Category Archives: Observations

Contaminated headspace

How many things need thinking about in a day? Meals and family time tables, the laundry, social commitments, other people’s needs and timetables… It’s an issue I first became aware of a while ago through a feminist blog. Like emotional labour, this kind of holding all the things in your head is work that falls disproportionately to women. I raised it at the time with the chaps of my household, and we changed some things.

However, headspace contamination is also a work issue for me. It means trying to plot social media strategies in my time off. It is writing blog posts in my head when I wake up in the morning, and things of that ilk. Sorting out the way in which my own poor boundaries leave me with an over busy head has been an issue. The over busy head does not rest well, stresses a lot, and doesn’t have space for wonder or imagination all too often.

I replaced my never ending to-do list with a diary. I noticed (thank you other bloggers who helped me see this) that a to-do list easily becomes a thing to beat yourself up with. With a diary, I have to think carefully about what I’m going to do when, and it is easier to budget in time for non-workish things too. I don’t overload my days, and at the end of the day I’ve usually worked through the list, so it helps my morale. When I get an idea, rather than obsessing over it, I write it down for the day I’m going to tackle it. It’s very rare now that I try and write blog posts in my head.

I’ve put down work that doesn’t suit me. The things I do well, I seldom have to sweat over. I need small patches of time here and there to reflect, ponder and speculate about my work, but I don’t need to do it every day, mostly I can crack on. Jobs where the remit wasn’t clear enough or where I wasn’t a natural match at all have had me trying really hard to overcome that. I hate doing a job badly. It took me a long time to recognise that if all I do is bang my head against a thing, it is better to put that thing down and move on. There’s no shortage of things I could be doing, I need not do things that tie my brain in knots and leave me feeling low and exhausted.

Clear communication is a good antidote to contaminated headspace as well. No second guessing, no dances of imply and infer, just straight, clear, expression and open negotiation. Increasingly, I’m not willing to invest in people who need to make every social exchange into a complicated set of manoeuvres. Intellectual hide and seek is not my idea of fun. Emotional snakes and ladders I can cheerfully miss. If I know where I am with people, I don’t get into wearying speculation.

Taking control of my headspace has been a process, but as I get better at it, more time and energy becomes available to me. It also becomes apparent as to who and what is a good use of my time, and what just sucks the life out of me to very little effect. Yes, I can use meditation in short bursts to quieten my mind, but it is a good deal more effective to tackle the busy issues at a life level, and save my meditation time for more creative and soul nurturing things.


My latest steampunk adventures

Last year at Asylum in Lincoln (biggest steampunk gathering in the UK) I spent quite a lot of time stood outside a venue being the signpost, because there wasn’t a sign, and one was needed. While I was doing that, another author at the event asked how on earth I’d ended up doing that. I said I’d offered. This year I’ll be co-running that venue, and Tom and I have had the honour of putting together a team of authors for the event as a whole. How did we end up doing that? Well, in no small part because we are the kinds of people who pile in and do what needs doing.

It’s not about the money, or the glory. Ok, it is a bit about the glory. We were keen to jump in because we want to change what happens around ‘literature’ at steampunk events. Tom and I will not be touring venues across the weekend as part of the author team, we’ll be looking after the Cathedral Centre/Steampunk embassy. If you’re in town, come and find us, it’s not a big building.

It would be fair to say that as things stand, ‘literature’ is not something most steampunks are that excited about, and with good reason. It’s not the sort of thing you can easily engage with when there’s loads going on. It doesn’t grab your attention like art or music, or clothes or devices or just about anything else at a steampunk event. If you aren’t already into an author, you may not be even slightly excited about hearing them read, and you don’t want to go to a talk about how they self published their first novel, and if you don’t write, the standard fayre of talks about how to write books may not appeal. And then there’s the room of gloom – I’ve seen these at too many events and not just steampunk ones. Tables full of books behind which mournful and obscure authors sit in puddles of grumpy entitlement wondering where all their adoring fans have got to.

Of course that’s not steampunk writing, or steampunk books as a whole, and even in the rooms of gloom there are always people worth meeting. This year, Asylum has taken a radical new approach to how it deals with authors. With that as our underpinning,  Tom and I have done a number of things to further change what happens. We’ve brought in more comics people – because unlike books, comics are easy to engage with quickly. We’ve brought in authors who are great performers, we’ve got all kinds of drawing workshops on the go, and the talks are full of ideas and interesting concepts. Around the authors we’ve lured an array of fascinating folk to come and do their thing at the cathedral centre, and I think it’s going to be a really interesting space.

We will be doing some Hopeless Maine stuff – we’re using it as a recruitment opportunity for The Hopeless Vendetta (if you feel a sudden urge to be recruited, comment below!) and we’re taking out a show called Songs from a Strange Island – a mix of material written for the Hopeless Maine project, (like the Hopeless shanty) and things that inspire us (gloomy and magical folk music for the greater part).

I know we’re not alone in wanting to see things change around books and book events. I’ve been having all the same conversations with the people running Stroud Book Festival as I’ve had with many people on the steampunk side. ‘Literature’ turns people off, and often what happens under that banner is dull and self-congratulatory. I want to see more spoken word content. I want to see authors stepping up to entertain and engage people. I want to be talking about books, comics, fat comics, ephemera, writing, and creativity. I want things people can join in with, not the literary on one side and the audience on the other.


Gnawing away at the roots

Trigger warnings – exploring the mechanics of abuse.

It’s all too common to imagine abuse in terms of obvious physical violence. In practice, when people are subjected to physical abuse it’s often late in a process that has already ground them down so badly that they don’t resist or complain and instead feel it’s what they deserved. The long term consequences of emotional and psychological abuse tend to be far more damaging than any physical abuse that is survived (but not everyone survives). Our criminal systems focus on bodily wounding.

Psychological and emotional abuse is not always deliberate. There is often no way to tell if it is meant to harm the recipient or not. People may be repeating their own family patterns and experiences, affected by their cultural background, religion, belief and so forth. They may think what they’re doing is fine, they may be projecting all kinds of crap onto their victim. This doesn’t lessen the effect, but it means if challenged they will be very clear that they aren’t doing anything wrong, and this makes them difficult to challenge. If you tell your significant other that they are hurting you and they respond by saying it is your problem not theirs, they are fine, it only serves to entrench the damage.

This kind of abuse is often a slow process of attrition and erosion. No single act will be enough to make you realise it isn’t ok. It’s just little nit picking criticism and complaints, it’s living without praise or kindness, it’s being told off and told you look lousy and that your cooking isn’t up to much. You make too much noise, you don’t smile enough, your taste in clothes, films, books, friends is piss poor… and slowly, day by day, more is shaved off your identity until you wake up one morning and you don’t know who you are any more, you just know you aren’t any good at anything and its all your fault.

You don’t know what happened. And maybe the person who did this to you tells you that they still love you, even though you look terrible and aren’t doing anything interesting. They still love you, even now you’re fat and boring. And you’re grateful to them. They’re heroes. No one else would want you in this mess and you are so desperately glad they are willing to put up with you that you’d do anything to try and make them happier. You wish you were a better person so that you could do more good things for them.

If you’ve grown up with this coming towards you from a parent, you may never notice that it isn’t normal or ok, and that your crushed self esteem and the anxiety that comes from it is not something that you deserve. If you take it from a spouse, you may keep taking it for years, all the while internalising your own alleged shortcomings. How do you tell that you’re ok when the key people in your life constantly undermine you?

There are no easy answers to this. It is very hard for a person in that situation to wake up and get out on their own.  However, most people who are being ground down in this way will defend the person crushing them if faced with a direct challenge (because you’re dissing the one person who can put up with them). A well meaning attempt to get someone out of this trap can instead push them further into it. The only thing I’ve seen work is to get in there and gently, persistently build someone up. Affirm them, praise them, encourage them, ignore whatever they do to deflect it. And keep doing it, for months, or years or as long as it takes for them to start questioning how rubbish they think they are.


How to and why not

Get perfect results every time! Fix your life in these ten easy steps! There’s nothing like a How To book for telling you stuff, but is it doing us any good? To poke this notion around I’m going to focus on the topic of cooking, but I think the implications are much wider.

I do a lot of cooking and baking from scratch, seldom following recipes. I often look at recipes for ideas and inspiration, and I might follow one closely the first time I do it if there are delicate bits, but mostly that’s not how I work. I like to learn theories and apply them as they suit me.

I have noticed that it is normal for books on cooking and baking to contain lots of obscure ingredients. Things I don’t keep on hand, can’t easily find. Their presence can persuade a person that cooking is not for them. Most instructional books are really dogmatic also. They often have introductions that say if you don’t follow this exactly, all bets are off. Having spent years swapping round ingredients, using more and less of almost anything if I haven’t got enough, or like it a lot… the results tend to be wholly edible.

What cookery books teach us is that food should come out the same every time. Like pre-packaged food. It’s not about personal creativity, innovation or using up what was left in the fridge, it’s about following instructions. It’s about imposing the dubious standards of industrialisation on our home life. Most of us will not create exactly the same results each time even when we’re trying, and may be persuaded that we’re better buying more mass produced stuff rather than enjoying our own cooking.

If you follow recipes, you can’t grab what’s on offer or in season, you have to buy ingredients for the recipe. That’s a lot of extra faff, and requires forward planning. If you can pick up what looks good and improvise with it, cooking is more fun, more efficient, and requires less thinking. Weary people are not easily persuaded to take long ingredients lists to supermarkets and so proper cooking becomes something you do on special occasions, and the rest of the time, it’s easier to buy sauces in jars, pre-prepared things and stick to what you know. This costs more, and results in a bland, impersonal diet.

Mass produced food is always the same. Our cookery books can encourage us to accept that this is the standard to aspire to. Not that mass produced food is a bit bland and obvious, but that our own cooking should emulate it. Never mind what’s in season, or out of season. No room is left for imagination, innovation or play. Just follow the instructions to get perfect results every time.

 


Being honest about sex

I know I’m not alone in finding that speaking openly and honestly about sex gets some weird and unhelpful responses. For me, this was most relevant during my time as an erotica author, and I’ve seen it happen for other erotica authors too. It happens for activists whose area of activism has a sexual aspect. It happens for people who are honest about being kinsters, fetishists and so forth.

What happens, simply, is that a significant number of people assume that because of the above, you are promiscuous. You will shag anything. You want to be sent photos of them, and their girlfriends, you want to hear what they have in mind to do with you. For a minority, your sexual honesty will lead to verbal abuse, based on their assumptions and accusing you of whatever it is they imagine you do. Sometimes it’s all about projection.

However, a lot of this hangs of some basic assumptions about human sexuality. The habit of dividing women into angels and whores, the prudish and the promiscuous is at least a few hundred years old. Apparently that idea can be rolled out to embrace anyone else who dares to be open. If you are pro-sex, if you are keen, if you make visible your enthusiasm, then you can only be an object for use. In truth, the most enthusiastically promiscuous of us have standards and boundaries. Wanting a lot of sex, even a lot of sex with a lot of people still doesn’t mean being up for anything with anyone. We all have boundaries, but ignoring those boundaries makes it much easier to use and abuse.

I find this odd, in terms of the logic. Quantity and quality are two very different issues. To be pro sex is generally to be looking for high quality sex, and for that you need people you can communicate with. Ideally people who know and understand you. Unless your kink is sex with strangers, then most kink is better served by established connections. Not necessarily a traditionally shaped romantic relationship, but something with duration. Random pick-ups are not (despite what books and films alike try to tell us) good for kinky sex.

One of the side effects of spending many years as an erotica author, was the number of unsolicited stories I heard about what people like to do, and want to do. Most people, I think, are far more sexual and far more sexually keen than they present in public. Nothing wrong with that – it’s a very private, personal thing after all, no one should feel obliged to wear their hearts, or their genitals on their sleeve. A percentage of humans are not sexual, but a larger percentage likes to shag, kinky or otherwise.

So, why this collective response to the people who are a bit more honest about it? Is it just a habit of thinking passed down from previous generations? Is it a matter of collective shame, a feeling that we should be ashamed of our sexual appetites, so anyone who isn’t must be… well, whatever you want them to be? Is it all about projection, of putting onto the person who is open all the things the person being weird about it would do if only they felt brave enough? Is it a lack of education that leads some people to feel that anyone honestly sexually active must be other things as well?

We have a lot of taboos around sex, and one of the most problematic ones has to do with communication. We don’t talk about it enough, and when we do, it’s seldom in useful ways. We’ll objectify each other’s bodies and project onto them, but we don’t hear each other. People who can speak honestly to each other about what they want and do not want are in a much better position when following through on that. People who can hear what other people want, people who can both give and withhold consent, and who can work with the consent or refusal of others have happier, healthier, safer lives. Shaming people who talk about sex by treating them as though they have no boundaries, is a way of silencing them. Silence creates misunderstandings, facilitates abusers,and reduces creativity and expression. We need to talk more.


Being forty

Oddly enough, I find on the morning of my fortieth birthday that I feel largely unchanged from the previous day. As a child I believed that there was some magic shift that turned a person into a proper adult. Some clinging residue of the belief stayed with me, I confess, but sixteen wasn’t it, and eighteen did not rewire my brain, and twenty one brought no revelations. At forty, I notice that no innate adulating capacity seems to have hatched within me. At this point I can afford to admit to myself that it never will, and that paperwork, bureaucracy, and tedious details are always going to be an arse.

When I started writing and talking about Druidry and Paganism – in my late twenties – I tended to be vague about my age for fear of not being taking seriously. It’s one of the good things about being a Druid, I think – the possibilities that age may deliver gravitas and wisdom rather than irrelevance. This may well be like the childhood thing of imagining that adulthood will just turn up. Perhaps I’ll be here at fifty admitting that the wisdom and gravitas thing was just as silly. In the meantime, it’s a nice thought!

In writing, much as in Druid work, age is more of an advantage than not. Very few authors make it under the age of forty, so I’ve everything still to play for. A few more grey hairs won’t set me back at all. Although to be fair, I don’t have that many grey hairs, I’m not dyeing my hair and don’t intend to and I still don’t have many lines in my face. I have no idea how this came to be and can only assume there’s a really good painting of me stashed in someone’s attic, taking all the damage… Yet at the same time I’ve been showing peri-menopausal symptoms for about a year now, so the call of the crone is very much on me.

I got in early with the whole midlife crisis thing, having spent the last few years revisiting many of the things that I was interested in as a teen, rebuilding a sense of self. I had a fantastic party on Saturday night to celebrate this large, round birthday number, and came to the conclusion that more of that – more dancing like a crazy thing in the company of lovely people, with fantastic live music and yummy beer is the form any further midlife crisis flashes should take. With, or without hot flushes.

Perhaps I have reached the magic age of not caring what anyone else thinks, not needing to be acceptable, not aspiring to meet other people’s standards. Many aspects of my life have been becoming clearer and simpler for me, and I like how that feels. I have some sense of where I want to be going and a lot of certainty about who I want as travelling companions. The rest I can no doubt make up as I go along.


Sex, Death and Blame

Trigger warnings – nothing graphic but the territory is unpleasant.

The idea that it might be appropriate to kill someone because of their sexual activities, or imagined sexual activities, has been with us for a long time. It may be one of humanity’s fundamental problems, that all too often we are happier to deal with violence and murder, than we are to let people get on with shagging people in the manner of their choosing. The control of female sexuality, and the eradicating of any LGBTQ expressions tend to be at the heart of this.

The need to respond to sex with death tends not to be a reaction to rapists, or child molesters (people talk about it, I grant you, but it tends to be all noise). So there’s no grounds here for suggesting that this sort of violence is born of moral outrage, there’s nothing logical or natural about it. Where adultery is more offensive than rape, where consenting adult sex is more offensive than child abuse, we’ve got something seriously wrong. This is not about disgust, clearly.

My theory is this. People who kill in response to other people’s sex lives, may be doing it as an act of control and keeping power over others. Another possible explanation is that some repressed urge is being projected outwards. How often do apparently homophobic politicians get caught with rent boys? It’s become a cliché. If we think about what other people do, and feel things that we can’t deal with, blaming the person who ‘caused’ that feeling is a way of not dealing with desire, or fear of the power of the other. People perhaps kill not to eradicate the other, but to try and eradicate the feelings in themselves that they are unable to own. And when you get down to it, that’s pretty fucking tragic.

For a long time now, many of us have been saying that a person’s body, their clothing, how they dance, how they walk – these are not invitations to sex. We need to get clearer that a person’s sex life is not an invitation to violence and death. It doesn’t matter how promiscuous and unfaithful a person is, there is no justification in this in killing them. Dump them if you need to, but that’s all the entitlement there is. It doesn’t matter who a person is shagging, who you think they shag, or what you think that means. It is not a motive. We have to do away with the idea that a ‘crime of passion’ is in any way a thing.

We have to name these hate crimes for what they are. It was painfully obvious around the Orlando shootings of 2016 that many people didn’t want to deal with this as a hate crime against gay men. So many people were so quick to talk about how mentally ill the killer was. If we don’t name these acts as what they are – acts of violence carried out by people who think that sex justifies death – there’s a kind of complicity. It’s a silence that enables. We’re going to have to keep saying this one: What people do consentingly with other people’s genitals is not a justification for violence at all ever under any circumstances. What people do unconsentingly to others with their genitals, or to the genitals of others is not justified, or acceptable, ever, at all, under any circumstances.


A brief selection of my stories about my body

On the one side there’s the issue of no pain no gain, and on the other is the Taoist notion of effortlessness – do without doing. For much of my life, my awkward body has meant that any kind of activity courted pain and I’m used to thinking in terms of having to push. Recently I’ve started questioning this.

The assumption that I needed to push through the pain has been with me for a long time, unquestioned. But, there are stories in my family about laziness and pushing, about not getting comfortable and not letting yourself off the hook. Or at least I’ve understood it that way.

How much pain for how much gain? And at what cost?

My fear is that if I don’t push myself hard all the time, I will be lazy and crap, and still fat. The relationship between fatness and assumed laziness has been an ongoing issue for me. The desire to prove that my body shape is not a consequence of lack of effort or lack of discipline on my part, has been with me since my teens.

Faced with the impression that there’s a crisis, my body stores fat. I am fantastically efficient in this regard. The impression of crisis can be created by missing meals, and otherwise reducing calorie intake. It can be created by sudden bouts of intense exercise, fuelled by shame and not sustained. Ironically it turns out that on a higher calorie diet, I am more likely to lose weight. No pain, no gain around the middle.

Do without doing suggests a state where how you are gets the job done. Getting more sleep has encouraged my body to think there isn’t some kind of emergency going on and to stop stocking up. There’s reason to think that stress caused by what happens when you’re fat can help keep you fat – again it’s about the feeling of emergency and what a body does with that. My physical survival method is clearly not to be able to run away easily, it is to be able to sit out the problem and have another go when things calm down. Doing without doing.

I’ve never really listened to my body. I’ve internalised the idea that expressing discomfort was just making a fuss, so when my body complains of pain or weariness, I have tended to over-ride that for as long as I can. Whatever gain there is seeming more important than the pain. Only in the last few years have I started listening to my body about what it might like to eat. Extra toast, and more protein have featured heavily. And yet I am not gaining flab. It’s almost as if my body knows what it needs to be a healthy size, and what it needs is not what I had been told it needs.

Trusting my body and going with it looks a lot like do without doing, to me. Not a big, sweaty push for change, but a softer acceptance of what actually works. Letting my soft animal body get on with things rather than trying to flog every last ounce of effort out of it. It’s possible that all the things I have done to try and overcome pain and fatness, have in fact been making the pain and fatness worse for me because it results in my body feeling threatened and under pressure all the time. But as a culture this is what we do to fat people, layering on the blame and shame and the pressure to force change and not asking why a specific body reacts as it does.

Fat, I am inclined to think, is really a symptom of other issues, and the key thing is to find out what the other issues are and deal with those. Comfort eating has emotional reasons driving it. Storing can be driven by all sorts of physical pressures. Body chemistry, malnutrition, stress… there are many reasons a person may store fat that have nothing to do with discipline and effort. Try to solve that by adding to the strain, and for some of us, there can be no winning.


The further adventures of the bouncing Druid

With anything there’s usually a honeymoon period when novelty and enthusiasm carry you through the tougher bits. I blogged at the start of March about being a bouncy Druid, having been at it a month. After three months of bouncing, here’s what I’ve learned.

On the good side – depression, anxiety, body pain down, energy levels up, concentration better. The swelling of the lymph glands is under control, I’ve a fitter heart and can walk up hills more easily.

On the downside – it isn’t a magic cure-all. While on the whole my energy levels are better, I still get the days when it feels like my bones have been coated with lead and reality is made of treacle. I still have to juggle my spoons. A long day at the computer or art board means having to bounce more, which means being really tired at the end of the day which can limit what’s viable in the evening. I’ve learned that I have to take rest days and I have to really pay attention to my body about those because if I get it wrong I’ll hurt a lot.

I’ve had to change my eating habits, and that’s been hard. A lifetime of being told that eating more would be a bad thing clashes with the reality that if I’m going to bounce, I need fats and carbs for energy and I need protein for muscle maintenance. If I am to be fitter and stronger, if I am to lose fat from my body, I have to eat more. It seems counter intuitive, emotionally it’s not easy for me, but the messages from my body on this score have been really clear.

Somewhere in the second month I became fit enough that bouncing alone wasn’t getting me much heart action. I started using my small hand weights (a kilo each) at the same time, which has helped with upper body strength. When that too stopped getting my heart moving enough (a couple of weeks ago) I added ankle weights to the mix (half a kilo each). I’m glad I started with the smallest, because those have been hard work, and I’m back to having to be alert to signs of pain and overdoing it.

Bouncing has taught me a lot about being in my body. It’s also helped me learn something about enjoying my body in motion. It is teaching me how to listen more carefully, how to think more constructively about food and activity in balance, and how to recognise when I need to rest. I’m seeing changes in my shape, I am a bit more toned than I was, and that cheers me, I’m able to do more than I could and that cheers me greatly. I’ve managed to keep going – I’m not great with routines so I’m pleased about the discipline side, too. It’s also required me to get out of my comfort zone musically – folk rock stopped being fast enough a while ago. I’m using dance music to power me, and as a consequence listening to an unfamiliar genre.

As I bounce, I gaze out of the window, think about my breathing and watch the wildlife – especially the nest of great tits. I find myself entering meditative states, and in longer sessions, more trance like states occur, it fulfils some of the role of ecstatic dancing.

I suspect the next lesson will be about recognising sufficiency. The point at which I don’t add more weights or extend my bouncing time, but accept that I’ve reached a ‘good enough’ zone. I haven’t yet decided what that will look like, but I’m wary of narratives of eternal progress, so at some point it will be a consideration.


Uncompetitive physical culture

At school, sports tend to mean competition. There’s no accident in this. A fair few activities have their roots in warrior skills – javelin is the most obvious, but all those combinations of running, riding and shooting are pretty suspicious too. Not that we did that at school! Games and tournaments are the traditional solution for keeping your army fit and keen when you haven’t got anyone to fight. Some sports – football being the most obvious here – come out of ritualised contests between villages. The strength, stamina, co-ordination and sometimes teamwork of sport all has military applications

Like many young people, I never got on with sport at school. The focus on competition was a big part of it. There have to be winners and losers, and when you are always, invariably the loser, there’s not a lot of incentive to keep investing effort. Only when out of school PE and able to explore swimming, walking and dancing on my own terms did I become interested in sweaty things I could do with my body.

I have no problem with the competitive stuff being there for people who want it. That’s no different from battles of the bands sessions, short story competitions, produce shows or bardic chairs… sometimes the people who are really good need the chance to test themselves against each other. But only in sport do young people find themselves obliged to do that testing week after week as they grow up. No one would give an English lesson a week over to slam poetry and rap battles.

Physical intelligence has far more going on in it that competition. There is more to building strength, stamina, fitness and skill than being better than someone else. What would happen to physical culture if we approached activity from the angle of health and capability rather than competition? How many young people would be spared from regular and pointless humiliation? How many would become interested in being fit and healthy rather than feeling alienated from physical culture?

But of course governments like team sports, because of the military applications. There’s a popular quote (of dubious origins) that The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. It’s that kind of thinking that puts competition ahead of health and embodiment.