Category Archives: Community

All my relationships are queer

One of the biggest problems I have with hetronormative approaches, is what the assumption of ‘normal’ does to relationships. If you think relationships have a ‘normal’ shape there’s an awful lot you’re never going to talk about. However, if you are queer, polyamorous, kinky or otherwise complicated, you know you can’t afford to assume anything. You have to talk, and figure things out and negotiate. This makes for better relationships with fewer assumptions.

By ‘relationships’ I’m not just talking about sex, or romance. Part of what hetronormative thinking does is makes people focus too much on that in the first place.  It applies just the same to friendships and working relationships. I note that my queer friends are often the ones most willing to talk about how the friendship works, what we might expect from each other and where the edges need to be. By contrast, I’ve had far too many rounds of straight men who want to flirt but are totally resistant to talking about where the edges are. That never goes well.

For the person who thinks that relationships happen along a narrow selection of default lines, there are going to be issues. I’ve dealt with men who were sure that they could not be friends with women – and I’ve seen how badly that impacted on their romantic connections because they had no idea how to be friends with their lovers.

There’s a lot of diversity out there in terms of how people think, what they feel, and what they want. Most of us do not fit neatly into pre-designed relationship shapes. I suspect a lot of the chafing I’ve experienced trying to deal with heterosexual folk has had everything to do with them not fitting into their boxes either, but not being able to talk about it. If you think there’s a normal way of doing things, your own not fitting in that must be highly uncomfortable.

It starts so often when we are children. Who is allowed to be friends with whom? What games are you allowed to play? What sports are you taught? Schools can be a hotbed of reinforcing gender difference and encouraging people to divide up along gender lines. Many people will also grow up with clear messages at home about what their gender means for their interactions with other people. The rules about gender, normality and relationships tend to be absorbed unconsciously. Those of us who really don’t fit are more likely to notice that we don’t fit, and that’s greatly to our advantage.

Those of you who know me well may be wondering what happened and why this is on my mind. The way in which we negotiate relationships is on my mind because I recently had an involved conversation about a creative relationship. How committed is it? How faithful are we going to be to each other?  We’re both people who thrive on certain kinds of interaction so being too focused on each other would be stifling, but we do also both need the commitment, and that shape is going to require care and attention.

There are relationships you can’t have and can’t develop if it isn’t possible to talk about who you are, who they are, and how that might work out.


What if we celebrated more festivals?

Your typical mediaeval peasant got more time off than your average modern worker does. Mostly this was due to the number of holy days and festivals in the calendar. What would happen if we celebrated more holy days and festivals?

At the moment in the UK we get time off for Christmas, Easter and New Year, and we get a few secular bank holidays. Imagine having an extra day off every month and how much good that would do!

Imagine a shared calendar that acknowledged festivals from a range of faiths, not just Christianity. Most of us don’t celebrate Christmas and Easter as Christian sacred days – they tend to be about food and family get-togethers. Having more holy day holidays would not require anyone to show up for festivals outside their faith. (I can almost hear the wilfully angry frothing at the mouth as they announce that they are being forced to celebrate… )

It seems massively unfair to me that we only celebrate festivals from one faith group. It would be much more fun to have more of them. It would no doubt be lovely for people from other faiths to have one of their own festivals off work each year.

It might bring other benefits. It might encourage people to find out a little bit more about other cultures and religions. This would be a good antidote to racism, fear and prejudice. Getting a day off on the basis of someone else’s festival might encourage people to feel a bit more positive about other religions – who doesn’t like a holiday? Those who are determined to froth at the mouth would no doubt keep doing that, but you know they’d take the day off and roast an animal.

As a Pagan living within a Christian calendar, I’d rather enjoy having more diversity. It would also be feasible to have a Pagan festival in that mix. I suspect it would be Beltain because that already has a bank holiday associated with it in terms of timing.

At time of writing it is hard to imagine the UK changing in this way. However, change comes from people imagining it, and there’s a lot to be said for imagining unlikely things.

This blog post owes a lot to my son James, who did most of the speculating for me and was happy to have that made off with.


Community and Crime

I’m working on a book about darkness (You can get regular instalments of my progress over on Patreon – https://www.patreon.com/NimueB ). The relationship between darkness and crime, light and crime prevention is something I’ve been looking at. I recently came across a study that suggested some really interesting things. Apparently lighting tends to reduce crime in areas, but that the crime reduction applies to the day as well as the night, so the impact of light improvement isn’t actually about visibility, necessary.

This got me thinking about other studies I’ve seen about the way tree planting impacts on crime. I’ve blogged about this before. Put in trees and crime reduces. We’re less violent when we have trees. It strikes me that these things may well be related. In both cases what might be happening is a feeling that a space is valued, and by extension, the people in the space are valued. Investment in community infrastructure could well have an impact on peoples’ sense of self worth.

Quite a lot of crime is opportunistic and not especially planned. What kinds of feelings do you have to have about a place and its people to go in for opportunistic crime? If you felt more engaged, more involved, more like part of a community, would that work the same way? Regeneration projects tend to increase feelings of involvement and engagement, especially when people are involved and not just having it done to them.

What happens when we see ourselves as connected? What happens when we’re given opportunities for cooperation and have shared spaces we can use communally? Perhaps how people treat spaces and each other isn’t intrinsic to said people, and has more to do with how the space impacts on them. We are influenced by our environments, and the spaces we spend time are full of messages about who we are and what we can expect. Most of those messages are absorbed unconsciously. If your environment gives you constant messages of isolation and worthlessness, what are the odds of you feeling warm, positive and generous towards your surroundings and fellows?

Planting trees. Having well considered street lighting. How we shape our shared spaces may be key to the kinds of relationships we have with each other.


What feeds you?

What inspires you? Where do you find nourishment for your soul? What lifts your spirits or eases your heart?

The glib answer for Pagans is often ‘nature’ but by ‘nature’ we often mean something dramatic and exotic. It’s a horrible irony that nature is often a place we have to drive to. Many people in the UK are desperately short of access to green spaces close to home.

One of the reasons for following a spiritual path is that it can provide nourishment for our souls. This is easier, I think in contexts when you can either get out to those wild places, or get into circles with other Pagans. We’re lifted as much by what we can share as a community, as we are by communing with nature. Many of us engage better with ritual as a group activity rather than a solo practice. And honestly, working with other people makes us more accountable and more likely to show up.

The internet gives us options for sharing personal practice in a way that means we can inspire and uplift each other. Photos of the lovely walk, the beautiful altar, the devotional art, videos of your chants and songs, blog posts about prayer and meditation… There’s a lot of good to be found in this, and it’s something I’ve been glad to participate in. For me, it really brings into focus how much the effectiveness of spirituality in our lives can be about our relationships with people.

I’ve taken plenty of people into the woods (not in this last year, though) who were only spending time with trees when there was a seasonal ritual to show up for. It was the community they were showing up for, and through that connection, they had tree time and meaningful encounters with the land.

However much we might long for interactions with Gods, spirits, fairies, guides etc, these are unreliable. Not everyone gets called. Not all offerings are answered. Not all dedications lead to powerful interactions. People are a lot more reliable and will often show up when you invite them. People will witness you and hold you to account. They will be moved by the beauty of work your spiritual practice has inspired you to create. With that feedback, it is simply easier to show up as a spiritually minded person.

I think this is something to embrace and work with. It’s not just a spiritual issue, either. Many of us do our best parenting when there’s another adult about to impress. We may well do our best creating, our best activism, our best ethical choices when we have people to witness us and either nourish us with their approval, or make us worry about not looking good. We are fundamentally social creatures, and this year of pandemic has deprived us of a lot of that contact. Things that used to feed you may not work so well as solitary activities. There should be no shame in that. It’s just easier to be, and enjoy being your best self when you’ve got a supportive and appreciative audience.


Supporting Victims

If someone you know is a victim of bullying or abuse, there are things you can say and do that will really help, and well meaning things that can make the situation worse.  

Being ‘neutral’ can feel like a moral choice. It isn’t. Doing nothing always supports bullies and abusers and enables them to continue. It always undermines the victim. If both people tell you they are the victim and you don’t know what to do, look at the power balance. If all else fails, support the person who is asking for comfort and safety not the person who is asking to punish someone. Abusers will gather support to pile further abuse on victims, and you can avoid becoming part of this.

Listen. Really listen. Don’t bring assumptions with you or ideas about what you would have done differently. Don’t assume that because the bully is nice to you that they wouldn’t do this. Bullies and abusers cultivate supporters – how else could they operate successfully? They are in control of what they do, and will deliberately isolate their victims.

Micro-aggressions are a real thing. If the individual events described to you seem trivial, remember to look at the bigger picture. If someone is facing a constant drip of poison, put downs, humiliations, criticism, being overloaded, being blamed and the like than the damage done will be greater than the sum of its parts. Don’t dismiss bullying on the basis that it just looked like one small thing. Also remember that experiences that aren’t a big deal for you might feel very different to someone else.

Don’t try to explain, justify or minimise the abuse. There may be a time in the future where understanding why would be helpful, but right now the most important thing is that the victim feels safe and supported. Don’t make the bully and their issues the more important thing. Being hurt, being a former victim, being under a lot of stress, having mental health problems – these things do not make it ok to hurt other people. Many hurt and damaged people manage not to hurt anyone else. It’s not inevitable and no free passes should be given.

Don’t tell them to be stoical. Don’t tell them it will pass, or not to make a fuss, or not to take it to heart. That’s just a way of shutting people down. If what they say makes you uncomfortable, that really shouldn’t be the most important thing. Your mild discomfort at hearing this is nothing compared to actually living with it. This includes being made to feel uncomfortable about someone you liked.

Don’t ask them to put the wellbeing of the community first. Don’t tell them to be silent for fear they will harm the company or the organisation. Any group that puts looking good ahead of caring for the people in it, is toxic. Any group that thinks its reputation is more important than whether it is enabling abuse, will keep enabling abuse and must be stopped. However important you think the community, or the work the group is doing really is, this stuff will rot it to the core if undealt with.

Don’t make the victim responsible for sorting out the situation. Don’t make it their job to better humour and pacify their abuser. Don’t tell them to put up with it. Listen to them, support them, act to make safer and healthier spaces. If you truly can’t tell who the bully is in a situation, working broadly to improve safety will either sort things out or make it clearer what’s going on. Sometimes people truly believe they are victims because they can’t accept others holding reasonable boundaries or can’t bear being given a ‘no’ as an answer. The person who is able to say no is usually the person with the power in any given situation, and the person who is not allowed to say no is the person who needs your help.


Community Positivity

Positive thinking tends to be presented as a solitary, private practice to benefit the individual doing it. What happens if we make positive affirmation a deliberate part of how we treat each other? It’s much less self-involved, it does more good, and people who affirm each other will have more confidence, better self esteem and more joy than people who hide away on their own telling themselves that they are confident and happy people.

Pay compliments – if someone does something good, praise them and tell them how much you like it. If someone is struggling, tell them you think they’re managing well and putting up a good fight. Remind people of the good things they did in the past.

Cheer victories of any size. Celebrate the successes of people you care for, enjoy knowing about their good fortune, take delight in things going well for them.

Tell people that you love them. Tell them if they matter to you, if you care about them, value them are glad of what they do for you and their being in your life.

Affirm their responses. Tell them that their reactions are valid and make sense, that they are entitled to their feelings, that they deserve good things. Hold space for those more challenging feelings, too. Let it be ok to be sad, or angry, or struggling. Don’t ask people to be totally convenient for you.

When someone is struggling, say ‘I hear you’ and ‘I care’. Listen to what they need, offer help on their terms not primarily on yours – do the things people say they find helpful, not what you imagine should help. Be willing to learn if you don’t understand what’s going on. Don’t argue with their perception of things but instead validate their being the expert on what is going on in their life. Be kind.

We won’t always understand what another person is going through and they won’t always be able to explain. Help them by showing care and respect, by being ok with not knowing, by validating that they can still be acceptable even if they can’t explain things. Be willing to do what is helpful without having to understand why it is helpful, and say so.

Small things are also good. A like, a thumbs up, a smile, a smiley, it all helps. If you don’t have much to spare or much idea what to do, a small gesture is still a gesture worth making.


Lament for a lost folkie

I’ve never unfriended someone for being pro-Brexit – people had all kinds of reasons for supporting the Leave movement, and I still think some of those were totally valid, even though I hate how Brexit is playing out.  I have however, moved away from people on the basis of how abusive they became.

There was one person who particularly haunted me, because he’d stayed at my house, many years ago. He was someone I liked and respected, I’d even learned some of his songs. Some years ago, I watched him become ever more abusive of remain voters on social media, and I had to accept that if someone thinks I’m a moron, we’re not friends any more. He hadn’t said me specifically, but I don’t think he needed to. It was only when I sought out the ‘unfriend’ option that I found we had no friends left in common.

We must have had a lot of friends in common at one point – the folk scene is a friendly place, and he certainly knew a lot of the same people I did. I was the last one to give up on him, I realised. It was a painful moment in all kinds of ways.

I wonder what’s happened to him. I could go and look, but I haven’t.  It would be fair to say that Brexit isn’t going well and that many things labelled as ‘project fear’ before we broke away are turning out to be realistic assessments of things that are now happening.  There are no signs of the promised sunny uplands. Business are hurting, travel will be harder, students will have less scope to study abroad, and for musicians touring Europe has just become prohibitively complicated and expensive.  There’s no visible good at this point, and our government is keen to strip away workers rights and environmental protections.

There will be people who cope through denial. It’s not a strong coping mechanism, and telling yourself everything is great when really it isn’t, takes a toll. There will be people who cope through blame – probably carrying on with the idea that this is all the EU’s fault, or the fault of remainers, or something, anything other than blaming the architects of this plan and the people who helped them. No doubt there will also be people who regret their involvement. I’ve seen a fair few business folk who voted to leave talking about how much it is hurting them.

I wonder what it’s like for people who abused their friends and family members, watching this play out in a way that makes clear those remain-folk were right. I can’t imagine it’s easy. It can be difficult to forgive people for being right, for knowing what you didn’t.  It can be difficult to forgive the people we’ve mistreated and abused – because it is easier and more comfortable to keep blaming them and letting ourselves off the hook. But, it must be lonely for some people right now, and painful, and difficult.

I didn’t lose many people over brexit, and I certainly didn’t lose anyone I was so close to that I’d go the distance to try and repair the relationship. I’m sad about the lost folkie, but I’m not intending to make any moves.  There are relationships where someone is so important that helping them deal with the fallout of their having been wrong is worth the effort. But, most of the time, I would wait for the person who messed up to decide it mattered enough to make the first move. Healing without apology is hard. Reconciliation without recognition of the problem isn’t very workable and on the whole, I think it’s on the person who messed up and acted badly to start sorting things out by saying sorry, at the very least.


Scarcity and problematic creators

I think there’s a scarcity narrative around creativity. The idea that genius is rare, and that as a consequence we must put up with the brilliant people who are also terrible people. We must separate the art from the artist’s shortcomings as a person.

Over the last twenty years or so I’ve spent a lot of time as a reader, reviewer, and editor of indie creations and have spent a lot of time working for small publishing houses. The scarcity story is a lie. We are not short of brilliance and originality. I feel confident in saying that for every problematic high profile creator, there are dozens, if not hundreds of equally or more talented people who haven’t done terrible things.

What would happen if we didn’t keep high profile, disreputable people in their jobs? Would creative industries suffer? Or would we open up space for nicer people? Might we even get an increase in talent and delight as a consequence? I think we would. I would like to see more people given a chance to break through, and I feel really comfortable about doing that at the expense of people who don’t play nicely.

It’s become popular to criticise ‘cancel culture’ on grounds of free speech. But, bear in mind, every time you ‘cancel’ some high profile individual who maybe doesn’t deserve the attention, you open up space for someone else.  It’s not cancelling culture, it’s changing culture. It’s also worth noting that industries are driven by the desire for profit and if they drop an individual it is primarily because they do not think this person is going to make them enough money. If we aren’t so interested in the art of bigots and abusers, there’s less market for it, so companies interested in profits won’t try to sell that to us.  Controversy can sell, but if it doesn’t sell as well as other things, it won’t be a driving force.

For every high profile creator whose attitude stinks, there are many less famous creators with wonderful work whose outlook might also suit you better. It only makes sense to have to forgive creators for crapiness if you think creativity is in short supply. It isn’t. Wealth and fame are in short supply, opportunities and privilege are in short supply, but step outside of the narrow mainstream and there is so much good stuff to be found.


Personal resilience or community resilience

I’ve been in a few situations now that were difficult for me and where people who meant well came in to try and help me improve my personal resilience. They had advice to give. They wanted me to see it from the other person’s perspective, they wanted me to be more understanding. What this also meant is that people who had acted inappropriately were left unchallenged. People who had wanted to use my time unfairly, people who had been sexist, or had gone on the offensive in inappropriate ways were not called out. It wasn’t about them – they were fine. As the person who had a problem with it, the pressure was on me to be more resilient.

I know my experience isn’t unique. ‘Resilience’ is what you have to do as an individual when people who could make changes to better accommodate you, won’t.

For me this is another area in which we talk about something as an individual issue not a community one and that needs to change. It really needs to be a community issue. A community is not resilient if some of its members are being sexist towards other members. Resilience means dealing with that to become something more inclusive and more robust. A resilient workforce is not one that is putting up with being worked to exhaustion, messed about by poor leadership, demoralised and generally ill treated. A resilient workforce is one that feels supported and encouraged and has the resources it needs to work well. Resilience makes a lot more sense as something we do together.

If we focus on personal resilience, we don’t have to change systems. We don’t have to challenge people who are causing the problems. If resilience is personal, we don’t have to ask about the economic context, or the fair distribution of resources. It’s easy to be persuaded that ‘helping you be more resilient’ is a good thing – when it may just be a way of making into a personal problem something that needed dealing with collectively.

There are plenty of spaces where it is considered necessary to be thick skinned, tough, macho, immune to attack and unlikely to care. What we get when we make participation dependent on such qualities, is a lot of people who can’t participate. We don’t prioritise skills, knowledge or experience in a setting that says you must be thick skinned to survive. And we can see exactly how well that serves us by looking at contemporary politics. Resilience for a community means supporting the best and most capable people so they can deploy their skills and expertise for the good of all. If you need them to be able to still do that while an incompetent boss shouts abuse at them… your priorities are all wrong.


Tone Policing and Justice

Tone policing is the unpleasant habit of making the way the message is delivered more important than the content. It tends to be undertaken by the person with the most privilege in a situation as a way to ignore, diminish, take down or silence someone who is distressed. It also tends to go with treating someone who is distressed as invalid – too emotional, unreasonable, childish, out of control – so as to feel like there’s no need to take them seriously.

If the hurt feelings of the person with power and privilege are the most important thing, then of course nothing is going to change. And yes, it can be really uncomfortable looking at the ways in which you benefit from a system that hurts other people. It can be disturbing and upsetting to be told you’re perpetrating harm when you thought you were ok. These are hard lessons to learn, and tone policing is not the answer, not in this context.

There are however, times for tone policing. We should be policing ourselves, especially in situations where we have power and advantage. Are we speaking kindly and respectfully? Are we talking over other people? Are we increasing the anger in a situation? Are we punching down? Are we shouting someone else down? If you’re the person with the emotional control in a situation, are you using the fact that it isn’t hurting you to run power over someone who is being hurt?

Consider policing the tone of people who share your privileges. Call them out – gently and politely – when you catch them putting their own hurt feelings ahead of the actual oppression of other people. Call out the people who use anger and aggression to dominate spaces. Call out the micro-aggressions and be prepared to explain – calmly – why this kind of thing isn’t ok.

One of the biggest indicators of who has power can be seen around who is allowed to be upset. People with power and privilege are allowed to be upset when children’s cartoons aren’t made for them. People without power and privilege are not allowed to be upset when people in their community are murdered. If we want justice, then this is an area of human interaction that really needs some work. It is complicated territory and tends not to bring out the best in people, but small acts around checking your own tone, policing the people closest to you if they mess up, and defending the right of people to be upset by actual oppression will add up.