At the limits of language

Traditionally speaking, language is the bard’s tool. Even if we aren’t being deliberately bardic, language is a key part of how most humans get most things done. It’s also an incredibly limited tool to use in some ways, especially English which is a terrible language for anyone trying to talk about complex emotions. Just having the one word for love is extremely limiting for a start.

For some purposes, the kind of writing I’m doing in this post is the best way to get things done. I’m aiming for clarity and I’m talking about the kinds of concepts that are pretty easy to talk about. When it comes to spiritual experiences, it can be very hard to find words with enough power to express what’s happened.

I could, with regards to yesterday’s blog post, have written a more coherent description of what happened. But I don’t think I could have done that without sacrificing the impact. The intensity of the experience is at least as important as the events – and without conveying that, none of it makes sense. I can tell you that I’ve had an intense experience, but that probably won’t be enough to make you empathise much – unless something similar has happened to you.

Talking about magic and deity with people who have similar experiences is easier because you can assume they have some idea what you’re talking about. But even in that context, it isn’t easy. Trying to talk to anyone who doesn’t share your frames of reference can be hard.

Poetry doesn’t work for everyone. It requires that you think in a different way to dealing with prose.It’s a side step from everyday language and reality, and sometimes that can really help when trying to express the kinds of things that regular language just can’t handle.

A guided journey

I asked the universe for help.

Sometimes you are given

What you need.

Nothing is more terrifying

Or ecstatic.

Dreamwalking lucid

Through the night

To change shape, 

To become.

Awestruck, transforming

At every turn.

You walked me into memory

On paths that led relentless

To every place of my wounding.

And although I claimed readiness to heal,

Although I asked for this

I was not ready.

No one could be ready.

So many places to revisit

So much grief to face

Some I had forgotten although

I still carried the weight of them.

You crushed me down 

With wisdom, tenderness

Showed me

What past crushing had done

To this body, this troubled mind.

I found I could still breathe

The fear died, finally

And I lived.

(Some experiences are difficult to convey through prose.)

Frivolous boots

It’s rare that I buy new things. Partly that’s about making greener choices and trying to live lightly. Partly it’s the habit that has come from many years of having little disposable income. When I do buy things they tend to be practical and I make them last. The dress I’m wearing in this photo is probably 15 years old.

In the last ten years I have only owned sensible boots. The sort of boots I can use as transport. I’ve had work shoes, trainers and sandals as well, all of them sensible and the sort of thing I can walk a few miles in. However, work these days includes performance and I felt on that basis that maybe I could have some frivolous boots. Here they are.

I’m not a fan of fast fashion at all, and I generally resist the idea that buying things is how to be happy. With the obvious exception of books. I try to focus on what I need and on what’s practical. Much of my sillier clothing is stuff I’ve upcycled rather than anything I’ve purchased. 

And yet…

The desire for decoration, for play and frivolity has been a thing for people for about as long as we’ve been people. Prehistoric people were really into decoration. One of the reasons I didn’t have frivolous boots already is that I’m really not good at this stuff. I don’t reliably feel entitled to play or do things just for the joy of it. I don’t reliably feel worth decorating and I’ve had a fair few periods of mostly wanting to hide. But, I’m getting back into the face painting again, and I have preposterous boots, and there is a growing urge in me to do more things that are silly and expressive.

Passing your hat round

As a busker, I’ve stood in the street many times with a hat on the ground in front of me for people to throw coins into while I sing or play music. It’s not exactly begging, and it’s not exactly transactional work and it might be gift economy. People who like what I do throw in a few coins and hopefully we all have a better sort of day as a consequence.

Putting your hat out online is in some ways similar. Be it a virtual tip jar, a ko-fi account, or Patreon, or a funding site… if you’re a person who makes stuff and shares it, this can be a good way to go. The internet is full of free stuff, but making content has a cost – time, energy, electricity. 

For some of us, it’s a challenge because it feels too much like begging. There will be people who treat it as asking for something for nothing, with no regard for what kind of busking gig you have. Putting your hat out means asking people to take you seriously and to value what you do. That’s also a vulnerable place to be, because if people don’t respond in ways you find affirming, it can feel really exposed. Putting out the hat also acknowledges that you aren’t selling a million books every year, or whatever it is that you do, and that’s a vulnerable move, too. It can feel an awful lot like asking for help, and many of us aren’t good at that, either.

If you’re going to put your hat out for coins, you need to feel confident that you’re doing something people will value. Ideally you need to have done enough of whatever it is to have people feel invested in you, and to prove that you’re serious and can keep going. If you’re asking for ongoing support – as with the Patreon model – it’s really important that you can keep putting things into the world. People are unlikely to keep supporting you if they don’t feel satisfied by what they get out of that. Mutual respect is a really key part of this process.

If you’re considering tossing coins in someone’s hat, let me add that small donations are worth a lot. Most creators are financially marginal, and the price of a cup of coffee makes a difference. Even the creators you may believe should be doing well probably aren’t. The vast majority of creative people working professionally are just scraping by at best, working other jobs or depending on other sources of money. This is not a get-rich-quick scheme, it’s more a trying not to starve while making nice things scheme. 

Coins tossed in the hat aren’t just useful financial support. It’s also incredibly validating to be supported in doing whatever it is you do. It’s a very loud round of applause. For the same reasons, it’s a really good thing to leave likes, reviews, and other kinds of positive feedback. Most of the creative people I know are anxious folk half convinced that everything they do is terrible and unworthy. A few words from a fan can be life changing.

I have ko-fi and Patreon, and if you like what I do, your support is greatly appreciated.

Getting into hot water

For many people in the UK, this winter is going to raise enormous challenges and require difficult, miserable choices about priorities. There are no good answers here. There are no workarounds for not being able to afford to live, and it is appalling that anyone should be facing this, but here we are. 

Hot water is one of those things most of us take for granted. My grandmother had things to say about the arrival of hot running water in the home, but most of us alive now have grown up with it being normal. Heating water costs money.

Hot water is better for hygiene than cold water, so if people cut back on hot water we can expect more illness and food poisoning. As is always the way of it, people with physical vulnerabilities will be hardest hit.

Soaking in hot water offers pain relief to many. The cost of not being able to have a long, hot shower or a decent soak in a bath will be high for some of us. Washing can also help a lot with mental health, while not feeling clean will undermine it.

Hot drinks do a lot to comfort people. To the point whereby heating water is strongly recommended in survival situations because it has such a massive impact on morale and your ability to keep going.

When you are cold already, or ill, or in pain then cold water just takes more out of you. Washing yourself or your stuff in cold water will add to your exhaustion and discomfort. Most of us are not equipped to heat water by other means.

As a society we have – I think – gone too far with the washing of bodies and clothes. There would be environmental benefits to cutting back on that a bit. However, this isn’t the way to do it. Forcing people not to be able to use resources in the way they need to is cruel. We should be scaling back thoughtfully and on our own terms. We should all be able to afford to be warm enough.

Protecting your community

One of the most important things for me, when it comes to being part of a community, is being understood. There’s something wonderful and nurturing about not having to explain parts of who you are. Feeling supported, welcome and like you make sense is good for mental health and emotional wellbeing.

Being on your own with an issue, a need or a feeling is a lonely place to be. Modern urban humans are each surrounded by a great many other urban humans, but that can increase loneliness rather than offering respite. No one sees you in a crowd. You are not understood, and the need to be understood is a life-affecting one.

During my volunteering years, I met a lot of people who had just found Paganism, and talked about it in terms of coming home. Some of this is about the path itself and finding relief in a spirituality that makes emotional sense to them. Some of it is about finding a community. 

Being able to talk to people who are capable of understanding you is a wonderful thing. When you have feelings about magic, nature, old gods etc, you can feel disconnected from the regular world. Meeting people who can relate to that is liberating.

Sometimes however, community comes at a price. The desire to belong can put a lot of pressure on a person to fit in with things. We all need community and safe spaces, so what do you do if the price tag on being a member of a community looks problematic? How much do you ignore to protect your access to space you desperately need? What are you willing to enable in order to be able to belong? 

Along the way I’ve ended up in some spaces – Pagan and otherwise – that weren’t especially healthy. Not spaces that were dangerous or super-toxic, but certainly places that had issues. I stayed longer than I should sometimes because I so desperately wanted to belong somewhere. No doubt most of us have seen people getting hurt, used, exploited, manipulated and compromised because they needed to be part of something. And sometimes when we’re part of the group causing the problem, all too often we turn away from that abuse and pretend not to see it because we don’t know how we’d survive without this precious community space.

Abuse happens when people put their need to belong ahead of the need to create genuinely safe space. It happens when vulnerable people feel emotionally rewarded by abusers when they let them get away with stuff. It happens when people with low self esteem can’t imagine they deserve better treatment. It’s important to keep an eye on who, and what we sacrifice for the sake of protecting our communities. It can be hard to admit when you’ve got into something that isn’t good. No one wants to believe that the space they love is harmful, but refusal to look at that enables bullies and predators.

What is a complex society?

I’m currently reading Ancient Jomon of Japan by Junko Habu, and it has brought to my attention a massive issue about how we think about societies. When it comes to prehistory, people are often interested in the markers for things like civilization, and complex society. What are the key indicators of these things? 

There’s a school of thought that says you’ve got a complex society if it’s doing more complex things – material culture, food storage and more involved subsistence strategies would be obvious examples of a more complex society, and all of those things could be true of hunter-gatherers.

However, it turns out there is also a school of thought that defines complex societies in terms of hierarchy and inequality. This might be a bit out of date, the book I’m reading comes from the 1990s, but even if this isn’t a contemporary issue, the impact of it stands some thinking about. What happens to our sense of both the past and the present if we define complexity in terms of inequality? It is so limiting and distorting to see things like hereditary privilege and the exploitation of labour as defining signs of social complexity.

Given that we tend to value ideas of complexity, associating them with development, sophistication and civilization, defining more egalitarian societies as less complex has a lot of implications. It means we are bound to miss things about historical societies that don’t seem to fit this model. It is also bound to inform how we think about ourselves now.

Societies that depend on cooperation rather than dictatorship must, surely, be more complex and nuanced? It takes a lot more communication and effort to work as a team than it does to have someone in charge telling you what to do. I feel that recognising our fundamental equality as living beings is a good deal more sophisticated than deciding some people are born special and therefore should be in charge. I find the idea of inherited power barbarous and loaded with superstition. 

As a Druid I am drawn to looking at how we imagine ourselves and how the stories we tell about humanity shape what we do. I think we need better stories.

Windfall apples

One of the things I love most about autumn, is encountering windfall apples. The fruits themselves are of course pretty to look at, but it’s the decay process that most engages me. Apples that have fallen from trees get on with rotting and fermenting, and the smell of that is heady and wonderful. I have a keen sense of smell, and find scents deeply evocative – most people do, I think. Rotting apples are great.

They aren’t wasted. Many insects will feed on decaying fruit. So will wild mammals. Birds will eat the fruit, and the insects who were feeding on the fruit. Windfall apples are blessings for so many other beings. I have a particular memory of a winter when my then neighbours didn’t pick much of the fruit from their apple tree, and a great deal of apples ended up on the ground. This attracted an enormous flock of fieldfares who feasted there many times. It was wonderful to watch.

Humans are often too quick to want to tidy things up. There are blessings in messiness, in decay and in the fruit left to rot on the ground.

Seeking transformation

New experiences always offer the scope for change. What are we looking for in our spiritual lives, if not the opportunity to grow and develop? Any project or adventure we undertake holds the potential to change us, shift our thinking, open our hearts, educate us and teach us things about who we are.

I recall reading something a while ago about how most people look back at their previous selves and easily see how much they have changed over time. Those same people tend to believe they have stopped changing now, and won’t change much in the future. They are probably wrong about this, but it’s an interesting reflection on how we approach the idea of change, especially as we age. For some people, getting older seems to involve getting more fixed, but it doesn’t have to. The scope for adventure and discovery is always there.

There are questions to ask around how much novelty is a good idea. New things have more power to surprise and stimulate us, which is good. The eager mind is often hungry for new experiences. However, it’s all too easy to go chasing after novelty and thrill, without ever internalising those experiences. Novelty alone doesn’t change us because we also need time to absorb and reflect. Not everything has most to give at the first try and many things have more to give us if we stick with them for a while and invest deliberately.

Change isn’t reliably a good thing. Change can mean loss, and it can mean learning terrible coping strategies to try and get through impossible situations. Change can make you smaller, it can take things from you. When setting intentions, it’s not enough to seek transformation because that can mess you up. I don’t recommend just trusting the universe to take you where you need to go because in my experience it doesn’t work like that. Life will hurt you, and the less privilege you have to insulate you, the more hurt you are likely to suffer. Sometimes change means moving towards things that will allow you to feel safer and more comfortable. It doesn’t all have to be raw and exposed.

It is certainly true that we do our best growing on the edges of our comfort zones. However, for the person who has been living outside of their comfort zone, the greatest scope for growth comes through embracing more comfort and certainty.

Enchantment and Consent

At what point does it become too much emotional pressure and too difficult for a person to say no? Not everyone finds it easy to say no – in all kinds of situations. So there are questions to ask about how we might support each other in holding healthy boundaries. If you’ve survived abuse, or been raised as a people pleaser, you might have a hard time saying no to people, especially if what’s being asked of you is emotionally loaded.

I have spent a long time trying to be someone it’s easy to say no to. That’s not been going well for me. It means I end up playing down how serious or urgent things are. It means something can be incredibly important to me and I’ll bring it up like it’s no big deal. I don’t want to be a nuisance, or an inconvenience, or make anyone uncomfortable or ask too much. But at the same time I’ve had a very rough time of it with suicidal ideation, and there are things I really need. It’s also not workable to have the people closest to me in a state of hyper-vigilance in case one of the things I casually mention turns out to be massive and loaded.

In terms of the things I need to function well, intensity is really important for me. I need to be emotionally overwhelmed, swept off my feet, blown away and otherwise captivated and enchanted. I need to feel so excited by things that I have no desire to decline even if saying yes has issues. In a world where everyone made it easy for me to say no to them all the time, I would struggle. 

There are no simple answers to any of this. I can be quite an overwhelming person when I’m not masking and muting myself, and that’s not for everyone. There are people who clearly like getting me on full blast. 

Enchantment isn’t safe, and anything emotionally loaded can lead a person to do things they might not otherwise have done. Somewhere in that misty landscape there’s a hard edge and beyond it what happens is definitely manipulation and definitely not ok. Sometimes enchantment looks far too much like dancing yourself to death, or heading off towards certain doom in the wake of the pied piper. But it doesn’t have to. Often growth and healing necessitate being outside your comfort zone but it does not follow that if you are outside your comfort zone you are growing or healing.

I’ve had plenty of experience of having my ability to consent compromised in all kinds of contexts where that was horrible. I’ve been swept off my feet as well. At the time, it isn’t always easy to tell what’s happening, or where the experience will take you or how you might feel about it with hindsight. Are you being love bombed in order to soften you up for manipulation, or have you truly found someone who can speak to your soul? Hard to tell. Is this tide going to carry you to new adventures, or drown you? There is no knowing.

I don’t want to be the tide that drowns anyone, but I’m not sure that I can both follow the call of enchantment and play safe in all possible ways. All I can do is try to make sure that people who get close enough to me that I could seriously impact on them also get some kind of vote.