Uncompetitive physical culture

At school, sports tend to mean competition. There’s no accident in this. A fair few activities have their roots in warrior skills – javelin is the most obvious, but all those combinations of running, riding and shooting are pretty suspicious too. Not that we did that at school! Games and tournaments are the traditional solution for keeping your army fit and keen when you haven’t got anyone to fight. Some sports – football being the most obvious here – come out of ritualised contests between villages. The strength, stamina, co-ordination and sometimes teamwork of sport all has military applications

Like many young people, I never got on with sport at school. The focus on competition was a big part of it. There have to be winners and losers, and when you are always, invariably the loser, there’s not a lot of incentive to keep investing effort. Only when out of school PE and able to explore swimming, walking and dancing on my own terms did I become interested in sweaty things I could do with my body.

I have no problem with the competitive stuff being there for people who want it. That’s no different from battles of the bands sessions, short story competitions, produce shows or bardic chairs… sometimes the people who are really good need the chance to test themselves against each other. But only in sport do young people find themselves obliged to do that testing week after week as they grow up. No one would give an English lesson a week over to slam poetry and rap battles.

Physical intelligence has far more going on in it that competition. There is more to building strength, stamina, fitness and skill than being better than someone else. What would happen to physical culture if we approached activity from the angle of health and capability rather than competition? How many young people would be spared from regular and pointless humiliation? How many would become interested in being fit and healthy rather than feeling alienated from physical culture?

But of course governments like team sports, because of the military applications. There’s a popular quote (of dubious origins) that The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. It’s that kind of thinking that puts competition ahead of health and embodiment.


Bardic – creating spaces

One of the things you may be called upon to do as a bard, is to create a performance space. There’s no way of doing this that is right, it’s a case of considering the space, and the intention and nature of the gathering.

If you use a performer/audience model with the audience in rows and the performer(s) at the front, then you elevate the status of the performer and encourage the audience to be an audience. It can take longer to get performers on and off, and if there is more than one performer then someone must act as master of ceremonies and handle the changes. In some venues, this layout raises issues of who can see and hear – a stage is often essential, amplification may be necessary. If there are a lot of people, this is often the best layout to use.

Working in the round puts everyone on an equal footing, there is no ‘front’ and everyone is able to interact, so there’s much less divide between audience and performer. If most of the audience are also performing, this can be preferable, and quicker. It does create a more casual atmosphere, and does not give the same status lift to performers. It can make the space slightly harder to control. In a circle of under thirty people, this layout is viable, but if it gets to be a larger crowd, you may have to have inner and outer circles, which will cost you some of the inherent democracy.

When you’re running a space, it’s good to test the acoustics of it and find out if there are any sweet spots for getting your voice to carry, or any dead spot to avoid using altogether, or encourage the accordion players into! They don’t need any help to be heard.

Never try and run an event from a position of having your back to the door. Make sure you can see the majority of movement in the room. If you’re outside, try and find something to have at your back – a tree for example – so that people can’t creep up on you. To hold a space you need to know what’s going on in it.


Not doing Mother’s Day

Mother’s Day makes me profoundly uneasy, so I don’t do it. All the usual things can be said about how it makes life harder for those whose mothers are gone, those whose children did not survive, or never were… and it is a modern festival based on promoting consumerism. But those are not my major issues.

The modern tradition of mother’s day involves kids and/or dads making breakfast in bed for mum, who may be bought flowers, taken out for lunch, cooked for, or otherwise allowed some time off. My concern is that this functions in the same way as the Lord of Misrule and twelfth night carnivals did for feudalism. That basically this is a break from the norm that serves to reinforce the norm. And the norm does not include mum getting breakfast in bed, or someone else doing the cooking. It may serve to enforce the least good things about modern motherhood.

It’s worth noting that Father’s Day involves cards and gifts, but not the same emphasis on the pampering and certainly no flowers. I’ve yet to see a cafe or restaurant advocating that you take your Dad out for a Father’s Day lunch.

There are plenty of stats out there to suggest that while most women now work outside of the home, the majority of housework and childcare still falls largely to the women as well. I don’t want Mothering Sunday as a special day of my family being nice to me. I also don’t need it, because we’re a mutually supportive unit, and I am not the house elf. One day a year of being looked after isn’t enough for anyone, and even if you add the birthday and valentine’s day to the list, it’s still peculiar if you take a hard look at it.

Every day we all get opportunities to be nice to each other, to extend small kindnesses and gift each other in all kinds of ways. Much better that than an occasional blowout for the benefit of supermarket chocolate sales.

I have seen Pagans reinterpreting this day as celebrating femininity, or Mother Earth – I have no argument with any of that. I’m a big fan of people doing what makes sense to them, but I think we should always pause and question anything that becomes normal.


A barefoot labyrinth

Those of you who have been following this blog for a while will have noticed that labyrinths have become a key part of my seasonal celebrations. Each one, so far, has brought significant new experiences.

My spring equinox labyrinth was the first one I’ve shared with a sizeable group – and perhaps most significantly, a group where the majority had not been involved in making the labyrinth. I found that quite affecting. There is a big difference for me in making something that is shared.

We used a different location – in the past I’ve built them all at the same spot in a public park – which has felt a bit exposed. This time we were in a very different public space. We were in a graveyard, with the ruins of a mediaeval church, an array of massive Victorian tombs, and the clearly marked square under which lies an Orphic mosaic. The labyrinth went over the mosaic, and coming from a mediaeval church design, seems quite at home there.

I had two striking experiences while walking the labyrinth. The first, on my way into it for the first time of the day, was a visceral sense of how that bit of the labyrinth sat on the ground in the park where we’ve previously done it, and a feeling of sympathy between the two locations.

There were gusts of wind, and at some point after I’d walked my way to the centre, the wind moved something. It’s likely that the other people with me fettled this, but fettled it the wrong way. This being a bigger labyrinth design, it’s not unusual to feel you must have gone wrong somewhere, and that you’ve walked this bit before as the paths fold back on themselves. As a consequence I was there for quite some time before I realised that the labyrinth had changed, creating a closed loop I could not leave. I returned to the centre, and pondered it out, and corrected things. It’s interesting to have the elements redesign the path in this way.

This is the first time I’ve been able to walk one of my labyrinths barefoot. This really adds to the experience, creating a much deeper feeling of rootedness and engagement. It becomes a much bigger sensory experience for having bare feet. It’s also easier to handle tighter turns – some uncertainty about space meant this was the smallest I’ve made the design, resulting in tight turns at the centre where attentive footwork was required – a smaller labyrinth encourages me to go slower, because of the tight turns. A bigger labyrinth creates the room and the incentive to pick up speed.

I don’t know where or when the next one will happen, but I’ve made a proper bag to hold the parts of the labyrinth, and that’s certainly a commitment to doing more of them.


The community cost of injustice

There’s an obvious upfront cost to injustice that relates very immediately to whatever has gone wrong. What seems like a small unfairness to someone not immediately affected by it can seem like a small problem, not worth the hassle of sorting out. To the person on the receiving end, that small wrong can be life destroying. However, there is a larger and more subtle cost, one that we keep overlooking. Injustice breaks relationships and undermines communities. All the injustice that stems from prejudice. All the injustice that is intrinsic to rape and abuse. Social and financial injustice. All of it.

So, you’re affected by something, and it hurts you, and damages your life, your wellbeing. I’ll leave it to you to decide what sort of injustice to imagine or remember at this point. Nothing is done. The system refuses to change, the perpetrator is not tackled, no one says ‘hey that’s not ok and shouldn’t be happening.’ You are left with the immediate damage, and the knowledge that no one cares enough to do anything about it. A second level of hurt comes from this, and that hurt can go deeper than even the initial damage.

If your wounding is trivialised and/or ignored, then your relationship with the people who don’t care, changes. It may be that you have to see the injustice inherent in the system, and you can’t ever unsee it and feel easy about things again. It may be that you start seeing all people from the group that harmed you as a potential threat. You will likely feel cut off, and alienated, and angry, and there’s nowhere to take that because the people who most need to know about it have already made it pretty clear that they don’t care.

We’re doing this all the time. We do it at the state level. We collectively turn away from victims. We close our ears to them, we don’t listen to their stories. If we don’t think something would bother us, we decline to see why it would be a problem for anyone else. Injustice severs the natural bonds between people. It dehumanises all of us. When we look away. When we don’t worry because it’s not happening to us. When we say ‘oh, it’s not that big a deal really, stop making a fuss,’  we contribute. And so there is fear, and mistrust, resentment, bitterness, anger all bubbling away in so many places for so many reasons. It’s been there a long time and it won’t change easily, but change it must.


Listening to the Undergrowth

Where there is undergrowth, there is life. It may not always reveal itself to the eye, but it will be available to the ears if a person is quiet. This isn’t just about beautiful remote places, but about the undergrowth on the edges of urban spaces, lanes, roadsides, the hedges on fields that are otherwise lifeless monocultures…

We humans have the bad habit of taking our noise with us – be that in earphones, over-involved conversations, or the noise that goes on in our heads. A person doesn’t have to move in careful silence to hear what’s around them – in fact conversation is still possible. What’s needed is more presence. If we fold into the little world of the verbal exchange we’re having, everything around us can go unheeded. If we’re first and foremost present in the landscape, and the conversation is secondary, then the landscape opens to us in new ways. Obviously if you can’t hear at all, this line of thought will be useless to you, but any sound sensitivity can made use of.

People who walk with me have to adapt to this! I will interrupt absolutely anything to point out wildlife, because the wildlife won’t wait for polite opportunities. I’ll break conversation threads for clouds and buzzards, plants and effects of the light. I delight in walking with people who do the same and will leap out of a conversation to alert me to a plant or some other point of interest. (Nods to Robin, if he’s reading this.)

The loudest sound in the British undergrowth is often the blackbird, foraging amongst the leaves. Attention to the sound will lead you to the bird, who is likely close by. Other ground foragers – thrushes, robins, wrens, can also become visible by this means. It is possible to see small rodents if you track them by sound. They tend to be quieter than birds, and sometimes all you can do is track the disturbance of the undergrowth where the rodent passes through.

Mammals tend to know we are around and will often move away from noisy humans before we get any chance to see them. However, if you can move through a space without disturbing it, you may get audio cues about mammal activity. It’s not as easy to see wild mammals as you might assume, but sometimes the sound will give them away. Many deal with humans by being still – in their silence and immobility, we don’t register them, often. But, a moving animal makes sound, and you can hear the movement over the terrain in that sound sometimes, and it is well worth paying attention to.

Of course listening also opens up a world of bird song, wind sound, sometimes water sound and animal cries, but that’s another story.


The lies we tell ourselves

I’ve recently finished reading The Wheel of Osheim – the third book in Mark Lawrence’s trilogy The Red Queen’s War, and while anything published by Harper Voyager is normally too famous for my book hipster standards, I like Mark. And, I knew him before he was famous. I liked him before he was cool.

Mark Lawrence is an author who can write tales that work on a lot of levels. A fast paced adventure trilogy, with witty dialogue, action, shagging, demons, magic and all the things you’d expect from a popular fantasy series. But alongside that, there are themes and concepts to chew on, and that’s why I find these books so engaging. It’s not just surface amusement.

For me, the major theme of the Red Queen’s War trilogy, is the impact of the stories and lies we tell ourselves, and each other. The central character, Jalan, has a big story about how he’s a coward and a man with no morals worth mentioning. But he gets caught up in other people’s stories, other people’s ideas about who and what he’s supposed to be and ends up doing all sorts of heroically out of character things.

We all assemble our lives out of stories. We tell ourselves things about who we are, and what we’re doing and why. We do that to justify actions that maybe aren’t justified at all. We do it to excuse shortcomings, to explain poor choices and mistakes. We tell stories about how other people impacted on us, the ones who saved us, the ones who are our enemies… and we tell these stories so well and so often and with such conviction that we often forget they are stories, and that other versions of events exist.

At the same time, we can talk ourselves into other roles and story-shapes, if we want to. We can talk each other into being braver and honest, into trusting instincts and following our inspiration. We can tell each other stories that help us get through the day, or get things done.

So, if you’d like a story that will entertain you, but that may also give you a bit of an existential crisis, do check out Mark Lawrence. And while you’re doing it, ask yourself what story you are telling about your own life and nature.

Find Mark here – http://mark—lawrence.blogspot.co.uk/


Protecting ancient trees

Right now in the UK, the government is considering a change to the law that would see ancient woodland and aged and veteran trees added to the list of the nation’s assets that should be explicitly protected from development. You’d be forgiven for thinking that these unique and precious woodlands would already be protected, but they aren’t, and there’s been a dramatic increase in threatened loss of ancient woodland from development in recent years. Four hundred woods in England are under threat as I write this, which is a devastating number.

 Any loss of ancient woodland or aged and veteran trees should be viewed as unacceptable, to my mind. This is not an infinite resource and we simply can’t replace it or offset the loss. Planting some new trees some other place does not offset what’s destroyed when we sacrifice ancient woodland in the name of profit. The subtle interplay of landscape and trees, plants and soil, and all the other inhabitants of ancient woodland can’t be magically re-created. We need to recognise the cultural and historical value of ancient woodlands as ‘heritage assets’.  I’d go further and say that we need to stop assuming that every other living thing on this planet is fair game for death and exploitation if someone can make a fast buck out of it.

If you find this blog post before the 2nd May 2017, you can participate in the consultation

https://campaigns.woodlandtrust.org.uk/ea-action/action?ea.client.id=1743&ea.campaign.id=64023

Or email your MP.

 We need a culture shift, internationally. We need to stop seeing everything in terms of human profit and human loss – where loss and profit are purely economic words. If we could see loss of habitat and loss of beauty as just as important, even, I dare to venture more important than loss of money, we’d be better citizens of the world. If we could collectively see the gains to be had by protecting biodiversity, that would be good. We need to wake up to the fact that the human-made built environment is not our natural habitat and makes us ill. We need trees, and trees urgently need us to realise this.


Tao, Druidry and authenticity

I first became aware of Taoism in late childhood, via The Tao of Pooh, which I read, loved and no doubt mostly didn’t understand at all. But it spoke to me nonetheless and when opportunities have come up to explore further, I’ve taken them. I own several interpretations of the Tao Te Ching. My Druidry has always been coloured somewhat by the things I’ve learned from Taoism.

One of the Taoist ideas I find especially appealing to explore is the role of personal authenticity. Religions that are about transcending this world tend to encourage practitioners to put aside the self, the ego, the illusion in order move on up into the realm of spirit. I’m a spiritual materialist, my feet are on the earth and my sense of the sacred is earthly. I’ve no desire to transcend.

Taoism says be yourself, but see yourself as part of something far bigger and longer lasting than you. It teaches that human nature is naturally in tune with the Tao, if we let it flow, and that human artifice is the thing that keeps as away from being part of the flow of the universe. To live well and live simply is the goal, to be quietly part of the world and acting from our true nature so as to be aligned with the Tao. I’ve been in too many contexts that wanted me to hack bits off myself. The affirmation that my most authentic self is a good thing is something I find helpful, and healing.

It’s a line of thought that brings me back to Mary Oliver’s ‘You do not have to be good, you only have to left the soft animal of your body love what it loves.’ For me this has been the basis of stripping away artifice and finding my authentic self. Whatever that is. I’m still looking, still finding things that aren’t me but have been squashed onto my surfaces. Still hunting out bits that have been hacked off in the past.

There’s a ‘good enough’ notion at the core of this. A human is fundamentally good enough. What we do to ourselves and each other can take us away from that, when we deform who we are to try and become what we think we should be… But in essence we are all good enough, we just need to settling into that, be with it, make room for it. Cruelty is not natural, nor is taking far, far more than we need in order the waste the vast majority of it. Our animal selves are likely much better than the weird socially constructed humans we’ve been cobbling together for thousands of years.

I do not have to overcome my ego. I do not have to deliberately crush any part of me that feels good about things. I do not have to punish my body to be spiritual. I do not have to deny my earthly being and my earth-based life to be spiritual. I just need to settle down in this soft animal body I have, and love the warmth of sunlight on my skin, and love the tactile surfaces and the warmth of other soft animal bodies, the hills beneath my feet, the shade of trees, the sunset… Rather than the spiritual path seeming like some vast and daunting effort, it seems gentle, easy even.


The Politics of Pants

Go into a regular supermarket and eye up underwear for women, and you will find that pants tend to start at a size small enough to not cover your pubes, and get smaller from there down to buttock-floss with triangle. Cotton pants can be bought, but a great many knickers are made to be lacy, and thus are made from a high percentage of synthetics. This kind of fabric will keep you cold in the winter (inviting piles) and make you sweat in the summer, (encouraging thrush). Women’s pants are designed to be looked at, comfort is secondary.

Now shuffle yourself round to the man pants isle, where you’ll not find anything synthetic or lacy. You’ll find sizes that start at a close fit and expand through to shorts. Pants to keep you warm in winter and pants to keep you cool in summer. Pants to either let your tackle swing free, or to hold it neatly in place depending on your needs. Pants you can pee from without having to take half your clothes off. Man pants are made for use, not for decoration.

Of course women’s pants have to be small otherwise the edges might be visible under our closely fitting clothes, and that would never do!

For a whole array of reasons, I’ve been wearing man pants for a couple of weeks now and it’s been a revelation. They don’t chafe my inner thighs. They’re so much better for temperature management. I have discovered that I feel more confident, more sexy and more powerful wearing them. I can saunter about in just my pants, and not feel self conscious, because these pants cover my genitals rather than drawing attention to them. If I was the sort of person with shaving inclinations, I might be affected by the way that all of my pubic zone is entirely covered up.

Small female pants leave you exposed, and make your genitals accessible. I’ve never felt sexy wearing lingerie, only self conscious and vulnerable. Not least because lingerie is something I’ve only ever worn for someone else. I wouldn’t wear it for me, because what I want for me is to be comfortable.

I know there are people of all genders who enjoy lingerie and who feel sexy in it. All power to them. What bothers me is that if you’re one of the women who doesn’t get on with that, it’s not easy to find underwear designed for women that isn’t designed to be small and ‘sexy’ in line with the idea that revealing is sexy. If women’s underwear was designed primarily to be comfortable, it would be all soft fabric and a variety of leg lengths, and we’d go from thongs to shorts as well. In an ideal world I think there would also be more availability of sexy pants for men. You won’t find posing pouches in the supermarket. Male undergarments designed for the female viewer are few and far between. It would be good to have a more level playing field.