Category Archives: Paganism

Why I’m not doing Sashiko

Following on from my previous post about boro –  https://druidlife.wordpress.com/2020/06/26/craft-culture-and-boro/

Sashiko is a Japanese embroidery tradition, and it is gorgeous and well worth looking up. As far as I can make out, the whole thing is based on a fairly simple running stitch so it’s quite accessible and easy to learn the basics. It does however use specific kit, a needle and  a totally different kind of thimble from the ones I am used to.  These are easy to find, but I have concerns about how my easily-hurt hands would respond, so that’s one reason I’ve not dug in. The other is that I’m doing non-traditional sewing inspired by boro and using fabric far heavier than you’re supposed to use for sashiko, so, it’s not going to work for me.

When I first became interested in these traditions, I found a lot of western people writing about them. I had to dig a bit to find Japanese sources.  Appropriation is something I’ve thought a lot about from a Pagan perspective and it is just as relevant for craft as for Craft. I’m greatly in favour of learning from other cultures, practices and traditions, but how you do that clearly matters.

One of the things I learned from my adventures with sashiko is this – if you learn the surface of a thing you may get a bunch of rules that teach you how to make something that looks like something. If you dig in to learn about the history, use, purpose and context of a thing you can end up with a totally different approach.

So, while I’m not following the available rules about exactly how to do this kind of sewing, I’m trying to understand how the embroidery relates to the cloth, what it is for, what it does, and where that knowledge leads.  As a consequence I’ve learned a lot of things that I can take back to my own crafting. I also think this stands really well as a metaphor for what we might do with other people’s spiritual traditions. It’s worth thinking about how much time a person invests and where they learn from before they feel entitled to present as an expert  on a culture they are not part of.

I’m happy to talk about what I’ve learned, and what my journey has been, but I don’t think it would be even slightly appropriate at this point for me to claim I am making boro, doing sashiko or able to tell anyone else how to do those things.

But if you’re curious, here is a man whose family work with these traditions, and who has a great deal of insight to share… https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCraGC2n7qN31FlQSvXYI0JA

 


Perceiving Time

There are some interesting relationships between how our minds and memories work, and how we experience time. This seems especially pertinent at the moment. I hear from many people that lockdown is causing them to experience days really dragging by in a slow way, and yet somehow this year seems to have gone very quickly.

It’s to do with how we store memories. Our brains only store specific memories of stand-out things – this is why you are more likely to remember the first time you did something than the eleventh time. Once something becomes a generic experience, you won’t remember it as precisely. If you have routines, you’ll remember the generic routine, and only remember specific instances that stood out from it.

Time moves differently for us when we’re paying attention to it. A day with novelty in it, with different activities and experiences – some of which are not overly familiar – is a day that moves quickly and at the same time seems to last longer.

Life in lockdown has proved narrow for many people, and so time drags, but at the same time there are no stand out memories formed through recent months.

It would be fair to say that I’ve not had this experience personally – a great deal has happened for me, and I’ve had enough stand out experiences that March seems rather a long time ago.

What we do impacts dramatically on how we experience time, and that in turn can have a significant impact on quality of life and feelings of satisfaction. I find it interesting that we are encouraged from so many sources to have routines – especially around our spiritual lives.  A daily practice that is too routine will just tend to become a generic memory. A more varied approach may very well leave a person with a richer and more interesting sense of their own spiritual life and self.


Celtic Hospitality

We know that our Pagan ancestors considered hospitality a virtue. You don’t have to go that far back into human history for hotels, inns and other such accommodation not to exist. If you were on the road, you were dependant on the hospitality of strangers, so a lot of older cultures have all kinds of rules about the obligations between host and guest.

For most modern folk, taking in the stranger who knocks at your door is unthinkable. We see the potential danger, and that’s about it. That there are bed and breakfasts, hotels and so forth reduces the need for it in the first place.

I’m fortunate in that it is something I have been able to do repeatedly both as a guest and as a host. When you’re a not-especially-famous person doing events, accommodation is an issue. I used to run a folk club and book guests, and would often give that guest a bed for the night. It was normal, for some years, to have people I’d never met before turn up on the doorstep. I’ve also put up wandering Pagans in the same way – notably Pete Jennings and Brendan Myers.

Going to evens I’ve been accommodated by people I had never met before. It makes a huge difference if you aren’t being paid much, or the event is too small to afford accommodation. A free bed for the night makes it possible to come out ahead on small scale work, and that’s a huge blessing for people like me.

I’ve met some wonderful people this way, and had some fantastic experiences. I’ve never had a bad experience doing it. I think it helps that most of the time, my experiences of hospitality have been held by a wider community and culture.  When you are part of the same community, reputation matters and people tend to act in ways that will maintain theirs. If you mess up with this sort of thing, in a small community, people will hear about it. Equally, if you’re a good host you get a reputation as a safe house and people come back, or seek you out when they are in the area.

I think we’re better people when life requires us to cooperate and trust each other. We’re better people when other people can see and judge us, often. And life is more interesting with these sorts of opportunities.


Dismembered

I dreamed I was a hedgehog. In the dream, I was being cut open, although I was still alive and aware. My innards were being removed, and my body cavity washed clean. Then I was rolled in clay and put in a warm place. This is the traditional way of cooking a hedgehog although I think normally the hedgehog would be more dead and less complicit. It wasn’t a painful dream, it just felt odd.

I don’t have the kind of identification with a single creature that features in many people’s Druid paths. There are creatures I feel strongly about and whose appearance deeply affects me – owls, otters, nuthatches, egrets, curlews, and of course, hedgehogs. An encounter with any living being is powerful for me; I love the foxes, the badgers, the deer, the rodents in the undergrowth… But I do not belong to any specific kind of creature nor has anything been present in my life as a specific guide or mentor.

There is an emotional truth about the hedgehog though. I have mostly been prickly on the outside and inclined to roll into a ball when I feel threatened. I tuck away the soft underbelly, I do not let most people near where I am vulnerable. It’s more of an emotional metaphor than a spiritual consideration.

In some traditions, dismemberment is part of a spiritual process and to experience it in vision or trance or as part of a journey is highly significant. I didn’t seek this out. But as a dream it is clearly significant. A necessary invitation to let go of my hedgehog self a bit. While the imagery sounds violent, I didn’t really experience it that way.

I’m going to take this as an opportunity to flag up with importance of not giving unsolicited dream advice. So much x=y thinking around dream interpretation depends on the idea that dreamer and interpreter share a common dreaming language. That’s a really unlikely thing given how many influences we are all exposed to. It’s also far too easy to assert the truth of your path in face of someone else’s experience. The hedgehog is a metaphor for me, not an active spiritual participant in my life. It was a dream that echoed the kind of thing that happens on other people’s paths, but it makes no sense to me on those terms because of my hedgehog relationship to this point. It was (I know) an invitation to let go of something, not to take more hedgehog in.


Re-reading The Owl Service

The Owl Service, by Alan Garner, was a really important book for me as a child, and my entry point into Welsh mythology. More than that, it was resonant, and I felt a kinship with the woman made of flowers and turned into an owl. That kinship would define much of my teenage Paganism. It summed up for me the way I found my own nature contradictory. I still do. I’m still working on understanding what it means to be owl and flowers.

This is a book I’ve read repeatedly over my life, but I re-visited it this time as part of my re-enchantment quest. I was surprised by what I found. I had never appreciated before how much female rage there is in this book.

There’s Alison, a young woman central to the plot, who also own the house central to the plot but is never allowed her own voice and opinions. She’s talked over, spoken fork, bossed around, her anger is always there beneath the surface, but there’s never room for it to come out as more than snapping. Her mother never appears in a scene with other characters, but her anger is a constant presence – the fear of not upsetting her. Because her anger is only allowed out as distress most of the time. There’s Nancy – domestic servant, profoundly wronged and the only woman who is able to express her rage, or at least some of it, but nowhere near as much as she wants to. And behind all of them is the mythic figure of Blodeuwedd, wronged, and wronged again, and then wronged some more.

In all the years I have spent thinking about Blodeuwedd and her story, I’ve never really thought about her anger before – just as I’ve not thought enough about mine. How much anger this story should bring up. She is made of flowers and given to a man – which is ghastly enough, and then when she wants control of her body and sexuality, the only way she can do that is by getting the man who owns her killed. And while he comes back to life and her lover is slain, she is punished with transformation into an owl. At no point, in the usual version, does she get to say who she is. And in Garner’s novel, she doesn’t speak at all – which is a powerful way of expressing this.

I’ve always felt there must have been another story that pre-dates this one. A story about Blodewedd, who is owls and flowers and that the story we have is the story of men and feudal thinking taming that myth and getting the dangerous woman under their control. It’s a story I’ve wondered about, and wanted to know and tell. Perhaps it will come to me.


Embracing the negativity

It’s a common thing in supposedly spiritual spaces – advice about how to free yourself from negativity, and how to avoid being affected by the negativity of others. It’s one of those things that at first glance looks like wisdom. Negativity doesn’t sound very spiritual, transcending it does. But let’s break that down a bit.

Who and what is negative?

People who are critical – and sometimes that is worth avoiding, but these can also be people who are trying to help and avoiding negativity because you don’t want to hear you’ve messed up, is not a path to growth, wellbeing or enlightenment.

People who are sad. People who are in pain and grief and depression, who have been wounded by life, who have no hope or confidence or the means to help themselves. These are people who often need help, warmth, companionship and compassion. Vibrating ourselves off to some higher frequency where we do not participate in that pain, is horrible. There’s no spiritual good to be found in protecting ourselves in this way, it is a selfish, privilege  rejection of the suffering in the world. None of us can fix everything, but we can be open, we can bring love and care, patience and gentleness where we can. A spiritual path that has no time for the distress of others, is a route to being inhuman, unkind and self absorbed.

People who are angry. Anger is a hard emotion to deal with, in ourselves and in others. Anger directed towards the self can feel threatening. But if we aren’t prepared to look at why that’s happening, we can’t learn, or improve. If people are angry and we make no effort to understand them, we may miss out important life lessons. If someone is maliciously angry all the time, seeking those higher vibrations to avoid negativity won’t really help, it may even serve to keep us trapped in dangerous situations.

People who don’t care. I admit this is the one I find hardest. It is perhaps the most subtle form of negativity. The people who don’t care, don’t respond, do nothing – they can quietly suck the life out of just about anything. It’s something I want to avoid, because I find it exhausting. But at the same time, these are people who maybe need lifting out of themselves inspiring, cheering and encouraging. It’s good to be able to show up for that at least some of the time.

When positivity is relentless it becomes toxic. It isn’t a force for spiritual good beyond a certain point. We are meant to feel more than just happy all the time, and the rejection of great swathes of what it means to be human does not make us better people. If you are somehow happy all the time, to be closed to those who are unhappy is not a spiritual outcome. It means being less compassionate. Love is a messy, complicated thing, spiritual love included and if we do not deploy our spiritual love to embrace those who are manifesting negativity, then what even is the point?


Apparently I have skin

It came as a bit of a surprise. There were a few hours, recently, in which I could feel my own skin. There is was, being the edges of me, being real and present, delicate and sensitive. It was a kind of feeling alive that startled me. I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced my own skin in that way before.

I find embodied Paganism difficult because I’m not really embodied. I spent some years assuming this was just me doing it wrong. I should try harder. Get out of my head. Do more physical stuff as part of my practice. But the truth is, I don’t have any consciousness of my own skin unless something is impacting on it. It’s not something I can change at will. I’m not even sure what going around with an entire functioning skin would feel like because so far it has only been partial.

I poked about, found out about and looked up disassociation. Apparently this is a common trauma response that can last for hours or even, in more extreme cases, months. The internet has not told me what to do if you find it’s where you’ve been living for most of your life and you are curious about how to leave. Apparently I have skin. Or at least the potential for skin, sometimes.

I remember experiences around the age of fourteen, when I discovered, thanks to my first boyfriend, being able to feel my own body shape. It was a bit of a revelation, feeling grounded by someone else touching me. Experiencing my edges as edges for the first time and having a sense of my own physical presence. I look back at that now, and am wondering if that was normal, because I think it wasn’t.

I’ve never enjoyed being in this body, it has been something I struggle with, fight against, try not to be defined by. It’s never been a happy place, and I start to think there are reasons for this, and that the answer was not, New Age style, to love myself more. There’s something much deeper going on here, and working out how to have skin is going to be a process. I can see how a person could delight in their own body and their own embodied experience, based on that experience of having some skin. So, I shall stop beating myself up for being rubbish at embodied Paganism, and start trying to figure out how to inhabit myself differently, and what might help me achieve that.


The Temple I am Building

I have known for years that there is a temple I am called to dance in. It does not have a name. When I see it, it is a place of cool stone, quiet beauty, shafting sunlight, comforts and pleasures. I have been dancing there most of my adult life, but it isn’t something I’ve talked about much. I dance where I can, and when the music, the atmosphere and my dancing are just right, I also dance in the temple.

Of course it is a Goddess temple. But there has never been a named Goddess, or any sense of presence or interaction. I dance in the temple because it’s what I do, and there is a sense of sacredness and significance, but not of specific deity. I’m not very good at deity, or at belief. Aside from some distant experiences in my late teens, this just isn’t part of my life. But the temple has a kind of reality for me.

There is no physical temple I can dance in, and I do not have the resources to build a temple. There isn’t a suitable space I could hire. So the question of how to make the temple a bit more real, how to honour it and work with it, has been on my mind for years.

In recent weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about the kind of music I dance to and why. I realise that some of my sense of the temple comes out of the goth nightclubbing experiences of my youth. I started putting together a playlist of songs that gave me a sense of the temple dancing. Most of them are goth tunes from that time in my life, but I’ve found other things along the way and there are a fair few steampunk bands with songs that fit. It has a definite tone – passionate, sensual, deliciously, shamelessly a bit sleazy. Sexy and totally in control of that. Active, not passive. Playful, expressive.

I dance because I want to. I dance because this is my body and I am entitled to enjoy it. I dance to delight others, but I get to say who I dance for, and I get to say what happens around that and dancing most assuredly is not consent. I dance as an act of rebellion because this body is not the sort of body my wider culture considers sexy or appealing – which is true for most of us. I dance as an act of reclamation.

I have built a temple playlist. It may be the only temple I ever build, but for now, it will do.


Are we good?

One of the key underlying concepts in religion is the question of whether we are inherently good or not. There are of course various takes. Some religions or subsects of religions treat this world as inherently bad, with transcendence the only thing to aspire to. We have to overcome our sinful bodies and lives, chained to karma, or however else it’s framed, and transcend into pure spirit. We have to work at being good in order to do this.

Paganism tends not to judge us so harshly and is much more in favour of this world.

In Taoism I’ve run into the idea that humans are basically good, but that can be distorted. The aim is to get back to our natural state so that what we do is good without having it work hard at it. The person who is in tune with the Tao can just get on with things and it will all flow and work out. Effort can be the enemy of this process.

Whether we are innately good, or innately vile is a question that underpins our politics. Are we more interested in helping the needy, or stopping people abusing the system? Are we more afraid of corruption, or suffering?

It’s an interesting question to ask of yourself, as well. Do I think my nature is fundamentally good? Do I think the expression of my true nature would be the best that I could be? Do I feel tainted, fallen, sinful, loaded with karmic debt, and otherwise in need of redemption? And if I feel that way, why do I feel that way?

So often, taking pleasure in life is treated as sinful. How do we construct our ideas of good and evil in the first place? Why would joy be sinful? Why would pleasure be sinful? Why would relishing this one precious existence be some kind of moral failing? Who benefits from those ideas? What happens to us when we work very hard at denying ourselves the things our mammal bodies yearn for?

For me, being Pagan means a starting place that says we might be good. We’re probably ok. We may have the capacity for terrible things, but it’s not inevitable. There is no atonement required. We do not need saving. Wine and sex and laughter and dancing and all those things are good and to be relished, not feared. We may in fact do more good by seeking simple pleasures and joys that don’t diminish anyone or anything else, than by tying ourselves in knots trying to fight our fundamentally animal selves.


Scruffy for the love of the earth

Being scruffy is something we can all do for the good of the planet. It’s a low cost, low effort response to cutting carbon, cutting plastic use, cutting the impact of the fashion industry. I appreciate that in some jobs and contexts it’s simply too high a risk, and that the more affluent and comfortable you are the fewer implications there are in looking a bit ragged round the edges. If you are poor, people will judge you – but they will also judge you for not looking poor enough.

Scruffy clothes – anything a bit worn, or faded, marked from use or obviously repaired falls into this category. Wearing old clothes is something we can celebrate as an assertion of loving the Earth, and I think if we can re-enforce those choices for each other, there’s a lot of good to be found in it.

It’s also a way of pushing back against all that glossy new age rubbish full of improbable dresses in fields and things you’d never wear for a decent walk in a wood because it wouldn’t last five minutes. And for the guys, and the non-binary folk there’s very little visual content out there. That’s something else to push back against – if we are going to be spiritually glamorous, there should be room for everyone, not just young, thin, white, female-looking people.

I find that if I’m outside for a while, my hair becomes messy. I find that if I don’t wear makeup this impacts on how I look in photographs and videos alike. But, getting makeup without getting throwaway plastic is hard, and animal testing is back, and makeup is expensive, and I don’t think those chemicals do my skin much good… and maybe my face is ok without it. Your face is definitely ok as it is, I feel sure of that. I take no issue with people wearing makeup creatively and playfully and for fun, but if you feel like you need it… you’ve been had by adverts. (I have been had by adverts, but I’m pushing back).

A Pagan aesthetic that is scruffy for the love of the Earth is available to everyone. Body shape doesn’t matter, nor does age, or gender or our ability to conform to ‘beauty’ standards. If you live closer to the Earth, you won’t be able to keep your clothes perfect anyway. Crafting, gardening, walking, doing things from scratch – anything physical like this causes wear and tear. You can only have pristine new looking stuff if you don’t do much with your body while wearing it!

For too long, a ‘Pagan’ look has meant velvet cloaks. Impractical shoes. Flouncy shirts. What happens if we start dressing as though we’re going to walk everywhere? What happens if we walk everywhere and start to look like that? What if looking like you spend time outside is the most Pagan look you can cultivate? What if you make actual crafts part of your Craft?

Changing the surfaces of how we present isn’t superficial. It calls for a massive change in what we value and celebrate and treat as appealing. Show me your dirty Paganism. Show me the love that goes into keeping clothes out of landfill, and I will show you mine…

Here’s an old photo of me in the kind of clothing I can walk in and sit out in. Not especially attractive, but I wasn’t doing it for the camera…