Making dedications

Making dedications in a ritual context is a powerful process if you get it right. Even if you are solitary, ritual can give a sense of being witnessed, and of your dedication being held by something bigger than yourself. It can add weight and impetus to a project, and help you bring a sense of sacredness into your life.

The dedication itself is a good process for turning vague ideas into deliberate plans of action. In moving towards making a dedication, you are organising your thoughts, feelings, priorities and values. Figuring all this out is a good thing to do. What do you need to dedicate yourself to? What needs more of your time? What, in the immediate future, is going to be your sacred purpose?

Generally I’m a big fan of improvising in ritual, but not where vows and dedications are concerned. It is really important to spend time with this in advance. Figure out what you need to say and what you are willing to bind yourself to. Figure out how bound you need to be, and how much flexibility you need. It tends to work better if you don’t tie yourself down too precisely, and it is important to be realistic. “I dedicate myself to becoming an amazing artist” may not be realistic. “I’m going to draw something from nature every day for the next month” is totally realistic and will make you a better artist.

Dedications do not have to be forever, and it can be better to put a time frame on them and check in with them and see how it’s going. Do it for a month and report back to your sacred space. Do it for a year even. Give yourself room to put the dedication down when the work is done. “I dedicate my life to the protection of this wood” might not be the right answer – you could lose that fight. “I will fight for this woodland for as long as it takes to protect it, for as long as these trees remain’ is a much more functional sort of dedication.

If you make a dedication and then can’t keep it, honour that. Come back to your ritual space and speak of what has happened and why. Reword your dedication and start again. Don’t leave something hanging and unfulfilled, that won’t do you any good.

If you dedicate to something with an end point, celebrate the end point.

Dedications can strengthen resolve and help us work out how best to serve. If you work in a group, then hearing and supporting each other’s dedications can be inspiring and creates practical ways in which you can support each other. This kind of process can help a person be bolder, push the edges of their comfort zone, and find out who and what they want to be.

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Pagan Community – matters of access

To be a proper community, we need plenty of spaces people can access without having to pay. Many other religions have advantages over us in this regard – having physical spaces people can turn up to with a paid clergy on hand. Many other religions set the bar far lower than we do – a person need only show up to a church to be included in a service. Modern Paganism doesn’t recruit and fundraise in the way some religions do, which is also why we don’t have the infrastructure. I like us better for that, but it does mean we need to be careful about access.

I’ve been in and out of an assortment of big Pagan groups over the years. I have paid my way over the threshold, and, once in have usually felt some degree of belonging and involvement. Every time I’ve left somewhere, I’ve noticed how easy it is. How ‘community’ evaporates when I can’t, or won’t pay to carry on there.

In more local contexts, participation has often meant being able to afford to access the venue. Can I afford to go out for an evening? Do I have the clothes, the money for the door or a half of something? How am I going to get there, and back and who will take care of my child? For most of those questions, physical energy can be as much an issue for me as the financial cost.

The internet has given us a lot of space where people can meet. Many Pagans are still geographically isolated from other Pagans, and it is only via membership of the big groups or participation online that they can connect with other Pagans. However, the quality of online spaces isn’t what it could be. It’s very hard for a new seeker to tell what’s reliable and what’s wishful thinking, what’s trustworthy and what’s a bid to get into their wallet or pants. There are far more people who want to learn than there are teachers – that’s been an issue for decades. Much as I love the internet (here we all are, after all) there are things that can’t adequately be taught long distance and that need the energy and magic of being in the same place.

There are lots of reasons to set the bar high with access to our working groups. If you want to do serious Pagan stuff, then constantly having to educate newbies can be a real distraction from that. Not everyone wants to teach. Too much fluidity in a group makes it unstable and stops it feeling like the safe and intimate space many of us prefer for ritual. There isn’t really a space in a Pagan ritual for lay Pagans, you can’t be stood in a circle and not be an active participant, it just doesn’t work. So we can’t have the same casual attitude to people rocking up that a Christian church might have. What works for them doesn’t work for us.

I don’t think there are many widely applicable answers to the question of making the Pagan community accessible, and not dependant on jumping through hoops. It does however help to have slightly permeable edges to groups and to do the occasional public facing thing that allows the curious to make contact and have a look. The more groups are able to be a little bit available sometimes, the easier it is to answer this need without creating too much work for anyone.

I can’t help but feel that learning your Paganism from Facebook groups and chat rooms, and the odd blog, or even books, is probably about as good as learning all your sex style by watching pornography. There’s a lot of technical stuff that you will certainly pick up. But, odd things may happen to your expectations, and you may get some unhelpful ideas about how the relationships work. There is more we can do to make internet and book experiences more real and grounded, and less like magic-porn.


Gods, feudalism and power over

It isn’t an accident that so much traditional spiritual language has a feudal tone to it. Lord and Lady are terms of nobility. Christianity is full of the language of kings, sovereignty and power over. Pagans use ‘Queen’ as a term for Goddess. For a good chunk of European history those who had taken power and wealth by force of arms were keen to create the impression of divine sanction for it. The King in his castle, sucking up the bounty, is God’s representative on Earth. God the Uber-King looks down on all from Heaven – a very literal expression of being over the top of the rest of us.

The stories modern Pagans turn to were recorded, for the greater part, by people who were part of that power-over arrangement. God the Uber-King in league with the physical monarch bestowed a lot of power on the church, giving the church every reason to support the logic of the system. Plus, in a less cynical way, we tend to make sense of things through the filters of our own experience. There are reasons to think that some mythology may have grown out of the deeds of actual people, actual Kings, Queens and rulers. It may be that much of Paganism itself is rooted in monarchic cultures.

The language of democracy doesn’t really work for religion. Any notion of elected to power seems a bit odd when talking about beings who have more power than us. Chairman of the Gods is funny, but lacks a certain swing. Perhaps this is in part because one of the key things we want from Gods, is that they be bigger and more powerful than us and therefore able to protect us from terrible things. Powerful enough to protect you from other things – ie other Kings, has always been part of the marketing for feudalism.

There are other languages out there although I can’t claim deep familiarity with them. From what I’ve read, a lot of indigenous people use the language of family to talk about the spirit powers they encounter. Grandfathers and grandmothers. Brothers and sisters. If you aren’t operating in a patriarchal/feudal structure to begin with, God the father has a very different feel to it.

The language of monarchy and feudalism tends to give humans a sense of power over the non-human world, which is doing us and the world no good at all. Perhaps it is time to start questioning our word choices and habits of thinking. I don’t have any suggestions for word replacements at the moment, except to acknowledge that I find the language of monarchy and feudalism really uncomfortable and I wish we didn’t use it.


What makes a good teacher?

Whether you’re looking for a Pagan teacher to guide you on your spiritual path, or for other kinds of guidance, it is tempting to seek out the teachers who have it all figured out. The folk for whom life is good, spirituality is easy, who are totally on top of everything, get it all their own way and can tell you how to achieve that as well. The teachers who promise it will be easy, and happy and that the path is just made of good things.

Who isn’t attracted to good, easy and quickly available?

With non-spiritual teachers, I have noticed repeatedly that folk who do things easily and naturally are not usually great at teaching. They don’t always know what it’s like to not get a thing, or to struggle. They don’t have any tools for overcoming problems, because they’ve never had to overcome problems. I notice that I have to try hardest to teach the things I am actually good at, and can more easily teach someone to do the things I had to grapple hard with to learn. Teaching my son to swim was easy, because it was hard for me to learn. Teaching him ways round the things he struggles with on the essay writing side, has been much harder going.

My spiritual path has not always been smooth or easy. I’ve had doubts and setbacks, I lose direction, I worry about things. I do not have a perfectly smooth, flawlessly happy life in which everything is in line with my will. I’ve not found Druidry to be comfortably easy. It has brought me challenges, periods of struggle, and a lot of questions. I look at the teachers who say they have answers for everything, and I know (now) that it won’t work out well for me.

If the teacher is (appears to be) totally good, wise, right, experienced and able to make everything lovely, while the student is some awkward, sometimes malfunctioning lost soul like me, there is a likely outcome. The teacher will reject the student they cannot teach, fix or heal. It will be the student’s fault for being unteachable, not positive enough, not really trying. Been there, bought that t-shirt.

On the other hand, teachers who admit to being flawed and struggling humans too, who can get things wrong and have off days tend to have the insight to help others who are struggling. For me, Cat Treadwell is a great example of someone with deep and long term dedication to the Druid path who does not tell people they can easily have all the things. I’ve watched her battling against depression for years. Her dark nights of the soul led her to write Facing the Darkness, which is a truly helpful book for a Druid or Pagan who finds themselves in a bad place.

I’m not sure I believe there are people whose lives are just good karma and fairy dust all the way. It may be good PR to pitch yourself that way. It may sell more books and fill more places on courses, it may do the perpetrator more economic good, but I think that’s all it does. Sooner or later, most of us find something we stumble over or struggle with. Most of us don’t get what we want purely by visualising it and stroking our power symbols.

When you’re chasing the idea of the perfectly easy magic solution to all things you can spend a lot of time chasing, only to be let down over and over again. It can lead to feelings of failure and despair – all these magic positivity solutions to align you with your dreams and yet somehow your life is still hard and unsatisfying! I’ll follow the teacher who can show me how to get along as a flawed human with issues, not some image of shiny perfection I know I can’t live up to, and that will, based on experience, reject me when it turns out I can’t reflect all that shiny shininess back to them.


Leaves Falling

The wind is gentle here, the shape of the hill shielding us from the worst storms. As the wind comes through the valley it swirls and dances, forming tiny whirlwinds that scuttle over the grass. Leaves fall like painted snowflakes, gold from the heavens. A sky full of colour and movement, too lovely to seem properly real.

Slow to tumble, the leaves fall like feathers, turning and twirling towards a soft impact. As though a giant golden bird has flown by and released them. As though the sky is full of leaf tree birds shedding their feathers. As though a tree is a wing paused in motion, only revealing the feather nature of its leaves now autumn is here.

Amongst the fallen leaves, small birds and rodents practice their jumps and halting moves, sharp shifts as though they too are leaves blown by the wind. Feathers pretending to be leaves pretending to be feathers.


Poverty and Nature

Recently, a survey carried out by a washing powder company suggested that some 60% of parents don’t want their children playing outside because they don’t want them getting dirty. Clearly, given the outfit paying for the data, there’s scope for bias here. However, it got me thinking. The knee jerk reaction is to see misplaced parental prioritise, or laziness, but there could be another explanation, and that explanation is poverty.

Washing and drying clothes costs money – electricity, cleaning products, water, some means to dry. You’ve got to have enough clothes for the child that they can change while you deal with suddenly dirty clothes. You’ve got to buy that clothing, or source it from hand-me-downs. Further, there’s nothing like being out in nature to risk tearing and damaging your clothes, which is a problem if you can’t afford to replace them. And if that wasn’t enough, being outside for much of the year in the UK requires extra kit – waterproofs, wellies, extra warm things, more socks… if you have no money to spare, these are pressures you can’t necessarily manage.

Then there’s the question of accessing nature. The poorer you are, the less likely you are to live somewhere green. Big tower blocks with areas of grass around them do not nature playgrounds make. So you have to travel someone and to do that, you need to know where to go and to be able to afford to get there. Again, these may be luxuries that just aren’t available. Children in poverty are known to have less access to outdoor recreation, and are less likely to have bikes and other outside gear.

Back when we lived on the boat, my son went to a running club after school. They ran in all weathers, but he didn’t. It’s fine to come off a field filthy and soaking wet to be bundled into a car and back to a hot shower, a tumble drier, a massive supply of towels. It’s quite another thing to be filthy and soaked with a mile to cycle home, and nowhere really to dry anything when you get there. I expect the woman running it thought I was being a wimp, making a fuss. She pointed out to me that running is an all weather sport, and I didn’t feel equal to explaining to her the practical implications of living on a very small boat.

I recall a parallel story about urban archaeology exploring the contemporary archaeology of homeless life in Bristol. Homeless people came to watch and share information, but would not dig because they had little scope to change or clean their clothes and could not afford to be wet or filthy. It’s a similar issue. It is easy, safe and comfortable to get cold, wet and dirty when it’s quick and uncomplicated to sort that out afterwards. Not everyone has this option.

There is a known correlation between parenthood and poverty. There are increasing numbers of children in poverty in the UK. If we’re worried about children accessing nature (and we should be!)then simply blaming parents isn’t the answer. The problem of getting dirty may not be about middle class fussiness at all. I suspect it’s something else entirely.


When you set aside your red riding hood

There comes a morning when you realise that going to Grandma’s house is not the project you thought it was.

You are not the maiden seeking initiation. You journey towards Granny’s house year on year, towards the darkly feral woodland grandmother you must become. It is your own self you ahve been looking for in all those empty cottages.

First you let your leg and armpit hair grow. In time, you will let your eyebrows follow their urge to meet in the middle of your face. You will let your upper lip grow its pelt and will no longer pluck the fur from your neck and chin. You will let grandmother come in through your skin in all her wildness. She is kin to all the other wild and dangerous beings of the woods. In time you may need to grow teeth or tusks, but it is early days yet.

Every day is a step closer to the house in the woods. Once you arrive there, nervous would-be acolytes will bring baskets, challenges and the hope of being bitten. You let your hair turn grey when it will, and wonder whose bones you may be called upon to gnaw a little.


Am I in the wrong?

At one extreme are the people with little or no self esteem who take every criticism to heart. At the other extreme are the narcissists who reject any negative feedback. Sanity lies between the extremes, but how to find it? How do we decide when we’ve got it wrong? If we can’t identify our mistakes, we can’t learn, grow or change. Mistakes can be wonderful teachers, and permission to make mistakes is key to breaking into new things. The person who takes every failure to heart and the person who can’t bear criticism may find it equally difficult to take risks around getting things wrong.

It wasn’t what I intended! This is a very common way of resisting negative feedback. Intentions matter, but they don’t reliably define outcomes. What we meant and how someone else experienced it don’t necessarily align. If you meant well and got it wrong, this is often a good opportunity to find out how someone sees the world differently to you.

It’s not my fault! Maybe it was an accident, and if that’s true, it’s worth flagging up. It’s also worth paying attention to blaming and shaming, because in cultures where the buck is passed, no one can get to the bottom of a problem to prevent it reoccurring. If it’s all about punishment then people can’t be honest about mistakes. We all make mistakes – lack of knowledge, inability to predict all the variables – these are the usual causes. Some leeway for mistakes is essential. That said, the idea of it being a mistake is not a get out clause for all shortcomings. Perhaps we could have done more, tried harder, researched better…

You’re just making a fuss! This can be the classic way of negating someone else’s experience when their response isn’t convenient to you. And sometimes of course it is true, and the person complaining is just someone who likes to nit pick and find fault. Check the power balance between the person complaining and the person on the receiving end if you aren’t sure how to respond, and be most careful with the person who has least power.

On the other side of the issue, people with poor self esteem are easily persuaded that it was their shortcoming, poor judgement, lack of care etc that caused the problem, even when there’s no evidence to support the idea. The sort of person who can end up apologising because they said ‘ow’ when their foot was trodden on, and it wasn’t like the other person meant to stomp on their toes… A low self esteem sufferer who is in a blame culture will likely just keep internalising the blame and never builds self esteem as a consequence. This is a hard thing to unpick, but it calls for recognition of your limits – you can’t magically know everything, you aren’t so psychic that everyone else’s preferences and needs are visible to you, and you aren’t, ever, the only person who could have done something differently.

People who wish to blame others are often quick to draw extra people in. They don’t deal with a problem by trying to solve it, instead they make accusations and point fingers and enlist support. Their main aim is to prove it isn’t their fault and this matters more to them than sorting things out. The person who wants to sort things out may shoulder more responsibility than is fairly theirs because that way they can change something, fix something. From the outside, this can look like one righteous person – the accuser – and one guilty person – the fixer. Blame and bullying often go together. Blaming someone and making them responsible for things beyond their control is a standard abuse tactic. Enlisting everyone else to confirm the blame and uphold the position of the bully is also a standard abuse tactic. When we focus on who was wrong, and who to blame, any of us can be drawn into supporting an abuser, not necessarily with any awareness that this is what’s happening.

It takes a certain amount of courage to face down a mistake. To look at it, own it, make sense of it and sort it out. It’s a vulnerable thing to do. We may look bad. We may pay a cost. But, I’d rather take that road any day than blame someone else for the sake of covering my own arse. I’d rather deal with the consequences of my errors than pretend there isn’t a problem. What I need to stop doing is co-operating with buck passers, people who always want more, and people who can’t take any responsibility for their share of the problem.


Hail Spirits of Place

“Hail spirits of this place” is a popular Druid line for ritual, in that brief bit at the beginning where we normally honour whatever is around us. It’s something I do outside of ritual situations, and something I like to invest more time in during rituals.

Saturday found me in Wolverhampton, talking about sacred places. Much of the venue was lovely – the hall the market was in had beautiful light, a lot of wood, lovely acoustics and would have been a great place to do ritual. The area for talks had a stage, microphone and lighting, making it a good place for talks, but it didn’t have much atmosphere, it was a bit dead acoustically. In the right space, if I’m talking about ritual or sacred places, I’ll have a play with the room acoustics because that can be magical. I got off the microphone briefly, and went straight back because the room wasn’t going to give me anything.

All the same, I got to talking about spirits of place in ritual, and offered my ‘hail spirits of place’ and something shifted. I felt hairs rising, and gooseflesh breaking out on my shoulders and arms. A keen sense of something with me and behind me that hadn’t been there before. Something friendly and supportive, and glad to be noticed.

I’ve greeted spirits of place in all kinds of places. I’ve done it when I didn’t feel safe, and it has always helped. I do it before talks even when the talks aren’t Pagan. Sometimes the effects are more dramatic than others. Saying it out loud is important – although sometimes that’s a whisper in a toilet cubicle. It’s enough.

Spirits of place do not belong only to distant wild places and iconic ancient sites. They are in your living room, your garden, your workplace. They’re on the school run, the commute, in the car park. Acknowledge the possibility of them and they may acknowledge you in return.


What Goes Down – a review

I picked this title up as part of a Neverland blog tour, tempted by a blurb that described a psychological story. It’s a really good book, delving deep into the impact of bipolar disorder over two generations in a family.

This is a book that explores how choices play out over generations. Laurel falls in love and makes some dramatic decisions to get out of her middle class backwater life. It’s the late eighties, her gay brother is dealing with how little the world is willing to accept him. Single mothers are generally frowned on.

We see Laurel’s story juxtaposed against her daughter’s experience. The daughter who, aged twenty seven, has just found out the man she calls Dad is not her dad.

Seph is an artist with a big show coming up, at the start of the book she’s getting over a panic attack of epic proportions and stressing about her work. The revelations about her real parentage send her entire life into a spin. It’s a tale that becomes ever more tense as it goes along, with the breakdown of Laurel’s relationship mirroring the breakdown in Seph’s mind.

This book is a challenge to the toxic myth that it’s ok for creative people to behave in certain ways. The artist who paints for two weeks, barely sleeping or eating might not be challenged at all because it’s what so many of us think artists do. That kind of creative fever is incredibly dangerous, as are the desperate plunges into depression that tend to go with it. History is full of bipolar creatives, but being bipolar can be a real obstacle to creating in a sustainable way, and it ruins lives. The idea of the crazy creative person, whose creativity makes the craziness ok, needs challenging, and this book does so, head on.

Artist Seph is a character I really related to, and I don’t get to say that very often. Anxious, unsure of herself, but also driven and living by her art, she’s dealing with personal turmoil I found very familiar. Obsessive, never happy with her work, overthinking – this is a portrait of a mind I entirely recognised and empathised with. I’m not bipolar, but I experience depression and I used to get those wild, creative highs.

What touched me most about this book was the way in which Seph’s family supports her. They make a lot of mistakes, because they’re realistic people, but they are always trying to be there for her. They don’t blame or shame her for what she’s going through. She is taken seriously, and there’s real concern from the first panic attack onwards. I’m so used to real life stories in which mental health problems are ignored, hidden, treated as an embarrassment or a failing on the part of the sufferer. It is a wonderful thing to read a book in which people really care and really try to help.

You can find What Goes Down on Amazon.