Making space for the feels

For much of my life, I’ve had external pressures making me feel emotionally unacceptable. Along the way I’ve been mocked, shamed, humiliated and punished for expressing my feelings. I’ve loved people dearly only to find them horrified by any expression of my loving them dearly. I’ve been told my expressed emotions are so extreme as to seem fake. Ridiculous, over the top, drama queen, attention seeking… you get the idea.

And so I learned to mute myself. To not say a good 90% of whatever I feel. To understate, make tame and easy and comfortable everything that goes on inside me. I’ve crushed myself to avoid having to deal with others crushing me. I’ve known for a long time that this process, whether it comes from within or without, has a ghastly effect on my mental health. But I’ve also learned how to put a poker face on and hide that as well. It seems fair to assume that the people who habitually dismissed me would also dismiss mental breakdowns as further attention seeking and fuss making.

In recent years I have benefited from safer and more supportive space and it has allowed me to stretch and experiment a little. I find that if I make some space for me in which I can be totally honest about how I feel, that I don’t take damage. Often this means getting some time alone (bathrooms are excellent for this) and holding a few minutes of space where I can feel the unacceptable thing. Anger, frustration, resentment, envy, bitterness – these are often the most trouble to express. However, I can have a fair amount of trouble with joy, pain, sorrow… I’m still not easy about crying over films in company.

If I make some space for me, and properly acknowledge what I’m feeling and treat it with respect, then hiding it feels very different. I am not made smaller. I am not crushing myself.

There are a lot of things I cope with by bullshitting. Physical pain is a constant in my life. Depression and anxiety are often present in my head. I’m often short of energy. I don’t find that dwelling on these helps me, and I prefer, for my own dignity and comfort, to put a good face on it. But this also means that most people are dealing with my fakery, and have no idea what’s really going on. Recently I’ve been experimenting with saying how things are but acting as I normally act. I’m working out who responds well to that information, who shares honestly in return, and who says ‘how are you?’ as a social gesture expecting ‘fine thank you how are you’ as the only possible reply. Because it’s not about genuine care, it’s about presenting socially in the right way.

I also find that where I make space deliberately for other people to be honest with me, and they take me up on that, I feel more confident about expressing myself. It gets easier to do the good stuff, too. To be exuberant, wholehearted, affectionate, to laugh wildly, and all those things, in the company of people who have room for it. Once again I find myself obliged to point out that mental health problems require community solutions. I did not get into that mess alone, I have not got out of it alone.


Nibbling for Druids

British law amazingly enough upholds the right of people to gather food from hedges and margins. I’m not a serious forager, but I am a big fan of nibbling when out and about. I get a distinct sense of connection from eating what’s around me, it brings me into a really direct relationship with my immediate landscape.

I’m not a forager, I don’t go out to bring things home. Partly because I don’t have any scope to store,  partly because I’m not the only one who needs what’s in the hedges. At this time of year I’ll take a few blackberries when I pass them, I found some wild plums on the side of the canal a few days ago. Soon there will be apples, because trees have been planted locally for people to help themselves. I won’t take anything rare, or anything in short supply, and never more than a third of what’s present.

Plants that have grown in my locality have experienced the same weather as me, they are rooted in the soil I live on, connecting with underground fungi systems and soil bacteria. Normally what we do is eat food from anywhere and everywhere, we have lost the immediacy of connection with land because most of us don’t eat what grew around us. That can’t be replaced by snaffling the odd berry out of a hedge, but it’s better than nothing.

We don’t know what all the practical implications are of eating food from around the world. Certainly it helps diseases move around more quickly. We don’t know what the implications are of eating food that grew in one place with consistent soil bacteria. One fungi network. Or for that matter what the differences might be between working with your local yeast – the yeast living on your skin and in your air, instead of working with yeast from a package. Perhaps there are reasons modern humans don’t feel connected to each other or to the soil.


Who am I responsible for?

Without a doubt, any time we ignore abuse, hate speech and prejudice, we support it. We let the person carry on doing what they were doing. We let them believe we agreed with them. They will infer our tacit support from our silence and inaction.

Every time we ignore someone who speaks from a place of ignorance and misinformation, we’re letting things stay as they are, contributing to things that are wrong.

The trouble is that like everyone else, I have finite energy and I get emotionally knocked about when I step up to these arguments. I could spend all day every day on twitter, challenging haters, bullies, bigots and abusers. Well, in theory I could, in practice I reckon by lunchtime I would be a weeping wreck.

Who am I responsible for? It is not an easy or a comfortable question. I know some activists have become very clear that people should educate themselves. I understand why – advocating personal responsibility is a good idea. Demanding education is a way of sucking up energy and time, and derailing people. But equally, turning around how someone thinks is a massive and difficult process, if I can help someone do that then I’d like to. It’s partly about spotting the scope for change and trying to see who is for real and who is a time waster. I’m not that psychic, I don’t always know.

My primary areas of concern have, for some years, been mental health and domestic abuse. The former gives me some scope to speak more widely about disability issues, the latter gives me insight into the mechanics of abuse in all forms. I use that knowledge where I can. I care about everything but there are plenty of issues I don’t have the experience to really get into details. Faced with an online argument of that ilk I feel the most useful thing I can do is offer support for and agreement with the people who have the experience to speak.

It is so easy for well meaning people to get this wrong. It is so easy for people who are not well meaning to hide behind activism and take unfair pot shots at others. I am reminded of the feminist reviewer who called a mixed race author with a complex social background out for appropriation. I don’t think the reviewer had any idea who the author was. When we’re challenging each other, knowing the limits of our insight is essential, or we end up calling out the wrong people and hurting those we should be helping.

I like blogging because it isn’t an argument. It’s a chance to put forward thoughts and ideas, and to share experiences around the things I know about in a way that hopefully makes it easier for others to understand. I believe that we need to share our truth, tell our stories and speak of our experiences. And when we run into other people who are doing that, a bit of support and recognition can go a long way. So much of it comes down to ignorance, so much could be solved with better understanding.

It’s all well and good talking about punching Nazis, but I couldn’t usefully punch anyone, not with these hands. The clever thing would be to get to them before they become Nazis, but of course if it works you can’t even tell that it works. Keep talking keep supporting each other, keep doing what you can do. None of us can fix everything, or everyone.


Meditation for mental health

Meditation can seem like an excellent tool for tackling mental health problems. So much so that if you go to a GP, you may find that mindfulness is suggested as the answer to your problems. Here are some of the things meditation helps with, and things it doesn’t.

Using meditation to calm panic attacks. You have to be an experienced meditator to be able to make your brain switch gear in face of panic. If you are learning to meditate to control panic, do not expect rapid results.

Using meditation to reduce anxiety. It can work if the panic is all inside your head. However, the odds are good that there are external stressors involved. You can learn to be calmer through meditation and thus cope better with stressors, if the stress isn’t too much. If you are under constant pressure, it is only by dealing with the external problem that you can sort out the anxiety. It isn’t all about what goes on in your head – not if you are bullied, forced to work in inhuman conditions, not getting enough rest or sleep and so forth. Trying to meditate your way out of it can make you feel more responsible for a problem not of your making.

Working alone and meditating in a way that makes you more aware of what your brain is doing (ie mindfulness style approaches) can work if your faulty thinking is most of the problem. For most people, anxiety has been caused by something. Sitting mindfully with your traumatic memories will do you more harm than good. Resolving trauma without the support of a counsellor is a long, hard, painful road. It can be walked, but I feel no one should have to do this alone.

When a person is depressed, the world appears in certain ways. I’ve never found meditation helpful for changing my outlook, not if all the meditation does is send me inwards into my own personal hell. Distraction is much better – pathworkings and other guided meditations, meditating on something simple and uplifting – a plant, a cloud, a nice oracle card… Getting out of your own head in this way can bring considerable relief. Sometimes, just getting the headspace is enough to help move things forward. Sometimes it isn’t.

There’s every reason to use meditation techniques for immediate relief and for coping with problems. If you find you can use it to tackle larger problems – all power to you. However, if you find meditating makes things worse, it is not a personal failing. If you find no respite, and that it sends you further down your own rabbit holes, don’t do it. If your problems are out there in the world and caused by other people, don’t make yourself solely responsible for fixing things.

Meditation is not a magic bullet, it is not a salve for every ill. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either trying to let themselves off the hook, or save themselves money, or wants to diminish your problems for their own comfort. It may be that they’ve only experienced very mild depression and anxiety – the sort meditation can definitely help with – but they don’t know what a minor brush they’ve had.


The Adventures of Alan Shaw: A Review

Craig Hallam’s The Adventures of Alan Shaw is in many ways everything a person might expect from a steampunk novel. Set in something much like Victorian London, there’s lots of anachronistic technology – the monorail, dirigibles, automatons, some with ‘Babbage inside’ (I giggled about that, and about many other things). There’s also magic, crime, an inevitable event at The Great Exhibition, and a freak show. However, it is the ways in which Craig pushes out from those steampunk standards into unusual territory that makes this book such a good read.

Alan Shaw is a series of short stories, in chronological order. In many ways it functions like a novel, there are story threads that weave the tales together but each adventure is also a standalone. The main character is unusual because he’s a pauper. Steampunk can be a bit too fond of titles for my liking, so I really enjoyed seeing a proper filthy urchin taking the lead. At 11, young Mr Shaw is as dirty as he is disreputable. He’s also trying not to starve or freeze to death in a London that does not treat orphans kindly.

Although rescued from his sordid beginnings, Alan Shaw does not transform, Cinderella style into a handsome prince. He remains a misfit, no longer really working class, certainly not a proper fit for high society. He’s a young man with something to prove, and precious little sense when it comes to proving it.

There are all kinds of social issues laced through the adventures, and this is done with a light touch so it never feels like a lecture. Issues of what moral choices look like when you’re starving. Issues of class, and how society still works even now, advantaging some and crushing others. This is a London in which menial jobs are going to automatons. What are the poor to do? No answers are offered, but it parallels our own loss of employment to cheaper labour from machines. There’s some good subversion of gender norms, as well.

Colonialism is a big issue for anyone interested in reclaiming bits of Victorian spirit. I greatly appreciated the way in which Craig tackled this head on, with the final story of the book set in India. He manages the delicate balance of exploring some of the Victorian colonial mindset without ever letting the reader feel comfortable with it.

The book is laced through with humour, and written with considerable style. Craig has a real knack for working out which sense to draw on to convey a scene quickly. As a person whose thinking isn’t mostly visual, I appreciated having smells, sound and sensation as part of the descriptive mix. Plots bound along at a cheerful pace, characters are always rounded enough to engage, disaster is narrowly avoided. If you want to balance wild escapism with the option of dwelling on the implications, this is a very good read.

Alan Shaw on Amazon – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Adventures-Alan-Shaw-Craig-Hallam/dp/1908600322/ref=tmm_pap_title_0


Paganism and stolen books

Recently, Lupa Greenwolf wrote a very good blog about how stealing books impacts on Pagan authors.  Most of us are not wealthy, in fact many of us struggle, and theft hurts us in many ways. As Lupa has covered that side of things so well, I wanted to explore the magical and spiritual implications of working from a stolen book. To clarify, if a person picks up an ebook someone other than the author or publisher of said book was giving away, and the author is alive or only recently dead, then the book is stolen.  You might want to look up a post of mine – Should I have this free book? – for further clarification.

I give this blog away. Most authors give stuff away. There’s tons of legitimate free stuff out there. Help yourself to that with an easy conscience and enjoy the results.

Most Pagan paths advocate honour. Stealing clearly isn’t honourable. So, from the moment you get that book you are at odds with the path. If you’ve exploring a path that has more of a grey feel, or is less about honour and more about power, consider that these are the authors who will unhesitatingly curse the people who cross them.

If you are following a deity, and you steal a book written by a devotee of that deity to learn more… are you in that deity’s good books? Probably not.

If you practice magic, you’ll run into ideas about how energy moves around. Give something for what you take so that it isn’t taken from you is a popular theory for people working with herbs, for example. Consider threefold return, karma, like attracts like, and all the other philosophies you have encountered. What is your stolen book going to do for you? How is that energy relationship you now have with the author going to work out for you?

I realise that most people don’t know copyright law, and it is easy to be persuaded that it’s ok to have something you want. There are a lot of people out there spouting all kinds of crap about why giving away other people’s ebooks is ok. It isn’t ok to give other people’s ebooks away, simply. However, anyone can make a mistake. Anyone can pick up a book because it sounded legit. If you are new to Paganism and just dabbling and exploring, there’s a lot it is easy not to know about.

If you’ve made a mistake and taken something you shouldn’t have had, you can fix this by rebalancing things. Buy another book from the same author. Buy a hard copy for yourself. Stick something in their donations pot or patreon.

What do you do if poverty put you in this position? If you truly can’t afford to give back? Focus on the things that are freely given. Save up for books. Consider what you are paying for – because if you can afford to buy coffee from cafes, you can miss a few coffees and buy a book. If you’re at the level of poverty where you have no disposable income, I know how tough this is, and it’s a bloody unfair situation to be in. Commit to rebalancing when things are better for you, at the very least. Don’t buy into the idea that you are always going to be so poor that you have a justification for theft. Try talking to the author. Some authors will give books in exchange for reviews. Many authors will happily point you at the things they already give away.

We aren’t going to get rid of book theft in Pagan circles until we change Pagan culture and value the people who make things a bit more. If you see it happening, call it out. And feel free to use anything in this blog, in whole or in part if it will help you. Copyright waved on all of this blog post. (For other blogs, credit me please, and let me know, but this one’s different.)


Contaminated headspace

How many things need thinking about in a day? Meals and family time tables, the laundry, social commitments, other people’s needs and timetables… It’s an issue I first became aware of a while ago through a feminist blog. Like emotional labour, this kind of holding all the things in your head is work that falls disproportionately to women. I raised it at the time with the chaps of my household, and we changed some things.

However, headspace contamination is also a work issue for me. It means trying to plot social media strategies in my time off. It is writing blog posts in my head when I wake up in the morning, and things of that ilk. Sorting out the way in which my own poor boundaries leave me with an over busy head has been an issue. The over busy head does not rest well, stresses a lot, and doesn’t have space for wonder or imagination all too often.

I replaced my never ending to-do list with a diary. I noticed (thank you other bloggers who helped me see this) that a to-do list easily becomes a thing to beat yourself up with. With a diary, I have to think carefully about what I’m going to do when, and it is easier to budget in time for non-workish things too. I don’t overload my days, and at the end of the day I’ve usually worked through the list, so it helps my morale. When I get an idea, rather than obsessing over it, I write it down for the day I’m going to tackle it. It’s very rare now that I try and write blog posts in my head.

I’ve put down work that doesn’t suit me. The things I do well, I seldom have to sweat over. I need small patches of time here and there to reflect, ponder and speculate about my work, but I don’t need to do it every day, mostly I can crack on. Jobs where the remit wasn’t clear enough or where I wasn’t a natural match at all have had me trying really hard to overcome that. I hate doing a job badly. It took me a long time to recognise that if all I do is bang my head against a thing, it is better to put that thing down and move on. There’s no shortage of things I could be doing, I need not do things that tie my brain in knots and leave me feeling low and exhausted.

Clear communication is a good antidote to contaminated headspace as well. No second guessing, no dances of imply and infer, just straight, clear, expression and open negotiation. Increasingly, I’m not willing to invest in people who need to make every social exchange into a complicated set of manoeuvres. Intellectual hide and seek is not my idea of fun. Emotional snakes and ladders I can cheerfully miss. If I know where I am with people, I don’t get into wearying speculation.

Taking control of my headspace has been a process, but as I get better at it, more time and energy becomes available to me. It also becomes apparent as to who and what is a good use of my time, and what just sucks the life out of me to very little effect. Yes, I can use meditation in short bursts to quieten my mind, but it is a good deal more effective to tackle the busy issues at a life level, and save my meditation time for more creative and soul nurturing things.


My latest steampunk adventures

Last year at Asylum in Lincoln (biggest steampunk gathering in the UK) I spent quite a lot of time stood outside a venue being the signpost, because there wasn’t a sign, and one was needed. While I was doing that, another author at the event asked how on earth I’d ended up doing that. I said I’d offered. This year I’ll be co-running that venue, and Tom and I have had the honour of putting together a team of authors for the event as a whole. How did we end up doing that? Well, in no small part because we are the kinds of people who pile in and do what needs doing.

It’s not about the money, or the glory. Ok, it is a bit about the glory. We were keen to jump in because we want to change what happens around ‘literature’ at steampunk events. Tom and I will not be touring venues across the weekend as part of the author team, we’ll be looking after the Cathedral Centre/Steampunk embassy. If you’re in town, come and find us, it’s not a big building.

It would be fair to say that as things stand, ‘literature’ is not something most steampunks are that excited about, and with good reason. It’s not the sort of thing you can easily engage with when there’s loads going on. It doesn’t grab your attention like art or music, or clothes or devices or just about anything else at a steampunk event. If you aren’t already into an author, you may not be even slightly excited about hearing them read, and you don’t want to go to a talk about how they self published their first novel, and if you don’t write, the standard fayre of talks about how to write books may not appeal. And then there’s the room of gloom – I’ve seen these at too many events and not just steampunk ones. Tables full of books behind which mournful and obscure authors sit in puddles of grumpy entitlement wondering where all their adoring fans have got to.

Of course that’s not steampunk writing, or steampunk books as a whole, and even in the rooms of gloom there are always people worth meeting. This year, Asylum has taken a radical new approach to how it deals with authors. With that as our underpinning,  Tom and I have done a number of things to further change what happens. We’ve brought in more comics people – because unlike books, comics are easy to engage with quickly. We’ve brought in authors who are great performers, we’ve got all kinds of drawing workshops on the go, and the talks are full of ideas and interesting concepts. Around the authors we’ve lured an array of fascinating folk to come and do their thing at the cathedral centre, and I think it’s going to be a really interesting space.

We will be doing some Hopeless Maine stuff – we’re using it as a recruitment opportunity for The Hopeless Vendetta (if you feel a sudden urge to be recruited, comment below!) and we’re taking out a show called Songs from a Strange Island – a mix of material written for the Hopeless Maine project, (like the Hopeless shanty) and things that inspire us (gloomy and magical folk music for the greater part).

I know we’re not alone in wanting to see things change around books and book events. I’ve been having all the same conversations with the people running Stroud Book Festival as I’ve had with many people on the steampunk side. ‘Literature’ turns people off, and often what happens under that banner is dull and self-congratulatory. I want to see more spoken word content. I want to see authors stepping up to entertain and engage people. I want to be talking about books, comics, fat comics, ephemera, writing, and creativity. I want things people can join in with, not the literary on one side and the audience on the other.


Owls and flowers, a divided self

I first encountered Blodeuwedd as a child, and was instantly struck by the woman who is made of flowers and turned into an owl. From very early on I understood flowers as pretty, delicate, socially acceptable femininity. Owls were clearly dangerous – night creatures, predators, pointy and unacceptable. I was already encountering issues with my own unacceptability.

Through my teens, I focused on trying to keep the flower face visible, and to hide my owls. I found that my ideas, passions, hungers, needs were all things the people around me didn’t much like. I tucked them away. Somewhere around that time I also encountered the language of seelie and unseelie, and that seemed like a good match, too. I have my acceptable, hard working, house elf seelie self, and my dark, unspeakable other half. I became increasingly troubled by my unseelie owl side, and kept on squashing it down.

It’s only as that side of me resurfaces that I properly appreciate what it is. Much of my confidence, my ease in my own body, my sexuality and passion is tied up with my unseelie side. Wicked humour, and a willingness to be considerably less gentle with people who mess me about. Self defence, and self assertion, going after what I want and need for me, rather than what everyone else wants and needs… these are the things a younger me deemed unacceptable and hid away in the darkness and did not speak of.

The best of my creative energy comes from the parts of me that I’ve deliberately suppressed. Perhaps it has an impact on my physical energy too – that remains to be seen. My scope to be fierce, intense, full on, and to feel more wholly myself is part of what I have called my unseelie side.

I have ventured to let parts of this out before, in brief, uneasy forays, and then watched people I loved back away from me. I had considered this part of me unlovable. This time, as I’ve started easing off the mute button, and taking off the flower mask, I’ve found welcome and encouragement for what’s underneath. This is the point in the story when I get to say yes, you wanted me to be flowers, because that was easy and convenient for you. I am not what you wanted to turn me into. I am myself, and I have claws.


Intuition, ill health and uncertainty

As a much younger human, I trusted my intuition, but through my twenties I became ever less able to do so. For a long time I’ve had incidents that make it difficult to tell what I’m dealing with.

Anxiety will tell you that something is terribly wrong. Depression will tell you that there’s no point even trying, it’s all hopeless. Stress will tell you that you have to keep going, flat out no matter what. Problems with bodily health can feel like psychic attacks, premonitions or signs. If you start buying into these as intuitions of the truth, what you do is reinforce whatever is wrong with you. But at the same time, none of these conditions turn your intuition off, so that can also mean missing important insights.

I don’t think intuition is a ‘woo-woo’ issue, at least not all the time. We take in vast amounts of information – far more than we are consciously aware of. We do most of our processing unconsciously. Thus often what we experience as a magic thing happening, is really our brains having worked through what we’d got. Those ping moments of inspiration, eureka, and intuition aren’t at odds with reasoned thinking, they’re just one mechanism amongst many. At the same time, if your take on reality has room for truly magical things to happen, well, sometimes what we intuit can be so far removed from what we had information about, that this seems plausible.

The question remains, how to tell one from another? Just because you’re feeling anxious, doesn’t mean you’re paranoid. Just because you’re depressed doesn’t mean nothing is crushing you down.  In the last few years I’ve let go of the idea that my intuition is totally broken, unreliable and best ignored, and started making space for it. I’ve started trying to tease out those threads of mental health, hormonal activity, body feelings and so forth to get a better picture of what’s going on in my life.

I’ve come up with a couple of things I think are useful. Firstly, checking in with someone else. Most mental health issues make it difficult to trust your own judgement or perceptions. If there’s a person you really trust, being able to run things past them can be helpful. Am I being paranoid? What’s the most likely source of this experience? What’s your perception? It is worth being wary because two people intent on out-wooing each other can build layer upon layer of imagined things and end up convinced that they’re at the centre of a magical war or some such (I do not jest, I’ve seen it happen). If you can help each other think critically, all well and good. If not, it may do more harm than good.

My other solution is to give my intuition defined outlets – divination tools to play with where the interpretations do not depend so much on my own mental state. Oracle cards are great for this. It gives me a cross reference for the body feeling. Do the cards reinforce what I’m experiencing, or are they at odds with it, or do they cast the whole thing in a different light? It’s also a way of honouring and making space for my intuition rather than wholly distrusting it, and I feel better for being able to do that.