Category Archives: Community

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/

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Policing your community

Community means taking responsibility for how we engage with each other. It means dealing with bullying, not ignoring sexism, racism, abelism, ageism or anything else of that ilk. However, it also raises issues of gatekeeping and exclusion.

I’ve never seen a community improved by people making it their job to try and push others out for ‘doing it wrong’. If you have gatekeeping urges and feelings about quality and maintaining the integrity of a thing, there are better ways to go. Help people learn – give them pointers, tools, tips, insights, support and encouragement. This takes time and effort and doesn’t get you as much attention as standing at the entrance pushing people away. Where support and inclusion are the norm, people wishing to take power through gatekeeping are more easily identified, so they can be taken aside and supported and encouraged to do something more productive…

Here are some other questions I would like people to ask about how their community spaces function.

Who gets to speak, and who speaks most often? Who doesn’t get chance to make themselves heard? How could that better be rebalanced? Who gets to make decisions and how are those decisions made? Who gets a say in the process? Are the decisions made by the people doing the work? If there is a democratic say then there must also be a democratic sharing of effort and responsibility.

If there is conflict in your community, doing nothing is the choice that supports the person who is out of order and further harms the person on the wrong end of things. If you think both parties are equally to blame, please consider that other people may be silenced, shut down or made uncomfortable and unable to participate as a consequence of undealt-with conflict. The character of your community is in no small degree defined by what people do, and how they do it, when something goes wrong.

If there is sexism, and everyone looks the other way, then your community supports sexism. If someone raises bullying as an issue, and nobody wants to know, then bullying is something your community supports. If someone feels excluded because they can’t physically get into the room, and no one responds to this, then exclusion is something your community does… and there’s a startling amount of this around. Usually it appears in quiet, low drama forms, and is dealt with quietly with a shrug and a ‘this is how we do things’ that just leaves no room for change. I’ve been in a fair few spaces dominated by straight, white, middle class, middle age and older, physically and mentally healthy men, and I can say with confidence that many of them cannot see how business as usual excludes people who are not exactly like them.

Educating people who don’t understand how what they do needlessly excludes others, is a relentless and emotionally draining sort of job. It tends to fall to those least resourced to do it – the one woman in the meeting may be the one person who is able to talk about why the culture of the space means there aren’t more women in the room. The one disabled person will be the person telling you why the venue is so problematic. The one queer person will be the one explaining why the language used is so excluding. The one victim of bullying will be the person on whose shoulders falls the job of explaining why the culture of your community enables bullying. This is hard stuff to bear.

So often what happens when the person who has made it over the threshold but doesn’t fit easily into the ‘normality’ of the group, is that the group resents them for flagging up problems. The community may feel comfortable with itself, it doesn’t want the hassle of changing or the discomfort of looking at its own norms.

If you aren’t the person at the sharp end, and you see someone raising something like this, don’t dismiss them as a nuisance. Don’t call them a snowflake. Don’t insist that the problem is them and that what you usually do is fine. Don’t be part of the subtler forms of gatekeeping that keep out people in this way. Listen to the issues. Try and see it from someone else’s perspective. Don’t assume that your experience is what everyone else gets. Open your heart. Open your community space. Take pride in accommodating people and being flexible around their needs.


Soft and fierce

One of the best things about being able to sum up who you are is that it gives you a fighting chance of finding people you can identify with. The word ‘Druid’ has served me well over the years. So has Pagan, green, folky, and steampunk. However, there are aspects of who I am it would be really useful to be able to explain to people I’m closely involved with. The lack of language is frustrating.

All of the words available to me carry a lot of sexual connotations. In the contexts in which I need some words, those sexual connotations would be more trouble than help. It’s hard even to talk about the kinds of relationships where this is an issue because the language simply doesn’t exist. As a bisexual person, I don’t automatically have a bunch of people I can be friends with where sexual attraction could not be a thing. I have a capacity for very deep and emotionally involved friendship, going far beyond what people generally mean when they say ‘friend’. That lack of language to even talk about who I am and what I’m offering has tripped me up repeatedly.

Over the last week I’ve been reading a book of essays – Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme. I read it out of curiosity and a desire to understand more about other women. I did not expect there to be anything much in it that related to me. I have a female presenting body and a fluid/queer/androgynous sense of self and little enthusiasm for trying to make the overtly female body I have better express what goes on inside it. I learned a lot from the essays about ways in which other women deal with their masculine and feminine aspects, and that was good.

I came away with one phrase, found in a femme essay. ‘Soft and fierce’. It’s the shortest identifier I’ve found that communicates something of how my inner spectrum works, what kinds of contradiction I am and perhaps what to expect in dealing with me. It’s not a conventional identity label, but it is something I can add to my personal dictionary, and maybe even use. It’s a term I can carry to remind myself that I can be a real and authentic person without having to fit neatly into any of the more conventional identity boxes.

In my experience, the majority of people have very narrow ideas about who and how we are allowed to be in relation to each other. I’m bi, and pan-romantic, emotionally plural and physically faithful, I’m a bottom except when people need me to be a top because really it’s all about the service. I’m too scruffy to be conventionally feminine but too female bodied to be the genderqueerness I feel and anyway, I’m not sure why that genderqueerness is best expressed to other people by minimising the female aspects. I don’t know enough genderqueer folk to know if that’s really somewhere I belong, or not. I like ‘queer’ as a term because it’s short and evocative, but for people who have no queer language of their own to deploy, it’s not that helpful.

Most of the time, I can just let people make of me what they will and I try not to worry about it too much. The trouble has been the people who got too close in the friendships that were not as straightforward and who did not know what to do with me. More often than not they read as sexual things that are not uncomplicatedly sexual when I do them. My track record in recent years has been better though – not because I have the right words but because I’ve dealt with kinder people, more willing to make the effort to understand.


How community sustains us

I was in Wakefield over the weekend for a Pagan Federation conference. It turned out to be – as these things so often are – a significant learning opportunity for me. I had a number of conversations about how we square up to climate crisis, how we cope and keep going and avoid being overwhelmed by panic and despair.

The answer for me is community. Those conversations made me realise just how blessed I am in where I live and who I work with. Stroud’s District Council has not only declared that there is a climate emergency, but it is also working to make the whole district carbon neutral by 2030. That’s a massive and ambitious plan, and exactly what’s needed right now. It’s easier to feel hopeful when you can see people with the power to make larger scale changes getting involved.

I also have Transition Stroud – which involves hundreds of local people working for sustainability. It’s a hands-on community that pushes for grass roots change. It is hard slogging away at personal change when you feel like no one else cares and your change makes so little difference. When you have a community working towards sustainability, you can start to see how those individual changes stack up into bigger changes. There’s scope to inspire more people and draw them in.

On top of this, I’m a long standing supporter of The Woodland Trust and I also do some volunteering for them. Trees can do so much to help us deal with climate crisis. They lock up carbon, they can reduce flooding if planted in the right places, they’re good for human mental health and they support biodiversity and help protect the soil. Supporting The Woodland Trust means I’m contributing on a national scale as well. There are many charities and organisations working for the good of the land and for wildlife – supporting any of them will give you similar experiences.

When we are connected with other, Likeminded people, we have the power to do more. We can inspire and uplift each other, hold each other accountable and keep each other going. Look around and see what already exists in your area – better to join something heading the right way than start from scratch. If there is truly nothing, then it may fall to you to start the process – but you will not be the only one. People who want radical change are everywhere, often trying to figure out what to do and where to start if nothing is yet moving.


Enjoy your community life

In this blog, I’m picking upon Molly Scott Cato’s advice for resisting fascism.

Far right politics works to divide us. When we see everyone else as a competitor, and when we feel that giving anyone else rights undermines our own, there is no community. When we think in terms of maximising our profits and benefits and never mind everyone else, we create fragmented cultures full of cracks for people to fall through as soon as anything goes wrong. In this kind of environment, fearing each other is normal. Greed, jealousy, resentment, and the capacity to harm others are all cultivated.

A culture based on care, cooperation and mutual support is one in which we all see each other as valuable. One way in which we can resist fragmentation, fear and hatred, is to actively invest in community life. All you have to do to take up this method of resisting fascism, is to join a group of people. If you can, join a group that meets up in the real world and does something. That could be a fitness class, a volunteering group, people who cycle together, a film club, a political party, a union, or anything else you can think of that gives you a warm community space.

We’re social creatures, most of us. We are happier and our lives are richer and more fulfilling when we have meaningful relationships with other people. When we are enjoying life, we’re less easily persuaded towards hatred and resentment of others. We’re less likely to fear other people if we spend time with other people. If we isolate ourselves, we become vulnerable. The little voices that talk to us from the corner of the room aren’t always on our side. News tends to focus on misery and drama, and if your sense of other people is derived mostly from that, you’ll have a sense that people are mostly awful. If your sense of people comes from your mates at the skateboard park and the book club at the library, you will likely feel a lot better about other humans.

Community life takes us beyond economic life, too. If our interactions with other humans are mostly in the workplace, our relationships will be coloured by hierarchies and economic activity. It’s good to connect with people without paying to do so. It’s good to talk to people who aren’t there purely because they want you to do something for them. People who live in the work sphere and don’t connect with people who aren’t in paid employment can get some deeply skewed ideas about what not working means.

Show up somewhere. Do it for fun. Go forth into your community and find things that enrich your life and make you happy. Surrounded as we are by political and environmental crisis, it can feel hard to justify time spent on joyful things. But, to be happy with other humans is to be politically radical. To be social is to be radical. To find joy without spending vast sums of money on it, is radical. To connect with people who are not at the same life stage or of the same economic background, is radical. Increasingly, happiness is a radical thing to embrace. Fight fascism with joy by making real connections with other people.


Being crap together

Being professional means putting a brave face on it, feigning competence when you feel you have none. Smiling at people because it’s your job to smile at people and not because anything inside you feels like smiling. It’s not necessarily just a work issue. Maybe in your family you are the one who is always calm, clever, able to figure stuff out. Maybe in your friend circle you’re the joker, the one who cheers everyone else up.

When you’re depressed, the roles that you usually play can feel like awkward masks. Taking the mask off and showing what’s really going on may be unthinkable. Playing the roles you’ve got when you don’t feel equal to any of them takes a toll, and that emotional cost can push you further into the dark places. Depression can tell you that no one would accept you if you took the mask off and showed them what was really going on.

What happens if we are crap together? What happens if you spend some time with other people and no one has to be clever, or shiny or on top of things? If it’s ok to be tired and have poor concentration, and the conversation lurches awkwardly and is slow and full of gaps… but those gaps aren’t awkward and no one is jumping into the spaces to make anyone else feel small or useless.

Imagine a social space where showing up as you are is totally fine. Where you sit at the table all evening and barely manage a word, but that’s ok, and no one judges you for it or makes anything of it. Imagine not having to pretend to be upbeat for the sake of those around you.

Feeling safe, feeling honest and able to be as you are is a huge gift. It is worth taking a look at the expectations we pile onto ourselves and asking if that’s really how it is. Sometimes it is worth taking the risk of showing up feeling crap and with nothing much to offer. It is always worth embracing other people’s crapness and just having space for them even when they aren’t up to much. It is a huge gift to give. Low expectations can be generous blessings in other people’s lives.

When we move away from ideas of who we are supposed to be in our social lives and make space for where we are, connections with people become deeper and more authentic. If you’ve bought into ideas about presenting as clever, successful, socially potent and all the rest of it, this is a hard crossing to make. On the other side there is more peace, ease, relief and far less stress. When we can be real with each other, when we can be crap together, the world is a far kinder place.

Depressed people are often encouraged to get over it, make an effort, give more in social situations and are often pushed (including by CBT therapy) to try and act ‘normal’. What I’ve found in practice is that if the people around you have room for you to be as you are, however gloomy that is, things get easier. Permission to be your real, hurting self and feeling seen and accepted in that state changes so much. A fake it until you make it approach does not, in my experience, fix depression. It may hide it, but it is only adding to the emotional burden. The person who can be real may find a firmer footing from which they can get back on top of their life and feel better about things.

 


How to trust

I admit I am not naturally good at trusting people. As a consequence, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the terms on which I might be willing to trust. What qualities is it that make a person trustworthy? If my trust is going to be partial (it usually is) then to what degrees and in what ways does it make sense to trust people?

I think too often we go into situations assuming other people should trust us. The flip side of not trusting, is not expecting to be trusted and expecting to have to earn that.

  • Backing up words with actions. I don’t expect people to take me at my word until I’ve demonstrated that I can and will do what I said I’d do. However, I do get annoyed when I’ve repeatedly demonstrated I can do the things, and am still treated as untrustworthy in those areas. At that point, refusal to trust becomes a way of reducing and controlling a person.
  • New and different mistakes. We all make mistakes. I don’t find errors to be a barrier to trust unless a person keeps making the same mistakes after they’ve been flagged up. When someone persists in causing the same problem in the same way, it looks a lot like intention, not incompetence.
  • Thinking things through: I tend to trust people who demonstrate a willingness to work things through and reason things out. What I trust here is that this kind of process shows willingness to see things differently and to seek solutions rather than blame. I can trust the integrity of someone’s reasoning without needing them to agree with me or see things as I do.
  • Physical trust. This is a hard one for me – to trust another person both to be kind to my body if I get close, and to trust them not to have a problem with me. I’m an emotionally intense person, and it is hard to hide that when being hugged. Trusting people to accept me as I am and not to take physical advantage is hard. It takes time.
  • I do not trust people who don’t listen to me. I do not trust people who show signs of treating me like a resource they can use. I do not trust people who take me for granted, or people who treat any emotional expression from me as though I am a massive drama queen. It’s taken me a long time to trust that I’m not a massive drama queen and do not deserve to be dismissed at the first sign of emotional expression.
  • In terms of trying to earn trust, I offer honesty and clarity. At least with words. And enough honesty to make clear that I habitually lie with my body. I don’t express pain, depression, anxiety, or exhaustion if I can help it. I hide those things because this helps me function. But I will speak honestly. It means asking people to trust what I say, not what I look like. I am more inclined to trust in turn people who take me at my word rather than seeing how I present and how it doesn’t fit their expectations around what a person in pain should look like. In turn, I will trust people’s words. If someone tells me something, I will assume that is the more substantial truth than any appearances that seem to conflict with it. I can’t say this always goes well, but it is a deliberate choice to do for others what I am often asking for myself.

Trust is a process. It is something you have to build between people. Granted, most people are good and well meaning. The trouble is, that you cannot immediately see the ones who are narcissists, abusers, assaulters, rapists. They tend to be good at passing themselves off as ok, at least in the short term. It’s how they get to do their stuff. The percentage of people I’ve known who have turned out not to be good, or been thoroughly vile, is a small percentage, but they have had a large impact on me. As a consequence, I do not tend to trust the people who treat my innate lack of trust as a failing of some sort. My lack of trust is protective.


The healing power of kindness

When faced with someone in difficulty, it’s very easy for any of us to minimise what we’re seeing or being told. We may well fear that if we are helpful, or cut them slack, we will be taken advantage of. And of course in some instances, this will prove to be the case. However, when we can be kind to each other, we can have powerful effects on each other.

Workplaces often make people ill – they are a massive source of stress and anxiety. People who are overworked and falling behind can seem like a hazard to those who are keeping up. One person’s shortfalls are another person’s escalating problem. It can be hard to push back against that, and it may well carry risks. If we can be kind to each other, we can resist the work culture that will run us all until we collapse. Kindness is a route to not seeing each other as disposable and replaceable.

With kindness, you can find the options that allow people to participate. Reliably stopping the meeting when you said you would stop the meeting can radically improve inclusion. Listening to what people can manage and factoring that in is really powerful. Support and enable people to do the best they can, and more often than not, they’ll do that. When we treat each other kindly, we’re not usually going to open the floodgates for people being exploitative and taking the piss.

When we look after each other, we open the way to being recipients of care as well as givers. We create a culture of care, of watching each other’s backs and helping each other out. We stop counting the cost to us of everything we do when we don’t feel reduced by that. In a culture where support flows to where it’s needed, when you are resourced, you can better afford to be generous. If enough people are prepared to embody the idea that what goes around comes around, they will turn it into a shared truth.

Healing takes time, rest, peace, less stress. It doesn’t really matter what you’re healing from, if the people around you are kind and supportive, you’ve got a better shot at it and will do it sooner. If we are kind to each other, not only can we help with individual healing, but we create a scope for cultural healing, for community wellness and for relationships based on trust and doing our best. Kindness is the key to dismantling exploitative systems that treat people as disposable. Kindness is the key to building something better.

It need not be dramatic. Small injections of kindness into your normal day will have a significant influence on the people around you. It’s also a self-empowering thing to do. When you give with confidence, you also get to feel better.


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.


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.)