Category Archives: Community

How we connect

Once upon a time, there was a much bigger divide between ‘ordinary’ people and ‘famous’ people. The internet has largely ended that because many of us get opportunities to enter into conversations with people who are more famous than us. Sometimes this is wonderful, and sometimes it brings out the worst people are capable of. People online are, basically, people, with all the diversity that implies.

My background includes a lot of folk music, and in folk there has never been that hard line between performer and audience. You can go to a session or a singaround and be sat next to someone whose name is on the posters. I think it’s a lot healthier for all involved when we treat each other as people and approach each other in a more equitable way.

One of the things I find really entertaining is the people who aren’t famous, who attempt to use social media as though they were. They just come in and talk about their writing, and their book. It does seem to be novels more than any other thing. Although a surprising number of people calling themselves social media experts seem to do it as well! Why anyone thinks that endlessly shouting about their own work will engage people and sell books, remains a mystery to me.

I’ve nothing against people trying to sell their own work – it is a challenge. We accept adverts from big companies with little question, where lone creators trying to promote their stuff can be given a hard time for it. If your job doesn’t have a marketing department or a sales team, you have no choice but to promote what you do in order to make a living. But there are questions about how to do this well.

Being social is not an optional extra. If you are a human trying to deal with other humans, being social is key. It’s how we get things done. To be social, you have to engage with other people. You have to be both interested and interesting. Have you ever bought a book because you accepted a friends request from a stranger and they sent you a direct message about their book straight away? Anyone?

We don’t think about things enough, often. We don’t think enough about other people’s motivations and inclinations. We don’t think about how to connect with each other – not if we’re bombarding each other with sales material. As someone who does a lot of promoting and marketing in the day job, I can say that this is a thing. If you think about what people might want from you, it’s a lot easier to sell stuff. If you don’t assume that of course they’ll all want your thing, it is easier to sell stuff. If you treat everyone like they are at least potentially valuable and interesting, you are on a better footing.

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What we enable

There’s a high profile man locally who makes a habit of putting hands on women and does not hear when women tell him they don’t like or want it. He tends to be a toucher of arms and shoulders, so a lot of people feel it’s no big deal. He doesn’t do it to men. I’ve talked to plenty of women who find it an uncomfortable invasion. I’ve also had a fair few people tell me (mostly, but not exclusively men) that this guy is ok because they think he means well and is harmless. I want to talk about the consequences of this.

Everyone should have the right to say no to being touched. Some of us are in pain and can be hurt by apparently innocent gestures. Some of us are dealing with the aftermath of trauma and can be triggered by unexpected or unwanted contact. Some of us just don’t want to be touched. The right of women to say no to contact – any contact – and have that heard and respected is fundamental to consent culture. When people decide that small infringements are ok, that a bit of ignoring consent is no big deal, it makes other infringements that bit easier.

If a woman tells you she doesn’t like a man persistently touching her, and you tell her why she shouldn’t mind, it has consequences. It makes it that bit harder to flag up worse encroachments. If you know that a person with enough power and status will be totally excused when he makes you uncomfortable, what support can you expect if he takes it further? What response is likely if you need to flag up serious abuse, bullying, harassment, groping and so forth from the same man, or another man? If there’s a culture of letting people off the hook, it’s harder to deal with bigger things.

As it happens, my local invader of space goes in for a lot of sexist behaviour, and mostly gets away with it. The touching is one facet of this, not the only issue.

In balance to this, I’ve had conversations with men who, when I’ve talked about this, have recognised that it isn’t ok and have had heard me out. I’ve talked to men who have questioned their own assumptions and beliefs, and reconsidered their own behaviour. Men who have been willing to be uncomfortable and realise that what they thought was fine, maybe wasn’t.

If you’re a man in a position of power, and you touch women socially, are you confident they feel able to tell you if they don’t like it? Have you ever asked them? Would you respect their wishes if they said no to it? Or would you, as a number of men have done to me, tell them why your social touching is ok and they should accept it?

‘It’s just…’

Except if it makes a person feel sad, anxious, insecure, afraid, imposed on, compromised etc, it isn’t a small thing. Just because the touch is no big deal for the person doing it, doesn’t mean it must also be no big deal for the person experiencing it. If we assume that a man’s experience of touching a woman is what defines the encounter (no big deal) we make no space for the fact that women are often having radically different experiences in the situation.

 

(This has been a rather gender binary blog, in part because this is a problem that most often occurs in the most hetronormative situations.)


Lessons in letting people go

I’ve always been a people pleaser. I’ve always cared what other people thought of me, and whether they thought I was good enough. Demands (implicit or explicit) to give more, do more, be more useful, ask for less, make less fuss and so forth, have tended to impact on me. I’ve spent much of my life trying to be good enough for other people. As a consequence, I’ve spent more time than was a good idea in the company of people for whom I could never be good enough.

One of the things I’ve done this year is to ask at every turn, what’s in it for me? I’ve found it massively helpful as an approach. On a number of occasions now, I’ve identified situations where there really was nothing in it for me, but I was being asked to give rather a lot. I’ve learned to say no to that, and to walk away.

In the past, I would have felt guilty about not being good enough for someone. No matter how preposterous the situation, or how impossible the hoops I was being asked/told to jump through. Failing to do what other people wanted of me would leave me depressed, anxious, guilt ridden and trying to cut bits off myself so as to better fit through the endless hoops. It’s taken me a long time to learn that some people can’t be pleased. It’s usually the most demanding people who are the hardest to actually make happy.

Alongside this I’ve learned that I can have people in my life who just like me being around. People who don’t need me to do anything in particular for them. People who enjoy me being happy. It makes a lot of difference. Unsurprisingly, the more time I spend with people who accept me as I am, the happier and more relaxed I am.

The people who want me to be things I am not, have, with hindsight, wanted some weird and incompatible things. They’ve wanted things on their terms that should never be entirely one sided. They’ve wanted all the consequences of being unconditionally loved, while being free to act like they have no obligations. Conditional love is never enough for some people. The idea of reciprocal love, care, affection and support offends them. They’ve wanted the devotion that gets the work done, and the freedom to pretend that the devotion does not exist. They’ve wanted absolute care and attention while making it clear that it must never be apparent that I’m making an effort, so that they don’t feel awkward or pressured by it. And so on. Some games are not winnable.

I have learned this year that I do not have to feel guilty about the people I am unable to please. If I’m not good enough for them, they should let go and move on. It’s no good standing around telling me how rubbish I am, or how problematic, and expecting me to fix everything. Also, I’ve never yet got into one of these where it seemed possible to really fix anything or ever be good enough. The people who treat me as though I am the villain in their life story while at the same time asking for saintly levels of tolerance, forgiveness and indulgence, are people I don’t need. Onwards!


Big fish, small pond

There are a lot of personal advantages to being a big fish in a small pond. It’s good for your self esteem, your feelings of worth, usefulness and recognition. It is of course rather challenging to come out of the small pond and suddenly find you are a pretty small fish in a much bigger pond.

Many people are very good at creating small spaces in which to be big fish. I see a lot of it around me where I live, and I see it in the Pagan community too. It’s not so difficult to be big in your local Pagan community. Of course often that means in the rest of your local community, you’re insignificant.

There are all kinds of ways this can cause a person problems. An inflated sense of self worth can trip you up and invites massive embarrassment. The person who has to say ‘do you know who I am?’ is a fish out of the pond that validated them. Frustration at not being a big fish in the small pond can make people insecure, cranky and a problem to themselves and others. Being able to see the bigger pond in which you would be a small fish can do all the same things. Getting caught up in this does a person no good at all. The desire to be important often proves a barrier to getting anything worthwhile done, as well.

We weren’t designed to exist in a global community of billions. We evolved for small groups. Most of us see more people in a year than a mediaeval peasant would have seen in their entire life. We seem geared to deal with a larger network of a few hundred people at most. When we deal with other people in such numbers as these, it’s a very different experience.

In a community of a few hundred people, everyone knows everyone. No one is irrelevant. Any skill, or significant action will stand out and be noticed. Everyone can shine at their own thing. It’s unlikely anyone will cast such a long shadow that they cause a lot of other people to disappear.

In comparison, most of us will never be more than statistics, and most of us will disappear from history and memory when we die. Most of us will not have our centenaries acknowledged, or our legacies discussed.

For our own sanity, we all need small spaces where we can exist as people and feel valued. Alongside that, we all need to be able to deal with the issue that in the grand scheme of things, we don’t count for much.

It was Stroud Book Festival this weekend. I was doing venue work, not there as an author, but my being an author came up in a couple of conversations. “Should I have heard of you?” someone asked. I said, “no, I’m pretty niche.” And that, mostly, is the size of it.


Love and the drama llama

Drama llamas are creatures who feel a desperate need to be centre stage, and who will whip anything up into a whirlwind if it means they can stand in the middle of it and draw attention. People who create drama, or amplify it are exhausting to deal with.

I’ve watched on a fair few occasions now as people doing drama have spun their whirlwinds and pushed away the people who were close to them. It’s easiest to do drama with your nearest and dearest and to cast people you know in whatever roles best suit your needs. Most often what the drama-addict seems to do is cast people who were on their side as villains, attackers, abusers and so forth. I note with interest that drama llamas are more likely to assume victim roles than cast themselves as heroes of their own stories.

While I was pondering the mechanics of being a drama llama, it was suggested to me that all drama llamas really want is to be loved. This may be so – it’s such a fundamental human motivation. However, the process of creating drama tends to drive people off rather than drawing them in. If the desire is for love, then the method is inherently self-defeating.

It is easy to mistake attention for love. This is a thing to watch out for when dealing with small children, who are motivated by attention, and will keep acting out to get attention even if the attention isn’t pleased with them. If we don’t get attention for being good, or just for being ourselves, we may seek it by other means. Patterns for life can be set early on, and if you’ve learned this as a way of being it will take some unpicking. The person who seeks attention in ways that elicit less love may be stuck in a cycle of attention seeking, love-damaging behaviour and be unable to break out of it.

I don’t know how anyone stood on the outside of this can make a difference. You can’t save a drama llama from themselves by pouring love over them. I’ve yet to see a drama llama respond well to love from any source.  It may be that this can only be changed from within, that a person with these patterns has to see them and want to change them, and that from outside all you can do is feed the story. You can stay, and be an actor in the drama, you can leave and be a villain and reinforce the feeling of victimhood. You can ask the drama llama to step up and be a hero, and you’ll be manipulating or mistreating them. I have no idea what a winning move is, I’ve never seen one.

We all have stories about who we are and how life works. Often, it is the most dysfunctional stories that we all seem to cling to the hardest. Perhaps because these are stories grown out of suffering, that in some way serve to make sense of an original wound. We cling to the story because we prefer it to challenging the story. We may be protecting someone else. Or, if we’ve worked with a story for long enough, we may now be protecting ourselves from feeling the shame that would come from admitting the story was useless or wrong.

There is no saving someone who does not want to be saved. There is no healing someone who does not want to be healed. You cannot change the story of someone who does not want their story to change.


Let me tell you what you’re really like

If we seek out a professional person, the probability is that we want them to tell us how they think things really are. That will include measurements of ourselves. We may also turn to friends, family and colleagues for feedback on how we’re doing. We might invite criticism. We’re allowed to do that. We’re also allowed to speak plainly if someone asks us to.

Misjudge, and an unsolicited compliment can be creepy, patronising, or even a put down. I’ve blogged about that here – https://druidlife.wordpress.com/2016/04/28/swimming-metaphorically-with-the-social-jellyfish/

However, what’s interesting to me at the moment is what happens when people feel the need to give unsolicited criticism. ‘Let me tell you what you’re really like’ is seldom the prelude to a compliment.

Shit happens. People make mistakes. Things go wrong. Most of us are dealing with this kind of thing in small ways on a daily basis. It’s important to identify what went wrong, it may be relevant to identify who was responsible or what could be changed to improve things.  When we’re focused on action, choices, behaviour even, we’re talking about things that can change. It’s not terrible to be told that something needs to be better or could be worked on. We’re all flawed and human and we all need to be able to talk to each other about these things.

However, it’s a very different business when we want to tell the other person who they are. You are this, you are that… It’s not a big problem with compliments – you are lovely, you are kind, you are considerate, you are generous, you are brilliant – most people don’t object to hearing things like this. You are useless, you are horrible, you are stupid, you are creepy – no one wants to hear this.  I’m not convinced it’s a helpful thing to do, either.

Firstly it makes the problem intrinsic, it doesn’t invite change or tell the person much about how they could change. ‘When you do this I find it difficult’ is more useful. ‘When you say X I feel Y’ can be a place to start a process. But when we say ‘you are’ in critical ways, it comes across as judgement and rejection. If you are terrible, how can there be scope for change?

If we talk about how we experience each other, there’s room to talk about why. Projection and historical baggage can so easily be part of the mix. We may use words in different ways, or have triggers or anxieties. If we can share what we experience, we can negotiate with each other, and learn to co-operate more effectively.

‘You are’ statements can be a form of power over. The person speaking has given themselves a status, an entitlement to label and categories the other person, to judge them, and to say what is going on. It puts all the responsibility for the situation onto the other person. It denies even the possibility of a problem being collective, not individual.

It’s not something I often do, but it is something I’ve done in states of rage on a few occasions. For me, it marks the end of a dialogue. It’s something that doesn’t come up often in my life, but that I’d like to handle more effectively. On the whole I think the only ‘you are’ statement I want to use henceforth in a critical way should go ‘you are not someone I can continue interacting with’ – give or take.

The desire to make someone understand an uncomfortable truth can, at the time, come from a place of wanting justice, recognition, or fair treatment. But in practice, when I’ve got to this point with someone, it’s because those things were entirely absent. There’s nothing I can say that will change anything. There’s a certain amount of satisfaction in dropping a truth-bomb like this before walking away, but how much good that really does anyone – myself included – I am uncertain.


Who dictates the shape of love?

“Ye’ll have to accept that part of being loved means ye’ll have to accept that folks have concerns about ye as well. And have the right to does so. Ye cannot jes’ want the parts of this arrangement that ye likes…” (From Dance into the Wyrd, by Nils Visser)

It’s a quote that jumped out when I read it and that has stayed with me because it nails so many things. I’ve been round this one repeatedly and seen it play out in all kinds of situations. People who want some part of the love and care on offer, but want to say exactly what form that takes, and reject the bits that don’t work for them. In my experience, the care and concern of other people is often rejected. It also seems common that resenting people who care for you for wanting some of your time and attention is normal, too.

There’s often a gender aspect to this – what I mostly see is male rejection of female concern. Female concern is labelled smothering and restrictive, it is treated as an imposition, and intrusion, a limitation on the freedom the man feels entitled to. The man in question will usually want emotional labour when he wants it, sex, food, and other domestic benefits – if it’s that kind of relationship – but not to have to say when he will be back…

Of course we all need the freedom to decide what shapes we want our relationships to take. No one is obliged to do anything because someone has said ‘I love you’. However, if you are willing to take what you see as the benefits of someone else’s love, while demanding they don’t do the bits you find awkward, that stands some scrutiny.

It is easy to use apparent concern as a form of manipulation. However, simply wanting to know that someone is ok is not an emotionally manipulative activity. It’s a need to ease real anxiety. On the other hand, shaming someone for their concern is horrible. Wanting some time from a person who benefits from your love is not unreasonable, otherwise you just end up feeling used. If they take your work, your money, your support and disappear off once they’ve got it, it doesn’t look much like love returned. In a parent/child relationship, you may decide that’s just how it goes. In a sexual partnership, it may be part of casting one partner as the parent and the other as carefree and without responsibility. Again, there tends to be a gender bias here.

For myself, I have decided that I’m not doing this again. Anyone who treats my care like an imposition, does not get second helpings. Anyone who wants my emotional labour on tap, or any other forms of service from me is not going to get away with acting as though they have the right to have the whole relationship purely on their terms.


Visible Women

Life is easier when you can see people at stages ahead of you doing things in the sort of ways you hope to do them. If you don’t have role models, and are obliged to make your own path and map as you go, that’s exciting, or terrifying, or both.

Older women tend to become less visible, through to totally invisible. It’s something I’ve seen some women describe as a relief – no more male gaze, no more pressure to be beautiful, or sexy, far less harassment because you’ve become irrelevant. I do not wish, as I age, to become invisible. I don’t want to go down the botox and plastic surgery route of trying to stay forever young. I have little inclination to age gracefully into some gentle, unassuming grandmother figure, all aprons and baking. If I end up wearing an apron, I will be doing my best to channel Nanny Ogg.

Looking around me, I realise there are some fantastic examples of women aging in the way I want to – in the folk scene. This is particularly on my mind because I went to see Steeleye Span last night. Maddy Prior is seventy one at time of writing. She’s still gigging, touring, singing, fronting a band. She’s clearly not trying to be a younger version of herself, and she most certainly isn’t fading gently into old-lady-obscurity. She still dances on stage. I can think of a number of other folk women who are also carrying on, on their own terms, and I feel inspired by them.

Curiously, things I’ve read about research into hunter-gatherer communities suggest that the survival of children in that kind of society has a lot to do with the competence of their grandmothers. Humans did not evolve to have ‘little old ladies’ be some sort of harmless background feature. Humans very likely evolved to have kickass older women and this in turn is likely why we have women who survive long after their fertile years. An experienced older woman can increase the odds for her gene pool doing well.

I note that my non-binary identity gives me a feeling of resonance with the kickass approach to being an elder, that the twin set and chintz grandma doesn’t. Not for the first time I find myself asking if my feelings of non-femaleness are a rejection primarily of social conventions.

 


Gifts of friendship

I’m on a mission at the moment to spend more time talking about positive aspects of relationship and community to balance up the darker stuff I also explore. I’ve been thinking a lot lately of what it is that makes me feel good about a friendship. What do I want from other people?

First and foremost, I want people I can share stuff with. That might be online sharing things we’re enthusiastic about. It might be reading each other’s work, or working together, or spending time in the same space doing things. For me, doing stuff together is what underpins a friendship. The more stuff we do, and the more fun we have doing it, the better.

I’ll also be there to do the tough things as well. There are balances to strike between how much we ask of people and how much we give, but if a person can trust me with their tough times and heartaches I will do my best to honour that. I don’t want to just be the person who comes in to do the mopping up, but so long as I also have other roles, I often feel touched and honoured when people choose to share their troubles with me.

One of the things I really want from other people, is inspiration. I don’t need anyone to go out of their way on that score, just be interesting. I seek out people who are creative, imaginative, deeply thinking, open to ideas, living in interesting ways. I am very comfortable in the company of interesting people whose lives are not like mine. I like having friends of all ages. I want to get a sense of how other people see things and how they think. I value people who share their stories and insights with me, and people who know how to tell a good tale.

I appreciate having people in my life who are, in turn, interested in what I do. People who will show up if I’m doing something in public. People who read my blog, and books and give me feedback, or ask for things. I love it when people ask me to write on specific topics here, it’s always a good challenge. If I don’t go into enough detail on something and you want more, tell me! That’s always good news, from my perspective, even if at first I don’t know how to answer.

There are a lot of things I only do if someone else wants or needs them from me – writing and ritual both fall into that category, as does music. If what I do has a value to a person and they want more of it from me, then that really inspires me to do my best. I feel more enthused about my work when there’s scope to interact with someone through it. The company of people who are enthused about what I do is a massive blessing.

I do value affection, but I’m not very good at it. I’ve always felt more comfortable in more cerebral relationships, but I’m trying to learn how to show up with a body in spaces that have people in them. I greatly appreciate the people who give me time and space in this regard, the folk whose gentle affection has made it easier for me to do that sort of thing too.


My Wildlife Community

A guest blog from Aspasía S. Bissas

 

I’ve been pondering the idea of community lately. It’s nearly impossible for anyone not to be part of at least one community of humans. Most would also agree that pets are family and an integral part of one’s closest community (those who don’t agree hopefully don’t have pets). But it didn’t occur to me until recently that the local wildlife was my community too.

I live in Toronto: Canada’s first bee city, home of Canada’s first National Urban Park, host to an impressive tree canopy (with plans to expand it even more), and habitat of hundreds of species of wildlife.

Although I’ve yet to see many of the animals who share this city with me, including owls, deer, or the river otter my partner once saw slinking down our street, looking somewhat confused, I have had many memorable encounters with our wildlife. I’ve seen foxes trotting along the streets; been dive-bombed in my yard by a red-tailed hawk, before watching a flock of grackles chase it away; and was treated to the adorable sight of a nest of baby chipmunks.

At our last place we had a family of rabbits living in our yard. We would give them the courtesy of moving slowly and not looking directly at them (as prey animals permanently on edge, we didn’t want to stress them further by acting like predators). They never really relaxed around us, but they also never helped themselves to my garden, not even the tender rose canes in winter.

Also at our last place, we kept a bird feeder. The hedges surrounding the yard would erupt into excited chirping whenever we went out to refill the food. There was something very fairytale about being greeted by a chorus of birdsong. We don’t have a feeder where we are now but we do leave seeds outside on the deck railings. Here we’re on the third or fourth generation of cardinals that have learned to chirp at us while we’re inside to get us to come out and feed them. If we can’t get to them right away one of the males will fly back and forth in front of the windows until we get the hint.

Groundhogs frequent our yard via a tunnel under the shed. Usually we see just the one, but sometimes there are two at a time. They’re mostly content to eat weeds in the yard, although last year they weren’t shy about coming onto the deck and helping themselves to the peppers and tomatoes I was trying to grow. This year I didn’t grow much, so they’ve only ventured onto the deck a few times to sun themselves.

Our deck seems to attract everyone at some point. Back in April we had an opossum visiting at the same time as a skunk. I don’t know if they were companions or whether it was purely coincidental that they were both here at the same time, but that was the first and last time we had either one on the deck (we occasionally spot—or smell—skunks and opossums in the yard).

Our most interesting and regular visitors are Toronto’s ubiquitous raccoons (the unofficial mascots of the city). This year we had a mother and her four babies move in. We know we shouldn’t but the mom looked so scrawny when she first arrived that we couldn’t not feed her. We spent the summer watching her fill out and her babies grow up. We don’t feed them anymore, although it turns out they love bird seed and will show up at all times of the day to get it (the birds and squirrels have learned to move fast if they want to eat). Sometimes a “trash panda” will come up to the window for a peek inside, probably wondering why the “raccoons” (our cats) staring back at them get to live in the house.

(As I was writing this I was interrupted by knocking at the back door. When I went to look I saw several cardinals and sparrows on the deck while a woodpecker “knocked” one last time before hopping away. I dutifully refreshed the seed supply.)

Do these experiences count as community? We share space and resources with the wildlife, even when we don’t encounter them often, or at all. They affect the environment we all share, sometimes, as when opossums decimate the tick population, to everyone’s benefit. Occasionally, like members of any community, they can be loud or rude (anyone who’s had their garbage strewn across the sidewalk by raccoons can attest to this). They also make me happy just knowing they’re around. Nearly every encounter feels magical. They might not understand me when I say hello, but I hope they get the sense that this human is an ally; this human is part of my world. Just as they are part of mine.

 

Sources/Further Information:

Toronto is the first bee city in Canada! http://toronto.beecitycanada.org/

Canada’s First National Urban Park https://trca.ca/parks/rouge-park/

Every Tree Counts: Toronto’s Tree Planting Strategy http://www.projectyu.ca/everytreecountstorontostreeplantingstrategy/

 

Aspasía S. Bissas is a seeker of everyday magic, and is the author of the dark fantasy novel Love Lies Bleeding. She can be reached via her website https://aspasiasbissas.com, or her Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/AspasiaSBissas.