Dreaming a better future

This is mostly a plug for another blog post – https://thebardicacademic.wordpress.com/2016/05/25/defining-goldendark/  – please read it. It’s an exploration of the fantasy genre, with an eye to what we might need writing to do for us.

For me it also functions as a challenge. I think what Kevan Manwaring is asking of authors – and really by extension anyone making a creative engagement with life (all of us, surely?) – is the expressing of hope. And if we don’t have hope, the requirement to imagine, find or otherwise create it. Without hope, we can’t fashion a better future.

This week I’ve been struggling with depression. The nature of the ailment means that right now, I could not create the hope to get myself out of a wet paper bag. I’d just sit in the wet paper. Sometimes what we need is for someone else to tell us that basically its just a wet paper bag and it wouldn’t take much wriggling to be out of it. Where the challenges are bigger, the need for hope is greater.

Better things are possible, but to get there, we need to start telling each other stories about those possibilities, and making it believable for each other.

How to destroy a culture

History offers us many terrible examples of attempts to destroy cultures through violence and oppression. What it also demonstrates is that, so long as there is someone left alive who cares, and either has access to memory or other sources, something of the culture will survive. People will go to remarkable lengths to protect the things they are passionate about.

As a consequence, I am endlessly confused by the people who think that immigration, and Europe, can somehow damage British culture. I find it doubly odd when you factor in that our radio stations are not carrying anything like as much European pop music as they do American songs. Our cinemas are not awash with arty continental films, but with Hollywood films. Our televisions are not broadcasting French sitcoms and Italian dramas to a great degree (I gather there was a Scandinavian  woman with a jumper, but it’s hardly a cultural takeover).

I have a suspicion that many of these fanatical defenders of ‘British culture’ would struggle to identify anything iconically British. Chicken tikka masala, perhaps.  Football, which clearly no one else in Europe plays. Saturday night drunkenness, which literally no other country on the planet goes in for. King Arthur (and many of his stories actually come to us from the French, but who’s counting?) Defenders of ‘British Culture’ also don’t seem to know that since the last ice age, all we’ve had is immigration. Our language is a composite of the languages of settlers, and invaders. Our traditions and history are deeply intertwined with the histories and traditions of people across that tiny strip of water. Really, it’s not a lot of water, people have been back and forth across it in boats for thousands of years.

A culture dies when no one cares about it. How many people who claim to be pro-British culture have any involvement with, or interest in any British traditions? I suspect most of them don’t. I note that every single folk person I know has made no suggestion that we need to protect our traditions from other people. Why would we? Other people’s traditions are not a threat. Cultures die when people stop caring about them.

The threat to Britishness does not come from outside. The threat to Britishness, and I do think there is one, comes from the apathy of the British. If we don’t care about our history, heritage, landscape, unique natural phenomena, folklore, and traditions, that’s our fault. No good blaming people from other cultures. It’s not like anyone is closing our libraries and museums, selling off our most environmentally important landscapes for development, fracking our land, destroying our archaeology in the name of progress, taking away funding from indigenous language projects, or creating a culture of forced work mobility to undermine communities… Oh, that would be our government, wouldn’t it?

Underthinking and why you have to stop it

Not overthinking is one of the ever present internet memes. I’m going to have a little bit of a rant about this. Step back now if you aren’t in soap-box mood, because this drives me nuts. I see precious little evidence of overthinking, and a lot of evidence that a lot of people amble carelessly through life doing far less thinking than is a good idea.

We need to think. We need to consider the consequences of our actions and the way our behaviour impacts on others and shapes our own future options. We need to consider our lifestyles, and the choices available to us rather than living in a reactionary way from moment to moment.

Spontaneity can be good, but the person who has no idea of their inclinations, feelings and intentions and no awareness of their unconscious and its impulses, can end up doing some bloody awful things spontaneously.

No past, no future, only the perfect now is probably fine if you’re sitting in a monastery surrounded by other people who are dedicating their lives to peace and enlightenment. If you are living in the world, this whole logic cuts you off from the consequences of your own actions. And sure, that can save us from awkward feelings like guilt, shame, and responsibility, but that’s a really questionable outcome.

Any tool can be used badly. If we use our rational minds to imagine every possible thing that could go wrong, or to over-interpret every tiny thing said to us, then yes, we will drive ourselves and the people around us crazy. Thinking deeply is a tool to deploy with care, and to develop the wisdom to know what to really dig into and what to let go comes from… wait for it… actually thinking about things.

In the meantime, how about we think a bit more about the ways our culture functions. Let’s think about the economic structures and who they are killing, let’s think about how the drive for profit destroys the planet, let’s think about human suffering, and non-human suffering around the world and how we might change that. Let’s think about the consequences of our lifestyle choices.

You’ll be happier if you don’t do this. You’ll be happier if you refuse to look, to know and to consider. You’ll be happier if you can pretend nothing is ever your fault or ever your responsibility. Underthinking is all about the ease of not dealing with the consequences, and the happiness that comes from being oblivious. It’s a happiness that kills. Underthinking is how we get to be the zombie apocalypse. It’s long past time to wake up.

Contemplations of a people pleaser

Rare is the day when the internet doesn’t offer me a ‘how to fix your life’ statement. Usually those statements contain the idea that not being a people pleaser is the way to go. Every time I see this, it saddens me, because it feels like a rejection of something that I hold dear, and that is intrinsic to who I am and what I do. Amusingly, I’m not quite enough of a people pleaser to apologise for being a people pleaser every time some random stranger tells me I shouldn’t be doing that.

I know I can’t please everyone all the time. I know some people just aren’t pleasable, and that some people just don’t deserve that kind of response. I know there are people who will respond to me by using and taking.

I also know that pursuing my own goals at someone else’s expense is deeply uncomfortable for me. I know that given the choice between what a community needs, and what I need, that I’ll go all Mr Spok – the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the one – namely me. I know that if I see someone suffering, struggling, in need, that my impulse is to try and help in whatever small way I can. I know that given the opportunity to cheer, encourage support and enable someone else, I’ll take that opportunity and do the best I can with it. I also get this stuff wrong, I turn out to be inadequate, I misjudge and I care about that when it happens.

Granted, not giving a shit about anyone else and always putting your own needs first tends to make happy the kind of people who are happy to live that way. I see it as a cold, hollow way to live. As an author and a performer, I am addicted to the applause, but you don’t get the applause unless you can do something people appreciate. To stand on a stage and make an audience laugh. To write a blog post that touches someone else. To write a book that someone loves. There is no greater reward for me than someone else’s laughter, or seeing someone get up again after life has knocked them down, or seeing someone enabled to do things they could not do before.

Generally when people say ‘people pleaser’ it’s not offered as a compliment. We live in a culture where taking, controlling, using, directing and having the good things flow towards you is seen as a sign of power. To give, to offer, to compromise, to help, to serve – these things are seen as weak. ‘Strong’ people can even feel morally entitled to use people who are ‘weak’ in this way. Doormats. Fools. Certainly along the way I have met people who have seen my nature as an invitation to abuse my good will, and who have cheerfully told me it’s my fault for giving too much in the first place.

There are many things I’ll try in order to comfort or assist, but one of the things I won’t do is apologise (any more) for who I am. I won’t accept being shamed for being generous, and I won’t accept that service makes it ok to just use me. I won’t be part of this narrative. A desire to make things better does not have to include a willingness to be undervalued while doing it, and it does not have to mean going along with the bullshit hippy memes that say ‘stop trying to please other people’ as a way to improve your life.

Having a default setting of ‘people pleaser’ is not consent to be used in all ways by all comers, any more than an enthusiasm for sex is consent to be used in all ways by anyone who wants to. We live in a culture that puts a price on everything, and that has some rather sick reactions to generosity of all kinds. And until we learn to go round being nicer to each other, this is unlikely to change.

Fiction – The sisters who were never princesses

There were once three sisters, who wanted, more than anything else, to be important. Why they didn’t have the normal, socially acceptable obsessions with beauty, wealth and tying down a prince, history does not tell us. Perhaps they were all bored by that kind of story. Certainly, none of them saw bagging a prince as the answer to their ambitions.

The eldest sister was quite willing to earn her importance, so she went round doing useful and clever things. However, she spent at least as much time telling people about all the marvellous things she was doing. Over the years, this continued until she did very little and talked about it incessantly. Naturally, she’s now in politics. She never felt important enough to feel quite comfortable, suspecting that historians will not be convinced by her PR machines.

The middle sister was a truly lazy person with a deep seated sense of entitlement. As a consequence, she didn’t see any point in doing things. It was natural, she felt, that she would be important. She took what advantage she could of her eldest sister’s rise, and managed to get a fair amount of media attention by falling out of nightclubs, and her clothing. She learned that shouting at people when they didn’t act like she was important, was something she enjoyed regardless of the consequences. The result was that she lived a long and happy life, mostly getting her own way for little effort.

The third sister wasn’t very clever at all. She tried to earn her importance, by doing all kinds of work for all kinds of people. She spent her days very busy, but it never crossed her silly mind to tell anyone how busy and good and useful she was. No one noticed, and as the years passed, no one, including her, felt that she was important at all.

There’s probably a moral to this story. There might be several.

Self esteem and the spaces that hold us

I’ve struggled with the idea of self esteem for some years. Struggled in a way I imagine is vaguely comparable to never having had some other functioning part of a body in that it’s really hard to imagine the functioning of something you’ve never had. I can’t figure out how to grow one and the self-help books leave me anxious and feeling inadequate.

The conventional wisdom is that we must not base our self esteem on external things, because that makes us too vulnerable. The truth is that what passes for self-esteem in me is entirely dependent on what’s around me. If I’m in kind, accepting spaces that value me and treat me well, I can be quite happy and functional. Treat me like shit and it’s almost instantly internalised and I fall into despair.

When I act based on the idea that my self esteem *should* come from within, and that I *fail* at this, I remain vulnerable to spaces that hurt me.

My impression is that the person with good self esteem will not accept the spaces where they are treated dishonourably, casually etc. They will leave. The person with poor self esteem is more likely to accept it as fair judgement, and stay. When your self esteem is a fair percentage externally sourced, this means a low self esteem increases the chances of staying in spaces that perpetuate a sense of low self esteem.

It’s taken me long enough to figure this out!

If I admit that my self esteem derives from my environment, everything changes. I can look at my environment differently. Do I feel safe, welcome and happy? Great, this is a good place, I should spend time in it. Do I feel cheap, worthless, used, and the like? Bad place, need to leave because if I stay it will start to define me.

I note that by thinking this way, and acknowledging how I am, I get to behave more like a person with good self esteem. If I can manage to work with this, and spend most, if not all of my time in spaces where I feel safe and happy, then to all intents and purposes, I will be a person with good self esteem.

This in turn raises questions about the people who, usually for economic reasons, are not able to vote with their feet to escape from oppressive and dehumanising situations. The psychological damage of being forced into appalling conditions out of poverty and desperation, is something we need to be thinking about, and working to change.

Great books and an awkward reviewer

I’ve got two books to review and the same problem with both of them. I thought I’d try waiting for a day when I feel more positive, but it’s not coming, so, here we go. Great books do get bad reviews because the reviewer was in a bad place – I’ve had it happen to me and its monstrously unfair, so I’m going to try and handle this well. Bear with me.

The Coarse Witchcraft Trilogy, Melusine Draco. This is a funny and clever book, that reads like fiction but to some degree isn’t. There’s a lot of experience and insight underpinning it, so that, without really revealing anything, it gives the newbie or wannabe witch a chance at spotting the fakes and fraudsters. It is also a really funny and engaging book. The problem? That unsettled feeling of being outside of the secret knowledge, outside of the tradition, a bit unrooted. Seeing the fluffier, more permissive Pagans, the ones who lack substance, and feeling much more identification with that, than with the ‘real’ stuff. My insecurity, and my truth, such as it is. And of course it’s the desire to be more real, more worthy of taking seriously, more important that turns a subset of the Pagan community into fraudsters and fakes, lying to get attention. It’s as well to be alert to these things. I am at least honest fluff.

More about the book here – http://www.moon-books.net/books/coarse-witchcraft-trilogy

Iona, Mary Palmer. It’s a really beautiful poetry collection, full of vivid imagery and soulfulness, challenge, quest and difficulty. One of my problems with it was technical – that it is both a poetry collection, and a kind of story. The story is told through little asides that frame the poems, and feature two characters. I had trouble engaging with the characters, and might have done better with the poetry had it not been framed in this way. The problem could well be me – that I’ve not coped with something unfamiliar in a poetry book and just didn’t know how to read it. More experienced readers of poetry may well find this far easier to navigate. It is perhaps the case that I’m too easily swayed by narrative, and that someone more invested in the poetry would not get waylaid in the same way.

More about the book here – http://www.awenpublications.co.uk/iona.html

What really threw me – and this is entirely personal and not a flaw in the book at all – was the biographical content at the end. Poet Mary Palmer died in 2009 and the biography at the end of the collection sums up her life and work. It’s written with deep affection and respect, charting what she did and who she did it with, the context for writing, and the life around the work. There are glowing endorsements from others who love and value what she did.

Creative jealousy is a terrible thing. But, in writing this blog I’ve made a commitment to honesty, and to talking about things that aren’t much talked about. It’s an exposure of self to admit the degree to which I’ve been uncomfortable with both books because of the enormous sense of personal inadequacy I feel in face of this work. I think it’s important to air it though, and to look at how it distorts behaviour, because it can be a major factor in terms of how books are reviewed. Titles that cause us to see ourselves in an unflattering light can easily be blamed for the feelings they evoke. It’s hard to face up to it and say yes, this author is more than I will ever be. Perhaps if more of us were able to do it, it would take some of the sting out of the fact that most of us will never be all that we hope to be.

Dave Simpson – a tribute

Dave Simpson was one of the gentlest and most generous people I have ever met. He turned up with a guitar at my folk club about 11 years ago (I ran a folk club in the Midlands for about a decade). From there he stepped forward with remarkable enthusiasm, to participate in any and every hair brained scheme I came up with.

As a consequence, I sat out on hills with him to see up the Midsummer sunrise. He joined the mumming side, initially as the Doctor. As there were a lot if Daves in the mix, my then very young son named him as ‘Doctor Dave’ for ease of identification, and ‘Doctor Dave’ he remained. He went on to play the wizard Tardebigge in a script I’d written, to be King Pelinor in one of our Arthurian productions, and the Green Knight in another. When the folk club couldn’t find a venue, he loaned me his living room, and it was in his garden one year that a group of us read A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

For many years, I jammed with Dave and his son Andy on pretty much a weekly basis. Them with guitars, me with a violin. It was an emotional safe-space for me during a challenging part of my life. On the day I most needed help, he provided me with refuge.

When I left the Midlands, I stopped seeing a lot of people. With no car, and for two years mostly in the middle of nowhere on a narrowboat, getting out to visit people was hard. Able to offer a tiny, cramped and problematic space, I was not much in the habit of inviting people over. By the time I got to Stroud, Dave was ill, and in and out of hospital. I thought there would be opportunity, and enough time, and I was wrong, and I can’t find words adequate to express how much I regret what I did not do.

I know that’s always the way of it with death. It’s the things we didn’t say and do that hurt most, afterwards.

Dave was my first student. He was interested in Paganism and there was no one I felt I could send him to. At the time I’d never taught, felt far too inexperienced, but he needed a teacher. And so, week by week, I wrote short pieces about different aspects of Paganism and Druidry, and emailed them over to him. I’ve since used that material with a lot of other people, and I know others are re-using it. Would I have started blogging, and started writing Pagan books had he not needed me to do that? Quite possibly not.

I hope he knew how much I valued his presence in my life. I can only wish that I had been a better friend to him. He was a fine chap, passionate about music, song writing, bringing a quiet intensity to everything he did. He wasn’t afraid to care, and to make that care visible, he had a lot of integrity, and a generous nature. I have missed him. I will always miss him.

There is only one way to finish. With the song he sang, when asked to, to close nights at folk club. I’ve played fiddle on this many times. Travel well, Dave.


Poem – By their fruits

By their fruits


My tribe are the hidden ones

The underground breakers down

Of last season’s discard.

The nitrogen magicians

Enabling life in many forms.

Orchid to oak

We are soil-lace

Encouraging leaf and flower.

See me briefly

Let me intrude a fruiting body

Into airy upper realms

Shiny red cap, rare green,

Spotted fairy fly agaric

Generously capped wands

To weave enchantment

Nourish or poison.

A moment of glory.

My true work is underground

In the roots and beginnings

In decay and endings

In secret.

Earth dreaming.

Prayer and meditation

There can be a fine line between prayer and meditation, if you are inclined to work that way. One of the things I do is to contemplatively deconstruct The Gorsedd prayer in times of difficulty. The reflective process clears my thoughts and generally improves things. I have never been sure whether there was anything coming towards me as a consequence of working with the prayer, but it works, regardless.

Grant, oh spirits, thy protection. I reflect on why I am feeling vulnerable and what I might need protecting from, and how that protection might manifest. Courage is often key.

And in protection, strength, but what do I need to be strong for? What kind of strength, and how should it manifest? What do I need the strength to do?

And in strength, understanding. What do I need to understand in this situation? What might I better understand if I was feeling more sheltered, and thus feeling able to be more generous? Can I do that anyway?

And in understanding, knowledge. Knowledge is always good. Where are the holes in my knowledge? What might I have overlooked?

And in knowledge, the knowledge of justice. What would justice look like in this situation? What do I have to do to make that happen?

And in the knowledge of justice, the love of it, well, yes, and then we get into the love of gods and goddesses, of all existence, and all goodness. This causes the most pondering, because I don’t actually believe that unconditional love for all things is any kind of good idea. I reflect on where my heart is in the situation, what I love and what I do not, and why.

As I go through each line and reflect, my mind inevitably wanders around a lot. I have a nomadic mind, but the structure of the prayer pulls me back, over and over, to working through a deliberate series of thoughts. It calms me, and it improves my clarity. It reminds me that there is a sacred aspect to everything I do. It helps me to be more generous and less judgemental.

More about the Gorsedd Prayer here – https://druidlife.wordpress.com/2012/02/06/the-gorsedd-prayer/

More about working with prayer here – http://www.moon-books.net/books/when-pagan-prays


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