Community is people

A community is nothing more than people who are connected to each other. A society is nothing more than the same thing on a grander scale. In some ways this is a painfully obvious statement, but it pays to come back to the essence of a thing. It is all too easy to see community as some kind of entity in its own right, controlled, if it is controlled at all, by the people who have set themselves up as in charge of it.

Community is just people. If we, as individuals choose to act, then the communities we are in will change. If we want robust, enduring, fair and safe Pagan communities, we can all work towards that, without having to do anything too dramatic at all.

There are two key things I think we can do to build community, Pagan or otherwise. The first is to look for diversity in our friendships. Where groups of people are homogenous, where it’s all the same education level, age, race, religion and economic class, you get funny little echo chambers that are cut off from the echo chambers around them. There’s a lot to be gained when we are friends with people who are not like us, when we welcome in difference and aren’t troubled by diversity. (This does not mean having to be ok with people who are not ok, hugging a Nazi is not required).

The second thing we can do is cross pollinate. Modern life is segregated, fragmented. We have our families, our neighbours, our work life, our social circles, and it is normal to keep these groups separate. However, strands of connection between groups is what turns a bunch of groups into a community. So, if the chance arises, take a neighbour to a moot, or a work colleague to a party, and so forth.

In terms of safety, we can all be part of the solution there, too. We can speak up if we see things that are out of order. We can tell people who are acting inappropriately. We can offer safety to people who tell us they’ve been mistreated. Putting your body in the way is a powerful thing, and that can be as simple as not leaving someone to go to the loo on their own. Making safe spaces means putting the safety of people who feel unsafe first. It does not mean jumping in for drama and bashing which can only create more conflict and increase feelings of not being safe. If it’s a police matter, take it to the police. If it isn’t, encourage people to behave like decent adults.

Community is us. It’s the choices we make. It’s what we do. We all of us have more power than we are using, in all probability. We all of us have scope to be part of the change we want to see. If we can help each other be the change, almost anything is possible.

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Being fast and slowing down

This isn’t my first blog about slower living, it is an idea that has interested me for years. I like life in the slow lane, walking for transport, reading, not being up to date with all the latest gadgets, not keeping up with everything via my phone. I like not rushing and feeling pressured. But, there’s a technical problem and it’s taken me until now to get my head round it.

Slow me down, and I go faster.

Over the course of this weekend off, I started work on a new steampunk outfit, I planned a handful of blogs, decided to try a collaborative project, figured out a new social thing I want to organise, had some big ideas about book events in Stroud, and got a lot of reading done. My weekend off was intensely productive. This is usually how it goes. If I take time off, slow down, don’t aim to do anything, the ideas start moving and I can end up doing far more productive stuff than I would have done had the day been structured and deliberately workish.

For years I’d been feeling this as a kind of slow-fail. I can’t do nothing. I’m useless at it. Leave me doing nothing and I’ll hatch some epic and totally workable scheme. This weekend, while ostensibly doing nothing but really doing a lot, I came to the conclusion that I’m no longer prepared to have a problem with this. It is simply how I am.

So, with all of that in mind, my aim at the moment is to keep my planned workishness to four mornings a week, and keep the rest of my time unstructured and slow, and give myself permission to do whatever comes along. I have noticed that I’m at my most productive when I have plenty of time to read, think, stare out of the window, go for walks and so forth. I don’t get the ideas if I don’t have the time and space. If I try to be disciplined about my work, the quality of my output dwindles rapidly. And equally, if my slowness makes me faster, I’m not going to relate to that as a slow-fail anymore.


The study of power

To my mind, anyone interested in the idea of magic should be interested in the nature of power. Actual power as it manifests in the world. If you want to use power – however supernatural that aspiration might be, you need to know how power works. It is worth investing time in the study of real world power.

The ways in which some people have power over others are many, and often profoundly unethical. The power to make someone do something against their will is a pretty evil thing, when you stop to consider it. And yet, hard wired into many of our relationships with professional people is just such a power imbalance, because we accept that they know best what it is that we need.

When a child is first born, they need everything doing for them. They are absolutely vulnerable, and entirely at the mercy of those choosing on their behalf. As children grow, they become ever more able to take control of their lives. How long do adults keep telling them they know best? It’s not always a negotiated exchange, and it runs through to legal and political decisions that are made for children without their consent. Much the same can be said of power relationships with adults who are deemed unable to decide for themselves.

The power of money to influence us. The power of advertising to shape our desires and dreams. The power of television to tell us what kind of behaviour is normal. The power of the media to tell us what we should be angry about. The power of big business to shape our lives. The power of society around us to shame and exclude us if we stray too far from what TV has told us is normal and the papers have told us we should be angry about…

To study power is to study the language of power. It’s those who have the right words at their command who can work with the law. It’s those whose education gives them the right language who can access the best jobs. It is words that crawl into our heads from adverts, TVs, songs, films, newspapers to tell us who and how we are supposed to be.

And sometimes it is the absence of words, the silence when you can’t say you are gay, or a witch, or a vegan and so forth without fear of ridicule and worse. If you need to be silent to be safe, then there are things to know about how power works in your life.

The words you use, the words you are not allowed, the labels you wear, the titles you seek – these are all questions of power. If you want to use power on your own terms, it is as well to know how power already works within your life.


No Seasonal Pagan Shaming

Winter. For some of us, it’s a bloody awful time of year. Every year, without fail I see at least one piece online (usually more) that talks about celebrating winter in a way that is not especially kind to people who can’t. There are a lot of people who can’t. If you can joyfully celebrate the cold and dark half of the year – lovely. Have fun with that. It’s important to remember that there are very good reasons why other people can’t – it’s not that we’re lazy, or not trying hard enough, or fair weather Pagans, or failing at Paganism.

The shorter, darker days can really pile it on for people who suffer depression. Gloom and loss of energy make it a lot harder to get out to things or to feel like dealing with people. We may need to hibernate, not celebrate. We may not want to bring our gloom to your celebration.

For those of us with issues around mobility and balance, the mud, ice and frost is a nightmare. Outside becomes a treacherous place. Not everyone can skip along the frosty pavements like Legolas on the side of a mountain. For some of us, the fear of falling includes the fear of damaging an already fragile body. For older and more delicate people, a broken hip can be the beginning of the end and is not something to take lightly.

Celebrating the warm snugness of home and hearth is all well and good, but not everyone can afford it. If winter means choosing between heating and eating, there is nothing much to celebrate, and no resource to spare for joining in with other people’s celebrations. Poverty isn’t always visible or self announcing, people won’t always tell you they can’t afford to have the lights on at night.

Celebrating outside requires warm winter clothes, decent boots, a waterproof coat. Not everyone has or can afford that kind of kit. Not everyone can drive to the wild places in their four by four to go communing with nature whilst wearing their ski gear. It’s really tough going outside and getting cold when you can’t come home and get warm and dry in a reliable way. It’s harder, too, if you’re not eating properly. Cold and hungry are not a good combination, and there’s nothing like being cold for making you hungry. Not everyone has the luxury of a spare pair of outdoor shoes to wear if they get a pair soaked in ritual.

Not everyone loves the winter. Not everyone can. Some of us won’t survive it, killed by the cold and by lack of good food, by illnesses we could not fight off. Some of us will be injured by the conditions and some of us may never get over that. So, if you see someone Pagan-shaming over how people respond to the winter remind them that not everyone has the luxury of being able to celebrate. Not everyone is privileged enough to find winter easy.


The need to be useful

When you’re ill, it is important to rest in order to recover. However, the need to feel useful can be a real barrier to this. I think it most afflicts people whose self esteem is tied to their output. If being useful to someone else is how you get to feel ok about yourself, then stopping is really hard. The lower a person’s sense of self worth is, the harder it is for them to feel that resting and recovering might be more important than doing the useful things.

The result can be that if you do stop in order to try and get well, you end up mired in panic and feelings of worthlessness, none of which helps. Especially not when what you’re trying to recover from is depression and/or anxiety.

It certainly doesn’t help that we have a government intent on making us believe that we are either workers or shirkers. We are to believe that hard work is the only thing that can save us from economic ruin (such a big lie). We are told by media and ministers alike that if we aren’t useful, we aren’t worth anything to anyone. Ill people are treated like scroungers and criminals. In that context, who wants to admit they are too ill to work? And so many people end up working when they should not, and making worse the health problems that might have been fixed if they’d felt able to stop.

If you are unable to fend off the idea that you must be useful, but you are also in need of time off, here’s a thought that may help. If you are well and rested, you will be better at doing the things. Your mind will be sharper, you’ll be faster, more efficient, and more effective.

Mostly, the time to tackle the pernicious idea that the measure of our lives is our utility, is not when you’re in a crisis. This is an every day sort of problem. We can challenge it by affirming each other’s rights to rest and to good health. We can remind each other that we should not be cogs in someone else’s profit machine. We can look after each other, and we may at times need to support and take care of those who are being let down by the system. We can campaign for change, and resist the lies of politicians and media alike, overcoming their bile to recognise our shared humanity.

We all need rest, time off, and time to recover when we are ill. Without a doubt, we will all face serious illness at some point – either our own, or that of someone close to us. We need to gently educate the people who are lucky enough not to be really ill, and who are buying into the lies about effort and scrounging. Of course it is tempting to believe it when you seem to be winning, because it means it is your effort keeping you ahead, not pure chance. It gives the illusion of being in control, and that’s a hard illusion to let go of.

We are soft and fragile things, our bodies damage easily, our minds can be broken. We cannot ask ourselves to function like pieces of machinery. We should not have to work ourselves into the ground in order to survive, or to be socially acceptable.


Heroes and Monsters

I suspect most of us want to be heroes. We want to be the sort of person who stands up to the bully, tells the abuser they are out of order, maybe even the person who punches Nazis. There’s a great feeling to be had when you’re fighting the good fight, righteously doing the things that need doing. It feels powerful, and exciting, and wonderful. And you get to kick someone else while holding the moral high ground.

I’ve been the monster in this scenario, several times now. I’ve been the bad and wrong thing that deserved kicking, and I’ve had people kick me when from my perspective, I was already down and bleeding. I’ve had people kick me and tell me how proud of themselves they were for standing up to me. I’ve had people attack me for talking about depression, anxiety, pain and despair. I’ve been told what an awful, mean, bullying, unfair, unreasonable sort of person I am. I’ve had people try to cost me my day job on that basis. Were they right? I wondered at the time. I tend to take criticism to heart, because I’m nasty and unreasonable like that.

The desire to be heroic can leave a person wide open to certain kinds of manipulation. I’ve seen it done. And I’ll pause and salute the courage of one person who, having realised they’d been manipulated into attacking me, came back and apologised.

It’s easy to tone police the vulnerable person whose language you dislike rather than going after the system oppressing them. A notorious problem when white feminists deal with women of colour, for example. It’s easier to go after the ally who isn’t completely perfect than to go after perpetrators of the problem. It’s easier to go after people who have no power, than to go after the ones who do. Safer, too, because the people with no power can’t really defend themselves or do you any real harm, whereas those with power, can.

It’s important to look at what we’re being persuaded to do when the opportunity comes along to be heroic. Put your body in the way of the fracking machines? That’s heroism. Call out an actual bully who has the power to harm you? That is brave. The odds are if you wade into a fight, you won’t know everything that’s going on. If you’re on the bully-kicking team, and the bully just lies there, whimpering, if you knock down without consequences, if your righteous indignation looks poised to wreck someone’s life… pause and look at that power balance. Ask whether the response is proportional. Ask whether you’re sure the person you’re taking apart really deserves that.

Taking down abusive people who are in places of power is difficult, hazardous work, and often has a high cost for those doing it. If the takedown feels safe and easy, if the ‘bully’ can’t really do anything to stop you, if you can shame and blame and hurt and humiliate them with impunity… there are questions to ask.

Of course it is true that people with no power can be mean, spiteful, horrible and so forth. Is the first port of call on discovering this to trash them in every way possible? Or should we be trying to talk to them about what the problem is? Should we consider that education, insecurity, inexperience, incompetence might be part of the mix, rather than malice? Should we try to help them not do it again rather than going for psychological warfare?

Because the thing is, it takes very little effort to call someone a bully, especially if you have no reason to fear them. I’ve been called a bully for saying no, for disagreeing, and for not co-operating. I’ve been called a bully for complaining about how I was being treated, when I found that treatment unkind. For people who are really wrapped up in their privilege, a challenge to comfort and ego will be re-branded as bullying. It is not bullying to tell men that women are afraid of being raped. It is not bullying to prevent one person using another person as a resource. But these are things that I have seen called out, because some people can’t handle discomfort and prefer to blame the messenger. Feeling discomfort is not the same as being bullied.

If we want to tackle bullying, we have to do so by not perpetrating it. It’s easy to go in guns blazing, and when you do, it is easy to blame, shame hurt and humiliate people who have been victims all along, and that really doesn’t help.


Panic, breath and meditation

I’d been aware of the theory that panic and breath-orientated meditation doesn’t always go well, but until recently, I’d never encountered it. The experience of what was probably bronchitis coupled with several days of intense panic from stressful things, did things to my body. I found that so long as I wasn’t thinking about my breath, I was fine, but if I became aware of it, I couldn’t do it. Cue gasping frantically.

This was especially bad on the edge of sleep, because there aren’t many things a person can do with their brain. At that point, not being aware of my body proved very hard indeed, and the panicked bouts of fighting to breathe, and fighting to convince my body that it could breathe, were many. It made me realise how much my meditation practice is underpinned by breathwork. I had no real tools to deal with a situation where I needed to focus my mind on something other than my breath. However, necessity is a great teacher.

What I discovered is that I can go from cold, straight into a visualisation or pathworking. I have to plan it carefully in advance, and to make the leap straight into a deep meditative state, the subject matter has to be emotionally engaging. And then, it’s like making an enormous, perilous jump, but I managed it repeatedly. An arrowshot of intent and concentration, taking the mind away from the body so that the body could keep on with the breathing, untroubled.

I also learned that this kind of trick can be pulled when sharp and clever, but that an exhausted, sleep deprived mind can’t do it, and at that point, valerian is the better answer, or anything else you might use to knock yourself out of a night.

I’ve never felt so at odds with myself as I did during the week of not being able to think about breathing. Body and mind were functioning as two distinct systems, very much at odds with each other. It was an unnerving experience in all kinds of ways, and I hope never to have it again. It’s another example of how you can’t use meditation as a quick fix – this only worked for me because I have a long history of working with visualisation and had a skill set to draw on. Quite possibly this also went wrong for me because I have a long history of breathwork.


Leadership and conflict

This is a scenario I’ve seen play out repeatedly in Pagan organisations, and which I assume happens other places too. It invariably causes a lot of trouble and distress, and I am absolutely certain that it could be handled differently.

In the beginning, two people get into conflict. Most usually this starts privately, but because both people are members of the same group, it either gets taken to that group in some way, or spills over into it. It can be a falling out, a communication breakdown, it can be one person harassing or bullying another. At this early stage, it is seldom possible to see the shape of the thing from the outside.

A person, or people with leadership roles and power say “ah, but it didn’t happen on our boards/facebook page, or at our event so we aren’t responsible for sorting it out.”

Where there is bullying, at this point the victim has no choice but to leave while the perpetrator often stays. I’ve said it before and will say it again – doing nothing is not a neutral stance, it is a choice that supports and enables bullying and abuse.

Where there is conflict, it may well spill out into the wider group. Leaders may not pile in, but friends will. You can end up with two sides and a deepening divide. You can end up with more people leaving because they don’t like how it’s been handled. If it really goes pear-shaped, you can tear the entire group apart and bring it to an end. By which point it most assuredly is on the boards, facebook page, and at any real world events and it is night on impossible to bring it back under control or sort anything out.

I think the problem stems from the current human fashion of seeing our lives as fragmented. What happens in one aspect of our lives, we suppose, won’t impact on another. I’ve seen this logic implied even when the police have been involved. We come to our Pagan groups as whole people, and if we fall out with other people, it has an impact.

I think one of the things that leadership means, is stepping in when things go wrong like this. Step in as soon as the problem is visible, and listen to all parties. If it’s the sort of thing that calls for police involvement, support the victim in getting the police involved. If someone is out of order, tell them – explain to them what’s gone wrong and why and what can be done about it. If communication has broken down, be the bridge, get things moving again. If it’s the kind of thing people should just be able to deal with and get over, listen to both side and tell them this, and it might help. People are more likely to accept that judgement if you hear them out first. A little witnessing and taking seriously can do a lot to deflate a conflict if you get in early.

Community does not mean giving up on people as soon as things get challenging. Community does not mean ignoring bullying. It does not mean turning a blind eye to problems. If we’re a community, then problems arising within the community affect all of us, and we all have some responsibility to respond, regardless of whether we lead. As for leadership – that doesn’t mean getting to do the things you want to do and ignoring what people want from you. Good leadership means looking after your people, especially when things go wrong.


Emotional processing

I have very little idea how other people deal with their emotions. Maybe most people are better at hiding things than I am. Maybe not everyone feels everything quite as keenly as I do. Maybe not everyone gets as exhausted by their own emotions. I don’t know. I haven’t the faintest idea what’s normal. Sometimes I feel very lost and out of kilter when trying to deal with other people. Sometimes the task of keeping all the feels tucked in, tidy, and out of sight takes all the effort I can muster.

One of the things I’ve found that helps, is having safe spaces in which I can vent, or pour out my emotions without it impacting on anyone else. Sometimes writing will do this. I still occasionally produce the same kind of angsty, self involved poetry I wrote in my teens. Why poetry so often bears the brunt of this kind of thing I am unsure.

I can’t do it with drawing, or painting or crafting. I suppose in part because in those forms, over emotionality translates into mistakes, and sometimes to accidentally stabbing myself with the tools. Sometimes cathartic, sometimes not.

I’ve always found music helpful. As a teen, bashing out Beethoven on the piano kept me sane. That, and drumming, which is a very safe place to leave your rage and frustration. In my twenties, when I was hurting too much to speak I let the violin speak for me, and it helped.

One of the great things about music is that you can do it with other people, pour all the excessive emotions into it and that be ok. No one ever complains about too much emoting with a violin. Folk music is generous with its tragic ballads as well, so public wallowing without obvious self pity can be a thing. If a song says everything you are feeling, then you can say everything you are feeling and no one has to make anything of it. Hiding it in plain sight, if you will.


For the dead but not forgotten

Here’s a recent video of mine.

The words are part of a Samhain song I wrote years ago, which is mostly about a dumb supper. As I wanted to film in a graveyard, it made sense to me to just focus on this one bit of the song. To be a voice for the departed. The graveyard is in Woodchester, and the square area that has no graves is the site of the Woodchester mosaic – which spends most of its time covered up for its own protection. I’ve never seen it. I live in hope. I finished with a yew tree (on the offchance anyone is watching this who hasn’t seen one before).

I’m very new to working with a camera, but really interested in it. All I have is a tablet and none of the fancy kit that proper film makers use to get smooth shots. I am never going to get smooth shots, but that means my filming becomes about what happens with my body in a space, how I dance the space and dance with the camera. I’m going to dig into that as there’s no point trying to go the other way.

I sang all the lines in quick succession, separate to filming and mashed them together in garage band.

This is the sort of thing I’ve been able to do, and felt inspired to do because of my Patreon folk. So, a big thanks to everyone who has been supporting me. Obviously, if you’d like to pile in to that, I would appreciate it, but this blog is free, and I welcome anyone who wants to be here.

https://www.patreon.com/NimueB