Category Archives: Community

What is Community?

For me, community has always meant people working co-operatively together for the longer term, sharing values, ideas, resources and making something that is more than the sum of its parts. ‘Community’ as a term gets banded about to mean ‘group of people with something in common’ when there’s not much community involved in it at all. For me, if involvement depends on ability to pay, it’s not a community. If you don’t look after each other, it’s not a community. I’ve been in a lot of spaces that have called themselves communities, or tribes. I’ve never managed to stay.

I tend to assume the problem is me. I can’t turn a blind eye to problems. Increasingly, I can’t remain silent about who isn’t in the room, who is excluded by the very way in which things are run. I can’t deal with people who want power over me specifically, or who are there to build a personal power-base. I’m very happy to deal with people who want the power to get things done, and very wary of people who just want power. If I care about spaces and am wholehearted about them and giving as much as I can, I can’t also be complacent about the things I find difficult. I don’t have the apathy that smoothes over problems, or the disinterest that allows a person to be calm, and professional detachment is beyond me.

My experience has been that I am never patient enough. I don’t give enough, I’m not sympathetic enough, or co-operative enough, or hard working enough, when dealing with people. I’ve never been in a space where I’ve been able to do enough to go from the peripheries to the middle. If there’s a designated ‘team druid’ or similar, I won’t be in it. The only exceptions have been spaces I’ve run myself.

I’ve never been able to work out what the differences are. Why some people are loved, cherished and valued apparently with little reference to what they do, and no matter what I do, I don’t get treated that way. I left one community a little after a chap was obliged to step down due to bankruptcy. He went with love and praise and was treated with honour and respect. I left shortly afterwards, unacknowledged, pushed out over other people’s anxieties that issues in my personal life could get in the way of the work. I’d not done anything wrong.  I had thrown everything I could at that space, I had pushed into burnout repeatedly, gone way outside my comfort zone, and it still wasn’t enough to feel like there was a place for me – and in the end, there was no place for me and I left feeling humiliated. It’s one example amongst many.

I left because I’d been accused of bullying, and the person accusing me tried to get me fired from my day job. I left because I just wanted to participate quietly, and the older men in the space kept pushing for my energy and attention. I left because I was so burned out I could no longer function. I left because I thought the person in charge of me was acting unfairly towards people I was responsible for and I couldn’t fix it. I left because I wasn’t given the information I needed to do the job properly, and because I was always outside of the key clique. I left because I’d stepped in to try and deal with a conflict and although the conflict sorted, I took so much damage that I couldn’t continue. I left because I was tired of feeling peripheral and making a lot of effort to be somewhere no one needed me. I leave.

The decision not to do any of that again has been a painful one. I crave community. I want to be part of something. But, I’ve never managed to stay in a community space I wasn’t running. I’ve tried, but this stuff is beyond me.

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Being a bit rubbish with people

I’ve carried the idea that I was rubbish at dealing with people ever since I landed at playschool and found I had no idea how to relate to other kids. Shy and nervous, I did not do well socially at school, although I am blessed with some good friends from that period of my life. I’ve never found relationships with people very easy. I’ve spent my life to this point looking for places to belong. I’ve fallen out of all sorts of communities and spaces.

There are so many things I can’t cope with. Any situation in which a person needs to be tough, emotionally robust or able to deal with pushy people interested in power-over… I don’t cope. People who move goal posts. People who want everything you have and then rubbish you when they’ve burned you out. People who mock and belittle mental health problems. People who dish out all kinds of crap while expecting saintly patience in return… all of these things seem normal in spaces with people in, and I can’t deal with them.

I’ve started saying ‘I am rubbish at doing stuff with people’ out loud, and it is an incredible relief to own it. I can’t do spaces with people in, in the way that other people do. I can’t care insufficiently to just ignore problems. I’m not emotionally robust enough to deal with casual sexism, or spaces that can’t make allowances for the anxiety I suffer.

I’ve tried, and tried again, and failed, and failed again. I’ve had plenty of people along the way tell me what I rubbish person I am to deal with – I don’t give enough, I make too much fuss, I don’t forgive enough in them… and I’ve thrown so much energy into trying to prove I’m better than that.

And now I’ve stopped.

If I’m not good enough for someone else – fine, so be it, I will go away. If I’m not robust enough to function in a space, I will leave that space. I am a bit rubbish at dealing with people in the way that many of the people I have encountered expect to be dealt with. Fair enough. I cannot change me, and I cannot afford to stay in these kinds of fights, so I won’t.

I am a bit rubbish at doing stuff with people. And every time I say it, I feel a weight on me easing. I don’t know how much there is to let go of, how much more relief there is to find. I can’t do this stuff. I can’t do conventional workplaces and I can’t do community membership, and maybe that’s ok. Maybe I can just wander off and be my anxious, cranky self places that won’t be a problem, and the people who are ok with me can seek me out when they feel like it.

Maybe I never properly feel like I belong anywhere because there is nowhere I could belong. Maybe that’s ok. I’ve spent my whole life to this point aching for a place to belong, so putting that longing down is one of the most radical things I’ve ever done. What I want doesn’t exist, and there is no need to keep hurting myself trying to fit into spaces that aren’t there. I accept that I cannot do the things with people that have proved necessary in every community space I have ever explored. I can’t do it. There is so much relief in saying it, and a kind of grief for that which never was, but that’s ok.


What does self care even mean?

The encouragement to ‘practice self care’ floats round the internet a lot. Sometimes it rather feels that if you are still ill, still struggling, it might be your fault for not doing enough of the self care things – I doubt I’m the only one who feels this on a bad day. Self-care is a rather vague sort of notion and the prompt to undertake it rather assumes that what’s needed is fairly easy, or obvious… and often it isn’t.

If you only have mild problems, or only have one problem, then it can be easy to identify what would help. However, when you have multiple problems, what eases one can exacerbate another. Is loneliness making you depressed? But would going out to spend time people trigger your anxiety, or cost energy you don’t have, or are you in too much pain to do it? Then there’s no easy self-care answer to be had.

Trying to find the balance between being active enough to maintain some kind of health, and not wiping out your resources, is an ongoing issue for many people. Part of the trouble is that you don’t know upfront how far you can get. Will some physical activity ease the loss of energy due to depression, or lead to a panic attack that wipes you out entirely? Will the improved circulation from moving about help with healing, or will the aching muscles cost you too much? The big one for me is always, get on the trampoline to sort the dysfunctional lymph glands, or rest the sore muscles. I hurt either way, the question is, which will be worst, which outcome can I least afford? I don’t always get it right.

Sometimes ‘self care’ means trying to figure out the way forward that will hurt least, or deciding which hurt you can most afford. I’ll take body pain if I can gain some ground for mental health, most days. Except on the days when it’s the body pain causing my brain to shut down, or leaving me too open to panic.

Self-care is a lovely idea. If it’s easy to do, then the problems aren’t that big in the first place. If you can fix yourself with a few days off, a nice bath, a walk in the woods – then you were not in massive crisis to begin with. I’m glad for you, but please don’t assume that’s a measure of how anyone else is doing. And if you’re on the other side of this – if no matter how you try to look after things you can’t get on top of your problems, it isn’t your fault. Not everything can be fixed. Not everything can be healed and put right with enough care and attention. Sometimes there isn’t enough self care possible to change how things are.

Also, sometimes self-care isn’t the answer because people need caring for. If someone is over-worked, over-burdened, doing too much emotional labour, being put under too much pressure – it should not be on them to also save themselves. Pushing people towards self-care can be a way of avoiding feeling responsible for them. Sometimes, the answer is to get in there and ask what would help. Take some of the weight off their shoulders. Don’t leave them to fight all their own battles (sexism, racism, ageism, fat shaming, abelism and all things of this ilk are exhausting and take a real toll). Don’t imagine that telling someone to practice self-care is actually helping them – it’s just well meaning noise. If you want to help, make sure they have the space, the time and the resources to practice self care, because without that, telling a person to fix themselves is just adding to what they have to bear.


Building relationships

One of the great mistakes people make around relationships of all shapes, is assuming they should just happen ‘naturally’ and with no effort. The relationship that works by magic seems to prove its own value and significance, which taps into a lot of the unhelpful stories we have about romance. However, it’s just as relevant when thinking about working partnerships, friendships, and how we create community.

There are things that tend to happen if we let relationships unfold in unconsidered ways. We bring all our habits and assumptions with us, unquestioned. We keep playing out our stories, our ancestral wounding, our family dramas and everything else that might limit us. In group situations, this can also lead to giving the loudest the most power, facilitating bullying, and excluding anyone who isn’t a neat fit for what the group considers normal. Able-bodied groups of people tend not to even notice the ways in which disabled people are excluded. White people can be totally oblivious to how their group is difficult for everyone else.

If you want functional, substantial and powerful relationships, you have to work at them. You have to look for those unspoken underlying assumptions and what they mean. You have to consider what the unspoken rules are and what effect they may be having. And then you have to talk about it – which can feel weird and exposed. However, when we collectively check our assumptions and question our beliefs, all kinds of interesting change becomes possible.

Communication doesn’t happen by magic. Inclusion is something you build. Making safe space is a consequence of considered effort, not happy accident. The reality of a relationship is there in every detail of how it plays out. Who has a voice? Who is allowed to disagree? Who gets the extra time? Who gets to do the work and who decides who gets to do the work? Whether you’re talking about a marriage, a start up business or a community group, these questions are necessary and need revisiting.

The trouble is, that for the people best served by this, there is the least incentive to make change. If you’re in the central clique with all the power and influence, do you want to open that up and let other people in? If you’ve rigged things so that they suit you, or such that people you don’t want to deal with can’t get involved, why would you change that? So often it comes to people on the margins pushing for inclusion against the resistance of people who have it all working nicely for them.

I’ve been in those spaces. I’ve gone up against the people who made themselves feel powerful by forming an inner cabal. I’ve challenged people who couldn’t see who wasn’t at the table because of their assumptions. I can’t say I’ve won a great deal of ground for anyone by doing this. It is a hard thing to do from the margins, and the comfortable middle of such arrangements seldom cares to be discomforted. Although, it is bloody amazing when that happens and very exciting and totally worth the effort.

When we let things evolve ‘naturally’ or ‘grow organically’ what this means in practice is that we give the most ease to those with the most power. If you can’t make it into the room, you don’t get to participate in growing it organically. If you find yourself in the middle of anything, look around to see if anyone wanted to be there but cannot get in. Take down barriers. Expand opportunities. Give people the chance to be involved and the chance to be heard. It’s a wonderful, radical, life changing thing to do. The relationships we make deliberately are so much richer and more enabling than the ones that we allow to carry on by default.


Community creativity

My local theatre festival happened over the weekend. I was, at various times, a paid worker in a venue, a performer, a volunteer and an audience member. I went to three of the ten venues and saw six of the forty shows. It was an intensive sort of weekend.

It struck me how innately good it is though, to be moving between those different roles. To be a performer, and also an audience member. To be someone who moves the chairs around, and someone working the door, and to experience an event from most of the available perspectives. These are wonderful opportunities to have. Over the weekend, it was very normal to see performers going to other people’s shows, and volunteers who had been on stage in other years.

We’re so used to being entertained by people who aren’t even in the room. Television and film give us distance between performer and audience, and no sense of moving about. If you watch alone at home there is, for most of us, no sense that other roles might be available. However, go to a community event like this and getting involved in some capacity is easy. There’s no barrier between performer and audience. No one is so grand that they can’t do a shift on a door, or help set a room up.

There’s also something very powerful about sharing this kind of experience with other people. Over the weekend I talked to other people about shows I had seen, shows they had seen, shows we had both seen – and that added depth to the whole experience. Performers talked to me about how their shows had gone. The feeling of involvement was delightful and made me realise how little most of us get of that in the normal scheme of things.

If you can only ever be an audience member, only a consumer of other people’s creativity, you miss out on a lot. I feel strongly that everyone who wants to should have the opportunity to be creative and expressive. The way in which we hive off creative roles for the few – especially at the level where you might earn enough to live on – frustrates me. It’s not how I want to do things.


Family time

One of the things that has become really important to me in the last six months or so, is family time. Not in an organised, doing things sort of way, but the time –usually at weekends – when the three of us just slum around together.

I like it because this is time when I have to make very little effort – none of us do. We just do the things we enjoy – typically reading, crafting, listening to stuff, watching films, eating… we can go long periods without anyone saying anything much, checking in only when there’s something good to share. I think this is the natural outcome for a bunch of somewhat introverted people sharing a small space. I really value not having to make small talk or be entertaining.

Part of why this time has become precious is that it’s a good deal more scarce than it used to be. In the boat years, the three of us lived in a tiny space and spent a lot of time together. Now, we all have more going on, and we have a far more involved – and entirely wonderful – social life. But it means those quiet times really shine out. I appreciate them more for them not being the only option I have most days.

I’ve always been a funny mix of introvert and extrovert and I don’t fit well in either box. I crave human contact, I can be intensely social, I can deal with large groups of people in noisy spaces, and if I don’t get enough social time, I become sad. I have an equal need for intensely quiet time without too many other people around. I used to need total solitude for some hours every day, but that’s not been a thing for a few years now. My husband and son give me the space and the peace I need so I can do my introvert time with them in the mix.

When things are crazy-busy, nothing seems more luxurious than a Sunday afternoon with nothing planned, nowhere to go and nothing specific to do.

 


Life after cars

I’ve been cheered over the last month or so to see more people online talking about how we are going to have to cut back on car use. The only way to deal with congestion, is if more people drive less. I’m so glad to see growing recognition that building roads does not solve this problem. We need to tackle our dire air pollution – which is killing people. We need to square up to the way driving impacts on climate chaos. We also can’t simply replace current cars with electric ones, because there are rare earths currently needed for electric cars and the planet can’t afford us over-consuming those, either.

What needs to happen next is that we need to start getting excited about the implications of a mass cutback on car travel. So, here are some benefits to contemplate.

Reduced noise pollution. How much nicer and less stressful human environments are when we aren’t bombarded by car noise!

Less air pollution – which will help with respiratory diseases, and maybe make colds a bit less awful, and improve our life expectancies.

Less time wasted commuting. How much time does a person who sits in traffic squander in a state of frustration as they breathe in the toxins from the other cars around them? Think how much quality of life could be improved by reclaiming that time!

Being bodily and mentally healthier – getting about on foot or on a bike helps reduce stress and keeps us fit. This is a great life improver, and with fewer cars on the road, walking and cycling will become safer and nicer to do.

It’s more social – if you’re on public transport or on foot, you meet people. You might even talk to them in passing and make friends with them. Loneliness is a modern western epidemic and cars don’t help us with that.

If you don’t drive to work and for leisure, you have to be more involved with your local community. People are often less willing to shit where they eat, and being more involved with the people around us builds communities and gives us better lives. If we go over to car sharing or other, more communal systems, this also requires us to be more co-operative, which is good. We’d have to restructure so that accessing key resources was less car dependent. This would be good, and would inject life and opportunities back into small towns and villages.

It saves money. Cars cost money to buy, fuel and maintain. How many people are pushed into sudden debt because of an unexpected car expense?

Being safer. Every year many people are killed and injured through car use. Think of the pain, stress, misery and grief we could end if we got more people out of their cars.

Get people off the roads, and driving will be less stressful and dangerous for those few who really need to do it. It’ll be easier to move emergency vehicles around at need as well.


Druid community and anxiety

Yesterday was full of interesting challenges and unexpected opportunities. I spent the day at Druid Camp in the Forest of Dean. I missed the previous 2 years, because there had been a lot of painful drama – accusations that I had bullied someone, that led to said victim trying to get me removed from the field, prohibited from being a speaker there and fired from my day job. I had evidence of what had actually happened, and was not fired from my day job, but it was a scary and stressful time. It was also deeply emotionally loaded for me because I feel very strongly about taking bullying accusations seriously.

So, back to Druid Camp I went, but only for one day because I didn’t know how that was going to work out. I felt welcomed and supported. There was no residual stress or drama. I did a talk and it got all the sorts of responses I had hoped for, especially getting other Pagans thinking about the transition towns movement. I sat as a model (entirely clothed) for some of Tom’s life drawing class, and I spent some intense time with a number of people I am deeply fond of.

Sometimes, the only way to deal with fear is to try again. It’s hard to see what’s a reasonable response and what’s out of date, and what never was that big a deal in the first place, without testing things. Testing things is scary. But, without that, nothing can change. Fear wins. There are issues of picking your fights and assessing what information you have – not all anxiety inducing things will turn out to be fine if you go back and give them a second chance. If something was genuinely wrong and hasn’t changed, it will be as scary as it was before.

If there are reasons to think things have changed, going back can be the best way of dealing with fear. Having support also makes worlds of difference. I know I could not have done this on my own. I had considerable support for making the journey and people around me I would trust with my life. I knew I had a number of very good friends who would be on site, and that helped. They were my incentive for having another go. The organisers were supportive and encouraging – particularly Bish and Fleur who went to some lengths to reassure me, and make things as easy for me as possible. This all gives me space to consider what I might do next year.

The measure of a community is not what it does when everything is fine. The measure of whether a group of people even are a community comes when something is difficult, or broken, or on fire. How people treat each other when there are problems says a lot more about who we are to each other than anything else. It is a very big deal to me to feel safe and welcome.


Creativity, community and audience

As with most things, it’s all about finding a workable balance, and exactly where that balance lies is likely to be quite personal.

If you create purely for yourself, what you do may well be quite self involved. You probably haven’t given much thought to where it fits in genres or markets, or who the readers/viewers/users/listeners might be. This is fine if all you ever meant to do was make something for yourself. However, trying to go from making something that is only about your own vision and inspiration, and then trying to pitch it to other people can be very difficult.

If you create purely for other people you’ll probably spend your time doing things that are in keeping with genres and led by market trends. For a significant number of creators, this is a viable way of making a living. But, it can be emotionally exhausting, and it tends to result in work that is a lot like work that already exists. If you dreamed of doing something groundbreaking – and probably when you started, you did – this can prove deeply unsatisfying.

I’ve come to the conclusion that finding the balance between what you do for yourself and what you do for other people may be better approached outside of the creative process. I think the key here is relationships and how you interact with people. If you don’t read/listen/look at things akin to the stuff you are trying to make, you have no relationship with the form, the market or anyone else in it. This may seem ok if you are only creating for yourself, but it does cut you off. If you love something, surely it makes sense to engage with it? I’ve encountered creators who don’t want to sully themselves with other people’s work, but I’ve never felt it enhanced what they did.

If something truly excites you, then you explore it. I’m frankly suspicious of creators who don’t want to engage with anyone else – you can’t even know how relevant or obvious your work is if you go that way. There’s so much we can learn just by paying attention to other people. You want to talk to other people who are in the same territory. You want to exchange ideas, and find out what other people are excited about. In this process, you build a sense of people you might want to create for. You end up with interplay between your own vision and creativity, and the enthusiasm, vision and creativity of other people. It’s fertile ground – not wholly commercial, not wholly self involved.

I firmly believe that no good work is done in total isolation. All creativity is to some degree a consequence of a wider community and influences – whether you own that or not. The people who work consciously with these relationships get a lot of advantages. The snobby creator who sees themselves as a lone genius needing no relationships to sustain them, tends not to be as good as they think they are.


I say Hopeless, you say Maine…

As I write this, I’m still recovering from a most amazing weekend. Stroud had its first Steampunk Weekend, run by John Bassett – he’s a very creative local chap and also an excellent organiser of things. When he expressed an interest in Steampunk last year, Tom and I were very excited and piled in as best we could to help. Tom was heavily implicated in sorting out the day program and we both did a fair amount of luring people in.

It was a touch surreal seeing people we normally have to travel to spend time with. It was also rather lovely getting people from afar who we really like and being able to share them with local friends. There’s a particular pleasure in watching people I like connecting with each other, and this is one of the things a Steampunk weekend can be counted on to do. Steampunk is all about the social opportunities and the creativity. There was a lot of cross pollination over the weekend.

We took a Hopeless Maine Home Companion set to the event – a team piece lead by The Keith of Mystery. It was fantastic for me being able to focus on performance in an ensemble session and have someone else hold the space together and make that work. There’s also something very lovely about seeing my project in other people’s hands. We also took a Cup Full of Tentacles set to the Sunday – this is me, Tom and James singing stuff we like to sing (mostly folk) and using it to talk about Hopeless Maine a little bit. The room we were in had fantastic acoustics, which is always a delight.

Saturday night was so emotionally loaded that I’m still recovering. It all revolved around Professor Elemental. He is one of my favourite people. It was something akin to love at first sight for me, encountering his Cup of Brown Joy song on youtube many years ago. Tom got talking to him at an event in America (after some pleading on my part) and we’ve stayed in touch ever since. The Prof and I co-wrote a novel, which was an amazing thing to get to do. He wrote us a Hopeless Maine song as well – which is out there should you feel moved to hunt it down with a search engine.

In Hopeless Maine sets, my son James performs Professor Elemental’s Hopeless Maine song, but the Prof had never heard him do it. On Saturday night, he had James up on stage to do the first verse of the Hopeless Maine song. Which was brilliant. What nearly broke me though, was Cup of Brown Joy – the song I started with. Normally there’s an audience participation bit – “I say earl grey, you say yes please” and then people in the audience yell ‘yes please’ in response to a few rounds of ‘earl grey’. We also normally get assam – lovely, herbal – no thanks and oo-long…. But on Saturday the song went “I say Hopeless, you say Maine.”

And they did.

Some of this is because Professor Elemental asks you to do something in a gig and you do it because of his strange, hypnotic powers and irresistible knees… but even so.

If you want to go to a gig that will make you feel better about yourself, and the world in general, he’s the person to seek out. If you want to come out of a room feeling love and solidarity with everyone else who was there, he will do that to you. If you want a space to laugh and cry and jump up and down and feel good about things, and like there’s room for you in the world and that we might be able to make lovely things together… go and see him. He is medicine for the soul.

https://www.professorelemental.com/