Tag Archives: Community

Trusting your magic

I was in a conversation recently about trusting your own magic, and if/when/how to do that. It’s an interesting consideration.

What is your magic? Where is the enchantment in your life? It could be in your cooking, or in your ability to soothe others by listening to them. You may have magical green fingers for making plants grow. Or your magic could be more overtly woo-woo with premonitions, visions, conversations with the non-human, intuition and so forth. Simply identifying what there is about you that has magic in it – on whatever terms you want to use the word – is powerful.

Do you use that magic much? Do you trust it? Do you let it lead you? How real is it to you? What happens when you share it?

By its very nature, magic can be fragile, ephemeral stuff. Hard to trust that if the people around you have no room for magic in their lives. There are people who will try to disenchant you, and many of them will think they are doing you a favour with that. To trust your own magic and protect it if the people around you have no room for it, is hard.

As is the issue with so many things, going it alone is challenging. Being part of a community is sustaining. It’s easier to have some magical resilience if the people around you at least accept the role of magic in your life. It’s easier to feel magical if there are people who affirm your sense of enchantment. It’s easier to explore things if you have people to share ideas with or who can listen to your experiences. Magicians (like poets and mad scientists) are so often portrayed as lone figures, but in practice, to keep going as a magician (poet, mad scientist) it really helps not to be alone.

At its heart, having room for magic is just having room for wonder and possibility. You don’t need anything more than that. But how often do people simply shut wonder and possibility down?


Rites of passage

What is a rite of passage? The conventional definitions have a lot to do with our sex lives – birth, coming of age, marriage, with death the inevitable finale. Of course this means that some people would only have the chance to celebrate birth and death. I think there’s a lot to be said for taking a far more individual approach to rites of passage.

What do we need to honour, process or celebrate? What life events do we need witnessing and recognising by our families and communities? Looked at on these terms, the standard rites of passage are about relationships with the community changing. New arrivals, new adults, official relationships and death.  We need our wider networks to support us around these things, certainly.

There are many things that can radically change a person – things we seek and things we do not. Qualifications, injuries, work changes, recovery, friendship breakups, moving house, divorce. There are challenges and victories we encounter every day where we may need the witnessing and support  of those closest to us, at the very least.

Faced with a large and life changing event we don’t all default to wanting to gather our people together for a ritual to mark it. If you are doing regular community rituals though, it is a good thing to hold a space where people can say what’s going on for them and have that heard and acknowledged.

Some of our most life changing experiences may be too personal to want to share in this way. We may not always be comfortable with the changes happening to us. We may not be confident of support from our community or immediate family. It’s worth thinking about how our life changes impact on our relationships, and what we might do to support each other at such times.

It’s also worth thinking about what kind of community space we have to support dramatic life changes that don’t fit with whatever narratives we’ve had to that point. Life changing events can also be community changing events, and when we make space for these personal changes we also give our communities chance to grow, mature and become more interesting.


Soulmates

I’ve never liked the idea of the soulmate as a romantic consideration. That one perfect person who is so perfect that you are bound to them for all eternity. Your twin flame. The other half of you. I’ve been in some pretty intense relationships that did not endure. The person I thought might be the love of my life when I was nineteen. The person I thought might be the love of my life when I was twenty six… lovely people, but not my one true forever person, either of them.

I don’t like the idea that we are only complete in the context of a relationship. The focus on the one true love thing doesn’t work for me either. I’ve always been plural in my affections. The focus on romantic/sexual relationships when it comes to relationships of the soul also makes me uneasy. I like the concept of the soul friend, and I think that’s just as important when it comes to thinking about soul mates. Your most emotionally significant and enduring relationships might not be with the people you enjoy shagging. Not everyone has sex as their primary and most life-defining activity

I like the idea of soulmates as a plural and not exclusively romantic notion. Soul family, or tribe, or community. People who belong to your heart and who are in some way a part of you. They may not always be with you, but their influence always will be. People who are in relationship with your soul. Mates in the sense of chums, not mates in the sense of mating, necessarily.

That way, if a person comes into your life and they bring magic and resonance, you don’t have to dump the previous person who brought magic and resonance or downgrade them as less special. You can just have more of all of that. You don’t have to burden your sexual or domestic relationships with the pressure to be the most important person in all things for all eternity. You can base your most important relationships on what makes most sense to you – that might be about the people you dance with, or make music with, or do ritual with – they may be your soulmates.


Conforming to group identities

For a group identity to make any sense, there have to be edges that define it. There are many questions we should be asking of those edges in any groups we encounter.

Who gets to define the boundaries? Usually it will be the people with the most power and privilege. Sometimes it will be people outside of the group itself. When this happens, it is often to silence or dismiss people who are inconvenient to a majority, or to a dominant world view. The way in which non-Zionist Jews are excluded when non-Jewish people talk (ominously, I feel) about The Jews at the moment is a case in point, and a deeply unsettling one.

What happens to people who are pushed out? Do any options exist for them? To be unable to stay in a local community space because it’s full of sexist dinosaurs is horrible, but probably liveable with. To be unable to access medical support because your provider won’t deal with trans people, is a disaster.

What happens to people who cannot fit in the boundaries? Are they punished for this? Are they pushed out further if they don’t go along with the group narrative? How much diversity does the group tolerate? How much conformity is demanded? Who gets to decide who should be conforming to what, and how do they wield that power? Who gets to control the narrative of the group identity?

There is power in defining the narrative. It is also an opportunity that is available to the most powerful. People who have least power are most likely to be pushed to the edges by people who have the most power. What happens when someone from outside the group takes on an identity to try and distort the boundaries and norms of the group? This does seem to happen online, and happens for political reasons.

How do we hold our edges? What are we protecting and what are we willing to make room for? What do we do when we’re pushed to the margins, and what do we do if we see someone else being pushed out? When is that justified, and when does it need resisting? These are not questions with simple answers, but ones to keep asking any time we engage in group dynamics.


What is community?

This is a question I’ve asked repeatedly, and have been prompted to re-ask this week (thank you James Nichol) as I explore what is and isn’t working for me. James pointed out in the blog comments that my understanding of community likely isn’t the same as anyone else’s.

So, what do I think community should be? For me, it’s not about a vague feeling of kinship through having some stuff in common. It’s not the ‘community’ of a few Druids in a field for a long weekend. It’s not the accident of living in the same place, having the same skin colour, economic background or religion. What lives in my head is what I understand or imagine pre-industrial cultures to have been like. It may be an entirely romantic, unfounded notion. I may be holding something that has never properly existed, but, I don’t feel that’s the size of it.

Community for me is based on sharing. Sharing the risk, struggles and problems. Sharing the triumphs and successes. Community means not leaving anyone hungry or homeless. It means taking care of your sick, coming together for big projects, and honouring each other’s life journeys.

I think for most of us this manifests only in blood family, and not always then. The nature of our large towns and cities mean that in practice we need the state to organise most of this for us, we cannot do it amongst ourselves. But even so, I crave that grass roots care and mutual investment. I crave the kinds of scenarios where people give what they can, and what you get depends on what you needed, and I know exactly how Marxist that sounds. I’m no fan of communism as a system to inflict on people – I’m no fan of top-down anything.

I’m conscious that systems depending on kindness, mutual care and good will are open to exploitation. I know you need ways of working collectively to deal with anyone who doesn’t play fairly, who doesn’t give their best and takes far more than they need. We don’t currently have any state-based way of dealing with this. There are no restraints on what you can take if you exploit from a place of power and wealth.  It is the people in need who we police the most fiercely, and punish for taking more than they are ‘entitled’ to even when the state has decided that all they are entitled to do is freeze and starve.

Increasingly, the mechanics of community are being stripped out of our collective organisation and political schemes and this worries me greatly. It also makes me feel like the only reasonable response is to try and build from the bottom. If we help each other and take care of each other, so much the better. I see people doing this all the time, in all kinds of small ways and I note that the people who are giving the most and doing the most to take care of the people around them tend not to be that well off themselves.

I don’t know how we achieve community while people feel more entitled to hold private wealth than they feel obliged to take care of other people. I don’t know how we tackle systemic poverty when the people who benefit from the system keep telling each other it is a meritocracy. I do not want to live in a dog-eat-dog world, and I know also that eating other dogs is not a natural way for dogs to be, and that it describes a profoundly unhealthy situation.


What is Community?

For me, community has always meant people working co-operatively together for the longer term, sharing values, ideas, resources and making something that is more than the sum of its parts. ‘Community’ as a term gets banded about to mean ‘group of people with something in common’ when there’s not much community involved in it at all. For me, if involvement depends on ability to pay, it’s not a community. If you don’t look after each other, it’s not a community. I’ve been in a lot of spaces that have called themselves communities, or tribes. I’ve never managed to stay.

I tend to assume the problem is me. I can’t turn a blind eye to problems. Increasingly, I can’t remain silent about who isn’t in the room, who is excluded by the very way in which things are run. I can’t deal with people who want power over me specifically, or who are there to build a personal power-base. I’m very happy to deal with people who want the power to get things done, and very wary of people who just want power. If I care about spaces and am wholehearted about them and giving as much as I can, I can’t also be complacent about the things I find difficult. I don’t have the apathy that smoothes over problems, or the disinterest that allows a person to be calm, and professional detachment is beyond me.

My experience has been that I am never patient enough. I don’t give enough, I’m not sympathetic enough, or co-operative enough, or hard working enough, when dealing with people. I’ve never been in a space where I’ve been able to do enough to go from the peripheries to the middle. If there’s a designated ‘team druid’ or similar, I won’t be in it. The only exceptions have been spaces I’ve run myself.

I’ve never been able to work out what the differences are. Why some people are loved, cherished and valued apparently with little reference to what they do, and no matter what I do, I don’t get treated that way. I left one community a little after a chap was obliged to step down due to bankruptcy. He went with love and praise and was treated with honour and respect. I left shortly afterwards, unacknowledged, pushed out over other people’s anxieties that issues in my personal life could get in the way of the work. I’d not done anything wrong.  I had thrown everything I could at that space, I had pushed into burnout repeatedly, gone way outside my comfort zone, and it still wasn’t enough to feel like there was a place for me – and in the end, there was no place for me and I left feeling humiliated. It’s one example amongst many.

I left because I’d been accused of bullying, and the person accusing me tried to get me fired from my day job. I left because I just wanted to participate quietly, and the older men in the space kept pushing for my energy and attention. I left because I was so burned out I could no longer function. I left because I thought the person in charge of me was acting unfairly towards people I was responsible for and I couldn’t fix it. I left because I wasn’t given the information I needed to do the job properly, and because I was always outside of the key clique. I left because I’d stepped in to try and deal with a conflict and although the conflict sorted, I took so much damage that I couldn’t continue. I left because I was tired of feeling peripheral and making a lot of effort to be somewhere no one needed me. I leave.

The decision not to do any of that again has been a painful one. I crave community. I want to be part of something. But, I’ve never managed to stay in a community space I wasn’t running. I’ve tried, but this stuff is beyond me.


Being a bit rubbish with people

I’ve carried the idea that I was rubbish at dealing with people ever since I landed at playschool and found I had no idea how to relate to other kids. Shy and nervous, I did not do well socially at school, although I am blessed with some good friends from that period of my life. I’ve never found relationships with people very easy. I’ve spent my life to this point looking for places to belong. I’ve fallen out of all sorts of communities and spaces.

There are so many things I can’t cope with. Any situation in which a person needs to be tough, emotionally robust or able to deal with pushy people interested in power-over… I don’t cope. People who move goal posts. People who want everything you have and then rubbish you when they’ve burned you out. People who mock and belittle mental health problems. People who dish out all kinds of crap while expecting saintly patience in return… all of these things seem normal in spaces with people in, and I can’t deal with them.

I’ve started saying ‘I am rubbish at doing stuff with people’ out loud, and it is an incredible relief to own it. I can’t do spaces with people in, in the way that other people do. I can’t care insufficiently to just ignore problems. I’m not emotionally robust enough to deal with casual sexism, or spaces that can’t make allowances for the anxiety I suffer.

I’ve tried, and tried again, and failed, and failed again. I’ve had plenty of people along the way tell me what I rubbish person I am to deal with – I don’t give enough, I make too much fuss, I don’t forgive enough in them… and I’ve thrown so much energy into trying to prove I’m better than that.

And now I’ve stopped.

If I’m not good enough for someone else – fine, so be it, I will go away. If I’m not robust enough to function in a space, I will leave that space. I am a bit rubbish at dealing with people in the way that many of the people I have encountered expect to be dealt with. Fair enough. I cannot change me, and I cannot afford to stay in these kinds of fights, so I won’t.

I am a bit rubbish at doing stuff with people. And every time I say it, I feel a weight on me easing. I don’t know how much there is to let go of, how much more relief there is to find. I can’t do this stuff. I can’t do conventional workplaces and I can’t do community membership, and maybe that’s ok. Maybe I can just wander off and be my anxious, cranky self places that won’t be a problem, and the people who are ok with me can seek me out when they feel like it.

Maybe I never properly feel like I belong anywhere because there is nowhere I could belong. Maybe that’s ok. I’ve spent my whole life to this point aching for a place to belong, so putting that longing down is one of the most radical things I’ve ever done. What I want doesn’t exist, and there is no need to keep hurting myself trying to fit into spaces that aren’t there. I accept that I cannot do the things with people that have proved necessary in every community space I have ever explored. I can’t do it. There is so much relief in saying it, and a kind of grief for that which never was, but that’s ok.


Building relationships

One of the great mistakes people make around relationships of all shapes, is assuming they should just happen ‘naturally’ and with no effort. The relationship that works by magic seems to prove its own value and significance, which taps into a lot of the unhelpful stories we have about romance. However, it’s just as relevant when thinking about working partnerships, friendships, and how we create community.

There are things that tend to happen if we let relationships unfold in unconsidered ways. We bring all our habits and assumptions with us, unquestioned. We keep playing out our stories, our ancestral wounding, our family dramas and everything else that might limit us. In group situations, this can also lead to giving the loudest the most power, facilitating bullying, and excluding anyone who isn’t a neat fit for what the group considers normal. Able-bodied groups of people tend not to even notice the ways in which disabled people are excluded. White people can be totally oblivious to how their group is difficult for everyone else.

If you want functional, substantial and powerful relationships, you have to work at them. You have to look for those unspoken underlying assumptions and what they mean. You have to consider what the unspoken rules are and what effect they may be having. And then you have to talk about it – which can feel weird and exposed. However, when we collectively check our assumptions and question our beliefs, all kinds of interesting change becomes possible.

Communication doesn’t happen by magic. Inclusion is something you build. Making safe space is a consequence of considered effort, not happy accident. The reality of a relationship is there in every detail of how it plays out. Who has a voice? Who is allowed to disagree? Who gets the extra time? Who gets to do the work and who decides who gets to do the work? Whether you’re talking about a marriage, a start up business or a community group, these questions are necessary and need revisiting.

The trouble is, that for the people best served by this, there is the least incentive to make change. If you’re in the central clique with all the power and influence, do you want to open that up and let other people in? If you’ve rigged things so that they suit you, or such that people you don’t want to deal with can’t get involved, why would you change that? So often it comes to people on the margins pushing for inclusion against the resistance of people who have it all working nicely for them.

I’ve been in those spaces. I’ve gone up against the people who made themselves feel powerful by forming an inner cabal. I’ve challenged people who couldn’t see who wasn’t at the table because of their assumptions. I can’t say I’ve won a great deal of ground for anyone by doing this. It is a hard thing to do from the margins, and the comfortable middle of such arrangements seldom cares to be discomforted. Although, it is bloody amazing when that happens and very exciting and totally worth the effort.

When we let things evolve ‘naturally’ or ‘grow organically’ what this means in practice is that we give the most ease to those with the most power. If you can’t make it into the room, you don’t get to participate in growing it organically. If you find yourself in the middle of anything, look around to see if anyone wanted to be there but cannot get in. Take down barriers. Expand opportunities. Give people the chance to be involved and the chance to be heard. It’s a wonderful, radical, life changing thing to do. The relationships we make deliberately are so much richer and more enabling than the ones that we allow to carry on by default.


Community creativity

My local theatre festival happened over the weekend. I was, at various times, a paid worker in a venue, a performer, a volunteer and an audience member. I went to three of the ten venues and saw six of the forty shows. It was an intensive sort of weekend.

It struck me how innately good it is though, to be moving between those different roles. To be a performer, and also an audience member. To be someone who moves the chairs around, and someone working the door, and to experience an event from most of the available perspectives. These are wonderful opportunities to have. Over the weekend, it was very normal to see performers going to other people’s shows, and volunteers who had been on stage in other years.

We’re so used to being entertained by people who aren’t even in the room. Television and film give us distance between performer and audience, and no sense of moving about. If you watch alone at home there is, for most of us, no sense that other roles might be available. However, go to a community event like this and getting involved in some capacity is easy. There’s no barrier between performer and audience. No one is so grand that they can’t do a shift on a door, or help set a room up.

There’s also something very powerful about sharing this kind of experience with other people. Over the weekend I talked to other people about shows I had seen, shows they had seen, shows we had both seen – and that added depth to the whole experience. Performers talked to me about how their shows had gone. The feeling of involvement was delightful and made me realise how little most of us get of that in the normal scheme of things.

If you can only ever be an audience member, only a consumer of other people’s creativity, you miss out on a lot. I feel strongly that everyone who wants to should have the opportunity to be creative and expressive. The way in which we hive off creative roles for the few – especially at the level where you might earn enough to live on – frustrates me. It’s not how I want to do things.


Apple harvest

At the weekend, I had the lovely opportunity to be involved with harvesting and processing apples. It was a small, non-commercial thing, helping out friends whose garden has a lot of fruit trees. I picked apples, cut apples, spent quite a lot of time extracting juice from apples. I drank freshly squeezed apple juice – which is wonderful. Someone else made apple crumble, and we ate it together. There were some spontaneous bursts of collective singing, and an improvised apple shanty.

This kind of seasonal working and feasting creates not only a sense of community, but also a rich relationship with the time of year. For me, it also creates a sense of connection with ancestors. I’ve found that around jam making, preserving, making Christmas puddings and other seasonally specific domestic activities. I feel it at the first point in the year when I can hang washing outside. These are the things people have been doing for a very long time. The technology changes, a bit, the recipes evolve, the songs get new words, or new songs are added, but the essence remains the same.

Ever since the industrial revolution, working people have been sold an idea of convenience. That it is better for us to work just the one job, and buy most of what we need from other people who are doing just that as their job. Before then, most of us would have been much more involved with the practical realities of daily life. We get told all the time how much we want and need convenience – usually this information comes in the form of adverts for products.

We get told that doing a job the slow way and by hand is drudgery, old fashioned, and undesirable. My experience has always been that going the slow way gives me more. I can’t do it for everything all the time, in no small part because I don’t live in a space that would allow that. I need a bigger kitchen, some workshop room and a bit of garden. Maybe, one day this will be possible.

Self sufficiency is clearly hard work – but it also isn’t what most of our ancestors did. When you work together in a community, any given job doesn’t take so very long, and you can focus on what’s most urgent, and share the loads out and deploy people where they are more useful. As an ambidextrous person, I was able to work the apple juice machine faster than a single-handed person could, I enjoy the opportunities to use my hands that way. Other people are better suited to other things, and sharing the work out this way has its advantages.

Communal working for the good of your community has a very different feel from paid work. There’s more investment in doing the best possible job, there’s no incentive to rush, and there’s room to have fun while you’re doing it. ‘Convenience’ offers none of that.