Tag Archives: challenge


Once upon a time if you fell out with someone, there was no simple mechanism for expressing this to your wider community. No symbolic divorcing was available, and either you avoided them in person, or you couldn’t and life went on. The word ‘unfriend’ did not exist, nor did the concept. I am fascinated by the way facebook has changed things for those of us who frequent it – and those other social media sites as well.

There have been seven people in my life who were known to me personally and whom it became, at various times over the last five years or so, necessary to unfriend. We’ll leave aside the spammers and the random internet connections that didn’t work because those would never have existed pre-internet anyway. Seven people I just didn’t want to interact with any more. There were reasons, some more serious than others, but it boils down to a quality of life thing and not wanting to be messed about or made needlessly miserable. In many ways the whys are irrelevant, and also too personal to share. The mechanics of it are the more interesting bit, along with the emotional impact.

Unfriending is in many ways a ritual and symbolic action of rejection. If we have friends in common and do not go so far as to block, there will remain a degree of mutual visibility. Even a blocked person in touch with mutual friends does not disappear entirely, sometimes. So the tools of the internet do not deliver total separation and freedom from the person who was driving you nuts, if they are part of your wider network.

Phrases like ‘you’re not my friend any more’ have echoes of the school playground to them. The youthful ease of acquiring and rejecting people perhaps has online parallels. Perhaps the ‘adult’ version is to be more tactful, less honest, more passive-aggressive in our dealings with people who are physically present but no longer liked or valued. Perhaps there was more honesty, integrity and utility in the childhood drawing of lines, the willingness to be affronted and the aptitude for walking away. Perhaps being socialised into tolerating what drives us mad, accepting what wounds us and putting up with those we find offensive is not as wise and mature as it’s presented.

I’ve tried it both ways, online and offline, and I am increasingly a fan of deliberate, considered unfriending where appropriate. The world is a big place and there are more people in the small town I inhabit than I could ever meaningfully interact with. Why not walk away when people do things I am really uncomfortable with, hurt by or unhappy about? We are not such a small tribe that we must of necessity work together.

The counter arguments are many. The challenge is supposedly good for me, they’re doing me a favour really. Well, I’ve come to the conclusion this is for me to decide and not for anyone else to tell me. I’ve run into the ‘this is a good person so you shouldn’t be hurt by what they do’ line a few times. That’s bullshit. If it’s necessary to defend someone as ‘a good person’ I think there’s very good odds they’re a lousy person who makes a lot of noise about how good they are. I get plenty of helpful, meaningful, growth-inducing challenges from people who do not make me miserable, so I’ll be sticking with those. I’m very suspicious now of anyone who thinks I’m so crap as to need taking apart and knocking down, but who still wants to be around me. That’s a combination I now run away from as soon as I spot it.

The other argument is that maybe these people need me in their tribe, to challenge and help them. I’ve had it suggested to me, and I’ve given it some thought. I just don’t have enough of a Jesus complex to hang around martyring myself for people who don’t seem to like me much, or value me, or have any actual use for me. There are plenty of other people, why expend all my energy on the high-maintenance few who don’t even like what I do? That’s just silly.

The ritual of unfriending has a lot of symbolic and magical power. It is a strong statement, not to be used lightly and better not deployed in haste or in anger. But sometimes, drawing a line and saying ‘enough, thank you,’ is a powerful and liberating thing to do. Now, onto the good things with the lovely people…

naming the problem

For me, the spiritual life has to be about finding a viable, sustainable, functional way of life that delivers intrinsic worth. The quest for these things has long been part of what philosophy does, while we often use the methods of religion to create a sense of peace and meaning. I often find I need to poke my life and experience to try and find better ways through things.

I’ve been through some really shitty situations, and there is a pattern. I notice how reluctant I am to name and acknowledge the problem. Part of it comes from a desire not to complain, or blame anyone else. Part of it comes from the insane belief that if I keep slogging away and working hard, I will magically get there.   When there is a problem, naming it has consequence. You have moved from denial to acceptance. That acceptance implies a need for change and may well create the momentum for it. Based on experience, owning and naming the problem is often the most frightening and painful part of the process. Once that’s done, everything gets easier.
The most recent example is a simpler one because it is not tangled up in relationships with other people. It is underpinned by my whole history, though, by how others see me and see my work, by a desire to validate myself through my work and to make a point. It’s underpinned by not wanting to admit defeat or to acknowledge what I’m not. There’s a second strand, too, which was a belief that I wasn’t really good enough for anything else and that I would not be able to get a proper job anyway. Make it as a professional author, or be thrown on the scrapheap. I’d convinced myself this was all I had.
Last week I said ‘enough’. I can’t make a living as an author. It may well be this is because I’m not good enough – not commercially minded enough to be a Dan Brown, not creative genius enough to be an Ursula Le Guinn. Going through that naming process was agony. It took days, in the midst of burnout and exhaustion. I cried a lot, and I felt like my whole life was falling to pieces around me. But rather than reassure myself that somehow it would all magically be ok, I started looking hard at how I was feeling, and why, and what was going on there.
I got to a place of saying ‘this is not ok and something needs to change’. That really helped. Deciding that it is not ok to slog away, striving and exhausted and not earning enough to live comfortably and not having time, energy or resources to do the things I want to do… that was important. Recognising that I don’t deserve to be worked to death in a state of miserable exhaustion. That helped. Maybe the failure is mine. I accept that, so be it. In that acceptance, eventually came peace and relief.
After a while I started feeling able to let go of the dreams and aspirations that had kept me on the treadmill for so long. Realising that I don’t have to achieve anything specifically, was a relief. Realising that maybe I could just spend a while going after things that would make me feel better, and that I could find work that I also find meaningful – that was liberating. Once I got past the pain of naming the problem, the pain reduced. I became able to think. I started making decisions, and choices, and being able to see a way forward.
Change is scary. Owning a problem is scary because it means facing the things, people, arrangements, aspects of self that aren’t working. It can seem easier to deny the issue, and keep going as though it was all right really. Toxic workplaces, dysfunctional relationships, destructive peer groups, depressing homes… we tell ourselves ‘better the devil you know’ and we stay. The comfort and security of staying where it hurts and doesn’t work, is a myth. Sometimes the novelly of a new and unfamiliar devil is at least a bit of respite and a change of scenery, even if ultimately you do end up with the same old shit. And sometimes, the alternative is better.
I don’t default to tearing everything down for the sake of it. Sometimes though, tearing everything down is the only way to go. Then you can see the painted scenery, the strings on the puppets, the fake moonlight, and you can get out of the carefully built illusion and find something else. Maybe a new illusion, but possibly something real and worth having.

Being challenged

On the whole, I like a good challenge. Those things that fall on me, requiring that I do something I had not previously imagined, stretching myself to find new shapes and capabilities. Those challenges are really exciting. Sometimes they also scare me, but that’s fine, I’ll take it.

The new job, by way of an example, has been full of challenges. I started working as a press officer in the midst of badger culling, fracking and the danger of war in Syria. Starting a week earlier than I was supposed to, because the work needed doing, not as prepared as I wanted to be, not having enough time… still, there were things that needed doing and I stepped up as best I could. I shuffled forward, and I tried.

More than a decade ago, I took on running a folk club because no one else would, and I learned on the job. I took the challenge of going to America to meet Tom in person – that one worked out very well for me. Before that, I took on his challenge and tried to learn how to write for comics. I’m willing to step out of my comfort zone, more often than not. Willing to strive, and to fall flat on my face while reaching for something.

Those are the easy challenges, because the emotional side of them is so simple. In the work, the good causes, the extra efforts required, I tend to have some idea what I am doing, and what I need to become in order to respond. What floors me, repeatedly, are the challenges where I cannot work out what I am being asked to do, where I am emotionally tangled and have no sense of what a right response would even look like.

The Green Knight enters Arthur’s court and calls out his challenge: “There is something you must do, something scary and taboo, which I’m not going to spell out because you have to guess, and then another thing is going to happen as a consequence, but we won’t be talking about that until later.”

This is not what the knights are expecting, so they sit there, looking puzzled, which is a reasonable sort of response. And because I am very precisely that sort of idiot, I stand up, and walk forward. Do I kiss him? Do I kill him? Do I howl like a wolf? What does he want from me, this Green Knight who declines to say? If I knew I had to behead him and go back next winter to receive a like blow, it would be easy. I know how to do that. I’ve read the story, I know how it goes. I do something, a little dance. It was not the right answer. The Green Knight cuts off my head, and suggests that, once I’ve figured out how to attach it, I can go back and try some other thing and we’ll see if he likes that any better.

I’ve been having this conversation for years, and all manner of people have shouldered the strange responsibility for performing the role of Green Knight. I wonder if the right answer is to sit down, keep still, and say nothing. (Other knights do this, what do they know that I do not?) I wonder if one of these days, in one of his incarnations he will get round to mentioning what it is that he wants. Or maybe the answer is to not let him into Arthur’s hall in the first place. I do not know. I’m getting pretty adept at putting my head back on, though.

(I blame Clive Barker, and those many books that taught me not to simply destroy that which is monstrous or frightening, nor to turn away from it, but to find some other response. This is why I stand up when the Green Knight comes a calling, because I believe, despite all evidence to the contrary that there is another way.)

Challenges, Meditation fail and Scarborough

A part of me knows that challenge is also opportunity, a chance to grow and to step up to new things. We do that deliberately to ourselves in rites of initiation and in dedication, shouldering challenges, and sometimes reality keeps dishing them out as well. I’ve had to close my computer lid and just sit here repeatedly this morning. Things I may a have messed up, things that came out of nowhere, things I might yet resolve. It’s been one thing after another this week, and I am sorely worn.

We were supposed to be signing books at Stand Up Comics in Scarborough this Saturday, but at the weekend they mentioned they hadn’t actually ordered any books, what were we bringing? As we’re nearly out of copies of Hopeless Maine, and not too taken with this as an attitude, things ground to a halt rather quickly. I had assumed, foolishly perhaps, that a conversation about the feasibility of order us through Diamond Distribution represented an intention to make an order, given they’d just booked us. Apparently not. But, within a couple of days, Debra, my fab and tenacious lady on the ground there, sorted things so that we can go to Waterstones instead. Hurrah for Waterstones! Against all the odds, I’m starting to feel rather warm and fuzzy about them. (We’ll be there at 11am, if you can make it, please do!)

That’s a typical one. Much of the hassle seems to be of my own making, or perhaps if I was being kinder with myself, it’s a knock on effect of the chaos of moving house. There’s been a lot of chaos. I feel like I’ve been running for a long time, and amongst that, I’ve missed some things, and some of those may be important, and some may not.

Then there’s the really random stuff, which I’m pretty sure I haven’t made, things not showing up, or disappearing, with no explanation. There’s been too much of that, lately.
My perception is that some people are run ragged by crazy shit beyond their control, and some people seem to drift serenely though life, rather in the manner of swans. There may of course be frantic paddling below the surface that I cannot see. I seem to be made of frantic paddling, but perhaps to others I too look like something floating by, untroubled.

It’s hard to put time into being all spiritual and philosophical when mostly what you want to do is scream a bit and then get under the table and refuse to come out. There are times when the closest I can get to Druidry, is to breathe, slowly and deliberately, and in breathing, not actually scream. Inner peace is a lovely idea, but reality doesn’t always co-operate with that, and it’s hard to be peaceful when things around me seem to be falling apart. Of course that is the time when we most need the inner peace, when it would be most useful. Meditating is easy when you’re calm, but being able to do it to resolve stress would be really handy.

I think it’s fair to say that the work I’ve done in recent years on trying to be a calmer and more functional person has paid off in that I am still sat here, not under the table, and I’m not screaming, and I am chipping away at those challenges and setbacks, trying to climb on top of the various mad things that seem to be happening around me. That is worth something. Often in crisis it is hard to keep track of the progress, to recognise that the current muddles and troubles are less bad, or more readily managed than they might have been.

If you would like to cheer me up enormously, and are in the Scarborough area, do check out http://www.facebook.com/events/list#!/events/1388873817996797/ as I shall be playing with ideas around how we imagine our ancient Pagan ancestors, on Friday night and it would be good to have people along for that. And of course lovely Waterstones in Scarborough, 11am Saturday morning.

Now I get to sit under the table, yes?

Moving on and uprooting

Whether we seek it or not, change is inevitable. Even the who person clings tightly to place, property and people can find that random chance and the choices of others lead to radical upheavals. I’ve had this both ways, sometimes seeking colossal changes, and at others, having them forced upon me by circumstance. Even if we don’t have much choice about what happens to us, we always have options about how to handle what we get.

Moving home a number of times now, I realise how deeply and quickly life becomes entwined with people, properties, and objects. We build lifestyles around the things we own, the roof over our head, the location and the other people in it. A sudden uprooting from that is as traumatic for humans as it is for plants. That which is rooted in the soil does not take kindly to being lifted and transplanted, often roots are damaged and a moved plant can be set back for some time. People are not so different, even when the transplanting is needed and makes for a better life.

Unlike plants, we have the option of slowly lifting our roots, finding out where they had got to, what they were intertwined with, and gently separating out. We can find new, likely looking places to sink those same roots and maybe grow a few new ones. Perhaps some can stay in place even as we move on.

We expect to move only by choice, with time to pack and prepare, to save what is loved, let go of what was not needed and gently segue into the next phase. We might think we’re good at moving on, if we’ve only ever done that in a controlled manner at a time of our choosing. For women and children who flee abuse, it can be a case of taking your chance and running, with nothing more than the clothes on your back. Leaving is the most dangerous time; statistically you are most likely to be killed or injured when you try to get out. I’ve heard stories from so many women over the years, who left suddenly with almost nothing, because that was their best shot at getting to leave alive.

A lost job, a failing of health, a hike in interest rates, sudden bereavement, a landlord who goes bankrupt and has to sell the property… there are so many things life can throw at us that suddenly result in loss of home and security. I’ve seen so many friends knocked about by this one, too. The guys who moved out to give their family stability during divorce, suddenly renting in unfamiliar places, living in caravans and on boats to keep their children secure in the family home. The stories of people whose partners ran up debts and did not pay bills, and did not say until the bailiffs were at the door. The partners who gambled secretly, the partners who lied and the devastation that has left in the lives of people who had no idea what was coming to them. Failing mental health is another. Security is so often an illusion. We think we’ve got it because we’re too smart, too good, too careful to fall, but any of us can fall, at any time.

When you can pick your life apart gently to remake it somewhere else, be glad of that. It is a blessing, and a luxury. We’re too quick to assume carelessness and incompetence in the people we see flailing and failing, but so often it isn’t sought. The person left picking up the pieces is frequently not the one who made the mess. The person pushed out to the edges may in fact have done all the right things, for the right reasons. Sacrifices made for children, for elderly parents in need of care, come at a high price and aren’t easily spotted if you don’t know the whole story. If you can, be gentle with yourself, and be gentle with those around you whose stories you do not know.

Stripped Down

About this time a year ago my life fell apart. In the months that followed I lost my home, community, sense of self, my health suffered. Those of you who have been following my adventures through the process of being stripped will already have some sense of the gory details. It’s not been pretty. There were times when I wondered if I’d come through this with anything at all, or if I would be stripped down to absolute non-existence.

A year on and my perspective on much of this process has changed too. I have a very keen sense of what is essential to me – my husband and child, my own creativity, my own emotional life. Fear of losing my man and my lad nearly crippled me more times than I count, but it isn’t going to happen. There may be institutions technically capable of that, but it doesn’t mean they will. One of the things I have learned in this last year is that reality is not inherently hostile. It is not out to punish me.

Every knock back, every loss has resulted in me learning how to get back onto my feet, or knees at least, and get moving again. Shuffling, lurching, sometimes crawling, but still moving. I did not give up. That gives me some measure of my own strength, and armed with that knowledge I am also a lot less fearful than I used to be.

I’ve also learned a lot about what has endured despite the setbacks. The many relationships that held true despite the distances involved, the people who did not give up on me, or let me down. The communities that I still belong to even if I’m not an active participant at the moment. Some of things that seemed lost turned out to be temporarily mislaid.

There are things I regret, people I wish I saw more often, lives, communities and activities I would like to still be participating in and can’t. There are opportunities that have gone and times that will never come again and I can’t help but grieve those. But there are new places to be and new things to be doing – there always are.

Finally, there are the truly lost things that are never going to come back, and that’s something I am starting to celebrate. I have lost my sense of deserving mistreatment. I no longer expect to be punished, put down, knocked back and otherwise demoralised by anyone with the power to influence my life. I don’t see authority as inherently dangerous to me any more. In the last year, doctors, police, solicitors, social workers, judges, teachers and other folk with clout and experience, have treated me with kindness. I am no longer afraid of not being heard. I am no longer afraid of being blamed for things I have no control over. I have learned I can ask for help and that most people are not offended by this. I have learned that generally speaking it is fine to say ‘no’ or to be unable, to disagree with others, and to want things just for me.

It’s strange, because it was when I started to emerge from the nightmare that I fell apart. Somehow, through very hard years I managed to keep running and hold together the semblance of being functional. But I was desperately unhappy. I have fallen apart, and that’s allowed me the space to rebuild, to create a new sense of self and to totally change how I relate to the rest of reality. The prospect of falling apart was terrifying, but the result has been healing. And when I fell, there were friends and family there to help me. There was all kinds of support from all sorts of official sorts of people. The system turned out to be a friend.

I don’t imagine this is the end of the journey. There is bound to be more to unpick, figure out and remake, but I’ve come to a point where it’s far more about going forward now, rather than looking back.