Author Archives: Nimue Brown

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things.

What is sacredness?

While I was planning my talk for the recent market and conference in Wolverhampton, I had a bit of a light bulb moment. I was talking about sacred places, so of course the question of ‘what makes something sacred?’ was very much on my mind. Why are we more able to see the sacred some places than others? Why is Stonehenge sacred, while the Stonehenge car park isn’t? Why do we identify some days as more sacred than others?

The barrow I frequent is a sacred place for me. Other people go there to fly remote controlled aeroplanes, and to ride down the sides on mountain bikes. It is not a sacred place for them. The sacredness I experience is not self-announcing.

It struck me that it might be entirely off the mark to think of sacredness as being inherent in an object, place or time. What if sacredness is the kind of relationship we have? It follows that ancient sites and places of beauty are more likely to inspire us to a feeling of sacred relationship than a supermarket car park. At the same time, it means that someone who was looking for sacredness in a supermarket car park could do just that.

I have, as it happens. Supermarket car parks attract foxes – I assume they come for the rodents who come for the scraps. I’ve had a number of beautiful fox encounters on car parks, and that has given me a sense of sacredness in places that otherwise in no way seem to invite it.

In theory then, anything can be sacred. In practice, our little monkey brains can only do so much. Relationship is a conscious thing, it requires engagement, deliberateness, participation. Trying to be in sacred relationship with everything all the time would be exhausting. Perhaps when we are very old, and very wise, with decades of sacred relationships behind us, it will simply be a state we have entered, but that’s a ways off for me. Most of the time, it is enough to make the sacred relationships we can. Be that with a place, or a time, a creature or a tree, an idea or an experience. Sacredness can be the terms on which we choose to engage.

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Body differences and the weird logic of diets

There are a great many people who are not able to lose weight through diet and exercise. The standard response is to assume they just weren’t trying hard enough. We have no qualms about shaming people who can’t manage their weight by the means they are told will work for them.  As though the human body is a simple system, and always works in the same way, and as if what you eat and how much you move are the only factors involved in size.

To talk about this, I’m going to step sideways into the parallel world of muscle. Muscles are complicated, and we don’t all have it in us to build the same ones. Some of us are better suited to speed than lifting power. Some of us naturally have more stamina than others. Hit the limits on what your muscles can do, and the odds are good the people around you will assume it’s because you’ve hit your limits. It may be about how much glycogen your muscles can store – that may be genetic.  And of course muscles don’t work alone, there’s bone and tendon to consider, blood flow, reflexes, metabolism.

Get into the world of muscle even a little bit and you’ll find it is complex, and there’s no expectation that all bodies are going to work the same way. We don’t shame people for having sinewy strength rather than big muscles. We assume that difference is normal. This is in no small part because we have generations of knowledge that different bodies respond to exercise in different ways and that different people have different strengths.

On the whole, fat is a new problem for us as a species. Perhaps for much of human history, it was fair to assume that more often than not, fat went with how much you ate. That didn’t necessarily make it an unpopular thing, either. Historically, fat has equated to wealth and opulence – historic portraits of people have a lot of bigger people in them. The rich have carried their extra pounds with pride. However, this century has seen fat become a widespread issue for poor people, and that makes it a problem, and no longer desirable.  Perceived greed is something the poor are always punished for.

Sleep deprivation causes weight gain – the evidence is out there but it isn’t much publicised. Sleep deprivation is for the greater part a industrial ailment, made worse in recent years by 24/7 culture, shift working, stress, screens and time pressure. Hard to get enough sleep if you’re working two jobs, and this too is a modern problem.

We feed growth hormones to creatures raised for meat, but I’ve not seen anyone suggesting that there could be a relationship between weight gain, and eating something that was pumped full of chemicals to make it gain weight. We put all manner of chemicals into our food, and the long term experiments to discover the long term impact of eating them? We’re it.

We should be asking about the relationship between malnourishment and weight gain – if your diet is about filling up on not very nutritional carbs, what does that do? What happens when you can’t afford to eat good food? What does stress do to metabolism and body size? Some of us burn frantically in response to stress, but what if some of us stock up reserves? What if dieting just adds to the stress that has your body trying to store calories? Why should there be just one story about how we get fat and how to shed that fat? It doesn’t add up.

We need better research into the issue of weight gain, rather than this endless preaching about the imagined moral failure of being fat. We need answers that take into account body difference and that we’re no doubt not all designed to be exactly the same shape. We need to work out what healthy weight means – the Body Mass Index is worse than useless. We need health measurements that aren’t just about size and we also need to start recognising that if a large person is ill, it may not be simply a case that they need to lose weight and get more exercise. Perhaps if we were collectively slower to pathologise fat, we would be able to have healthier ideas about how to live with the bodies we have.


Amster Damned – A review

Amster Damned, by Nils Nisse Visser is a steampunk novel and clearly the start of a series. The author and I were recommended to each other by a fellow reviewer. I love how this stuff works.

The main action in this tale takes place over a very short time frame, as private detective’s assistant Miss Kittyhawk is in Amsterdam on a missing person’s case. We’re offered an initial setup that looks mysterious enough – the case of the missing botanist – but as a few days of plotting and dramatic escape unfold, it turns out there’s a lot more to it.

Now to try and review without spoilering!

As the main drama plays out, we get details of Miss Kittyhawk’s back story, and she is certainly not as she first appears. There’s smuggling in her family background, and social unrest in her social background and rebellion against the state in her heart, but the state seems to be trying to recruit her, so that’s clearly all going to go well in future books!

The world building around the action-orientated part of the plot is superb, as a large and complex reality emerges. This is a world in which time travel is a criminal offence that will get you executed if you don’t have the right paperwork. This is a world where the skies hum with many different kinds of craft, and the scope for adventure, and misadventure, is vast.

I have one fairly small niggle over the level of description and technical information – this however is mostly a matter of personal taste. I know for some steampunk readers, the details of dress and technology are really what makes the genre, so for some people this is going to be a distinct asset, not an irritation. Less description would have been more, for me.

What really made this book for me, was the startlement of getting a little way in and going “Hang on, I KNOW THIS PERSON!” I’ve since discovered that the author is in the habit of recruiting real life Steampunks into his fiction, which adds a really interesting extra dimension, to my mind.

I also really appreciated that this is a story whose main characters all come from the back alleys and slums, and who are not enchanted by the great colonial, industrial machine, nor are they profiting much from it – well – smuggling aside! There’s an explicit critique of the ways those in power see and treat the masses, and plenty of real life relevance in that mix.

On the whole, a charming and entertaining read with the potential to develop into a really good series. I’ll be looking out for the next one.


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.


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.