Category Archives: Community

Obliged to live together

I’m seeing a lot of people online talking about how difficult it is having to spend all of their time at home with their partners, and in some cases also their children. Many of the people doing this will never have done this before. I’ve been in relationships in the past where space and distance were key to keeping things viable. What do you do when you don’t have anywhere else to go and being cooped up increases frustration?

For two years, Tom and I worked and lived on a boat – 45 feet long, 6 feet wide, boy and cat also onboard. It wasn’t easy, but we learned how to do it.

The absolute key thing for surviving with other people in a small space, is not to take your feelings out on each other. It’s easy to do this without noticing – snapping at someone because you feel grumpy, getting angry over small things that aren’t really the problem. From there it’s easy to get into cycles of passive aggression, people feeling hurt and not being able to express it well – this way lies misery.

When you can step away from each other, there’s less frustration. If you are taking your feelings out on each other, normally you at least get some breathing space in which to recover. Many people no longer have those options.

The trick is to share your feelings rather than venting them. There need be no problem being sad, bored, frightened or frustrated if you deal with it by saying that’s what you’ve got, or by expressing the feeling in relation to what’s causing it, not dumping it on the person nearest to you as though this is their fault. It takes a certain amount of self awareness to do this, but, you’re probably going to have lots of time to practice…

When you share your emotions with the people closest to you, trust is built. Support and understanding become available. There’s scope for cooperation to alleviate problems. Good things can come of this, everyone gets to feel better, no one is ground down. Using a person as your emotional punch-bag is a terrible thing to do, and will make their life a misery. It also deprives the person doing it of any meaningful comfort or support.

Living and working in a small space with other people and never having much scope to be away from them isn’t easy. But it is totally possible. Care, cooperation, negotiation and patience make all things possible. Also remember that the people around you do not magically know what’s going on in your head. They aren’t psychic. If you think they are supposed to know, or supposed to understand and you get cross with them when they don’t… this may not be their shortcoming. If you can explain calmly, using small words, they have a chance of understanding, where resentment of their lack of psychic insight will only make things worse.

For some people, isolation is going to make apparent that the other person in their home likes using them as an emotional punchbag. I am worried about the way in which extra stresses and forced proximity might escalate abusive relationships, and how much harder it will be to get out if we end up in lockdown. I can only hope there will be resources in place for people who find they aren’t safe.


Isolation and mental health

There are reasons we use prisons as punishment and solitary confinement is considered especially harsh. Most humans are social creatures and isolation is bad for us. However, we’re faced with a pandemic that requires us to at least do some social distancing, and that for some people means as much isolation as possible in the hopes of survival. Isolation is bad for mental health, and depression also kills so there is a lot to consider here.

I’ve had a lot of firsthand experience of isolation impacting on my mental health. Living with a few other people does not reliably offset it, and it puts a lot of pressure on those people to provide emotional support. They might not be well enough resourced to do that. Isolation can feed anxiety and depression because there’s not enough to counteract it. There’s not enough positive reinforcement, counter-narrative to the distress, or distraction from it. If you have mental health problems already, being isolated with your own thoughts is hell.

If you start out mentally well and are isolated, you may be ok at first. However, you can still end up feeling unable to leave the house after a while. Boredom can slide you into depression. Apathy can take over, with loss of motivation, loss of joy in life, you do less, you feel worse, you cycle into depression.

Our minds and bodies are not separate systems. Poor mental health is poor health. It can often lead to choices that further undermine health. The things we do for short term comfort may only make our situations worse. The process is likely to be slow and it may not be obvious what’s happening if you haven’t dealt with it before.

Here are some suggestions. Having a voice and a face to communicate with helps – use online tools, use your phone, get the emotional intimacy of talking directly. If you don’t feel able to ask for help with being isolated, contact someone else and ask how they are doing. Rescuing each other often works best.  If there’s no one you can talk to, I find the radio helpful – it’s immediate, and feels more personal than television.

Think about who might be unable to communicate. Consider older relatives who aren’t tech savy. Make sure you know who of your friends is vulnerable. Who is old enough to be at extra risk? Who has underlying health conditions and may need to totally isolate? Who already suffers from anxiety? Don’t wait for them to ask for help. The nature of a mental health crisis usually makes it very hard indeed to ask for help. After all, people are dying out there, how can you approach your friends and family – who no doubt have their own problems – and ask them to give you some time because you are overwhelmingly sad? Mental health conditions are good at persuading sufferers that they are making a fuss and/or don’t deserve help anyway. Make the first move.


Relationship assumptions

The dominant stories we have about the kinds of relationship shapes available to a person, are, from my perspective, unhelpfully narrow. Emotionally speaking I’m polyamorous – I can choose fidelity, but it is fundamentally in my nature to love. I’m attracted to pixies and wizards – gender has never really been a factor. As someone with wizard and pixie attractions, it makes no sense to me that one set of genitals equates to potential lovers and the other to potential friends and that you shouldn’t be friends with people who have different genitals to you.

I find the hard lines we draw between friends and lovers a tad perplexing. It doesn’t leave me much space for adoration, for people I want to hold and kiss but maybe not shag. It doesn’t allow for my massive and very intense creative crushes or for what happens with me when people inspire me.

Conventional relationships tend to assume similarity of age. Again, this has never worked for me. There’s a huge age range across my love/friendship relationships.

For me, entering into a relationship with a person has always been about finding the shape that is right for that particular exchange. That may, or may not be sexual, it may be affectionate, it may be a creative collaboration, or something else entirely. I’m interested in what might happen, and not in getting an interaction with a person to fit a pre-determined shape.

I’m also entirely comfortable with unbalanced relationships. I often love people who do not feel the same way about me, and I’m fine with that. My emotional response does not create an obligation. I might want things that aren’t available – again I’m fine with this. I am confused by people who expect balance. I am very confused by people who think I should feel about them something that reflects how they feel about me! I am largely convinced it’s because we tell each other so many stories in which two people fall in love with each other at the same time and to the same degree that we assume this is normal. It’s never worked that way for me.

I want there to be more room. I don’t want to be told what I am allowed to feel, or be cut down by the limited nature of other people’s stories. I’ve had more than enough of that already. I want space, for all of us, to be who we are, explore who we might be when dealing with each other, and to engage on whatever terms actually make sense.


Body Stories

We attach meanings to bodies. We pass around stories about what certain body shapes mean. Some bodies we sexualise, and some we desexualise with no reference to the nature of the person whose body it is. The racists amongst us have stories about the meaning of skin tones that has nothing to do with the people those stories are imposed on. Those stories are used to cause harm and to reduce opportunities.

We tell stories about disabled bodies that are profoundly unhelpful to the people they are about. The stories of liars, scroungers, and fakes beget violence. The stories about what a disabled body means regarding the capability of the person, keep people out of jobs, social spaces and opportunities. The stories about being brave and inspirational are perhaps less toxic, but just as much about imposing a narrative on someone else.

If you have big breasts there is no way of dressing short of using a binder, that makes your body look modest in some people’s eyes. It is, by all accounts worse if you are a black woman, much worse if you are a younger black woman with curves –  that your body will be read in a sexual way no matter what you do, or who you are. The power to impose a story on someone else’s body is the power to say they were asking for it, they were dressed provocatively, their consent can be inferred.

When we read poverty on a person, we judge them for being lazy, dirty and feckless. When we don’t see those things, we judge a person claiming poverty as lying.

It doesn’t get much more personal than the story about what your body means. When people are able to read your body and impose their meanings upon you, there is a massive power imbalance. When you are told what you can and cannot do because your body is read as old, or female, or black, then you are at a huge disadvantage. If you don’t get to act based on your own body story, you are compromised in so many ways.

People who consider themselves normal measure other people’s bodies in relation to their own. All too often, no one asks what a person can do, or how they feel. We put superficial readings of bodies ahead of finding out what a person actually does.

Who gets to tell the story about what your body means? Who gets to impose limitations on you based on how they read your body? Who do you judge on appearances? What assumptions do you make when you look at someone who is different from you? None of us are entirely free from this.


Being Seen

For many of us, the visible self doesn’t really match the internal self. This can take many forms – around gender and sexual identity for example – there are so many invisible bisexuals. Not everyone is entirely out of the boom closet with their Paganism. We may have passions, fetishes, obsessions, issues, wounds, and histories that we mostly can’t share with other people. Sometimes because it’s safer not to expose that. Sometimes because we fear how others will respond. Sometimes because it’s just so complicated to explain.

As a consequence of this, being seen can be incredibly powerful. Having someone recognise the unspeakable things, and not only see them but respond in a positive way to them. To be seen as a sexual being when your age and body shape make that unacceptable in many spaces. To have the invisible bisexuality honoured. To have someone see the heroism that accompanies the scars, not the brokenness… I have no doubt this can take many forms.

I think it’s one of the most powerful gifts a person can give to another person – to see them as they truly are, and not just accept that but honour it. To give a person room to be more than we expect or assume. To give people space to be their true selves, fearless and unmuted.


Druid Leadership

When I first encountered Druidry about twenty years ago, it seemed structured. Groves, Orders, arch-druids, hierarchy and Very Important Druids. Perhaps it was quite anarchic all along, but from outside, it looked like a movement with a few key leaders and a lot of followers.

I’m reasonably confident that I’ve seen a shift since then. I think there are a lot more Druids who, while interested in learning from others, have no desire to submit to anyone else’s leadership. I think a lot of membership now is held more lightly, and people turn up when it suits them. I think there are not many people coming forward to be Druid leaders. I also think these are all good things.

One of the problems inherent in leading is that to do it well takes time and energy. Of course for the person on a bit of an ego trip, this isn’t always a problem. I see experienced Druids who could have stepped forward to lead choosing not to do so – in no small part because they want to be Druids far more than they want to be leaders. I see such people sharing experiences and teaching in lighter and less authority-laden ways, and I like how that looks. We don’t have to follow someone to learn from them, we do not have to surrender power to them or imagine they are better than us. We can just swap notes and pick up whatever seems useful.

What I see increasingly is Druids communicating through networks of interactions. I see something that looks a lot more organic than the Druidry of twenty years ago. There’s less drama in it. Wind the clock back fifteen years or so and I looked after the Druid Network’s Directory for a while, which meant I was in touch with a great many orders, groves, arch-druids and whatnot. It was drama-laden work, and frequently full of weirdness. I see all the same odd assertions, beliefs and ego stuff playing out in Druid groups online, but without the same power base. Without the confidence that having self-identified as an arch-druid should mean something. We still get our fair share of preposterous folk with outrageous ideas, but with a wider community full of people who know about Druid history, there are plenty of folk able to step in and offer some reality.

It suited our ancestors of revival-druidry to adopt a hierarchical view of Druids. It fitted the patriarchal, colonial times in which they lived. It fitted their desire for fame, fortune, notoriety and followers. Druidry as it exists today has grown out of that revival period stuff, and become something a lot more anarchic. There’s a much more democratic sharing of ideas, much more room for more people to be heard, and far fewer people who want to start their own even more ancient than anyone else’s Order so that they can get invited to meetings of some sort or another and get angry with other near-identical Orders consisting of one arch-druid and his dog…


Notes on parenting

I had a suspicion that how I parented my child as a toddler would have a lot of impact on how things went in his teens. There are similarities – the sudden increase in options and personal power, the need to test boundaries, the hormones undermining common sense… I thought how we handled that when he was small might be key in what came later. He’ll be eighteen this year.

I thought back to my own teens and to the things that made my friends miserable. It was all about the need to be heard and taken seriously, to have your feelings respected. How much we wanted not to be told that we did not know our own minds. How we wanted our emotional attachments taken seriously, our ambitions, distress and frustration as well.

So I started along those lines when he was small. I asked about preferences. I asked him what worked for him and what didn’t. I heard him out, and if he couldn’t have things his way, I explained why. I told him he was always entitled to ask questions, and always entitled to an explanation. I promised him that if I claimed I knew best I would produce some evidence for this. I made sure that what he felt was factored in, and that he knew he was being heard and taken seriously. I promised that I would only order him to do something if it was an emergency and he had to do what I said right then with no time for explanations. Which meant that if I gave on order, I expected it to be followed unquestioningly.  There have been a few instances of physical peril, and I have never abused that deal.

We’ve always negotiated. I’ve always been in charge because that’s what it means to parent a young human. He’s always had the definitive say on how he feels about things, what he wants and doesn’t want. Of course along the way we’ve had the odd strop over things that didn’t seem fair, and I’ve stopped and talked through why they might be fair after all, or why they might be shit but that’s how it goes sometimes. That being an adult means taking responsibility for the dull things, the crappy things, the things you don’t want to have to bother with and that your freedom and your responsibility are closely interlinked.

He’s never rebelled against me, because there was never much authority to rebel against. I’ve never claimed to know what was best for him, I just advise based on what I do know. We’ve got this far with no blazing rows, no angry outbursts from either of us. Neither of us has said anything we have any reason to regret. I’m really proud of that, and of the kind of relationship we have at this point in his life.

With university on the horizon we’re negotiating the next set of changes, working what he needs to know, clarifying what he’s responsible for and what backup will be available.

It would be easy to run roughshod over the ideas, feelings and preferences of a child. It is often more convenient to ignore that sort of thing. It may be satisfying to the parental ego to take total authority, demand obedience and assert control, but these are, I feel certain, the things that pave the way to an angry, fight-laden teenage. Respect is something we learn, and being respected is a really good way of learning how to respect others.


Fool Magic

There is incredible power in foolishness. There is freedom and delight in being willing to make an arse of yourself, but it goes further than this. Being willing to be foolish opens up space for people. If we all have to be super-good, correct, dignified, and successful then it’s really hard to jump in and have a go for the first time. Willing fools create spaces in which it is possible for others to safely participate.

The man who taught me most about performance and stage craft had this down to an art form. While I learned a lot at the time about how to perform, it’s only in recent years that I’ve started thinking in earnest about the impact of his playing the fool. Because however badly I messed up, he would guarantee to make a bigger fool of himself than I could manage on my own account. I learned to feel safe in that space. I’m thinking more about how I might do that for other people.

I’ve always done it around dancing. I will be the first person up, I do not fear the empty dance floor and I do not need lubricating with alcohol. My often sore and weary body has led me towards ways of dancing that involve more drama than effort. It is easier to get up and dance when someone is already there waving themselves about excessively, as is my habit.

For my fortieth birthday party, two friends donned a selection of colanders with the intention of being the first ones up to make sure people got moving. It was all rather wonderful.

I see this kind of thing in the gleeful preposterousness of Steampunk. The permission we create for each other by not taking ourselves too seriously. The way in which you can go into something with enthusiasm, and wholeheartedness and absolute willingness to be ridiculous, and how this creates joy.

Mirth can triumph over fragility and ego alike. It can overcome fear, and undermine insecurity and undo pomposity. It’s a powerful tool for growth, it enables happiness and helps us engage gently with each other. If we can be ridiculous together, we never need to fear certain kinds of judgement.


The Art of Arguing

Online arguing is a terrible thing, miserable to be part of and is unlikely to change anyone’s mind. On the whole I’m no fan off arguments offline, either. I find debate for the sake of it exhausting. I’m blessed with a husband who negotiates, we don’t really argue at all, but that’s not much help when trying to figure out how to engage with people who disagree.

This a story about the one person I enjoy arguing with. He doesn’t argue to win, to score points or to put me down. He’s never in it to force his opinion on to me, and he never seems to think less of me for disagreeing with him. I come into these exchanges from much the same place. What we end up doing is demonstrating our individual evidence and reasoning, and questioning each other’s beliefs, assumptions and interpretations. It can be intense, but it’s underpinned by care and respect, and I have never taken damage wading in to one of these.

One dramatic round of this last summer resulted in both of us changing our minds, and coming to think in ways that were more closely aligned around an issue. Good arguing can change things.

What’s key here I think is that this process of arguing is one of seeking understanding. It comes from a desire to be understood, coupled with a desire to understand. And of course when two people start from very different places, experiences and insights, it’s easy to also start at cross-purposes. The intention to learn turns what might be a fight, into an act of collectively wrestling with ideas. That can be exciting, and takes me places I would not have gone on my own.

In normal arguments, it’s all about winning; to be heard without having to listen. When two people are determined to be heard and not interested in listening, there’s very little good can come of it. The loudest, angriest, most aggressive person will likely force the other person to give up. Truth is not served by this. Nothing useful is learned.

I’ve learned how to argue in a different sort of way. I’ve learned how to be more open and less spiky and defensive. Much more is possible if I don’t feel I have to fight my corner to avoid being crushed. I’ve learned how to co-examine ideas without fearing the consequences. When getting to the right answer is the important thing, who was initially right or wrong doesn’t have to matter at all. No one has to be made smaller if the point is a chance to learn. And if you aren’t going to be knocked down, and it is safe to admit to being wrong and to change tack, all kinds of possibilities open up.

At the same time, anyone who wants to argue for the sake of it, or to score points or play devil’s advocate, I can do without. It’s one thing if there’s an aim to provide real help by exploring different perspectives. It’s quite another to take an opposing stance just for the ‘fun’ of arguing with someone. When a person is dealing with real issues, playing devil’s advocate for the sake of arguing can be immensely cruel. With so many real things I need to figure out, I find I don’t have the time or energy for fights with people who just want to prove they are cleverer than me.

 


Performing your online identity

The internet, and social media especially, encourages us to perform. We record and perform our lives to a watchful audience that may judge us on a scale that most humans have never had to deal with before. The pressure to look good performing can have a distorting effect on what we do, what we value and what we think is useful. We’re all caught up in this and mostly need to be kinder to ourselves about it. However, here are some things I’ve noticed that I think need mentioning.

Performance activism puts the performer centre stage. Not the issue, or the afflicted people. It’s not about raising awareness or solving problems, it is a performance piece to show how good you are. It’s important to focus on what will help and make a difference, and to put the issues centre stage.

The performance ally works in much the same way – putting themselves centre stage. It’s important not to speak for or speak over the people you are supposedly helping. This is of course tricky when you’re not sure who else is present – so often the way of it online. There can be a lot of diversity in experiences and what helps one person feel supported may offend another.

Performance friendship. The fine art of making big claims, promises and declarations in public spaces. It might look good in the short term, but when you can’t follow through on it, the harm done is considerable.

Success performance. When you only talk about the good things and paint your life as perfect, you can undermine your own wellbeing. It’s hard to ask for help if you keep telling everyone that everything is great. If we get into displaying our success through images of objects, this can fuel consumerism and doesn’t help the planet. The kind of performances we put on around health, weight and diet could often stand some scrutiny too. The idea that weight loss is success needs care and careful thinking.

Warrior performances. It’s easy to be an online warrior, to shout people down, pull them apart, pick holes in their work and criticise them. This achieves nothing. Making real change requires real work and a good deal more effort. A warrior performance may help you feel good about yourself and persuade you that you’re doing something useful, but the odds are that no real good comes of it at all.

Misery performances. If you know plenty of nice people then misery performances will win you care, support, warmth, affection and positive reinforcements. Now, I think it’s really important that we all have space to share our struggles and issues – it’s an important counter to those relentless success performances as well. However, if all you do is act out misery, it isn’t good for everyone else, or for you. It is better all round to try and find some small good to share as well. The odds are if you can get online that you have some resources and your life isn’t just shit, and focusing on the good bits when you can will help you.

None of us are real online. Being here is an act of creativity and construction. We all make deliberate choices about what we share and how we do it. But, because those choices are so deliberate, we all get chance to choose what kind of performances we will share. I believe that our most authentic selves are the ones we most deliberately and consistently choose to be. So, while no one is truly real online and everything we share is partial and performed, at the same time, anyone can consciously choose to be the person they want to be – and thus manifest their most authentic self.