A rant against Commercialmass

Let me start by saying that if you are celebrating a festival over the winter, as a spiritual festival, then I take no issue with it. If you are, in a more communal way, celebrating family, and friendship and planning things that will make people happy – yourself included – I take no issue with it. All power to you. Winters are gloomy, often depressing times and a bit of warmth and good cheer goes a long way.

Commercialmass is none of those things.

Commercialmass is about spending money you don’t have on things you don’t need – quite possibly to appease people you don’t even like. Commercialmass is false jollity powered by spending and guilt. It’s the pressure to make a big day, even if you are tired, and worn and could do with a rest. It’s the time honoured tradition of pulling threads out of people who were already threadbare. It’s the season of overeating and over-drinking (or feeling the misery of poverty more keenly because you can’t), blotting out the things you want to avoid with a glut neither wallet nor waistline can afford. Festive is an advert on the TV, or the hope of what Amazon Prime can bring, and something has gone horribly wrong.

Commercialmass exists because retailers can get us to spend a lot of extra money on things no one really needs. The guilt of time we don’t spend with people, the anxieties, and insecurities we feel can all be assuaged for just a little while by the power of our spending. This is a lie, but the tinsel goes up at the start of December, the relentless Christmas adverts started in November. If your house isn’t lit, decorated and as gift laden as the ones you keep seeing in the ads, of course it’s easy to feel inadequate. We are meant to feel inadequate. That way, we spend more.

If what you celebrate in the darkest part of the year lifts your spirits, and lifts the spirits of those around you, then you’re doing it right. You’re doing something you can afford, that enriches life. The rest is just detail. If the prospect of midwinter depresses you, if you feel overstretched and financially compromised, if you fear debt, and fear looking like a failure, if you dread the work to be done on the day and the people you’ll be obliged to interact with, then you are one of the many people celebrating Commercialmass.

You don’t have to go through with it. A person can say ‘no’ to any and all aspects of the business. You do not have a moral obligation to create profits for other people. The season of goodwill to all shareholders is not something you have to engage with. Do it on your terms.


Those who remain

A bit back, I spent some time exploring possible alternative story shapes to the hero’s journey. At the end of the journey, the hero comes back with the new shiny thing – be that an object, a power, or an insight. Then the hero has to persuade the rest of the tribe that the new shiny thing has value, and sometimes, this is the hardest bit of the whole journey. Can the tribe accommodate the hero’s experience? They probably can’t understand him, they may resist change, or resent his ideas.

I think it’s worth pondering the journey of those who remain. For a start, if no one stays put, there is no closing act of the hero coming home. There is no home to come back to. The tradition and resistance the hero might struggle with, is also the thing that will hold his innovation ready for some future hero to have a problem with it.

Those who remain may have made heroic journeys at some previous time. However, those who remain as a choice, who make their journey through the same landscape day by day, still make a journey and their role is an important one. To be honest, this is a role I identify with far more than that of the wandering hero. My inclination is to stay, to put down roots, craft community and have a space for the wanderers to come back to.

Staying does not oblige me to resent those who travel. I do not have to be jealous of their journeys, nor need I feel threatened by them. I can be open to the stories and insights they bring back, and I can listen and bear witness when they reach the end of a particular journey and need to unload. For me this is not a hypothetical thing. As we develop a tribe in the valleys of Stroud, I notice that many of my people are adventurers, going forth repeatedly into the world to make their journeys and coming back with tales to tell. Not usually the world altering revelations of the official hero’s journey, but change nonetheless.

Many good things happen when we can embrace the domestic side of this story. The tribe the wandering hero returns to need not be resentful and unable to understand. The tribe may be full of people who have also wandered, and so do in fact get what it means to go away and come back again. Being the tribe, being the bit that stays at home need not be equated with narrow mindedness or disinterest. We do not have to be the final challenge to be overcome on a hero’s journey. We can thus point the way to the possibility of heroic journeys that are not conflict orientated, and that do not have to be struggle at every turn.


Risk taking and safe spaces

All too often ‘safe’ is treated like some kind of pathetic, counterproductive retreat for the innately useless. Talent show TV programs bully and ridicule the ‘talent’ as entertainment, while people who ask for safe spaces can expect to be mocked.

What happens when you give a person a safe space? Based on experience of holding safe spaces for people, and the experience of being in places where I feel safe, the results are not what might be expected. Safety has never, in my experience, resulted in people being comfortably crap. What happens instead is that people who feel safe are empowered to take risks.

A safe space means a space where you will be treated with kindness and respect. It doesn’t mean being rewarded for messing up, but it does mean having messing up as a recognised part of being human, and striving. It’s very difficult to do anything new or groundbreaking without making mistakes. Knowing that if you try to reach high and fail, no one will kick you if you miss and fall, makes it easier to reach. People who keep reaching, achieve all kinds of things. People who are afraid to make mistakes will play it safe and will have far less scope to develop.

Recent years took a toll on my confidence. I’d largely stopped performing, I’d not MCed in ages. Getting out in public to perform and participate was not easy. If I’d been met with hostility, ridicule, or anything of that ilk, I would have stopped very quickly. Instead, I found warmth, friendship, permission and opportunity. I felt braver as a consequence. Last week I ventured to sing one of my own songs, and I’ve pushed repeatedly to do things that were outside the comfort zone. It’s been possible to face down my anxiety because I’ve been in the company of people I know are on my side.

Alongside that, I’ve watched others take risks and flourish, finding skills they hadn’t known they possessed. Safe space makes that possible.

As a culture, we’re addicted to competition, and to the humiliation of others. We’re collectively quick to pull down and stomp on those who, in reaching for something better, stumble a bit. It’s not a good way to get things done. A few laughs at each other’s expense, and that’s all the benefit to be had. When we support each other, the possible outcomes are far more exciting.


Abusing your tolerance

There are four standard ways of turning a tolerant person’s tolerance against them. This is how they are presented:

Method 1) You have to tolerate my intolerance or your tolerance is a lie. Hate speech is freedom of speech, silencing hate is dictatorial, oppressive and intolerant.

Method 2) Your tolerance is allowing terrible people to do terrible things. Most typically at the moment, if you are tolerant of Muslims, you are tolerating anything that can be pinned to a Muslim criminal, if not actively encouraging and endorsing it. It’s because of people like you that a Muslim gang was able to sexually abuse white teenagers in the north of the UK.

Method 3) Your tolerance is, in a round about way, causing people to do terrible things. People becoming fascists, perpetrating hate crimes and voting for psychopaths is basically a reaction against your dangerous, oppressive tolerance.

Method 4 ) Your tolerance is oppressing me. I want to celebrate Christmas, but your tolerance means it’s not politically correct for me to be straight, white, Christian, affluent, safe. Your tolerance is not really tolerance, your tolerance is a means of oppressing innocent majorities.

I see these go by regularly online, and I think it’s important to publically flay their dodgy hides off. These statements are used to silence and confuse people who are tolerant, inclusive, compassionate and generally decent human beings. It fails to recognise that what we want to do is extend those basics of human decency to anyone who is quietly minding their own business and not doing any harm. Tolerance doesn’t embrace violence, criminality or hate, regardless of who is doing it. That would be apathy. Tolerance doesn’t stop people from going about their own harmless business – tyranny does that.

Genuinely tolerant, inclusive people aren’t afraid of not ‘being PC’ if a person is acting dreadfully. We might want to talk about the context, but understanding the reasons is a whole separate issue. Being told you can’t do things because they aren’t PC, actually tends to come from people who are not PC. Like the whole celebrating Christmas thing – the idea there’s even a problem here comes from the anti-PC brigade and seems to be a self perpetuating myth.

The idea that inclusive people who don’t need everyone else to conform to their preferences are in some way the cause of people becoming Nazis, is one of the most curious bits of double think I’ve seen in a while. It recognises that the Nazi bit really isn’t good, or desirable, but rather than blame the Nazis amongst us, is blames the people who are doing most to try and resist that very thing. At this point I can only shake my head in confusion and point you towards my recent post on gaslighting.

This isn’t about logic, or reason, it’s about forcing other people to shut up. The kind of people who attack tolerance and inclusivity don’t, I suspect, really care if the logic holds up. It’s not about the logic, it’s about the winning – which is why arguing and reasoning is likely to be a waste of your energy. Tolerance is not obliged to embrace the intolerant in order to still count as tolerant. It’s not a freedom of speech issue. It’s not a question of oppression. It’s a matter of drawing a line, and saying that violence, the call to violence, and harming people for no other reason than your own hate, isn’t acceptable. An it harm none, do what thou will. Go round trying to cause harm, and there should be no room to demand the tolerance you would deny to others.


Hope and Matlock the Hare

This autumn I undertook to re-read the Matlock the Hare trilogy – I proof-read the third volume earlier in the year, and that’s not the optimal reader experience. Plus, I wanted to read the series as a whole from a position of understanding what it’s really about.

Book 1 of the Matlock series introduces Matlock the Hare, on his quest to solve a riddle to become officially more magical. As a magical hare, he’s got three such tests to do, and the reader can be forgiven for thinking this sounds like wizard school for hares. But it isn’t. As Matlock sets out in book 2 on trial number 2, it’s increasingly obvious that the glorious magical world he inhabits is beset by problems. When you get to book 3 it becomes evident that the story you were reading is not really the plot at all, which is all I am going to say on the subject.

Re-reading the trilogy, it struck me how clever the whole thing is – the apparent main plot line distracts you from a whole other story that’s being woven right under your nose, and becomes visible only towards the end of the third book. The re-reading process is full of new surprises and delights as you start to see how the real story was there all along, hiding in plain sight.

What struck me most on the second time through was the mix of political satire, and hope. Making dark comedy out of modern politics is in many ways a natural reaction, but usually there’s a quality of despair to it. To poke the heaving mess that is modern politics while remaining warm-hearted, and able to encourage people to hope for the best, is an incredible achievement. We need more of this sort of thing.

On the second read, the third volume had me in tears. Not over the overtly sad bits, or the twizzly bits, but over a long passage about the importance of hope and how to live well. Life at the moment can feel like a desert where hope is just a dead thing whose bones you can see. But, in the Magical Dales, hope is alive and well, and waiting to be found.

Commercialmass is looming as I write this blog. If you need to gift someone with something good, do consider getting this set – it’s beautiful stuff, with gorgeous illustrations, giggles/chickles (did I mention a language to learn?) the routine puncturing of officious pomposity, crumlush creatures, and hope. Lots of hope. It is a series you can read repeatedly, and that stands up to close inspection, without tidying itself up too neatly – I always feel a bit cheated by that. The books leave you with plenty to wonder about, while also providing a very satisfying sort of read.

More here about Phil and Jacqui Lovesey’s Matlock the Hare  – http://www.matlockthehare.com/


Interview: Tom and Nimue Brown

With Hopeless Maine back out in the world this week, Tom and I did an interview about what we do and how and why we do it.

Chimaeral

Dear Reader, when it rains it pours! 

Last week saw the release of a new urban fantasy series, and this week sees a new edition of one of the most interesting comics I’ve come across – Hopeless, Maine by husband-and-wife creator team Tom and Nimue Brown – sees the light of day, released by Sloth Comics.

Now, what is Hopeless, Maine you may wonder? Well, I will do a full feature later in the week, when it’s been released, so for now I’ll just give you a little teaser:

Hopeless, Maine is more than just a name: it is a place (an island, to be exact), a graphic novel series, a wealth of stories (told as well as hinted at); it’s a mythology of it’s own, even. Tom and Nimue have created a wonderful world – one which I myself have really only begun to explore – rich with myth…

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Bard skills: Many things to practice

When you’re rehearsing a piece of material, you’ll undoubtedly practice the obvious bits. There are however a few less obvious things that it pays to practice as well.

Practice breathing. This is especially important if any part of the performance is coming out of your mouth, and not irrelevant for non-mouth-based things as well. Anxious people don’t breathe well, and not breathing well can compromise any performance. If you learn to breathe with what you’re doing, it will increase your resilience.

In any mouth-based performance, breathing affects the phrasing and flow. Work out where you can breathe without damaging the flow, and where you need to breathe and practice the piece with the breathing in your chosen places. You may find in situ that you perform faster, or use more air to make more noise, but even so, having practiced with breathing in mind you’ll be better off.

Practice what you’re going to do with your body. If you intend to perform stood up, practice standing up. Think about where your feet will be. Explore how movement and stillness impact on your performance. Experiment with hand gestures and facial expressions if relevant. What happens with your body in performance should not be incidental, but part of the whole. That doesn’t mean you need to choreograph the whole thing, but it pays to have given it some thought.

Think about how you will frame the piece with words and actions. Don’t get bogged down in this or deliver a script, but think about what people might most need to know. That could be a simple ‘please join in’ or ‘this is a song by…’ If you are very new to performance, don’t apologise – that just makes your audience nervous too. It’s ok to say you’re new to it – that can make an audience more sympathetic and supportive.

Think about all the things that might realistically go wrong for long enough to have a plan about what you will do if that happens. It could mean a copy of the words stuffed in a pocket, being ready to laugh at yourself, or a backup piece of material you feel more confident about.

Practice while visualising the audience and the space you’ll be in. If you don’t know what to expect, just guess, it’s still helpful. Practice how you are going to feel in the performance space – consider your nerves, but also consider how excited you might feel and how euphoric if it goes well. Practice while feeling euphoric and like it’s going well. Imagine yourself doing an excellent job. It’s useful to be prepared for the worst, but in expecting the best and building that expectation into your performance, you’ll likely do a better job.


Seasonal rituals and connecting with nature

Having written recently about being a fair weather Pagan, it struck me that this is a perfectly reasonable way to do things, if the wider context supports it. Doing winter ritual indoors, or quickly, or not at all, causes no issues if rituals are not how you connect with the seasons.

Over the years when I was running ritual, there were some people for whom the eightfold wheel provided the time when they really got out into the trees. People who are overworked, people in very urban environments, people with no confidence about getting into the woods, may find it harder to do so without the support of a ritual group. It’s worth noting that all my ritual locations in that time were green spaces in urban settings, not anything remote.

Sometimes the issue is learning to see nature where you are – in sky and season, urban trees and the many wild things that make their homes around our homes. Nature is in us and with us, for many it’s just a case of learning to recognise it.

I’ve talked recently about having a shifting daily practice. For me that has a seasonal aspect, of necessity, but whatever form it takes, it’s about an ongoing process of engagement. So if you’re doing something every day to tune in to the seasons and the living world around you, this impacts on ritual. It gives you a firmer basis to work from for seasonal ritual and it also means that if you need to do your ritual work indoors, it’s not costing you a sense of connection.

With the right kit (decent shoes and coat for a start) walking in winter is often a good way of connecting, where standing about outside would leave a person far too cold. For people who cannot walk, being immobile outside likely won’t work either. If you can’t get out much, sitting at windows can be very productive. Use the senses that are easiest for you as a basis for making your connections. If you’ve got the resources to challenge yourself – all well and good, but if you haven’t, then take it as a creative challenge instead.

When ritual is something we do to connect with the seasons, we’re more likely to go in with a script based on what we think the season is supposed to be. When ritual is a celebration that comes from knowing how this season is unfolding, we’re in a stronger place to do something meaningful. An indoor ritual based on a body of outdoor experience is thus likely to be deeper than a cold, short outdoor ritual based on what we thought was going on.


Teaching Druidry, Learning Druidry

I have, at various times and by assorted means, tried teaching Druidry. It’s an odd business for me – not least because I dislike dogma and authority, and firmly believe that modern Druidry is something we have to make for ourselves as individuals. Of course teaching doesn’t have to express authority or dogma, but it’s so easy to accidentally fall into either, or both.

I’ve learned a lot when I’ve been teaching people. It’s allowed me to find out a great deal about other ways to see the world. One of the things it taught me is that I enjoy being a student, and always feel a bit out of my depth if asked to taking a teaching role, but that at the same time I find teaching exciting, and watching people find their own way even more so.

This has led me to the conclusion that most of the time, creating space is more productive than any attempts at formal teaching. It’s also less demanding in terms of time and effort. Give people a space, an opportunity, and let them do it on their own terms, and what they find will be their own, and will have its own shape. It removes all temptation for the teaching to be about how clever and important the teacher is, and it frees the student from any dogma the teacher might have been hauling around.

Too often, teaching can mean imagining the student as the blank page onto which the teacher must write their great wisdom. But, if you start from the idea that what the student needs to do is discover their own wisdom, everything changes. If you aim to have the student find their own inspiration, their own insight, their own magic… then giving them yours is of limited use.

There are a great many ways of creating opportunities, and this is something we can all do for each other without needing a hierarchy of teachers over students. Anyone can make a space, and anyone can work within a space to experience and develop. All that is required of a space is that it gives people room to have experiences. That could be a moot set up to talk philosophically. It could be a ritual or a bardic circle that doesn’t overly direct participants. It might just be a walk, a few pointers for a drawing exercise, a meditation space or room to dance.

I think the best scope for learning occurs when we are least invested in controlling each other’s experiences. One person cannot teach another person to have a spiritual experience – it’s just not possible. All we can do is show each other the things that might lead to spiritual experience.


Fair Weather Pagan

I admit it, I’m a fair weather Pagan. My willingness to go out and celebrate the seasons depends highly on weather conditions and temperature. This summer we started a monthly venture of going out to celebrate the full moon in a bardic way. The last session was in September because by October, the idea of standing round outside, at night, for an hour or so to share songs and stories, held no appeal whatsoever. We’ve moved to the pub, where there is less sense of the magical natural world, less of the shining full moon, but also less risk of accident, injury, or just getting very cold.

Having had chilblains during several winters, my willingness to stand around in the cold is not what it might be. Having fallen on the way out of a session in the dark – painful and embarrassing – I’m in no hurry to put myself forward for that again. Being out as a bard by the light of the full moon is a glorious thing, in the right conditions, but during a British winter, the prospect does not inspire.

There are always balances to strike between connection and viability. The younger, fitter, healthier and better resourced we are, the easier it is to do more extreme things. Gone are the days when my body can easily bear the experience of a sleepless night on the cold side of a hill.

I’ll continue to connect with the seasons, but I have to do so on terms that work for me. Daytime rituals and gatherings in the winter mean better light levels for dealing with the more slippery ground conditions – be that mud or ice. Staying warm, not being out for as long, not being as far off the beaten track, are all part of how I respond to winter. Waterproof trousers and thermal socks, a flask of something warm and a flashlight. These are not things my ancient Pagan ancestors would recognise, but then that’s true for the larger percentage of how I live my life.

‘Getting back to nature’ is something we as modern Pagans can often only do because we have a car to get us there and a washing machine to deal with what nature does to our trousers. It’s easy to kid ourselves that our particular work-around is somehow more natural, or more authentic – be that ski gear, energy drinks, or thermal underwear. We don’t live close to the land and seasons in the way our ancient ancestors did. Most of us don’t have the physical capabilities, knowledge or experience to live as our ancestors did. Doing what makes sense to you is fine, but don’t avoid looking at what you’re doing.

I think it’s better to be honest about what we are, and aren’t, and to modify ritual behaviour according to what we can genuinely cope with. Driving out to ‘nature’, dressing up in expensive, modern kit and knowing we can warm up with something hot from the microwave when we get home does not mean being especially in tune with our ancient ancestors. It just means we can afford this stuff – not everyone can. It’s worth thinking about the kinds of effort involved in winter rituals, and being honest with ourselves about what we’re doing. It makes more sense to me to have a practice that reflects how you live, rather than having to do things that are otherwise quite unnatural to you, (or prohibitively expensive) with the idea that this will bring you closer to nature.