Category Archives: Observations

A sense of self

This is me, onstage at Festival at the Edge this summer. The photo was taken by Allan Price, and I was there doing a Hopeless Maine set (more of that over here – https://hopelessvendetta.wordpress.com/2021/07/20/ominous-folk/ )

I love being on stage. There’s a bit of me missing when performance isn’t part of what I do. I freely admit to craving the applause. More than that, though, I want to surprise, delight, amuse and inspire. I’m happier in myself when I can get out there and entertain people.

During lockdown I’ve done a lot of soul searching. I’ve not felt like myself, and part of that has been about not having the sort of engagement with people that I can have in person. Being on a stage again, I’ve felt more like myself. 

It’s rare for me to have a photo that captures something of how I want to be seen, but this one does. I am clearly ridiculous, with my sparkly horns. I’m wearing the waistcoat I made and embroidered – an act of creativity I am deeply proud of. Eccentric, and unapologetic about that. I didn’t put this outfit together with the aim of looking non-binary, but in many ways it captures that side of myself too. I’m still trying to figure out what I need to look like to feel comfortable, and this is the first time I feel I’ve nailed it. Being fluid and shifty, I will clearly also need to look like other things.

Who we are is such a curious mix of things. What we seem like on the inside, what we deliberately present or hide, how people interpret that, how we feel about those responses, and what we do. So much of my sense of self depends on what I do, what I put into the world. In theory ‘be yourself’ sounds like it should be the easiest option. Trying to figure out what that would mean remains an important area of exploration for me. In this photo at least, I’ve seen someone I recognise and feel comfortable with, and that’s unusual for me.


Looking for experts

Anyone can go online and claim to be an expert. How do you tell who has an informed opinion and who is likely to be unreliable? As an expert in this field, I have made a list… 

Obviously I’m not an expert, but I have thought about this a lot. I read widely, which gives me a sense of how real experts present their information compared to fakes. Studying how language is used to get stuff done was intrinsic to my degree, and my marketing work, and remains vital for my writing.

So there’s my first example – I’m trying to give you some supporting evidence of my qualifications to talk on this subject. You can Google me and verify at least some of that. Also if you look me up you won’t find industry professionals saying things about how rubbish and unqualified I am. Yes, great thinkers are often misunderstood by their peers at the time, but being rubbished is not proof of being a great thinker, caution is advised!

An expert will tell you how they came by their information. They will provide links, or things you can easily look up. They will talk about data, percentages, and interpretations. They’ll quote source material so you could find it if you wanted to. There are no secret texts. There will be enough information that you could get in there and examine the basis of their argument to see if it holds up. A fake expert will make assertions about studies, data, evidence etc but won’t point you to it so you have no way of forming an opinion about their conclusions.

Experts are often cautious. They will say things like ‘the evidence suggests’ or ‘the probability is’. They’ll give you a percentage risk, or tell you how many people in a study responded in a certain way. There may be precise figures, but the interpretation will likely be more cautious, and they will tend to flag up flaws in the proceedings or reasons to be wary of the data. Science doesn’t tend to deliver 100% certainty – in fact it assumes that a 2% error margin is likely. Fake experts talk in certainties and proof. They make strong claims for what the evidence means, and they may not let you see the evidence. Their assertions will not be backed up by relevant and available data, because they are fake.

The more certain someone is, the less trustworthy they are. This is as true with Pagan and Spiritual folk as it is with conspiracy theorists. Your mileage may vary – so if a Pagan is talking about things that will definitely always work, definitely transform your life, and so forth, be cautious. The person who can acknowledge that complexity exists and outcomes can be probable but not certain, is wiser and more responsible than the person who thinks their thing is perfect for everyone.

The other thing to watch out for is your own bias. If someone is saying what you want to hear, you will automatically be more willing to believe them. We’re all vulnerable to that one, and it pays to be alert to it. We’re going to be persuaded by the things we wish to be persuaded by. Sometimes that’s harmless. Sometimes it puts us in considerable danger or makes us oblivious to toxic things we’re participating in. The hardest person to question is yourself, and your own motives.


Permission to be awkward

Like a lot of people, I grew up understanding the importance of being co-operative. Don’t make a fuss, don’t be difficult, don’t ask for what isn’t available. Like what you get. If I’m not paying attention, or feeling confident, I still default to whatever’s cheapest, whatever is most convenient for everyone else. It’s taken me a while as an adult to make the headspace to explore my own preferences. What do I want to wear? What do I prefer to eat? What don’t I like?

I’ve made some startling discoveries. I find loud food really stressful. I suspect I’ve always found it stressful, but I’ve never taken it seriously before. There are things I really don’t like having in my mouth because of how they sound. There are textures I don’t like. 

I don’t like bright light, the noise the strip lights make is stressful. I hate the hum of the desktop computer, I have a hard time sleeping if there’s any light source in the room. I’ve known for a while that there’s only so much noise and movement I can process before my brain has a bit of a meltdown. When I’m tired, I can’t figure out where the ground is by looking at it, which is awkward on non-flat surfaces. None of this is new.

I’ve given myself permission to be awkward. I’ve given myself permission to not like things, and to say no to things. To let go of things that don’t work for me. I’ve even given myself permission to say when I don’t like how a food sounds inside my mouth, or something else is bothering me. Having given myself that permission it is easier to pay attention to what’s happening to me, and to take some control of that. It’s taken me a while to figure out that I am allowed to do that, and no one minds.

There’s a class aspect in all of this. I think children from more affluent backgrounds tend to be allowed to be fussy, to have preferences, not like things, to want things. I think there was, and still is, more willingness to think that an affluent child may have a condition, need a diagnosis or special treatment or accommodations. When what there is, is what you can afford, a fussy child is a problem. A fussy child is going to have to get over it and eat what’s there because there isn’t anything else. You wear the hand-me-down clothes because that’s all there is, there’s no point having feelings or preferences about it. If you’re poor, you may not be allowed to be delicate, or sensitive. You may not be allowed to say no to things.

Being allowed to be awkward feels like a luxury, and looks like a privilege. I’m glad to have that now, and for the opportunities to be more comfortable that it will allow me.


Deep Work

This year I’ve radically changed how I work. Apparently there are terms for this! I’ve moved from a life dominated by shallow work, to one dominated by deep work and I’m slowly wrangling with the implications. 

Shallow work doesn’t take a vast amount of mental energy or creativity. I’ve spent many years cranking out social media content for money – which required concentration, but I can’t say was ever satisfying. It’s the kind of work that is never finished, there’s no closure on it, no markable points of achievement.

Deep work involves focus, commitment, and intensity. Over the last few months this has come to dominate my working time as I’m mostly writing and colouring. These are tasks that require a lot of concentration and attention. I’ve always had a good attention span, I can usually focus for an hour or more.

Shallow work was unsatisfying and I did get tired from it, and left feeling that I had no energy for anything more substantial. Even so, I could do far more of it in a day than I can of the deeper stuff. To be in a state of intense focus for three or four hours is about as much as I can do. I have to take more breaks. I have to be much more careful about feeding my brain with things that sustain it. I have to have more rest time. It is much more satisfying work, but it takes a toll.

There are balances to strike, clearly. I’m slowly finding out what I can sustain from day to day, and what I need to do to support myself if I’m working at high levels of intensity. I have to be more alert to body wellness, to food, to hydration, and the overall shape of my working week. I have to watch for my limits, because I can end up so tired that I can’t do anything at all, which means I can’t do anything restorative, which rapidly compromises my ability to show up for the deeper work.

I’ve worked all kinds of jobs along the way – often part time and alongside trying to work creatively. The marketing, social media work required a lot of attention and tracking information, but that’s a very different way of using my brain. When I’m pushing my thinking capacity to its limits in multiple ways in a day, that impacts on my whole life. I feel differently about myself. On the whole, it’s a better way to be, but I can’t model it on the norms of regular employment, office work, retail, front of house or any of the other kinds of stuff I’ve been doing. I can’t work long hours at high levels of intensity, it’s not sustainable. I’m having to rethink my life a bit to try and better accommodate these shifts.

I think my ideal life would involve a few hours of deep work each day, and a few hours of physical work – I have gardening fantasies. I think being able to ground myself in more practical things while my brain does what it does between bouts of more intense thinking, would suit me well. In the meantime, there are craft projects, and the ongoing quest for better balance.


The writing life

I thought it might be interesting to outline what I’m doing with my time at the moment…

I’ve got into a lovely routine where there’s often an hour between my getting up and my starting work. I use that time to think, drink coffee, sometimes I do some exercise. I approach the day slowly, rather than getting up and starting work, which used to be the way of it.

For the first hour or two, I write blogs – for this site and https://hopelessvendetta.wordpress.com/ I also do assorted social media work. Up until February of this year, much of my day job was running Twitter accounts, but I’ve cut right back on that to make more space for other things.

At the moment I’m switching gear in the morning and becoming a colourist for an hour or two – I’m mostly working on the next graphic novel in the Hopeless Maine series. I work in pencils on paper, my husband does all the drawing which is all very old fashioned, but I like how much more texture and character you get that way.

On Wednesday mornings I sort out my Patreon content for the week, although I may have created the content on the previous day. Currently on Patreon there’s usually a poem each month, a section from a novel serialisation, a seasonal song and a Druid book in progress. https://www.patreon.com/NimueB

On Mondays and Thursdays some of the afternoon goes to writing a Wherefore episode, these are recorded and shared on Tuesdays and Fridays. You can find series 3 here – https://youtube.com/playlist?list=PLd-6bmI3UuPDMpi5gY_L1KRrzTQDnQMhp It’s a sort of supernatural soap opera. Animism and comedy.

On Wednesday afternoons I’m working on a new Hopeless Maine project. At other times I’m also chipping away at world building for a new project and you can find that in the creative section of this blog.

Other, less regular things go into whatever spare time there is during the afternoons. That can mean magazine articles, reading review books, learning material, developing content for talks, doing things  to help and support friends – like reading early drafts of their novels…

It’s full on that the moment, I have to concentrate hard for extended periods. Happily, my natural concentration span is about an hour, and if I take breaks to move around, I can make that work.

This also represents quite a gentle pace compared to the kinds of workloads I’ve had at some points in the past. There was one autumn when I was working 7 different part time jobs…  At this point my life is a bit more coherent and not as difficult to organise as it has been. And still, I’m having to be deliberate at cutting myself slack for how long I can do some of these things for. I am uncomfortably aware that I expect to be able to work like a machine.  I know creative work isn’t simply about the ability to crank it out. I know I need rest time, thinking time, research time and inspiration to create well, but I still struggle with the way capitalism has colonized my head.


What do we inspire?

This question has been on my mind a lot in recent weeks, and I’ve had some interesting social media conversations around it as well. I have issues around not inspiring in people the things that I need and want.

A fellow Pagan with ongoing health issues talked about how difficult it is if you don’t inspire care in others. It took me a long time, several tattoos and a birth to decide that I don’t have a low pain threshold – as I’d always been told – and that I may be experiencing a lot of pain. That I’m able to do a lot can make it hard for people to see what I can’t do, or how much it might cost me. When people are convinced that you are robust and healthybut you aren’t, they may also be convinced that you’re making a fuss or being lazy. That doesn’t inspire care or kindness.

I was asked why I felt the onus was on me to inspire in the first place. I recognise that this is all tied up with feeling that I need to earn a place – that warmth and care for example, are not things I should assume would come my way, but that they have to be earned. I’m better than I was at not assuming all of my relationships will be about utility, because a number of people have gone to some deliberate effort to demonstrate otherwise. But still, it casts a long shadow. I expect to have to earn things and the flip side of this is that if I don’t get what I need in a situation, I tend to assume it’s my fault for not having been good enough in the first place.

There are always interesting questions to ask about where we assume power to be centred. People who feel that they have earned and are responsible for every good thing that comes their way can miss the roles of luck and privilege. People who feel responsible for the things that go wrong can miss the influence of bad luck and other people being unkind or unhelpful. It’s not easy territory in which to strike a healthy balance. We can divide along lines of people who think they are responsible for everything, and people who feel responsible for nothing. Some of us only own our good fortune and feel anything that goes wrong is not of our making. Others of us do the reverse, feeling to blame for any problem and setback, but grateful or lucky in face of anything going well.

What do we inspire? What should we expect from others? How much is a response to me a measure of who I am as a person? When I’m trying to think about this dispassionately, ideas like ‘deserve’ seem largely absurd. Who gets what they truly deserve? Probably no one. Does everyone deserve kindness, respect and a chance to explain when things go wrong? I think so, except I’m not good at applying it to me.

For much of my life, I’ve had an array of issues around what my face and body do or do not inspire in other people. I’ve been bullied a lot over how I look. I’ve had how I look used as a justification for doing all kinds of horrible things to me. The accident of my face and bone structure, the accident of a stomach that just doesn’t develop decent muscles no matter how I try. The accident of a body that stores calories when stressed… things I have little control over that have dominated a number of important relationships.

Perhaps it’s not about what’s intrinsic to me. Perhaps the bigger issue is the way people read meanings into bodies and then refuse to consider anything else. I don’t have a delicate bone structure. That’s not a measure of my overall health and wellbeing. My body shape has a lot to do with how my body is, and is not a measure of a lack of virtue. Perhaps there are other stories to tell where I don’t have to feel entirely responsible for how people react to me.


Taking a leap of faith

I was really ill over the winter – lots of pain, and stiffness, no energy, regular run ins with anxiety and deep depression. It was a hard time, and it made me take a serious look at my life. For some years now, the majority of my work hasn’t been creative. I’m not making most of my living as a professional Druid, either – these are not things that tend to pay anyone enough to live on. I’ve done all kinds of jobs – usually many small jobs all at the same time. In recent years I’ve been doing a lot of social media work.

I’m good at social media work and I genuinely like helping people. But, it is one of the most tedious things imaginable, and you can’t afford to be careless or complacent about it. Each twitter post is an exercise in tone, brand identity, PR… and when you’ve got multiple accounts, identities brands to keep track of, that takes a lot of thinking. And by December, I was very, very tired because of that.

I put down the work that required most effort for least personal gain. Those were hard choices. For self employed people, putting down a paying gig is always going to be uneasy at best. But, I was getting too ill to work, and that’s a bigger risk. I took time off, I rested a lot, and I thought about things.

Creative work is almost always uncertain. You mostly don’t know where the next gigs are coming from. Pay is erratic. Big projects that might pay better take time, energy and attention. So there’s a gamble in investing the time in doing a more substantial body of work that you think you can sell, because you might have to turn down other paying work to do it. Also, creative people are not machines. Ideas don’t flow without time to think, without space for inspiration. Creating and doing a day job and doing the things that support and sustain your creativity and dealing with household stuff and trying to be healthy and and and… The juggling is hard.

There may be some large, interesting and well paid creative jobs out there with my name on. I may be able to make the leap from exhausted and ill part time creative to being a person with decent creative jobs and a decent quality of life. So I took the leap of faith and I made the life changes that would give me a shot at those bigger and more exciting things. I started making the moves to get into the right position so that if any or all of this starts to move, I can go for it.

We’ve landed an American publisher for the Hopeless Maine graphic novels. That alone won’t change everything, but it certainly helps. There’s a kickstarter on the go at the moment, which may be of interest if you’re in America… https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/hopelessmaine/hopeless-maine-the-graphic-novel-by-tom-and-nimue-brown

It could be a very interesting year.


Learning to learn

At no point in my life did anyone teach me how to learn. How do you learn a dance routine, or a dance move? How do you learn a piece of music, or spellings for a test? I have some very early memories of being frustrated by not knowing how to do something and just being shown the same thing that hadn’t made sense to me in the first place. I have memories that go from there to my twenties of being expected to learn from having seen something once, or somehow just by magic.

Learning how to learn was something I had to figure out by myself. Without that, you’re limited by what you can do naturally and easily. You’re limited to what’s obvious to you.

Of course it’s tricky because everyone has different things they need to work on, different ways of working, and will learn in different ways. Some of us need theory first before we dive in. Some of us learn best by observing and copying. Some of us need step by step guidance on what to do. And it may well not be the same across all our areas of learning. I’m good at learning patterns of physical movement and I can learn that by watching and copying. I can’t learn a language that way, and I need a lot more technical input to work on my art or music skills.

This is a huge consideration for anyone who makes teaching work part of their Druidry. Students will be different from you. What they want to learn and what you most want to teach won’t always neatly align. How they learn can be varied indeed. How much of a student’s needs can your teaching style accommodate? What do you do when faced with someone who does not know how to learn?

A student who is frustrated and who seems to make no progress can be really annoying to deal with. Quick students who pick up what you say are rewarding to the ego of the teacher, and affirming of your teaching skills. But really it is what happens to the struggling and less overtly talented student that measures you as a teacher. Can you teach them in ways that actually enable them to learn? Can you engage and find out what sort of process they need to take them forwards, rather than hanging on dogmatically to methods and content that suits you?

I remember one Druid teacher presenting me with a meditation that I was to do. It made no emotional sense to me and was at odds with my notions of sacredness to the point of being distressing. No alternatives were offered. It was work I was told I had to do, and not doing it in the way described was, it was made clear to me, disrespectful to my teacher and to my teacher’s teacher. Looking back at that exercise many years later, having studied Druidry with OBOD and done some mentoring myself, I have no doubt that the exercise was the problem and it was totally inappropriate for me, and that this mattered.

There’s quite a challenge in figuring out what you, or anyone else needs to learn in the first place. It’s an important question to ask, and to keep asking. This is not an area of personal growth where it is fair or productive to assume that we all need the same things. What lessons do you need to learn? What tools do you need to be given? What skills do you need to develop? What kind of teaching will help you and what are the best ways for you to engage with your learning?

And to anyone who has struggled with learning, let me say it may not be your fault at all. Good teaching teaches what the student needs, not what the teacher wants to hand out. Good teaching helps you overcome barriers and go beyond whatever innate talent you have. Good teaching enables you to grow and develop on your own terms. If you’ve not had that kind of experience, it doesn’t mean you can’t learn the things, it probably means you need better resources.


Time out

Rather excitingly, I’m poised to have a week off. I didn’t manage to take a whole week off at any point in 2020 – one of the problems with the kind of work I do is that I have to do all the same work ahead of time to get a week off, which is arduous and I don’t always have the energy for it.

I’m in the process of changing how I work. My aim is to have my work life be less exhausting in the first place. I’m also looking at things I can do to reduce pain and improve sleep. I live in hope.

I’ve got the blog set up to post in my absence – thanks to contributions from guest bloggers it hasn’t been too difficult to keep up a content flow while also taking a break. If you’d like to guest blog with me, I’m always open to that sort of thing.

Time off is essential for mental health, for quality of life, for creativity and functionality. The UK government has been making some ominous noises about cutting worker’s rights now we are out of the EU. As someone who is self employed, I don’t really have those rights, but I am more than prepared to stick up for the people who do. The way I’ve been living is not optimal and I have no desire to see anyone else stuck in the same kind of relentless work grind.


Positivity and Self Harm

Some time ago I decided that maybe the problem is me. I’m too negative. I don’t practice gratitude enough. I invest too much energy in feeling sorry for myself. A better, more positive attitude would, surely, make me happier and nicer to be around?

So I scoured the internet for positivity memes, and I wrote them in my diary. Every time I felt the panic or despair coming on, I’d read them out loud. Everything happens for my highest good. My life is full of blessings. I am grateful for how good and rich my life is. That sort of thing, and other statements like it.

I did this for some days.

It did not result in me feeling happier, better, or more positive. It did however give me increasing feelings about the invalidity of my distress. I did not become more grateful. The final stage of this resulted in me crying, hysterical, howling things like ‘my life is so great and I feel so happy right now’ while pummelling my fists into my body. Which compared to the violence I wanted to perpetrate on myself at that point, was fairly mild. I had to be physically restrained, and it took me some considerable time to recover.

I can’t recommend it.

Trying to paste inauthentic ideas and feelings over the top of distress does not make the distress go away. It adds to the distress. If I hadn’t been in such an awful state to start with, I would likely have remembered that I think this kind of positivity is toxic. But I was desperate and in a great deal of pain, and I felt like the problem was me. This kind of ‘positive’ thinking perpetuates the idea that you, the individual, are the problem. Not your context, not your socio-economic status, not your health or the people around you, but you personally and how you ‘choose’ to think about things.

Not everything can be fixed by changing how you think about it. In some circumstances, trying to tell a more positive story might be a really dangerous thing to do. It certainly didn’t go well for me.