Category Archives: Community

Stealing the surfaces

Back when I was at school, a girl in my class returned to the sixth form with a new wardrobe of alternative, goth and hippy clothing. She’d decided to reinvent herself over the summer and had the money to spend on getting the look. As far as I could make out, she didn’t have an alternative bone in her body. She just thought it would be cool to look that way. I have no idea if she got what she wanted from the experience.

They turn up everywhere. Witchcraft is especially prone to people who want the look and not much else. All forms of creativity attract people who want to be seen as arty but turn out not to be willing to put in the time and effort it actually takes to make stuff. I don’t know if this is because the people doing it never realise there’s more involved than the surface appearance. It’s probably about a desire for attention and wanting to be more interesting than they consider themselves to truly be.

Superficial lifestylers can be deeply annoying when you’re trying to really invest in something. People who can swing in and buy the appearance of your culture without really caring what that culture is. But at the same time, for most of us – if we are white, western, and not being oppressed in some way – we can afford to shrug and ignore it. Next year, these folk will re-invent themselves and become someone else’s problem. If your Pagan path is about getting online and trying to put straight the Pagans who aren’t Pagan enough or otherwise aren’t doing it right – well, that can become another superficial exercise in wanting attention and trying to look the part.

Wanting attention is very normal, very human. From our earliest school days we learn about cool kids and outsiders. We learn about group membership, and the importance of looking the part. We’ve got a celebrity culture based entirely on appearances and many of us grow up with little reason to think that depth of care and involvement are even a thing. Sometimes, when we do want to be taken seriously, we try too hard to look the part and to seem more than we are. The desire to be taken seriously by people who are doing it for real can prompt some daft behaviour. But again, our wider western culture doesn’t encourage us to rock up humble, admitting what we don’t know and showing respect to those who have done it for longer and gone to greater lengths.

For most humans, attention functions as a reward. What kind of attention it is can be less of an issue. So if you see someone buying their way in, being superficial, focusing on the bling and not the study and so forth, the best thing to do is make little comment or fuss about it. If they are someone who yearns for more than this, eventually they will figure out how to ask for guidance, or they’ll get moving on their own. If they aren’t serious, they will drift away. It’s when we pour energy into it and make drama around it that we reinforce being superficial. We’re rewarding it with attention and energy. Quiet disinterest can be a good way of guarding your own resources, and a simple, quiet way of teaching people to up their game.

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Creative Community

I have never liked the image of creator as lone genius, up in their ivory tower, making Art away from the influence of nasty commercialism, nasty popularity and actual people. For me, this is an image that goes with elitism, wilful obscurity, pricing most people out of the market and creative irrelevance. I’m equally not a fan of disposable, industrialised pop culture where people make pretty much the same thing over and over for it to be consumed by other people who don’t much care about it.

There are of course other ways.

At the moment, I am blessed with a creative community. There are people whose work I am involved with to varying degrees, and who are involved with my work. People who pass me their first drafts, and who will read mine. People I trade reviews with. People I go to poetry nights with. People I can learn from, and be influenced by and test myself against. People who inspire me and who sometimes, to my great excitement, are inspired by me.

I find it always helps me to know who I am creating for. Much of my fiction work is written with a few specific individuals in mind. I can’t write for everyone; that makes no sense to me. Writing purely for myself feels too indulgent and narcissistic.

Being part of a creative community means finding out what other people are interested in, reading, looking at, watching, listening to. I may not be much engaged with mainstream entertainment, but I am engaged with things that other people in turn find engaging.

Creative community means support for what I do, and people I want to see thrive. It’s easier to get your books in front of people when someone else can say they are worth reading, simply. It’s good not to feel alone as a creator, and community helps offset the crushing qualities of the industry.

There can be a downside to all this. A small and inward-looking community can become a bubble of dysfunction. It can give people illusions of importance that stop them from doing things that would help them. I’ve seen it happen several times in different contexts. Creative cliques breed arrogance and obliviousness. The solution to this is to be part of an extended network that maybe has some tighter knit groups within it. There’s no real gain in finding a small pond in which to be a large fish.

There’s a romance to the idea of the lone creator that some creators have played up as part of their marketing strategy. The truth tends to be more complex. Stand-out famous creative people tend, when you look more closely at their lives, to have people around them. Wordsworth, for all his claiming to wander lonely as a cloud was actually out on a walk with his sister, and used her diary account of the day to help him write the daffodils poem. The myth of Solitary Great Men abounds, but in creative community we can find natural, healthy antidotes to this where we can all be excellent people in relation to each other.


Shapes of relationships

Some of our relationships are necessarily structured. When there’s a professional shape to a relationship, all kinds of rules and requirements are in place and this is good and necessary. Professional relationships create obligations, responsibilities and power imbalances that need managing. Some family relationships have some of the same issues. Even so, there are choices to be made about how we shape such involvement – how much power over? How many arbitrary rules? How much service? How much expectation?

As Druids, we may often take on informally the kinds of roles that can be held professionally. Priest, teacher, counsellor, life coach… If we stray too far from what’s professional, we can end up abusing power and mistreating people. If we over-invest in our semi-professional status we can end up arrogant, self important and doing ourselves no favours whatsoever. As in most things, there’s a fine balancing act to achieve. Unlike professionals, we aren’t automatically keyed into a system that has support networks, resources, information and reliable paychecks, and it’s worth thinking about how that impacts on our relationships, too.

We tell each other a lot of stories about relationships – in fact friendship and romance are often central to our stories. In all kinds of ways – including adverts and laws – we tell each other about the shapes we think those relationships could and should have. Over time, that changes. It used to be much more acceptable for a man to beat his wife. We used to see marriage as a well defined relationship with a definite power imbalance in it. We seem willing now to explore less authoritarian approaches to parenting while at the same time being far more controlling of our children’s time and activities.

It’s easy to default to a standard relationship shape, an off the peg, one size fits all, it was good enough for some other person so it’s good enough for me kind of approach. This can have us replaying dysfunctional family stories, acting out what we’ve seen on the telly, aspiring to advert-family lifestyles that could never suit us and all sorts of other self-defeating things.

We have a notion that friendship means people of the same gender and about the same age, but life, and communities are much richer when there’s inter-generational contact. There are no stories about the natural friendship patterns for queer and genderfluid people. We tend to move towards people of similar class and educational background, but again that’s really narrowing. Some of us need big networks of friends, some of us need to deeply invest in just a few people. Some of us need a mix of that. There are no right answers here, but there can be wrong ones. If you end up doing what you think you should do, not what’s right for you, then you suffocate yourself.

Every relationship should be unique, because it is a meeting of two people. Each relationship may be framed by a context, or multiple contexts. We may give each other roles even when they don’t formally exist. It takes a certain amount of deliberation to refuse standard-issue relationship shapes and let something find its own form. It takes a certain amount of confidence as well, to do something with a relationship that is not what others might expect. People can be unpleasantly judgemental about having their expectations denied. Coming out can be a case in point for denying your family’s expectations.

It may seem easier to have all our interactions neatly arranged and tidily categorised. It may be simpler that way. There are no doubt some people whose natures mean that tidiness and simplicity are in fact the best choices. But not for all of us. Not for all relationships. Putting down the assumptions and seeing what happens can let magic in.


Pondering Friendship

I remember going to playgroup as a three year old and having no real idea what to make of other children or how to connect with them. There seemed to be rules, codes, secret understandings that I knew nothing about. That feeling lingered all through primary school where I made few friends. At secondary school I managed to find my way into a couple of social groups, but it was still a bit of a mystery. At college I found myself feeling exactly the way I had as a three year old at playgroup as the people around me rapidly befriended each other.

I’m terrible at making friends with people. However it’s not simply that I’m an introvert. I like people. I’m just not very good at being around people.

During my twenties, I discovered social spaces where the rules are explicit. Folk clubs, jamming sessions, rituals, meditation sessions. Give me a structure I could easily see, tell me who I’m supposed to be, or a job around which the social contact revolves, and I do ok.  I feel more secure when I know who I am supposed to be and what I am supposed to be doing. I also feel more able to cope in social situations if I have a large piece of wood (aka a bouzouki) between me and everyone else.

When I landed in Stroud some years ago, there wasn’t a folk club I could get to and I didn’t really know anyone, and I had to build a social life from scratch. It was very slow, and I found it really hard. How do you ask people to make room for you? How do you tell where you fit? In the end, it wasn’t me, but Tom who made most of the key moves that got us into some kind of social relationship with others. That and a few people who made moves towards us.

I like people, and I like being in social spaces, but I find being sociable very hard work. Part of it is that I often don’t have much energy to start with. Part of it is because I dread being asked how I am – most days I’m not ok, I’m usually in pain and/or dealing with depression and anxiety. I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t want to lie about it. I also hate being asked how the work is going – there’s one exception, one friend who I don’t mind asking, for all kinds of reasons, but generally it’s something I don’t want to talk about. Mostly I go out to get away from the work. Mostly my writing is slower and more sporadic than I want it to be.

I also dread being drawn into any kind of debate, or intellectual knock about. I’m often tired by the time I go out, and not at my sharpest, and deep discussion can be beyond me. I hate point scoring and one upmanship and people playing devil’s advocate. I don’t have the spoons for it.

I’m very lucky at the moment in that I have some people to spend time with who never ask me to be bright or clever, are never combative and don’t even seem to mind the fact that I’m not always very communicative. It is like being Eeyore in the hundred acre wood. No one seems to expect me to be anything other than Eeyore, but they still invite me to parties.


Disability and loss of power

Disability is a loss of power. At the most obvious level, it is the loss of scope to do what is considered normal in the way the majority are able to do it. That in turn often creates a loss of opportunity. For many people, disability means poverty, it means a massive disadvantage in terms of economic power. It can also mean a loss of social power, as a result of being excluded or ignored. It can mean people feeling entitled to act in positions of power over you – speaking for you, telling you what’s best for you, what you need, what you are allowed and how much the healthier consensus folk are willing to budge to accommodate you.

What makes this extra difficult is that it can’t all be fixed. There are some disabilities that will keep you powerless and outside of things no matter how good the infrastructure is. If your problems are extreme and continuous, the loss of power can be absolute. There are times when we may need people to speak for us and to make decisions for us – for myself, if I’m deep in a panic attack, I often need other people to do things for me in the short term. To speak and act for me until I can speak and act for myself again. And then to give me that power back. To be unable for a while does not mean being unable forever, and if we don’t recognise how shifting these experiences can be, we take more power from people.

If we’re interested in inclusivity, then the power issues need considering. How do we give more power to a person who has lost power in this way? Listening is important. Being willing to hear what changes would help rather than being unwilling to inconvenience ourselves. The power to not be inconvenienced by change is a power held by people for whom everything is working just fine already. The experience of being exiled because nothing will change is a loss of power.

Speed is often a problem. Simply allowing people more time to respond, to deal with things and so forth can make a lot of odds. Many disabilities impact on people’s energy levels, their personal power and scope to get things done. Making a person move at a pace that they can’t move at further takes power from them.

We need to be alert to economic powerlessness, or the things we are doing become hobbies for the comfortable, and we can have no real communities. Poverty is not always visible or self announcing. Those who are not in poverty can have real trouble imagining what poverty means. Again, the people with the power are often in a position to ignore the problems of the people with no power, and to put their convenience ahead of inclusion.

If you have the power to exclude people by not trying to accommodate them, you have the power in a situation. Too often, people struggling for the means to participate are treated as though they have all the power, as though rights afforded to them mean a loss of power for everyone else. Accommodating someone is not a loss of power. Giving someone else the means to participate is not a loss of power to the majority, and it should not function to exclude anyone else. Too often, those who have power mistake being asked to empower others for being disempowered, and that’s not what’s going on.

It is so important to look properly at who has power and who does not. It is so important to know what kind of power we have and how that power impacts on others.


Community is people

A community is nothing more than people who are connected to each other. A society is nothing more than the same thing on a grander scale. In some ways this is a painfully obvious statement, but it pays to come back to the essence of a thing. It is all too easy to see community as some kind of entity in its own right, controlled, if it is controlled at all, by the people who have set themselves up as in charge of it.

Community is just people. If we, as individuals choose to act, then the communities we are in will change. If we want robust, enduring, fair and safe Pagan communities, we can all work towards that, without having to do anything too dramatic at all.

There are two key things I think we can do to build community, Pagan or otherwise. The first is to look for diversity in our friendships. Where groups of people are homogenous, where it’s all the same education level, age, race, religion and economic class, you get funny little echo chambers that are cut off from the echo chambers around them. There’s a lot to be gained when we are friends with people who are not like us, when we welcome in difference and aren’t troubled by diversity. (This does not mean having to be ok with people who are not ok, hugging a Nazi is not required).

The second thing we can do is cross pollinate. Modern life is segregated, fragmented. We have our families, our neighbours, our work life, our social circles, and it is normal to keep these groups separate. However, strands of connection between groups is what turns a bunch of groups into a community. So, if the chance arises, take a neighbour to a moot, or a work colleague to a party, and so forth.

In terms of safety, we can all be part of the solution there, too. We can speak up if we see things that are out of order. We can tell people who are acting inappropriately. We can offer safety to people who tell us they’ve been mistreated. Putting your body in the way is a powerful thing, and that can be as simple as not leaving someone to go to the loo on their own. Making safe spaces means putting the safety of people who feel unsafe first. It does not mean jumping in for drama and bashing which can only create more conflict and increase feelings of not being safe. If it’s a police matter, take it to the police. If it isn’t, encourage people to behave like decent adults.

Community is us. It’s the choices we make. It’s what we do. We all of us have more power than we are using, in all probability. We all of us have scope to be part of the change we want to see. If we can help each other be the change, almost anything is possible.


Heroes and Monsters

I suspect most of us want to be heroes. We want to be the sort of person who stands up to the bully, tells the abuser they are out of order, maybe even the person who punches Nazis. There’s a great feeling to be had when you’re fighting the good fight, righteously doing the things that need doing. It feels powerful, and exciting, and wonderful. And you get to kick someone else while holding the moral high ground.

I’ve been the monster in this scenario, several times now. I’ve been the bad and wrong thing that deserved kicking, and I’ve had people kick me when from my perspective, I was already down and bleeding. I’ve had people kick me and tell me how proud of themselves they were for standing up to me. I’ve had people attack me for talking about depression, anxiety, pain and despair. I’ve been told what an awful, mean, bullying, unfair, unreasonable sort of person I am. I’ve had people try to cost me my day job on that basis. Were they right? I wondered at the time. I tend to take criticism to heart, because I’m nasty and unreasonable like that.

The desire to be heroic can leave a person wide open to certain kinds of manipulation. I’ve seen it done. And I’ll pause and salute the courage of one person who, having realised they’d been manipulated into attacking me, came back and apologised.

It’s easy to tone police the vulnerable person whose language you dislike rather than going after the system oppressing them. A notorious problem when white feminists deal with women of colour, for example. It’s easier to go after the ally who isn’t completely perfect than to go after perpetrators of the problem. It’s easier to go after people who have no power, than to go after the ones who do. Safer, too, because the people with no power can’t really defend themselves or do you any real harm, whereas those with power, can.

It’s important to look at what we’re being persuaded to do when the opportunity comes along to be heroic. Put your body in the way of the fracking machines? That’s heroism. Call out an actual bully who has the power to harm you? That is brave. The odds are if you wade into a fight, you won’t know everything that’s going on. If you’re on the bully-kicking team, and the bully just lies there, whimpering, if you knock down without consequences, if your righteous indignation looks poised to wreck someone’s life… pause and look at that power balance. Ask whether the response is proportional. Ask whether you’re sure the person you’re taking apart really deserves that.

Taking down abusive people who are in places of power is difficult, hazardous work, and often has a high cost for those doing it. If the takedown feels safe and easy, if the ‘bully’ can’t really do anything to stop you, if you can shame and blame and hurt and humiliate them with impunity… there are questions to ask.

Of course it is true that people with no power can be mean, spiteful, horrible and so forth. Is the first port of call on discovering this to trash them in every way possible? Or should we be trying to talk to them about what the problem is? Should we consider that education, insecurity, inexperience, incompetence might be part of the mix, rather than malice? Should we try to help them not do it again rather than going for psychological warfare?

Because the thing is, it takes very little effort to call someone a bully, especially if you have no reason to fear them. I’ve been called a bully for saying no, for disagreeing, and for not co-operating. I’ve been called a bully for complaining about how I was being treated, when I found that treatment unkind. For people who are really wrapped up in their privilege, a challenge to comfort and ego will be re-branded as bullying. It is not bullying to tell men that women are afraid of being raped. It is not bullying to prevent one person using another person as a resource. But these are things that I have seen called out, because some people can’t handle discomfort and prefer to blame the messenger. Feeling discomfort is not the same as being bullied.

If we want to tackle bullying, we have to do so by not perpetrating it. It’s easy to go in guns blazing, and when you do, it is easy to blame, shame hurt and humiliate people who have been victims all along, and that really doesn’t help.


Leadership and conflict

This is a scenario I’ve seen play out repeatedly in Pagan organisations, and which I assume happens other places too. It invariably causes a lot of trouble and distress, and I am absolutely certain that it could be handled differently.

In the beginning, two people get into conflict. Most usually this starts privately, but because both people are members of the same group, it either gets taken to that group in some way, or spills over into it. It can be a falling out, a communication breakdown, it can be one person harassing or bullying another. At this early stage, it is seldom possible to see the shape of the thing from the outside.

A person, or people with leadership roles and power say “ah, but it didn’t happen on our boards/facebook page, or at our event so we aren’t responsible for sorting it out.”

Where there is bullying, at this point the victim has no choice but to leave while the perpetrator often stays. I’ve said it before and will say it again – doing nothing is not a neutral stance, it is a choice that supports and enables bullying and abuse.

Where there is conflict, it may well spill out into the wider group. Leaders may not pile in, but friends will. You can end up with two sides and a deepening divide. You can end up with more people leaving because they don’t like how it’s been handled. If it really goes pear-shaped, you can tear the entire group apart and bring it to an end. By which point it most assuredly is on the boards, facebook page, and at any real world events and it is night on impossible to bring it back under control or sort anything out.

I think the problem stems from the current human fashion of seeing our lives as fragmented. What happens in one aspect of our lives, we suppose, won’t impact on another. I’ve seen this logic implied even when the police have been involved. We come to our Pagan groups as whole people, and if we fall out with other people, it has an impact.

I think one of the things that leadership means, is stepping in when things go wrong like this. Step in as soon as the problem is visible, and listen to all parties. If it’s the sort of thing that calls for police involvement, support the victim in getting the police involved. If someone is out of order, tell them – explain to them what’s gone wrong and why and what can be done about it. If communication has broken down, be the bridge, get things moving again. If it’s the kind of thing people should just be able to deal with and get over, listen to both side and tell them this, and it might help. People are more likely to accept that judgement if you hear them out first. A little witnessing and taking seriously can do a lot to deflate a conflict if you get in early.

Community does not mean giving up on people as soon as things get challenging. Community does not mean ignoring bullying. It does not mean turning a blind eye to problems. If we’re a community, then problems arising within the community affect all of us, and we all have some responsibility to respond, regardless of whether we lead. As for leadership – that doesn’t mean getting to do the things you want to do and ignoring what people want from you. Good leadership means looking after your people, especially when things go wrong.


What makes a good community?

I’ve been asking a lot of questions lately about how we might do a better job as Pagans of being a community. So, here we go again!

Modern Pagans often only assemble to do Pagan things – moots, rituals, festivals, camps, conferences… I think this is true for people of other faiths too, in the west at any rate. We don’t live in our faith communities, our lives are fragmented and we do different bits of it with different people. Our Pagan ancestors lived together. They worked together, celebrated together, dealt with sickness and injury together, grew food together, and ate it together. They sold their wares to each other, married each other, gave life to the next Pagan generation together, raised their young folk together. We don’t do that.

For me, one of the defining qualities of a real community is that it has depth and breadth. People are involved with each other’s lives, interdependent, and connected in multiple ways. Now, with the way the world works at the moment, we can’t have Pagan villages to re-enact ancestral lifestyles. However, we can do more to create threads of connection between us.

Communities need to come together as big groups where people may only be loosely affiliated with each other. They also need to be able to hold within them many smaller groups, sometimes overlapping, where people are more closely involved. There has to be some room for fluidity – movement in and out of the big group, and movement between small groups, with new small groups forming at need and ones that are no longer needed falling away.

For a while when I lived in the Midlands, I think I managed something that worked on those terms. There was a moot, a folk club, a local ritual group, and a bigger more centralised ritual group drawing from a wider area. There were several meditation groups, the people who made the wicker man each year, and numerous musical configurations overlapping with those groups. It wasn’t all Pagan, but the Pagans tended to be the core of a lot of the things going on. It had a real energy to it.

It’s very difficult to run that as a top-down operation. I don’t recommend it. This kind of breadth of community works better and is more sustainable when it occurs in a more organic way. Key to developing it is good communication so that people can get involved with various aspects. It is really important that most of it does not end up too cliquey and exclusive. It also depends on no one being too power-hungry. If there’s someone who runs The Moot and it is their moot and the only moot in town, a new moot running on different terms for different people may cause unrest and trouble. If there’s someone who thinks they alone should run ritual in the area, or someone who objects to the Pagan knitting group as too fluffy, it can be hard work getting things sorted.

It takes a lot of people with will and patience to make a real community. It takes people who are not willing to be told what to do by people who want power over them. It takes a willingness to nurture diversity, make mistakes, give up on ideas, try new ones… and as we argue, negotiate, experiment, and evolve our way through various forms and configurations, we stand a chance of becoming something a bit more recognisable to our ancestors.


Zombie Catharsis

At the weekend we played zombie football. You might think that an odd topic for a Druid blog, but for me it is a good way of celebrating the dark part of the year. The decay. The way death is ever present in our lives.

Preparing for zombie football means making yourself look as undead as possible. That’s fun in its own, gruesome way, and it also a safe way of staring your own death in the face as you try to make yourself corpse-like. And then you get to meet up with your friends and see what they are doing to look horrible and deceased.

We favour the shambling, stupid zombie model. This means that the football is slow. Lack of coordination isn’t an issue. Being unable to pass the ball well isn’t an issue. Scoring and saving goals – well, we shamble the right way and see what happens. It’s about being a good zombie. What results is an hour or so where a bunch of people shuffle outside together. The bar for being able to join in, is very low. It really isn’t about the winning. And anyway, football always wins, and the zombies lose.

In normal circumstances, participating in a sport requires you to be fit and healthy. Disabilities involving clumsiness, poor energy, lack of co-ordination, lack of speed, strength, stamina are many. Physical sports you can play with a bunch of people with more and less normal bodies are not numerous. Zombie football is a fantastic and very silly answer to all of this.