m very proud to have been a very tiny part of this epic, international project. I’ve also helped turn the scarf into blankets for international aid projects.


Enchanting the Shadowlands

I’ve been following Lorna Smithers’ blog for some time now, so when I heard she had put together an anthology of poetry, I went straight over to Lulu and ordered a copy. It’s taken me a while to get a review together, not least because I do not like to read poetry quickly. One or two at a time and then space to ponder is my preferred approach. Consequently I don’t get through poetry at the same pace a prose book of this size would allow. I like that about poetry, I value the slowing down and the encouragement to savour and reflect.

Lorna is a skilful poet, who crafts exquisitely with language. If you like beautiful wordcraft, I expect you are going to like this collection. As a writer and a teller of tales, Lorna has an amazing ability to get inside a story, a person or a worldview and speak from that place. Some of her poems are narrative, and there’s a sprinkling of short stories that help make connections between ideas, tales and histories. I had a real sense this was someone channelling voices other than their own at times, and that’s really powerful to encounter.

Poems are gathered into theme based sections, which I found very helpful. The concentrated effect of looking at place, history and deity and juxtaposing different poems on the same subject really worked for me. There are some interesting issues raised by this not being my landscape and not, for the greater part, connecting with my understanding of the divine. Curiously, Lorna and I live in the two places in the UK that have connections with the Celtic dreaming and healing deity, Nodens. Her experience of him in Northern England is very different from my perspective down here on the Severn. This did not trouble me at all, nor did it interfere with my enjoyment of her work.

It’s clear reading these poems that they exist as part of Lorna’s journey. They come from research into local history, and deep connection with landscape as well as personal spiritual experience. This is writing that reflects a life lived thoughtfully and with attention paid. As such it offers a kind of doorway to anyone interested in working with the land, and with the ancestors of place. In  reading the poems you can get a sense of the kinds of things a poet might do to arrive at these insights and understandings. This is a path any of us might walk, but we each have to work with our own places, histories and relationships with these things. Seeing how someone else does it is an inspiration, and a place from which to start your own journey.

I have some approach and intention in common with Lorna. I recognise in her a fellow traveller who is engaging with their locality and making relationship with place in some really personal ways. For me, that transcended all issues of difference. I think for the good of the land, and for the good of humanity, we need more people out there consciously walking the earth and bringing back stories and insights.

I can very much recommend this book, and I hope others will find it opens doors for them.


What do you do?

It’s almost the first question to be asked on occasions of meeting strangers. In most instances it’s a question about your job, your career. Amongst creative folk it’s about your art, recognising that there may be a bill paying job that has very little to do with who you are. The work we do defines us economically and socially, all too often. It becomes who we are. Yet how many of us really identify with our jobs? How many of us work predominantly on callings and vocations? Is what you do to afford food much measure of who you are as a person?

I have a lot of jobs. At the moment, in no particular order I am press officer, author, PR elf, provider of website content and editor. These are all regular paying gigs to at least some degree. I am sometimes public speaker, teacher, celebrant and musician. I have all the non-paid work that comes from being a mother, and the wife of an artist. There’s intermittent voluntary work. My adult life has always been this kind of happy muddle. Who am I? Well, there’s not much point looking to my job title for an easy answer!

I wonder about the impact of specialising. I wonder about how it informs who we think we are, and how we see each other. Pay me a couple of hundred pounds an hour for my time, and I am not the same struggling creator who could barely make a pound an hour, am I? And yet…  Those who are highest paid are often furthest removed from doing the work that the rest of us really need to have done. Too many jobs don’t give much sense of satisfaction or completion, many are incredibly dull while seeming to serve little purpose. As a culture we are apparently more concerned that all the cans in the stores should be neatly facing forward than we are about the not so neat littler outside the stores.

If work is your identity, then power over your sense of self is given to whoever pays you. If you only have one job, then the power this puts in other hands is vast. The job pays for your life, it defines you, and yet someone else could take it away, deeming you unnecessary or not good enough. This makes aging and sickness much more alarming than they need to be, because these things can rob you of your work identity.

Of course this fits very well with capitalism, and a life that is to be all about money and exchange. What you earn is who you are.

We would as a society have more practical resilience if people tended to have multiple jobs. A wider skills base gives more options. Not having all your eggs in one job basket makes a person less vulnerable to changes they have no control over. It’s more interesting. You aren’t locked in to such a narrow social engagement if you have multiple jobs, and better networking and more contact also gives communities more resilience. It’s easier to walk away from a job if you don’t totally depend on it – which would tend to push working conditions up.

What do you do? Imagine a world in which you have some control over that, and where your pay packet does not define your social identity. Perhaps ‘hard work’ isn’t the most important thing in life, and perhaps if we did not feel so defined by our jobs, we’d have more room to question their usefulness. Imagine if living well was the most important thing, and on meeting people they were most likely to ask ‘What are you interested in?’


Talking about books

Talking about things is important. You can’t grow or develop an idea, get momentum, or create change unless people are thinking about it, and talking about it. At least, not the change that comes from collective will rather than top-down authority. Creative expressions – music, dance, film, books etc – should be part of how a society has a conversation with itself about who it is collectively, what it values and worries about and where it might be going. Talking about books is, therefore, a form of active engagement with wider culture, and it has a healthy side-order of political and social implications.

Talking about books also makes for more interesting conversations. My own life might be quiet and dull this week, and not worth comment but what I’ve been reading opens up whole new worlds. That would be true most weeks. As I type this I am thinking about magical realism in Elen Sentier’s novels, and the Neolithic world view as considered by Nicholas Mann. Often I’d rather talk about ideas I am reading than how this week is more or less a lot like last week.

Talking about books helps authors to sell books. Word of mouth remains the most important way of getting sales in a market that has little advertising budget and seldom pays participants enough to live on. I want to talk about books because I want more people to buy and read books so that more authors have a fighting chance of being able to do their thing and pay the bills without also having to work 60 hour weeks.

However, for this to work, there has to be something to talk about. A book has to leave you wondering, caring about the characters, curious about what happens next, or what happened between the chapters. Perhaps you’ll have something to say about the structure, the language, the representations of race, gender, difference, similarity, emotion… You need something to get your teeth into in order to have a conversation.

Alternatively, you get this:

“Did you see that show on the telly last night?”

“I did.”

“That was really good. I liked the bit when they did the thing.”

“I liked that bit, too.”

Or you get conversations about how Madonna fell off the stage, Miley wasn’t wearing much, Justin has shiny hair. There’s not much to say about a lot of pop music, so we end up talking about whether they are too fat, or old for their fashion choices and how slightly more or less like everything else those fashion choices are. Yet another re-boot film with a minor twist on the entirely familiar theme. Yet another action packed block busting page turner full of explosions and a man doing a thing that wasn’t as impossible as it first looked, or just blithely defied physics, and getting the girl. Unless the experience surprises you and has some depth, it’s not easy to talk about it for more than a sentence.

I don’t think the flow is all one way. While all we do is talk about the scale of the explosions and the realism of the effects, of course the odds of getting a film with an excellent story and beautiful dialogue are slim. If all we talk about with regards to books, is the best sellers, we push towards books designed to be vastly popular and with easy, wide reaching appeal. Easy to market is not the same as good to read.

So, this is an appeal, for the sake of having an inspiring, enriching cultural life. Talk about the good things. Talk about that which you love. That way, there might be a little bit more of it.


Questions of Belonging

A few days ago I blogged from a state of despair about issues of tribe. It elicited some incredibly helpful comments. Thank you all of you who shared and inspired me. On the same day, I read Naomi’s blog about how we handle difference and exclusion in Paganism. I spent time wondering if I inadvertently exclude anyone, and if so, what to do about it. I realised I probably won’t know unless someone comes back and tells me, at which point I would hope to have opportunity to put it right. All too often, people are excluded because they are asked to fit in with whatever is ‘normal’, and no room is made for difference and quite often, that turns out to be important.

For my entire life, until this week, I have been operating under the mistaken belief that if I did a good enough job of fitting in and being useful, these things would ultimately lead to my having a sense of belonging. I’ve never really managed it on those terms, but the carrot dangling in front of me, out of reach, has kept me trying. If I could do better, ask for less, want less, give more, be more co-operative, be more flexible and generous… I want to be co-operative and useful, these things matter to me and are part of who I am, but when that becomes an exercise in hiding, crushing or cutting off bits of me, ignoring my own feelings and giving in a way that leaves me threadbare and exhausted, it doesn’t really work for me. It can work for the people benefiting from me, so there’s often encouragement to keep going.

I’ve started to see that the more sacrifices are made in order to fit in, the less it works in terms of belonging. What sense of belonging I have flows from the handful of relationships where I feel accepted. Where I am good enough already, and my oddities are allowed for. The places where, if my fragile mind and sore body aren’t working, I can expect care and compromise. The people who expect to negotiate, not to have it on their terms, who expect that what I want and need might not be exactly what they want and need. From there, we can work out something viable for all involved. The more able I am to bring my emotional responses, odd ideas, intensity, and fragility into a space, the more able I am to feel like I belong. The more masking I have to do to fit in, the less I feel like I belong.

I want to be useful. I want to be an asset to the people around me. I want to bring laughter and cake and good ideas, and support good projects and help other people flourish. This is not about belonging, this is about where I choose to stand. I want to pick my ground and my causes, and have the energy to see them through. I am realising that I am a very finite resource, and if I do not deploy carefully, I will burn out on people who want me to fit in, at the expense of doing the things I might have done well, and that’s just silly. I will be co-operative as much as I am able, but from here on in, that has to be a two sided process. I want to co-operate with people, not bend myself into awkward shapes for people who will not even try to meet me part way.

I need to feel cared for. That means if someone comes back and tells me why I shouldn’t have a problem, shouldn’t feel upset, shouldn’t expect any different… that’s a situation to back out of at speed. I don’t expect things to be smooth and easy, I get things wrong all the time and fully expect people in my life will make mistakes too. Getting it wrong is not a measure of anything. I am going to start expecting people to care enough to listen, to try and find, with me, viable ways forward when things go awry. Not an expectation of being accommodated in all ways, that would be equally unreasonable, but conversation, not a lecture about what I should be. ‘Should be’ is about fitting in, not about belonging.

Without willingness to exchange, listen, negotiate, explain and seek mutual understanding, it’s mostly about fitting in. I’ve had a good look at the few places I don’t feel defeated by how people react to me. Those I will be investing in heart and soul. From now, everything else either makes that grade, or doesn’t get much priority.


Language, transphobia and hurting others (even if unintentionally)

Nimue Brown:

I think this is a really important post, and invites all of us to do some serious thinking and ask questions about how we include those who want to be included, how we might accidentally exclude people, and what we might choose to do if we find we got it wrong, and how much better things are when we care enough to ask how to fix things when they go awry. We all make mistakes. The measure of honour, for me, is what we do in the aftermath…

Originally posted on Treasure in Barren Places:

pagbah

EDIT (22/3/15): The producers of the podcast in question have said that they will edit it to remove the slurs (see latest comment on this post). I know that a lot of trans people and their allies will appreciate this. Thanks to Damh for this.

A podcast I admire has engaged in language that has hurt some of its trans listeners. Language that the producers could have edited, but chose not to.

At the same time, I’ve discovered that a polytheist group I used to think very highly of has been expressing violently transphobic sentiments about camps/conferences and women-only spaces. (I’m not linking to the places where, as I haven’t talked to members of this group since it happened so I don’t want to highlight them without right of reply – but the evidence is out there for everyone to see anyway.)

You’ll probably remember the trans-phobic incidents that…

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No place like home, and other stories

The stories we tell shape us as people and both inform and express the culture we belong to. Those stories aren’t always consciously held nor do we always stop to reflect on the implications of what we tell each other. From our earliest days, people tell us fairy stories full of ideas about what the world could be, and mostly isn’t. As a child I let go of happily ever after and poetic justice fairly early because it was so easy to see those things as unreal. There was one fairy story I held on to for a long time. Putting it down is hard.

It may seem odd to suggest Clive Barker as a writer of fairy stories, but for me, he always was. I came to him in my teens, and under the veneer of horror, found something I had until then been missing: Fairy stories for those who do not fit. Fairy stories for little monsters whose emotions, bodies and minds are not a tidy match for what’s around them. The greatest fairy story of all was of Midian. A home for monsters. A place for the magical, funny looking rejects where there could be home, community and companionship. Where being a little monster qualified you for entry.

I carried that story, and I believed in it as I believed in few others. As a possibility, and a metaphor. I hung on to the belief that somewhere out there was a place, or a tribe that would look at me and say ‘welcome home.’ A tribe that wanted me as I am, and that would be as horrified as I am by the idea of creating a fake shiny surface to fit in. A tribe of wild, open hearted people, not merely unafraid of things being serious and intense, but welcoming that, feeding on it, wanting and needing intensity and meaning as much as I do. A tribe where people think about things, and care, and don’t do as they’re told, and aren’t afraid of difference.

I thought, if it does not exist already, I will build it. I will find those people who dance to other music, and I will hold a space for them, and maybe if I hold that space, I too will be acceptable, I too will belong somewhere.

There is no Midian.

What I thought was a promising space turned into yet another social fail. Yet another wounding experience that sends me scurrying back into my hole, unable to cope with the light. This weekend, had I been able to fake an enthusiasm for sport, there are any number of places I could have shown up for camaraderie. I’d need to be ok about drunken shouting for that, and like Grendal, I find the drunken shouting difficult to take. Although it may be worth mentioning that I’ve never trashed anyone’s mead hall.

There is no Midian, and the fairy story that had given me hope is just another illusion and try as I might, I cannot make it real. I’m very tired this morning. All the other stories, I realise, have us as lone witch women deep in the forest, lone black knights. Outsiders who help insiders work out who they are, because they are not Other. Perhaps belonging is more meaningful if you can see the shadows of those who do not belong and know what is at stake if you do not conform to the requirements of the tribe. Look, act, dress and speak the part, uphold the same values and never question what they do. It’s not the case that if you act out, the wicked witch or the bogeyman will get you, it’s the case that if you fail to fit, that is who you become.


Gratitude Anxieties

I tend not to blog when I’m feeling sorry for myself. Partly this is because I only post when I think I’ve figured out something that could be useful to someone. The bigger part is about a fear of being judged, and as a consequence of that judgement, being blamed, shamed, ridiculed and told off. If I’m having a bad day, I’ve usually enough self-preservation instinct not to give people an opportunity to tell me I’m making a fuss and being unreasonable and should pull myself together and get over it. I’ve had enough of those conversations in my life to make me really resistant to admitting when it hurts.

“You have so much to be grateful for.” This is one of the most effective ways of silencing a person who was seeking sympathy and kindness or trying to express what the problem is. Now, I like gratitude as a practice, I think it’s a really good thing to make time for on a daily basis and it is really important to hold awareness of what the better bits of our life are and where we have reason to be thankful. There can also be a terrible tyranny to it, if gratitude is the only thing you are allowed to feel or talk about.

Some days, I really don’t feel very grateful at all. Prolonged bouts of bodily pain and/or exhaustion will do that, and it’s hard to be grateful for the nice weather or not living in a war zone while your body is making you cry. I know there are people who have it a lot worse than me and I could make some effort and appreciate that a bit more, right? Except, if you have an imagination or any empathy, you will know, or picture that worse stuff, and feel ashamed of making a fuss about whatever ‘little thing’ is bothering you. And yes, having my whole body hurt is something I have come to think about as a little thing I should not make too much fuss about even though I would be horrified by anyone else doing that. Everyone else’s pain is more real, more important and more worthy of care. It’s not like it’s going to kill me, and there are starving children out there.

As a child I could never work out why my silence in the face of distress was going to be of any use to a starving child many miles away who would be no better off thanks to my stoicism. I knew the comparison made me feel a lot worse about myself, left me ashamed of tears, guilt ridden over expressions of frustration. I still feel a pang of unease if I venture to acknowledge hunger, or other such trivial things.

It’s worth asking who benefits if we are obliged to be grateful in all things. If all we can express is gratitude and there is no room to express distress, or discomfort, then we certainly go a long way to making sure that the comfortable people never have to feel unhappy about other people’s problems. Without space for something other than gratitude, it is exceedingly difficult to ask for help, or to explain where your limits might be. An excess of gratitude can make it really hard to say no.

All too often, an approach that should be about helping those who have abundance and comfort to be kinder to those who do not, turns into a way of silencing those who most need to be heard. The poorest and most vulnerable are to be grateful for whatever crumbs they get from the table. Those who are suffering are to be grateful it isn’t any worse. Those who are struggling are to be grateful that they are at least not ill, not starving… and what of the gratitude of those who have far more than they need? No, we are instead told to be grateful to them because they are so very good for us.

I can’t help but feel that if gratitude is something you tell someone else they ought to feel, the whole thing has gone horribly wrong, one way or another.


Singing up the sun

I was out in the woods during yesterday’s solar eclipse. Rather than having my attention on the sun, I was mostly considering the light, and the way it changed. From the beginning of the eclipse, the light shift was noticeable, a very different kind of light to the effect you get when clouds come between us and the sun. But then, light passes through cloud.

In the woods, all the small birds were singing, and as the sky darkened, the singing grew louder and more intense. Then, as the light returned, the singing eased off again until we had the normal soundscape for that wood. I walk there regularly, I know what it otherwise sounds like at this time of year. I also know that the birds do not sing out like that when dark clouds cover the sun. They have songs- the blackbirds especially – for when they think it’s going to rain and for when the weather improves, but again that was distinctly different from what happened yesterday. Only the blackbirds sing the sun down, and they don’t do so much of that in the winter.

I met several dog walkers in the wood who remembered that, at the last eclipse, the birds had also sung, but stories shared online included tales of places where the birds went quiet in response to the eclipse.

Solar eclipses are far enough apart that there must be many generations of small birds between one and the next. For me it raised all kinds of interesting thoughts about how other life forms experience and understand things. Every day, the birds sing the sun up. In winter, is can be a bit of a token gesture, just a few voices and very brief, but someone will sing. During the summer, it’s a more involved and exuberant process. We humans have traditions of singing and dancing the sun up at key points of the year. Are we doing something similar? Might the same urge underpin both, or might we have learned to do this from the birds?

And because it appeals to my sense of the mythic, let me also offer you the irrational possibility that perhaps the return of the light does depend on the bird song. Perhaps if they stop singing, the whole thing falls apart.


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