Fickleness, loyalty and virtue

Loyalty is generally seen as a virtue. In heroic cultures, loyalty to your leader is much prized – loyalty makes it to the list of nine Heathen virtues for this reason. It is key to cooperation, and is woven into marriage vows as well – we often pledge to love each other in sickness and in health, for better or worse – to be loyal regardless of adverse circumstances or better offers. To stick with someone, or something when the going gets tough, can take courage and determination as well as generosity. Loyalty is something to treasure.

However, like all ideas, it has its limits. Staying loyal to the person who has abused your loyalty stops looking like virtue and starts looking like self harm. If people are not loyal to us in return, it may be ill advised to remain faithful and devoted to them. Staying loyal to someone who has behaved dishonourably is also questionable. JK Rowling’s loyalty to Johnny Depp, for example, does not inspire confidence in her, and strikes me as a rather dishonourable choice. There can be no honour in loyally sticking up for the cheat, the abuser, or the exploiter.

Loyalty can get us stuck places to no one’s benefit. Sometimes you just need to come in, and do the things, and when the things are done, move on. Staying out of a sense of loyalty can keep something going that is no longer use or ornament. As Pagans we recognise that death and decay are part of the natural cycle. Everything has its seasons, its lifespan. To loyally cling on and not give up on something that needs to be allowed to die may feel like virtue, without having the consequences of virtue.

Truly virtuous behaviour, from a Pagan perspective, makes more good happen. It enables, it causes self and/or others to flourish. Virtue promotes health and wellbeing, and enables us to have good lives in all the sense of that word. Anything taken to excess won’t do that. Loyalty taken to excess becomes limiting and harmful.

We all need room to experiment and to change. What made sense for us at one life stage may stop making sense as we age. Our needs shift. Sometimes we all need the freedom to flit between projects, jobs, friends, lovers, belief systems, in order to figure out who we are and where we fit. Sometimes we need to be fickle, to change our minds, to pull away from what we once enthusiastically embraced. If loyalty must be absolute, and commitment must be unconditional and for always, we stifle ourselves.

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Including the awkward hands

I’ve never been able to hold a pen properly. Pretty much all of my joints bend the wrong way under pressure, and it’s only been in the last few years that I’ve known there was a word for this – hypermobility – and that it is something to guard against. Bending a joint the wrong way hurts it and does it no good at all, but I’ve spent much of my life encouraged to think of body pain as something I shouldn’t make a fuss about.

Going through school, my handwriting was always an issue and there were repeated rounds to correct my pen hold – the pen hold that makes it possible and not too uncomfortable to hold a pen. The backward bending fingers were strangely invisible to the people who wanted to correct me. I had problems with music as well – I could never hold my hands in the correct way for piano playing, could not hold a violin or a violin bow in the approved way either. I expect I lost marks for that on every exam I took.

Our lives are full of assumptions about what is normal, what everyone should be able to do, and what is proper. The right ways to hold knives and folks and teacups. The right kinds of things to do with your body in a gym. For much of my childhood, I had no idea that what happens with my joints isn’t normal, and that the discomfort, through to pain I experienced was a real issue. I was just expected to act like everyone else. Hold the violin properly. I’ve always been clumsy and I only recently found out that goes with the hypermobility and is not some kind of personal failing.

I write this not as an exercise in self pity, but as a small example of how miserable it is when people fail to recognise and accommodate difference. All too often, we ask people to bend themselves into the normal shape, not how we can adapt what’s going on to allow them to participate on their own terms.

There is so much diversity in how people experience the world. How we think and feel, how we move and what we can do with our bodies. The ‘normal’ person probably doesn’t even exist. The degree to which we can pass ourselves off as being the normal person, does.

I don’t know if music exams have changed in the last twenty years – they might have done. Perhaps they are more accepting of innate differences in bodies and students who cannot play while making the standard shapes with their bodies. I was never a great musician, but I was ok. Music was, and remains, important to me. A person who wants to play shouldn’t, surely, be put off and marked down for having a body that does not allow them to hold an instrument in the classically acceptable way.

Folk music of course doesn’t have formal holds, or exams, and it does not reject any needs (or for that matter eccentricities) that a person brings to their playing. It is possible to have good quality music that includes. It is possible to have good quality anything that includes, if there is a will to accommodate rather than asking people to conform to sometimes impossible standards.


Old Haunts – a review

Old Haunts is the second Alan Shaw book by Craig Hallam– I reviewed the first one here. Book two takes the same sort of format as the first instalment, with a series of action orientated stories with a distinctly steampunk vibe. There’s fiendish devices aplenty, unspeakable magic (often combined with the fiendish devices) Lovecraftian monstrosities, flying machines and steam powered everything.

The main character, Alan Shaw, is clearly an adrenaline junkie, and volume two sees him taking jobs as a privateer, sometimes doing despicable things for Queen and country. Alan isn’t keen on British Imperialism, but he likes being paid to not quite get himself killed, so this is a moral dilemma he’s trying to navigate.

He’s a considered dismantling of the macho hero archetype, and this particularly interests me with Craig’s writing. The classic action hero fights his way through, and may be the last person standing at the end of the book or film. Lovers, comrades, employers and enemies are all there to provide backdrop in the normal scheme of things. It is this habit of thought that the Alan Shaw stories particularly subvert. People don’t die all the time to give the hero motivation. He co-operates, he doesn’t kill people all the time and when he does occasionally kill, he feels it keenly. His life is full of consequences and responsibilities, he has relationships with people. This is key, for me. Action heroes don’t really have substantial relationships in the normal scheme of things. Alan Shaw does, and he feels his attachments keenly and they shape his life.

The underlying themes for me were very much about consequences. What the main character does, for good and ill, stays with him. Sometimes it follows him around, wanting help, or revenge, or explanations. He doesn’t get to blow things up and move on to the next story, all possible baggage burned away before the next round starts. He’s not a man alone, he needs friends, lovers, family. Sometimes he needs rescuing and looking after. Background characters don’t have to be daft, or weak or vulnerable to make him look good, either.

I like this book greatly because the hero is not your standard issue cool and capable man alone, but a far more interesting and complex human.

More on the author’s website – https://craighallam.wordpress.com/tag/the-adventures-of-alan-shaw/

And you can buy the book here – https://www.amazon.com/Haunts-Adventures-Alan-Shaw-Book-ebook/dp/B078SJ7415/


Seeking magic in the land

We all know of places that are officially important, magical and powerful. Stonehenge and Glastonbury being two obvious examples. Ancient sites, ancestral sites, places of extraordinary beauty. Places that attract people. Wonderful though these sites can be, they are also problematic. For a start, having lots of people in cars visiting a site will change it. Car parks, visitor centres, toilets, ice cream vans and the loss of peace and atmosphere that comes with a steady stream of tourists. The carbon footprint of your pilgrimage always needs considering.

Important sites can create political problems. They can cause tension between Pagan groups and people with authority – again there’s a long history of this at Stonehenge. Even a small, obscure site can become a source of tension if two different groups want to use it. If you undertake ritual in a place, it is easy to feel a sense of both ownership and entitlement. A desire to identify yourself as The Druid for the site, and try to see off other Druids who might want to make the same claim.

All of this can also have the consequence of encouraging most of us to feel that the important magical places are away. Somewhere else. A sense of magic as other and unavailable of course gives more power to anyone who has some influence at an important site.

All land has history. There are ancestors in the soil everywhere. There are stories connected to landscape in even the least promising of places. And if there aren’t, you can take the place names and land features and start making your own stories. Everything has to start somewhere.

Get an ordinance survey map and you’ll easily see where all the ancient sites are. Some areas are richer than others in this regard, but you may be surprised by how much there is. Ancient trees can be found sometimes in the corners of otherwise unremarkable fields. Stone formations, caves, springs, magical pools in streams, tiny waterfalls, owl haunts… there are many kinds of magical places to be found.

You don’t have to get out into the wilds for this, either. One of my favourite magical places as a child was a pool supplied by a drainpipe on the side of an old industrial building. It was covered in ferns, and it had a discernible atmosphere. More atmosphere in fact that the pool caused by a spring alongside a much prettier and more ancient building nearby.

Magical places can be secret, they can be hiding in plain sight, they can be right on your doorstep. I think it’s much more exciting and rewarding to have a personal relationship with a place not so many other people even know about. Or a place other people can’t see. I like to go to a spring with a fairy hawthorn. It’s somewhere that gets a lot of footfall, but it is even so a secret place, largely invisible to the passer-by.

Finding the magic that is with you and around you has so much more to offer than assuming that it must be somewhere else.


Maiden, Mother, Grandmother identities

When you are a maiden, you have a name of your own. It may have your paternal name with it, but it is a distinct name, and it is yours. People will call you by that name.

Babies do not automatically call their parents mother, father, mummy, daddy. You have to teach them. You may have to teach them by naming yourself as mummy in front of them. It is easier for the child to learn that you are mummy if they do not hear other adults calling you by your name. Your maiden name. And so you may start calling the father of your child ‘daddy’ and he may call you ‘mummy’ and to other adults in your life you may also be ‘mummy’ for the benefit of your child. I didn’t go this way, but I’ve seen it done.

Granny is not a life change that results from your own action in the way that becoming mummy does. Being granny may mean that the people who once called you mummy are now calling you granny so that their children learn to call you granny. Other adults in your life may choose to reinforce this. You may find yourself calling our own offspring mum and dad for the benefit of the grandchild.

Of course there’s a similar pattern for men. However, men have traditionally had roles and identities outside the household. People to call them by their names and treat them as distinct individuals. Inside the house, trapped in the domestic sphere, there is a lot less room to be anyone other than mother or grandmother. Not a specific, named identity. Not a distinct person. A title. A job description. A loss of personal identity into the ocean of mothers and grandmothers.

Names have power. I wonder how many of our female ancestors lost their sense of personal identity to the titles given them.


The politics of wetlands

People have lived in wetlands in the UK, as far as I know, for as long as the UK has been inhabited. The fens of the east coast were vast, and Hereward the Wake hid there when trying to fight off the Normans. The Glastonbury area was once wetland. Subsistence living is entirely possible in fens. However, draining fens for agriculture has, ever since the Normans showed up, been treated as a civilizing process.

Wetlands will support people alongside wildlife, but there are things a subsistence lifestyle cannot do. It cannot pay for a military, for building castles or roads. It cannot support an indolent class who wish to have both considerable leisure and luxury. You need much more intensive agriculture for that. Before the Normans, we had a lot of wetland. After the Normans we started draining the wetland and we also developed the most unfair land distribution in Europe. I don’t think these things are coincidences.

Low lying wetland that has been drained is problematic. It may sit lower than the water near it. You may be obliged to expend a lot of effort pumping and draining. The land may keep sinking as it dries, and the sea levels now are rising. Wetland used to be part of how we dealt with floods. Stretches of land known as flood meadows – because that was where excess water went – have been built on and must now be protected from flooding. This is just as inherently political as that stuff with the Normans. We have more rain now, flooding is a bigger issue. We need flood meadows more than ever.

Many wetlands are not perpetually or continuously wet. With patches of land and water, a proper wetland is for most of the year a complex patchwork of habitats supporting a vast array of wildlife. Fish, amphibians, water birds, water mammals – they all need wet places. There are many plants that only really thrive in these wet environments, too. As we dry out the land, we kill off the wetland creatures. This too is a matter of political choice, and priority.

A combination of paying fair prices for food, and not wasting between a third and a half of it, would mean farmers might not need to keep all low lying land in ‘useful’ production. We might be able to give some of it back. This is a political choice that brings in the role of supermarkets in price setting, and the way we all contribute to the total immorality that is food waste.

Wetlands are liminal places, uncertain, wild, beautiful and full of wonder and mud. They are not entirely human-friendly even though we can live in them. They are not tame, and they change without our permission in response to seasons, tides and rainfall. As climate change makes everything ever less predictable, we need these wild margins to help us cope with unexpected floods, to soak up the water and to lay down the carbon.

It would take a large and complex network of human choices to make wetlands more viable and to let them return. We’ve harmed ourselves by harming our habitat, and I hope that we see that and make the changes while we still can. If we can’t do it for love of the world we live in, we should be doing it selfishly for our own safety and survival.


Urban trees for magical transformation

Like many Pagans, I do not in fact live in the wilderness. Most of us are urban, which makes the idea of nature as something away from humans rather awkward. How can you celebrate nature, commune with it and base your spirituality around it if nature is somewhere else? There can be a temptation to work with ideas about nature rather than direct experience. For me, one of the things that makes Paganism so good is that we don’t have to rely on what we can imagine, but can instead have that direct, first hand experience of the living world.

Urban trees can be a great way of experiencing non-human entities on a daily basis. It helps that they tend to stay put so can be visited reliably. Trees are good for people in all kinds of ways. I’ve just been sent some really interesting stuff from The Woodland Trust about how urban trees impact on us, so I thought I’d share some of that. I think there’s a lot to take on here about what it means to be in contact with trees, even in apparently unpromising environments.

I think it’s widely known that trees reduce air and noise pollution, and that a single mature tree can release enough oxygen back into the atmosphere to support two people. Access to any kind of green space encourages good mental health and physical activity. Urban trees help slow rainfall, and also reduce temperatures in hot weather – overheating can be a killer. Some of the impacts The Woodland Trust are reporting were more surprising, though.

Public housing residents with nearby trees and natural landscapes reported 25% fewer acts of domestic aggression and violence. I think this is a staggering figure. Humans without trees are not as functional. Further, children exposed to nature score higher on concentration and self-discipline; improving their awareness, reasoning and observational skills, doing better in reading, writing, maths, science and social studies, are better at working in teams, and show improved behaviour overall. We are better people when we have trees.

One piece of tree data I found surprising is that street trees may improve driving safety. One study found a 46% decrease in crash rates across urban arterial and highway sites after landscape improvements were made and street trees were planted. Clearly, trees do not improve visibility for drivers, but they do break up the monotony, perhaps encouraging drivers to be more aware of what’s changing around them. Perhaps trees alongside roads are just calming in the way trees are other places.

I started supporting The Woodland Trust years ago because it seemed like a good expression of being a Druid, and a good way to contribute to the wellbeing of landscape and that which dwells in it. The challenges facing humans are so vast right now, so overwhelming that it can feel impossible to know where to start responding. It can feel like one person’s small difference is hardly worth making, and that can render us powerless.

We are better and healthier people when we have trees. We are less likely to kill each other. If children have better reasoning and observational skills when exposed to nature, it seems reasonable to assume that adults will too. Which means that if we want to change the people around us, helping them to be kinder, more reflective and able to make better choices, one of the ways we can do that is with tree planting. It’s a lot less emotionally exhausting than trying to reason with the unreasonable as well. Working to develop urban green spaces might move us towards answers to far more complicated problems. Trees have a magic of their own, and when people experience trees, they can change simply because of that.

Some sources –

Kuo, F.E., and W.C. Sullivan. 2001. Aggression and Violence in the Inner City: Effects of Environment Via Mental Fatigue. Environment and Behavior 33, 4:543-571. Facts reported by the University of Washington http://depts.washington.edu/hhwb/Thm_Crime.html

Sigman, A. (2007) Agricultural Literacy: Giving concrete children food for thought www.face-online.org.uk/resources/news/Agricultural%20Literacy.pdf

Donovan et al, 2013, The Relationship Between Trees and Human Health: Evidence from the Spread of the Emerald Ash Borer https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0749379712008045

3 Naderi, J.R. 2003. Landscape Design in the Clear Zone: Effect of Landscape Variables on Pedestrian Health and Driver Safety. Transportation Research Record 1851:119-130.

 


Shapes of relationships

Some of our relationships are necessarily structured. When there’s a professional shape to a relationship, all kinds of rules and requirements are in place and this is good and necessary. Professional relationships create obligations, responsibilities and power imbalances that need managing. Some family relationships have some of the same issues. Even so, there are choices to be made about how we shape such involvement – how much power over? How many arbitrary rules? How much service? How much expectation?

As Druids, we may often take on informally the kinds of roles that can be held professionally. Priest, teacher, counsellor, life coach… If we stray too far from what’s professional, we can end up abusing power and mistreating people. If we over-invest in our semi-professional status we can end up arrogant, self important and doing ourselves no favours whatsoever. As in most things, there’s a fine balancing act to achieve. Unlike professionals, we aren’t automatically keyed into a system that has support networks, resources, information and reliable paychecks, and it’s worth thinking about how that impacts on our relationships, too.

We tell each other a lot of stories about relationships – in fact friendship and romance are often central to our stories. In all kinds of ways – including adverts and laws – we tell each other about the shapes we think those relationships could and should have. Over time, that changes. It used to be much more acceptable for a man to beat his wife. We used to see marriage as a well defined relationship with a definite power imbalance in it. We seem willing now to explore less authoritarian approaches to parenting while at the same time being far more controlling of our children’s time and activities.

It’s easy to default to a standard relationship shape, an off the peg, one size fits all, it was good enough for some other person so it’s good enough for me kind of approach. This can have us replaying dysfunctional family stories, acting out what we’ve seen on the telly, aspiring to advert-family lifestyles that could never suit us and all sorts of other self-defeating things.

We have a notion that friendship means people of the same gender and about the same age, but life, and communities are much richer when there’s inter-generational contact. There are no stories about the natural friendship patterns for queer and genderfluid people. We tend to move towards people of similar class and educational background, but again that’s really narrowing. Some of us need big networks of friends, some of us need to deeply invest in just a few people. Some of us need a mix of that. There are no right answers here, but there can be wrong ones. If you end up doing what you think you should do, not what’s right for you, then you suffocate yourself.

Every relationship should be unique, because it is a meeting of two people. Each relationship may be framed by a context, or multiple contexts. We may give each other roles even when they don’t formally exist. It takes a certain amount of deliberation to refuse standard-issue relationship shapes and let something find its own form. It takes a certain amount of confidence as well, to do something with a relationship that is not what others might expect. People can be unpleasantly judgemental about having their expectations denied. Coming out can be a case in point for denying your family’s expectations.

It may seem easier to have all our interactions neatly arranged and tidily categorised. It may be simpler that way. There are no doubt some people whose natures mean that tidiness and simplicity are in fact the best choices. But not for all of us. Not for all relationships. Putting down the assumptions and seeing what happens can let magic in.


Of dustcats, lullabys and singing snails

Here’s something I’ve been working on recently, which Tom has blogged about over on the blog that deals with all things Hopeless Maine. It’s not so Pagan, more cute and silly, but I suspect some of you of being susceptible to cute and silly, so, here we go…

The Hopeless Vendetta

Hello people! (and others)

We have begun a thing.  We are making and publishing tiny books. Our first one (Lullaby for a Dustcat) took about two months from concept to having it out there among you. This is *Very* exciting for us because it creates a more immediate relationship with the book, as an act of creativity, and with all of you. (Yes, we love our publisher, Sloth, who brings out the graphic novels, but one a year is the limit there) So, Nimue and I will be making more of these. Probably three annually.

They really are tiny books. A6 size, which means that they can be sent instead of greeting cards in the same sort of envelope. They are very young-human friendly too.

This has also been made possible by Nimue’s Patreon people.  One level is that of Dustcat and she writes letters to them. (as though they…

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The Princess in the Mound – a review

I first encountered Linda Raedisch through her folklore-orientated non-fiction work. So when this novel came to my attention, I was keen to read it. It isn’t a big book – 98 pages of not especially dense text, but my Gods! So much happens.

I was really excited by the way this book has been written. The subtitle is ‘A Visitor’s Guide to Alvenholm Castle’ and that is the form the book takes. We begin with a note on the artist in residence, an overview of the castle and its upkeep fund, then short sections on history, architecture and haunting. Then we step into the entry hall and make our way around the rooms and gardens.

As the guide book takes us from room to room, a story unfolds. It is not a straightforward story, and various versions of it and glimpses into it are offered as we go along. The reader is obliged to draw their own conclusions, choose which stories to put together and what shape to give them. I like ambiguity in books, and I like being asked to become an active participant in making sense of a story. To a degree, all stories do this, and often the real magic of a book comes from the author’s ability to shape gaps for the reader to play in. These shaped gaps have the delicacy and complexity of lace. Technically speaking, it is a stunning piece of work.

The story itself explores the interplay between what we think we know about history, and what we think we know about fairy tales. The swan maidens of fairytale and myth are very much at the heart of this book. As a folklorist, the author has a keen appreciation of how events transform into stories, and stories colour events, and fragments from ancient history linger in folk memory. She’s able to put rationalisations into some character’s mouths and wild, magical thinking into the mouths of others, and sit these varying takes on things alongside each other. It’s not an entirely neutral telling – I certainly felt I was being steered towards the magical and supernatural interpretations, but then, that might be reader bias!

This is a book that also deftly explores the roles of women as wives and mothers, sisters and daughters, as keepers of the castle, and workers in the laundry. Women as figures you will empathise with and women who will make you uncomfortable. Women who are all too banal and of this earth, and women who seem touched by otherness. It’s splendidly rich in this regard.

Linda Raedisch offers a view of the modern world that still has plenty of room for magic and mystery in it. A world alive with stories, rich with deep history, and rooted in landscape. This is a book of enchantment. You need to read it.

Buy the book here – https://www.amazon.com/Princess-Mound-Visitors-Alvenholm-Castle/dp/1548161799/