Poem: The use of cauldrons

My cauldron will brew for a year and a day

Which is to say, forever.

No child slave labour,

No relentless using of the elderly

Never permitted to retire to ease.

Mine is not that sort of cauldron.

 

My children will eat from it,

The dark ones and the fair,

The nimble of mind, foot or finger,

And those slower in their ways.

All are beautiful to me and all shall be fed.

 

Some will say “must we have peas again?”

And “Mine’s got lumpy bits in it”

And “I don’t like it.”

They will eat the sweet and the sour,

The smooth, the chewy.

 

What comes from my cauldron is life.

None will have blinding flashes

Or burning heads

But I will feed them my potions,

Day by day.

Feed them with love, soil food, soul food.

Earth made, and nurturing.

I will answer what hunger I can.

 

This cauldron does not crack, or poison.

It offers everyday gifts.

Inspiration you can live with,

Ladled steaming into many bowls.


Glowbugs and the walking calendar

A walking calendar is something not quickly created. It’s been a significant part of my personal Druidry for some years now. What I’m doing is developing a calendar that allows me to make pilgrimages to encounter what for me are key seasonal things. It’s a long term commitment, as my glowbug experiences demonstrate.

For several years I’ve been seeing occasional glowbugs at any time from midsummer through to late July. One turned up at our summer solstice sit out last year. Also last year I made my first serious attempt at a small act of pilgrimage to spend time with them. However, I ran too early, and the group had lost the will to look for wildlife before it was dark enough.

This year, drawing on last year’s experiences I was able to time things better and we were out at twilight – it helped that we had a cloudier night so it was darker earlier. A great many glowbugs were located during a slow saunter. One of our party hadn’t seen one before. They are enchanting – incredibly small bright gem like things. You only really get to see the glow, not what it’s attached to.

Building a calendar, year on year as a deliberate act of communion with the rest of the world, is something I’ve found powerful. It means identifying local, seasonal events, working out where best to see them and making the time to take that journey.


Tips for Collaborating

I’ve done a lot of working with other people – I’ve co-written, been illustrated, written for comics and done a lot of music with people. Collaborations have the potential to result in something that is more than the sum of its parts, if you can get them to work. Here’s what I’ve learned…

Are you thinking about a single project, or a working relationship? Either is fine, but it helps to be clear about your intentions at the beginning. Your intentions may of course change as things develop. Stay clear about them.

Pick people whose work you love, and who love your work. Collaborating is about letting something new emerge. If you don’t love each other’s stuff and don’t respect each other as creators, it won’t work.

You have to make room for the other person’s creativity and accept that they will do things you never imagined. I find this really exciting, but it is also a loss of control. If you want to be in control you’ll end up with people who work for you and that’s not the same as collaborating.

Pay attention to how risk is shared out between collaborators. Does more of the cost (of money or time) fall on one person more than another? How can you balance that out to keep things equitable?

Know your own boundaries and respect other people’s. Especially with reference to the time and money you are able to invest in a project.

Be ready to really listen to your collaborators. Be open to negotiation. Don’t expect it to work by magic.

It may not work perfectly straight off. That’s not necessarily a problem. You may need to invest more time in figuring out how to work together to best effect.

If working with someone inspires and encourages you, that’s excellent. It could turn out to be tiring, demoralising and a grind. Some of this depends on finding the right people, but it also depends on being the sort of person who thrives on working with others. You may not be who you think you are, and some things you only find out by doing them. Mistakes are essential, room for mistakes even more so. Never get so attached to the idea of collaborating, or a specific collaboration that you can’t consider it properly.


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.

 


My inner child’s stripy friends

There’s nothing like a caterpillar to bring out my inner child. Perhaps it is because they go into the world so undefended, munching their way through everything. I was always hungry as a child, and having watched my son being perpetually on a quest for food, I think there might be reasons for children to identify with caterpillars.

At the moment, the stripy caterpillars are eating their way through the ragwort on the towpath. Black and yellow, they arrive tiny from their eggs and simply get on with eating and growing until they become quite large stripy caterpillars. Later, they will be cinnabar moths. What happens in between is both exciting and unsettling.

When a caterpillar pupates, the dormant butterfly or moth cells eat the caterpillar cells.

I find this really interesting, because the transformation into a butterfly is so often used as a metaphor for things human. Is our fear of death nothing more than the caterpillar’s silly fear of turning into a butterfly? Is the big scary thing we have to face just an opportunity to grow our wings, assume our adult form and fly free?

Knowing what happens, I can only hope my stripy friends have no idea what they’re doing. I hope they have no means of consciously experiencing the takeover of a new form. I wonder how this kind of thing ever evolved – not because I see it as a sign of ‘intelligent design’ but because I’d love to know the mechanics. You have to wonder about the kind of people who want to attribute deliberate planning of this sort of thing to their divine beings.


Eternal Student

Is there a point where we can rest on our laurels and feel that we know it all? Obviously not, because there’s far more to learn than any one person can know. Is there a point when we know enough that we can consider ourselves an authority and not study further? Then it gets interesting.

Of course the most obvious risk if you stop studying is that what you know becomes out of date. Other younger, sharper, hungrier creatures will outlearn you and pass you by. You’ll become irrelevant. The applications for this in any aspect of work are pretty obvious, but it’s easy to think that in spiritual matters, the person who has it figured out doesn’t need to keep on sitting in the student seats.

The person who knows it all, who is wise and enlightened and really spiritual, doesn’t need to keep studying. Or so it may seem. There’s a point of achievement imaginable that says now you are the authority, the guru, others should learn from you now. For me, that’s a bit of a warning sign. I don’t think any of us humans ever get to be so clever and wise that we have nothing more to learn. I do think there’s something distinctly off when people aren’t excited enough to want to learn.

To learn is to admit that you didn’t already know. Or that you weren’t the best you could be. It requires a healthy ego, able to aspire, rather than fragile and unable to admit there’s more to do. To my mind, being human means there’s always more scope. There’s something very healthy about taking off the authority, the teaching role, the status, and rocking up somewhere as a student. It’s releasing. It allows us all to be imperfect works in progress. Also, learning new stuff is great fun.

I read other authors to learn from them. I’m going to some writing workshops this summer because I know I’ll learn things by doing that. I’m doing a free online course in eco-linguistics. I like picking up new craft skills when I can. I like the challenge of learning a new job.

I also really like what happens when, within a community, people pass the ‘teacher’ hat round and take it in turns to hold temporary authority. I like it when everyone is able to sit down and listen to someone else’s teaching. I like how it reduces feelings of hierarchy, superiority and power over, and increases feelings of mutual respect and recognition.


What’s in it for me?

To be honest I blame my Church of England primary school. I spent my formative years being told to serve, to help others, to put others first and no one ever really talking about when it might be ok to put a hand up and say ‘I am the person who needs helping’ or when it might be ok to prioritise personal need. I internalised the lot. As a consequence I have a long history of giving more than is good for me.

The question ‘what’s in it for me?’ is one I need to be asking. Not least because there’s a significant percentage of people who just don’t value what’s freely given. I may be trying to do gift economy, but if I deal primarily with people who aren’t, then I end up giving, and giving, and giving more whilst being treated like something of lesser worth because I haven’t put a price tag on it. This is not clever. I’ve done it repeatedly, persuaded that my work is needed and it’s totally reasonable to have nothing come back to me.

I spent time in a space some years ago that had a mantra of service. Give, and give more. Give and don’t ask for anything in return. Don’t ask for recognition, or support, or status, don’t ask to be acknowledged or valued because that’s about ego. Give. Keep giving. I ended up exhausted, broken and useless.

What’s in it for me? It doesn’t have to be all about the money although it’s nice to be able to afford to live. I have to remind myself that I’m as entitled as anyone else to be paid for what I do. However, many of the things that need help have no budget. So, I’ve been working out what has to be in it for me if I’m not being paid for what I do.

I have to believe in the project. I have to see its innate worth and see why there’s no funding, and that it’s fair. If I’m inspired enough, that is enough to get me moving and keep me viable.

I have to feel that the work I do is useful and valuable. Not someone else’s hollow vanity project, not pointless effort for the sake of effort, not being set up to fail to do impossible things for someone else’s amusement (yes, I’ve done all of that and worse).

I need to feel valued and respected. If I am reduced to my utility and not allowed the space to be a person, it’s not good for me. If I am treated as worthless because I’m unpaid, it’s not a good space to be in.

Something should be flowing back to me. That might be opportunities, exposure (I know, it’s often what we die of) chance to do things around the work that will enable me to earn money (as with contributing to events). It might be that what I get out of it is companionship and the chance to do cool things with awesome people. It might be inherently good fun, or something I haven’t done before where the experience will be interesting, or will teach me something valuable. It might allow me to do something I want to do as a trade off.

I hold some responsibility for what’s in my history because I’ve been slow to recognise unfair setups. I’m not good at holding the idea that I deserve better. I have been easily persuaded that I’m so useless, so worthless that I should be glad people want to bother with me enough to exploit me. I’ve dealt with people who, rather than thanking me for the effort, told me I should be grateful for having been given the space. No more. There are better people out there, and better ways of getting things done.


Personal tectonic plates are moving

I learned a lot of things about myself this week. I notice that it takes me days to process emotions. I can’t respond fully in the moment. Tom suggests this is because I don’t let myself, and I don’t let myself because I don’t feel safe.

In the moment, control feels more important, a lot of the time. The priority is to stay calm, reasonable and not expressive so as not to cause anyone else trouble. I’ll need to get away by myself to howl, to rage, even to celebrate. It’s not a conscious choice, it’s what my body does.

I realise that this must make me weird to deal with. That I don’t manifest obvious emotional responses at the time, but may talk about them later could easily make me look like I’m faking. Immediacy is one of the things that makes emotions seem real to other people. But, with all due reference to the title of this blog post, what happens with me is like tectonic plate movement, and where and when the volcano or the earthquake happens doesn’t make a lot of sense unless you know about the plates.

Emotion is so easily used to invalidate people. Tone policing, ‘calm down dear’ responses, being told not to make a fuss… The person who expresses things emotionally can find that their emotions become the issue, not the thing that caused the emotions. Equally, my tendency to the delayed response and being able to talk about it calmly has led to suggestions that I’m an ice queen, that there is no genuine feeling going on and that I’m just trying to emotionally blackmail people.

The conclusion I’ve come to is that often there is no win with this kind of thing. If you’re dealing with someone who has no space for how you feel and finds it inconvenient, how you handle it won’t make any odds. Express, and you’re silly and over reacting. Don’t express, and you’re lying about how you feel. On the whole my conclusion is that I need to focus on better spaces and pay attention to when my body feels more able to be present to my emotional experiences.


Upon a Tzorkly Moon: Review

Upon a Tzorkly Moon explores the world of Winchette Dale, home of Matlock the Hare. I’ve enthused about those books in the past, you can find out more at (https://www.matlockthehare.com/). Upon a Tzorkly Moon is both a new thing and familiar, as it focuses on art associated with the Dales, and is written by the artist half of the team – Jacqui Lovesey. For fans of Matlock, it’s a must. If you’ve not encountered this work before, you could dive in here.

This is a book very much dominated by the art, and includes full colour images of illustrations from the novels. Previously we’ve only seen them printed in black and white. Jacqui’s colour use is warm and gorgeous, so it really adds another dimension getting to see the pieces as they were intended.

The book is a wander through the world of the magical dales, showing landscapes, and inhabitants. There are accompanying notes about what you’re seeing, and those are charming to read. It’s a warm, uplifting sort of book, easily nibbled in small quantities, so ideal for a person who is world weary, whose attention is shot or who is short of time and needs to be able to dip into something gentle and generous.

I was struck by a number of things as I sauntered rather slowly through this book over a period of days. Firstly, this is the reality I want to live in; richly animist, full of life and presence. Secondly, I really want to live in the kind of house that looks like Jacqui imagined it. Thirdly the world needs more lush and gently uplifiting creativity in it, critically that which does not patronise, sugar coat or dumb down. Fourthly, I really, really want to make a book this lovely.

So, thanks to Matlock the Hare I am pid-padding into the world of interior colour printing, asking questions about book design, making outrageous demands of my artist/husband Tom Brown, and plotting how to do something along these lines. The story is written, and if it’s half as cheering as Upon a Tzorkly Moon I shall consider it a job sufficiently done.

In the meantime, seek out this book! https://www.matlockthehare.com/project-02

And here’s a guest blog Phil Lovesey did for me a while back – https://druidlife.wordpress.com/2014/05/20/matlock-the-hare/

 


Art and entertainment

What makes good art? For anyone working creatively, it is a question you have to keep coming back to. The creative industries pressure us to make good product and to give people what they want. Not so long back I was at an event where Jonny Fluffypunk said that if you give people what they want, it’s entertainment. If you give people what they didn’t know they wanted, that’s art.  This really resonated with me.

I come back repeatedly to Ursula Le Guinn’s comment that good art is entertaining. Yes, I want to surprise, challenge and stretch people. I don’t always want to make everyone feel totally comfortable. But at the same time I want to add something good to their lives. I want to cheer people, enrich them, give them something they feel was worth having. I want to give people what they didn’t know they needed.

I feel this keenly as an author, and as an audience member. I am not comforted by seeing familiar things. I don’t want to replay formulaic products, or revisit endlessly the variations on a theme of stuff I once liked. I want to be surprised, stretched and challenged. I am willing to not always be comfortable, if it’s going somewhere.

I’m not cool with shock for the sake of it. I don’t want to distress, demoralise, desensitise a reader. I want to make big, difficult challenging things more palatable. And I want it to be accessible. I want to use a language plenty of people can keep up with, and put things out there in ways that don’t lock you out if you don’t have a degree, or aren’t glued to a thesaurus. Being too clever, too keen to show off all the big words all the time doesn’t make for a good reading experience.

I studied literature back in the day, and I learned some things that have stayed with me. Shakespeare was a crowd pleaser. Dickens wrote newspaper serials. The people we think of as the literary great and the good were not trying to make high art. The way language has changed makes them obscure to us and a harder read, that’s all. At the time, they were writing for people. Drawing lines between high brow high Art and Literature and popular stuff seems to be a modern thing. Beethoven was just trying to get bums on seats.

For me, if it’s being made for the special elite few who have been trained highly enough to properly understand it… I’m happy not to bother. I’m interested in books and arts that are made for people. Not to give people what some condescending industry oik reckons the lowest common denominator wants. Not trying to make everything be bland enough to be tolerable to everyone. But on the whole, making things for people as best I can.