Category Archives: Observations

Stories about ourselves

We all tell stories about ourselves. Humans are storytelling creatures and we like to make narrative sense of the world. We present ourselves to each other in the stories we tell about what we’ve done and seen, where we’ve been and who we’ve known. Many stories are very short and often we don’t notice them – as tellers or as audience, or what effect they might have.

I’m intrigued by people who tell stories about the sorts of people they are – that they are empathic people, or highly aware, sensitive, special – these come up around Paganism a fair bit. These are stories that tend to come from people who seem to be none of those things, in my experience. Then there are the people who want to tell a story about who you are – to measure you and demonstrate that they understand you. When there’s depth of relationship this can be valuable feedback, but it’s the empathic people who do it off the cuff I find least helpful.

No doubt we’re all inclined to make ourselves look good when we tell our stories. We want to pick out the best bits. At some point there’s a line to cross between a good retelling and an actual falsehood. That line is seldom easy to see.

One of the falsehoods I see frequently, and that I know to be harmful, is the habit of bigging yourself up. Social media is full of it – people putting their best self out there and doing their best to look like they have great and successful lives. I see authors doing it too – overplaying book sales, what ‘best seller’ on Amazon means, and the like. Success is attractive, is the theory. Who wants to buy from a moderately successful author? The trouble with this comes when you need help.

If you’ve been telling stories about how good you are, but those stories aren’t true, how can you ask for help? I’ve seen authors who have presented as successful start Patreons and not get any support – either because what fans they have believed the success story, or because they never had many fans in the first place. On the flip side, creators who are honest about how things work for them are often much better supported. Fans understand the struggle, and care and want to be involved. In practice, most creators don’t earn enough to live on and investing time in creativity alongside regular employment isn’t easy. But when you’ve overplayed your success, this is hard to talk about.

When you’re over-invested in the story of your own success, you can end up tied in knots about your reality. This way lies cognitive dissonance. When you have to believe in your literary legacy, even though no one seems to be reading your books. When you have presented a perfect family and cannot then admit how your household is falling apart… The greater the distance between your stories and your reality, the harder it becomes to let anyone into your life. The more you’ve misrepresented to look good, the harder it gets to effectively ask for help.

The stories we tell to ourselves, about ourselves and about our relationships with other people are tiny, every day things. We might not even notice when we do them. We might be crafting it deliberately as good PR, as fake it until you make it, as positivity or to feel better. But, these distortions come at a cost – they increase anxiety and feelings of pressure to succeed and they don’t reliably work as marketing strategies, whether you’re trying to look good to your family, or sell more books.

Most of us identify more with stories of honest struggle and occasional success than we do with people who seem to have it all. Our kindness is engaged by empathy with other people’s trials. We can enjoy the success of people we feel have earned it but may resent people who seem to have had it all handed to them on a plate. Better not to fake it until you make it. Better to be real, and human, open to being supported and able to have a wail about the crap along the way.

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Things I am doing

A bit of an update about what I’m up to at the moment!

I’m back down to a more manageable number of day jobs – I’m currently doing freelance work for Moon Books, Sloth Comics and Transition Stroud, alongside doing voluntary work for Transition Stroud and The Woodland Trust.

This weekend I’m off to Edinburgh for the Scottish Pagan Federation’s conference. This is my second event this month, having done the Pagan Federation Conference in Wakefield. In May, I have a video in the online Pagan Federation Conference, and am involved with Stroud’s Steampunk Weekend.

I’m still writing regular columns for Pagan Dawn, and for Sage Women Blogs.

I’m currently working on the script for the next Hopeless Maine graphic novel, fitting that in around the paying gigs as much as my concentration will allow. I have not put in the time I wanted to on finishing up an elements book, and I’ve still not found the time and energy to start on a spirits of place book. I don’t have enough hours of good concentration in a day – six is about as good as it gets, currently. It’s not enough, and I know I won’t improve this until I can take some more time off and rest up a bit. It is all too easy to get trapped in spirals of diminishing returns.

I’m still on Patreon. I’m finding it helpful because it makes me take the time each month for something creative. I’m also, frankly, glad of the money. I did slightly better than break even at Wakefield – which is good for an event, I’ve done plenty at a loss. I’m hoping to break even in Scotland. It’s necessary to get out there and do events to raise your profile as an author and sell books, but it is hard for authors to cover costs often, and the chances of coming out ahead are slim.

The amount of time that goes into writing makes it hard to make minimum wage doing it. Thinking about writing in those terms is just depressing so I mostly try not to, But, I have maybe six good hours of concentration in any given day, and I need to be economically active, so there are things to figure out. How much time I can give – to the blog, to voluntary work and to writing books alongside how much time I need to spend on things that earn money.

Fortunately I’m willing and able to live without many of the things that most people take for granted, which makes my home cheaper to run. But, time off can be a problem and I am craving a break. When I do an event and knock out a weekend, I can’t reliably take time off in the week to compensate. I managed a week off between Christmas and New Year, and I’m trying to get a week off in June. I’ll have to take a pay cut to do it – there is no other way. I do not get paid holiday leave from freelance work. I won’t be able to go on holiday for that week – the cost, and the effort of organising are beyond me. It would be nice to just slouch round the flat and read books, and sit under trees and that sort of thing.

If you like what I do, and want to help, then I really appreciate patreon support. Please consider supporting me. If you’d like to support me but can’t make an ongoing commitment, ko-fi is good for one off donations. Thank you.


Adventures with Ankles

Most of my joints will bend the wrong way(s) under any kind of pressure. It’s only in the last few years that I’ve grasped that this is a thing with considerable implications. It explains much of why I hurt, and why I get tired a lot. The tissues supporting my joints are softer than normal, so everything takes more effort, and I’m more likely to injure myself, including micro-damage. When I was first dealing with fatigue issues in my teens, I’m not sure anyone was aware of this sort of thing. No one asked about my joints.

My ankles are especially bad. I spent my childhood falling over a lot, running was scary and difficult. But, I’ve persisted, kept moving, walked, danced, swam, did what I could with this body and tried not to hurt it too much. I hold pens and chopsticks the ‘wrong’ way to alleviate hand pressure. I hold bows the wrong way, I probably type wrongly as well, but I get by.

A few weeks into learning Tai Chi it became apparent that I couldn’t get the knee and toe positions right for most stances. It’s a small knee bend. My teacher talked a lot about not bending knees the wrong way – clearly used to a lot of older students with dodgy knees. I started exploring what was happening between knees and ankles and realised I was loading the joints badly. Thus started a massive program to re-think how I stand and walk.

My ankles default to rolling outwards in response to any kind of pressure (i.e. being stood up). This probably makes me more likely to fall over, and I suspect it puts pressure on my knees and thighs. One of my hip joints is very loose as it is and often problematic. To correct my ankles I had to get more weight onto the inside of my foot. I focused on my big toes. I did it when practicing Tai Chi, and also when walking, and at first it really hurt, and gradually it’s got easier.

This in turn has got me looking at my toes. I’ve never been a serious wearer of pointy, heeled shoes so my toes aren’t much distorted by that, but they do all roll towards the middle. Getting my weight in the right place has meant training my toes to spread out a bit more. I need to build toe strength! When learning new moves I have to figure out how I’m going to get my ankles to the right place, and this can be tricky with bigger steps, but I’m getting there, and my teacher has been supportive and helpful.

I’ve learned a lot about my body in recent months. I’ve learned things that I wish I’d known when I was a child, struggling with sports lessons. I wish my teachers had known. I wish my doctors had known when I started having fatigue issues. I spent so long with body pain being treated like an over-reaction, fatigue being treated like drama, the poor co-ordination that goes with hypermobility being treated like a personal failing or lack of effort. It’s hard to ask for help when you’ve been convinced that your body is fine and your mind is the problem. I’m getting there now, and it’s changed how I feel about myself and what I do with my body.

I’d internalised so much of that sense of my body issues just meaning that I am a crap person in some way. Having a clear sense of the mechanics has been empowering, and allows me to feel better about myself. I get tired more than the average person because everything takes me more effort. I hurt more because I take more damage. It was never all in my head. And now that I’m dealing with it as a thing happening in my body, I might even be able to improve the situation for myself.


Throwing girls to monsters

In European myths, folklore and fairytales, girls are given to monsters in order to appease them. They are offered as sacrifices. The girls themselves must be young – they are not adult women. They must be beautiful, and virginal. The monster will kill them and be satisfied and leave everyone else alone. I don’t know what, if anything happens in other traditions around this so if you have insights, do please share.

If the monster is assumed to be real (for the purposes of the story at least) then we have to ask why it wants a small, virgin girl to eat, and not a steady supply of cows. In terms of monster racketeering, you’d think ‘keep me in cows or I burn the village’ would make more sense. One small girl is hardly a decent meal for a dragon or sea monster. I refuse to believe it’s for the sex – small human virgin versus large monster… just no. Perhaps it’s for the pain this will cause the humans – going with Poe’s theory that there’s nothing more tragic than the death of a beautiful young woman. Except that groups of people sacrificing to monsters always seem a bit eager, for my liking.

Sometimes there is a sense that the girl might be being punished for being too beautiful. When the monster is human – and I’m thinking specifically of the Arabian Nights stories – the beauty of the girls being sacrificed is very much part of the issue. I wonder if this is the story that unlocks all the others. Each night, the human monster takes a virgin girl to his bed and in the morning has her beheaded. His lust is insatiable. His desire to kill girls is insatiable. Because he is at the top of the hierarchy, he is allowed to do this.

It is not dragons and sea monsters who crave young women to despoil, it is men with entitlement issues. It is also men who are fussed about human beauty standards. I think our stories of sacrificial virgins may be metaphorical ways of talking about how power imbalances corrupt relationships. When fear of those who hold power over you means you hand over your daughters to them, relationships are destroyed. It might be easier to talk about dragons, than to talk about comfort women, and what happens during wars, and what dictators do when they have the power to do what they like. It might be easier and safer to talk about a dragon than to talk about a president who feels confident describing in public how he sexually assaults women.


How not to be a victim

So much advice about safety and avoiding crime is about how not to be a victim. We teach girls how to avoid sexual assault while investing little or no time teaching boys that is their responsibility not to assault girls. Victim blaming, and misplacing the responsibility has massive consequences.

Part of what we teach when we teach people to stay safe, is that it is the victim’s behaviour that causes or attracts the crime. If I was assaulted when walking across town alone at night, it would be understood that I had been assaulted because I was walking across town alone at night. We tell each other that it is just common sense to take safety precautions without examining what the safety stories actually do.

If your clothes, or where you happen to be make you a target, then we’re telling each other that the criminals can’t help themselves. They have no defence against a woman in a short skirt, or a person who is alone and looks worth mugging. We apply this more to the victim of sexual assault than we do to the mugging victim. We tell a story that says crime is responsive. It can’t resist your open window, your unlocked car, your low cut top. If you can’t expect people to avoid temptation, you tell a story that we’re all basically awful and that perhaps any of us would do the wrong thing given the chance. That’s affirming to those who are inclined to harm others.

This is an especially pernicious idea when it comes to sexual assault. We are too quick to ask what a person could have done to avoid being a victim. Every time we do this, we send out a message that we don’t really expect people to resist temptation. Every ‘stay safe’ message carries a subtext that the woman who isn’t staying safe is pretty much asking for it. Every time we ask what the victim was wearing, we give credence to the idea that clothes justify assault. We reinforce the idea that we cannot expect men to control themselves if they see a woman in a sexy outfit. We keep perpetuating the idea that anyone faced with an attractive woman in an appealing outfit might feel the urge to do something criminal to her. We normalise it.

Too often, we lose the key facts here. 100% of rapes are caused by rapists. All abuse is caused by abusers. Theft is a consequence of people stealing – not of what security measures you had in place. We don’t talk about the likelihood of your attacker being known to you – that you are more likely to be harmed by someone you trusted than by a stranger on the streets. All those safety measures we are encouraged to take don’t work if you’re dealing with someone you thought you could trust.

It’s hard to live fully if you have to organise your life to avoid becoming a victim. Many women are doing this. We need to be much clearer that the responsibility for crime does not lie with the victim, but the perpetrator. Here in the UK, we really need the police to stop telling people what to do to stay safe (invariably aimed at women) and to start being a lot clearer about the legal responsibilities of perpetrators and the things that you are not allowed to do to another human being, no matter what they were wearing at the time.

The best way to avoid being a victim, is not to have anyone feel entitled to attack you. Until we dismantle the things in our culture that create those feelings of entitlement to attack, no amount of doing things to try and stay safe can actually guarantee your safety.


Thin Privilege

I’ve always had issues with my body size, and have spent much of my life larger than I wanted to be. After pregnancy, I was a lot larger than I wanted to be and it took a long time to change that. I’ve had a lot of experience of fat shaming, and some experience of what happens when you don’t have thin privilege. I’m starting to get back into that more privileged thin space and want to talk about what that means.

The first and most obvious difference over the last few years has been the greater ease buying clothes. I can walk into a shop and expect to find clothes that I like and that will fit me. If I want loose clothes I can actually buy things a few sizes bigger and wear those. When this is normal to you, you don’t notice it, or the implications for people who don’t have that privilege.

The odds are that if I went to a doctor with any complaint at this point, I would not be diagnosed with being fat but might get the problem itself taken seriously. This means my chances of survival are improved. It also means I have a better chance of accessing mental health support. At a previous round of asking for mental health support (when larger) and admitting that I mostly just wanted to die, I was told to get more exercise.

I am much less likely now to find people around me feel entitled to comment on my food choices. I’m painfully uncomfortable about scrutiny whilst eating, so this is always an area of anxiety for me. One of the great ironies here is that I have never lost weight or even managed my weight through calorie control. Since I’ve been eating with a view to maintaining good energy levels and supporting my mental health, I’ve become healthier. The things casual commenters would likely judge are actually good choices for me. When you are carrying visible fat, so many people feel that they are qualified to speak as nutritionists without knowing a thing about your body or your circumstances.

The things that some people think, and state in relation to body fat, are nuts. Here’s a selection of things I’ve been told over the years…

That my heavy periods are caused by being fat. They aren’t – my weight has fluctuated, my periods have been constant.

That fat people can’t dehydrate – because no, I am not actually a camel, thank you.

That no one will ever love me or want me because I am fat – that’s not proved true in practice.

That I must be miserable because I look terrible. Well, no, it’s more the fat shaming that makes me miserable than my body shape.

That because I am fat, it is difficult to imagine that I might have any delicacy of feelings. Fat people cannot be delicate in other ways. Because obviously my emotions are also fat, and solid, and big. It’s funny how largness in one aspect of being is interpreted as being a whole-person issue.

I’ve also noticed that much of this shaming has had little relationship with how large I actually am – that carrying less fat has not reliably reduced the shaming in proportion. It is as though I am haunted by the ghost of the fat I have carried in the past. The lack of relationship between my size and the criticism I’ve been subjected to does flag up all too clearly that this isn’t about my body shape at all. It’s about a desire to hurt and humiliate. Unlike my arm length or the size of my feet (I’ve been criticised about those, too), my body mass can be interpreted as something I have total control over, which makes it the more effective target. It becomes a judgement of me as a person.

To be thin, is to not have your personality assumed from your body shape. That’s a privilege which underpins many other things, but is invisible to the person benefiting from it unless they’ve also experienced how their identity will be inferred from a larger body.


Giving it sixty percent

I’ve been going to a Tai Chi class for a few weeks now. One of the ideas my teacher reminds us of every lesson, is the principle of giving about sixty percent. Don’t go for the maximum you can do. Don’t push your body. Don’t over-extend or try too hard. Just relax, and do about two thirds of what you reckon your upper limit might be.

This is a very long way from conventional western thought around developing strength and fitness. We’re normally told to push, to feel the burn, go through the pain barrier. No pain no gain. My experience of life with a body is that if I hurt myself, I lose scope for movement and end up less active in the short term. Hurt yourself enough and you’ll be obliged to quit. Perhaps this is the inevitable price if you want to participate in sports at higher levels, but is it necessary for all of us? What if it isn’t?

I’m enjoying the process of giving it about two thirds of what I’ve got. I’m careful with my joints and muscles, and as someone with various pain issues, I’m enjoying feeling relaxed about doing what I can and not pushing into discomfort. A few weeks in and there are several things I can now do better than when I started, so even though I’m not pushing, I am clearly developing. My balance in some of the moves has improved. The flexibility in a shoulder I’ve had problems with, is improving too.

I’m also finding the sixty percent idea relevant for the rest of life. I tend to feel like I should be going at everything with everything I’ve got all of the time. I know it doesn’t work. A sixty percent approach would be kinder and more sustainable. As I learn to work kindly with my body, I may manage to work a little more kindly with my head, as well.

The no pain no gain mentality can make physical activity seem unavailable to those of us who really can’t afford any more pain. It can discourage people from action on the grounds of disability, age, physical delicacy, ease of being hurt. It can take us down a path towards injury that then limits what we can do. It is definitely possible to strengthen and develop your body without pushing it to, and beyond its limits. However, the idea that pain and gain go together, that growth is good and growth hurts are part of a bigger story our culture tells itself about how we have to push for success and how we should expect to struggle and suffer along the way.

Giving it sixty percent allows me to step back from all of that, rethink my natural limits, rethink other natural limits, and make radical changes.


Erased by two sexes

One of the standard ways of undermining any consideration of trans rights, is to focus on the idea that two fixed sexes are a biological reality. Anyone taking this stance because they are averse to trans people is not likely to be persuaded by any arguments relating to that. However, trans people are not the only people hurt and harmed by a focus on the idea of two sexes.

Intersex people exist. If the idea of ‘choosing’ your gender offends someone, then there is none of that argument to make here. Intersex people do not choose. When we focus on the idea of two sexes, we totally erase them. It is a hard enough situation to be in without also being told that you don’t exist.

The idea of two sexes is firmly rooted in white, western culture, and is not a world-wide ‘truth’. When we insist that there are only two sexes, we erase the cultures and experiences of many other people around the world. This is particularly an issue with indigenous peoples who have had to deal with colonialism trying to strip away their approaches to gender – along with the rest of their cultures – for some time. White erasure of non-white experience is something we really need to stop doing.

Many people don’t sit neatly in the boxes offered by the notion of two genders only. My experience suggests that people who do not respect trans folk also tend to have no qualms about harming non-binary people as well – again I think because there’s the sense that we choose. So, let’s focus on the people who cannot choose – the people whose bodies do not conform to gender norms. Women with male pattern baldness and women with beards are perhaps the most obvious examples. The more we tell people there are only two sexes, the more we exclude and disempower people whose bodies don’t fit with that. We erase their complexity and we deny their existence.

Traditionally, feminism has been all about championing equality. I don’t know what to do with the kind of ‘feminism’ that will happily erase people in this way simply to try and create a context that invalidates trans people. However, I think pointing out the erasure of intersex people and indigenous people is really important. Attacking trans people makes it easier to attack other people as well, and if your basis for not liking trans is that you think trans people are choosing, you should be able to spare a thought for people who clearly cannot choose and are being hurt by this ideology.


Evil Sexy Women

You’ve probably run into this story too. There are two women. One is gentle, romantic and chaste. The other is sexually active, demanding, predatory. The actively sexual woman dresses in an overtly sexual way and may push her attentions towards the hero of the tale. She may seduce him. She may use her sexuality to hold power over him. By the end of the story, she will probably be dead, and the hero will get it together with the nice girl.

Outside of erotic fiction, the odds of running into a story about a woman who is both sympathetic and sexual, are much reduced. There’s the tart with a heart option – Pretty Woman being the most obvious example. There’s Salma Hayek in Desperado, and I’m struggling now to think of anyone else. It is normal in stories however, to associate enthusiasm for sex with being evil, and I can think of many examples of that. If a female character is at risk of being turned to the dark side, then as in Legend, or Mirror Mask, she’ll get a much sexier wardrobe.

The idea that a sexually potent woman has an unpleasant kind of power over men is with us in all kinds of ways, and not just in fiction. The idea that empowered female sexuality is inevitably disempowering for, and dangerous to men.

Looking back, I can see how much this kind of story got into my head and formed my sense of who I was supposed to be. It wasn’t until I got into the world of erotic fiction in my twenties that I had regular exposure to stories about women who are sexy and good. Stories about women who know what they want and aren’t afraid to go after it, and are still good people. Stories about women with intense sexual appetites, who are also good people. The years I spent reading, and editing other people’s tales in which female sexuality was de-coupled from ideas about being a good or bad person, helped me enormously.

The idea that female sexuality is sinful to the point of being evil, is an idea that comes to us mostly through Christianity. Many of our Pagan stories have passed through the hands of Christian scribes, too, so it’s hard to know how much they have changed. I think about Blodeuwedd, made out of flowers and given to a man, turned into owls. I think about the innate promiscuity of flowers. I think about Aphrodite, and Ishtar and Mabh of the friendly thighs – there are better models for female sexuality out there.

I wonder also if I’d be more at ease with a female identity, and less drawn towards gender fluid stuff, if the evil sexy women who dominate our stories did not still have some space inside my head.


Real Christmas Elves

All of the gifts we give have been made by someone, or made by machines with people keeping an eye on them. Unless you buy directly from the creator, or from an outlet that cares about individual creators, you’ll know nothing about the elves who made your gifts.

Where do they live? What kind of standard of living do they have? Were they happy, while they were making that gift? We can’t tell, but at that same time, I think we all know the likely answers here are not happy ones.

It’s a whole other story with the elves we imagine making Santa’s gifts. Smiling, happy elves, willing to do the work. But at the same time we never see any rewards for those elves. We don’t tend to tell stories that give them rich personal lives.

So much of the ‘joy’ in this season depends on having money and resources. It’s fine and dandy if you can be the person who buys gifts, and a whole other story if you’re an invisible elf tucked away in some factory grinding this stuff out.

Happy elves tend to be working for themselves and making something they are invested in. Even then, most creative people don’t earn much for their labours. A few extra purchases here and there can make a world of difference, whereas spending your money with a big retailer just puts a bit more in the accounts of their shareholders.

When you buy gifts for others, you are, for a little while, in the Father Christmas role. It’s up to you what kind of real life elves you have.