Healing challenges

When there’s just the one thing wrong with you, healing can be fairly straightforward. However, when multiple things go wrong, there can be conflicts within your body. To give a simple example – if your back needs you to lie flat, but you have a stinking cold and can’t breathe easily unless propped up. When the side effects from the ideal medication interact with some other problem and you have no options.

There are a number of things I need to maintain my mental health. I need to walk and spend time outside. I need social time. I need to be creative and I need things that are mentally stimulating. None of this goes well with any kind of bodily illness. Needing bed rest and needing time with people do not easily combine. If I stay put and focus on getting my body well at the expensed of my mental health, this doesn’t go well for me. Equally, poor bodily health will undermine my mental health every time.

This is one of the reasons that unsolicited medical advice from random people can be such a miserable nuisance. Especially when said people are pushy and adamant that they have the magic cure for your ills and get angry with you if you say no to them. Because they didn’t know about the inner conflicts you have, or the things that won’t work with the magic cure. It’s no use telling someone to do yoga if being told what to do with their body is a major panic trigger (this has happened to me). It’s no good telling someone who also struggles with low blood pressure to take something that will, as a side effect, lower their blood pressure.

People with complex, multiple illnesses don’t tend to list off everything that’s wrong. Sometimes, people just want the relief that comes from being able to say ‘this is really shit right now.’ It’s no good insisting they should cover their face in bees if you don’t know how they respond to bee stings…

Pushing medical ‘solutions’ onto people who are ill can be incredibly bullying and demoralising. It’s the kind of bullying that hides behind the lies of ‘I’m only doing it to help you’ or ‘for your own good’ while offering no help and no good. Sharing information is always a good thing. ‘This helped me’ can be useful. The problems start when we insist people act on our information and refuse to hear their reasons for not wanting to.

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Delicious envy

Jealousy is a terrible emotion, filling you with bitter, resentful thoughts. Jealousy can make you detest the people who do the most good, or create the most beauty. Jealousy demands that we be centre stage, the best, the most important and cannot tolerate anyone who surpasses us. It sucks the joy out of all encounters with anything better than we could do ourselves. From what I’ve seen of other people going this way, it is a terrible approach to life and the person it reliably hurts the most is the person experiencing the jealousy.

We do get some say over our emotions. Not the most raw and immediate feelings, but how we process and develop them. Those choices, over time, shape us.

So, you see something that is better than anything you have ever done. It might be better than anything you could ever do. It is possible to simply enjoy it on its own terms and not feel diminished by it. Equally, you can look at whatever surpasses you, and see clearly your falling short, and celebrate it. Not being able to do something means there is more to learn and explore, more to do and enjoy. The feelings of difference between what you can do and what you can see do not have to lead to jealousy. They can become envy, and with practice, envy is an experience a person can enjoy.

Envy is jealousy minus the entitlement. If you don’t imagine that these things should have been yours instead, then you are not diminished by the achievements of others. What they do can instead raise you up by enabling you to see greater possibility than before. You can chaff against someone outclassing you without having to resent them for it, or think ill of them.

Competitive culture encourages jealousy. When we think in terms of winners and losers. When we think attention and rewards are limited, scarce even, and that what goes to one means less for yourself. Then we may feel other people’s success as threatening to us. When we think collaboratively, we can see other people’s success as part of our good. We pass each other building blocks to enable more good stuff to happen.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with looking at what anyone else has or does and feeling the distance between you and them. Feeling the distance is a natural emotional response. It’s what we then choose to do as we recognise the pang that matters. Do we dwell darkly on it and plot revenge? Or do we cheer with delight for the person who has just outclassed us while trying to figure out if we can catch up at all? When you respond with envy, not jealousy, it can be a delightful experience.


Survival Manual for the Human Race

I’ll be posting a proper review soon for the book this relates to, but let me say now that it is brilliant and please do hop over and read the post. The stories we share are such an important part of how we make the present and shape the future. We need better stories, and this is one such.

The Bardic Academic

Friday, 13 April 2018

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Things may seem pretty bleak out there at the moment – geopolitical unrest, climate chaos, displaced populations – and threats are real not only to the peace and security of our families and communities but to the very existence of humankind as the dominant species upon this planet. It all feels like The Eighties: the sequel. It was back then, living in the shadow of the Cold War as a teenager, that I first started to get seriously interested in science fiction as a way of speculating about the future. Alternative versions of now. For SF holds a dark mirror up to the present day. It has done this since its inception, in Mary Shelley’s masterpiece, Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus, published 200 years ago, but haunting us still about the perils of playing god, of science running amok. In the 30s Aldous Huxley explored the spectre…

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Return of the green

Greenness has been returning to my local landscape for weeks now. The slow unfurling of buds, the return of undergrowth, the shift in colour. The re-greening of spring is a long process, not an event. As I get outside every day in the normal scheme of things, I engage with this aspect of spring on a daily basis. I can heartily recommend it.

There have been years when I’ve failed to engage with the spring – mental health issues have been a big part of that. Experiencing it not as a daily development but as a dramatic moment is easier when you aren’t properly paying attention. That in turn is disorientating and has, in some years, left me with a profound sense of dislocation from the season.

‘Out into nature’ doesn’t have to be a big or difficult project. If there is anything non-human living where you do, then there’s scope to engage. Grass changes colour with the spring, becoming much more lush as it starts growing again. Flowers and small plants, even saplings will grow in the least promising of places. Any neglected ‘wasteland’ is soon reclaimed. Nature is not away, somewhere pristine and free from human meddling. Nature is with us all the time. Street trees do not consider themselves inferior to forest growth. The sparrows roosting in the street trees do not consider the trees to be anything other than their proper home.

When I was out yesterday, it felt like the greenery had reached a critical point. It no longer felt like it was getting started, and now feels like it is all under way out there. The green has returned. Small, opening leaves are everywhere. From a distance, the trees can look pretty bare, but up close, the unfurling is obvious. It’s also the smaller trees that leaf first – taking advantage of the light before taller trees get going – so to see what’s going on, you can’t view the wood as a whole thing from a distance.

For me, connecting with the plants is one of the easiest ways to connect with spring energy. Even if I’m not feeling so lively myself, I can delight in watching everything grow.


This Fragile Life – a review

This is an incredibly emotionally intense novel. It’s contemporary, set in the real world and is not fantastical in any way. It’s a book that explores the human heart and psyche with a mix of razor sharp insight and compassion.

Martha, after five rounds of failed IVF treatment is coming to terms with the idea that she is never going to have children. Martha is a successful business woman with a classy flat and a nice husband and from the outside she looks like she has it all. High School friend Alex didn’t get (or want) the snazzy college place or the high powered job – she works in a cafe part time and teaches art to disadvantaged kids. She has no money, no healthcare, and a tiny home. Alex is pregnant, and Alex does not think she has what it takes to be a decent mum. And so how could she refuse Martha’s suggestion that she give her baby to her friend?

Nothing, it turns out, is that simple. This is a tough story, and while avoiding spoilers, I will say that it made me cry, a lot.

There are lots of themes here. Poverty and privilege. What makes a good parent. What giving birth looks like when you’re dealing with private health care and have no insurance. What success means and what good relationships require. No one in this story is how they first seem. Some of them act terribly, or think really awful things. As you find out more about who they are and where they come from, many of those things make more sense. This is a story about how wounding is passed down through families and how hard it is to break out of family patterns of behaviour. It’s a story that makes clear that we do all have the power to choose and that none of us are obliged to keep repeating the things in our histories.

Events in this story bring out the best and worst in people. It’s a tale that demonstrates our capacity to grow and change, that we can all decide to be better than we were and that we may all have qualities we won’t know about until tested. Do we pull apart under stress, or prop each other up?

If you’re feeling fragile, this may not be a book for you – but it may also be cathartic. It’s well written, and it has a great deal to offer.

 

 


Stealing the surfaces

Back when I was at school, a girl in my class returned to the sixth form with a new wardrobe of alternative, goth and hippy clothing. She’d decided to reinvent herself over the summer and had the money to spend on getting the look. As far as I could make out, she didn’t have an alternative bone in her body. She just thought it would be cool to look that way. I have no idea if she got what she wanted from the experience.

They turn up everywhere. Witchcraft is especially prone to people who want the look and not much else. All forms of creativity attract people who want to be seen as arty but turn out not to be willing to put in the time and effort it actually takes to make stuff. I don’t know if this is because the people doing it never realise there’s more involved than the surface appearance. It’s probably about a desire for attention and wanting to be more interesting than they consider themselves to truly be.

Superficial lifestylers can be deeply annoying when you’re trying to really invest in something. People who can swing in and buy the appearance of your culture without really caring what that culture is. But at the same time, for most of us – if we are white, western, and not being oppressed in some way – we can afford to shrug and ignore it. Next year, these folk will re-invent themselves and become someone else’s problem. If your Pagan path is about getting online and trying to put straight the Pagans who aren’t Pagan enough or otherwise aren’t doing it right – well, that can become another superficial exercise in wanting attention and trying to look the part.

Wanting attention is very normal, very human. From our earliest school days we learn about cool kids and outsiders. We learn about group membership, and the importance of looking the part. We’ve got a celebrity culture based entirely on appearances and many of us grow up with little reason to think that depth of care and involvement are even a thing. Sometimes, when we do want to be taken seriously, we try too hard to look the part and to seem more than we are. The desire to be taken seriously by people who are doing it for real can prompt some daft behaviour. But again, our wider western culture doesn’t encourage us to rock up humble, admitting what we don’t know and showing respect to those who have done it for longer and gone to greater lengths.

For most humans, attention functions as a reward. What kind of attention it is can be less of an issue. So if you see someone buying their way in, being superficial, focusing on the bling and not the study and so forth, the best thing to do is make little comment or fuss about it. If they are someone who yearns for more than this, eventually they will figure out how to ask for guidance, or they’ll get moving on their own. If they aren’t serious, they will drift away. It’s when we pour energy into it and make drama around it that we reinforce being superficial. We’re rewarding it with attention and energy. Quiet disinterest can be a good way of guarding your own resources, and a simple, quiet way of teaching people to up their game.


What Paganism can learn from comics

There’ isn’t a definitive narrative for the Marvel universe. People keep re-writing Batman, Superman, Spiderman, retelling their origin tales. The X-Men have had more re-boots and parallel universes than most of us could keep up with. Some people only ever see the films. People keep telling new stories about these characters because they are popular. The stories keep up with wider social changes. None of these stories ever is or ever should be considered the ‘real’ version.

Imagine that as a person far into the future, you had some of the surviving comics to draw on. You had the middle bit of a film, a book review, three comics, seven fragments of fan fiction and the script for a crossover project. You don’t know which ones came first. You don’t know that you have fan fic in the mix, much less which bits fall into that category. Whatever sense you made of the content, it would not seem to you as it did to the people who created it.

When we look at what writings there are about myths, legends and ancient histories, it is of course tempting to think there’s an underlying truth to uncover. A real version. We look for coherence in stories about Gods and heroes. Coherence is generally in short supply. It occurs to me that we have something in mythology that has more in common with modern comics reboots and re-imaginings than it does with the agreed and fixed texts of book-orientated religions.

There may never have been a fixed, original story. There may be no single coherent truth to uncover. When we’re talking about figures like King Arthur, or Loki, the modern treatment of them in films and books may simply be a continuation of what’s always happened – people tell stories about characters they like.


Plastic progress

Some weeks ago, I wrote about the difficulty of getting non-recyclable plastics out of my life and my bin. I was struggling especially with finding proteins in plastics I could recycle. Plastic-free protein seemed impossible. And then, a magic thing happened! A lovely person opened a plastic free shop in Stroud.

I can now buy nuts, pulses, pasta, couscous, dried fruit and other dried goods with no packaging at all. I can rock up with any container or bag I like, or buy re-usable packaging in situ. I can buy as much or as little of anything as I like. It’s reasonably priced and there’s a good range. The only downside is that it’s a much longer walk getting stuff back, but that’s worth it once or twice a week. I figure I can build up stores of dry things.

This in turn leads me to the happy prospect of picking up more re-usable glass jars for my kitchen, and having shelves full of plastic-free dry goods. This is a very superficial side of things but one that will give me considerable joy. My kitchen is finally going to look the way I have wanted it to look, and it won’t be just an affectation. I’ll need those storage jars.

I’m also enjoying the impact this is having on my cooking. Homemade bean burgers are now a lunchtime stable and I’ve got raw cacao to play with!

I understand that supermarket Iceland has made some clear statements about eliminating plastic packaging, so, when that happens, I may give them a little more of my custom, too.

However, I’m much more keen to divert what funds I can to my local ‘loose’ store. When you buy from a big chain, money goes to shareholders. When you buy from an independent store, much more of the money stays in the local economy. Rents disappear into the distant pockets of property owners all too often, but that’s the biggest fly in the ointment. I’m interested in contributing to my local economy, and to community economics rather than to the bank accounts of shareholders. I have no desire to help other people make money out of money.

I hope what’s happened in Stroud will happen more places – and it could. We’re sold everything in unrecyclable plastics because the belief is that we want speed and convenience above all else. If we can create a demand for better sourced goods with less packaging, everything can change.


Trees, Druids and life after Ogham

Tree-related spirituality in Druidry may first present itself to us as ogham – an old listing system, for which tree lists are just one of the many options. Ogham is problematic in terms of who used it when and for what. I think it’s much more problematic in terms of how we use it now.

For me, the single biggest problem is the absence of the small leafed lime. Most of us in the UK are more familiar with the large leafed lime, brought in by the Victorians to decorate parks and cities. Once upon a time, the small leafed lime share with oak the role of main woodland trees. It was a massive part of our ancient woodland, but it served no purpose for humans, while oaks do. Woodland management favoured oaks, and the small leafed lime is a rarity these days. Why is it missing from the supposedly ancient ogham list of ancient trees?

There’s a lot missing. Beech, juniper, evergreen oak, chestnut, guelder rose, larch, horse chestnut, sycamore, field maple, wild fruit trees other than apples. Willow is not a single tree, but a whole family with many different characteristics, but we only get one generic willow.

Of course if you live somewhere other than northern Europe, your most important trees may well be missing. The less like Europe your environment is, the less relevant the ogham list will be. As a Druid, you need to connect with what’s around you. It’s interesting to learn about ancestral things, but first and foremost, a Druid must relate to the landscape they inhabit and all that lives in it.

The ogham lists give us meanings associated with trees. What we don’t get is the history of the tree, which other trees it is related to. We don’t get the properties inherent in the wood, and the uses the trees have been put to and how this has affected them, and the humans using them. We don’t get much folklore, either. We don’t get the folklore of specific ancient trees. It’s all a bit generic. It leaves me wondering why our ancestors would make a list of trees that didn’t include much about their inherent properties.

What would be far more productive, would be a personal list of local trees. From there, a person could compile whatever they needed to know in terms of use, history, place in local eco-systems and folklore, including local folklore.

If you aren’t the list making type, a relationship with actual trees that live around you is a much more valuable thing to pursue than the learning of ancient lists that have no immediate relevance for you.


Sharing a sacred space

We’re in school holidays at the moment, and so I have had the luxury of not having to set the alarm clock. Usually I’m up and working, and parenting before seven. On the plus side it gives me a solid working morning and I tend to get a fair bit done. However, I’d much rather wake naturally. I tend to wake with the sun, so at this point in the year I’m surfacing before the alarm would have gone off, and then I’m just lying there for a while.

Back when I was working on Pagan Dreaming, I thought a lot about the possibilities of bed as sacred space. For this to be so, your bed must be a place of comfort, safety and joy. Of course for many people who experience abuse inside their own homes – adults and children alike – the bed can become a focus of misery, not a place of safety. When you’re living with abuse, if can be very hard to see what’s going on. Abusers use shame, blame, mind games, criticism and lies to confuse their victims. So let me mention that if your bed is not a safe place, there are some very serious things wrong in your life.

There is profound luxury for me in these current, small lie ins. An extra hour here and there, warm, relaxed and relishing the company of the man who shares the bed with me. It is a gentle intimacy, rich with affection and good for the soul. But, there have also been times in my past when I’ve woken in beds other than this one, tense with anxiety and hurting with my whole being.

Care and respect are the basis of any healthy relationship. If we are kind to each other, if we take into account each other’s needs and feelings and check in with each other about that regularly, it is not difficult to have a good relationship. And yet, so many relationships are blighted by one person’s need to have control of the other person. It is usually men controlling women, and it is a state of affairs backed up by centuries of cultural norms and ideas about marriage as ownership. Fear of what the other person might do if we don’t control them can turn us into monsters. You can’t have a good relationship with someone who is afraid of you.

Lying next to someone when there’s nothing to prove. When there are no points to score, and there’s no fear of being judged, or blamed. Lying next to each other because it’s inherently lovely to do that, sharing space and skin and togetherness. What shocks me about this, sometimes, is how blessedly easy and uncomplicated it is. How little effort it takes to have this beautiful time. And in turn, how deeply unnatural it is to de-sanctify this sacred space with power games, bullying, and physical cruelty.