Tag Archives: Community

To be dependent is human

I write a lot about community because I think too much solitary individualism has harmed us all. There are too many things that cannot be done as an individual, and too many things that are really hard to do alone. There are also a lot of things that we do collectively and then try to ignore. This is especially true around harm we’re causing – climate change is a collective problem and yet we focus obsessively on individual solutions.

How dependent should we be on each other? At what point does dependence become unhealthy? Do we prioritise independence too much? How does ableism inform all of this? At the moment I have more questions than answers. What bothers me is the way in which dependence is pathologised, and treated as a problem to solve. Too needy, too clingy, codependent, enmeshed… at what point is it reasonable to be worried about how involved people are with each other?

I think the simple answer to this, is when it becomes controlling. When a person feels justified in controlling another person so that they feel secure, or needed or whatever it is they get out of it. If dependence turns into wanting to make people do things, a line needs to be drawn. There’s a great deal of needing people that is possible without having to take over their lives.

I’ve never been a very independent person. I’ve never lived on my own and I never want to do that. I would always choose to live communally. I’m very relationship oriented and by that I don’t just mean romance. I’ve tried living off-grid, and it’s exhausting. I don’t want to independently produce all my own food, for the same reasons. I want to live in a community. I want to share resources. I want to give, and borrow and lend and be part of an ecosystem.

My whole state of being in the world is people centred. I’ve only ever been interested in ritual as a community activity. Shared music spaces have always been really important to me. I’m in conversations about communal crafting. I’m happiest as a writer when I’m co-creating. I move towards community projects whenever I have the chance. Reading books is the only thing I’m really invested in doing on my own. Even that isn’t truly solitary, it’s an interaction with the author.

Unless you really are off grid, in a yurt of your own making, growing your own food from your saved seeds and wearing clothes spun from your own sheep, then your life is full of interactions. Even if you live alone, someone made your shelter, your food, your clothes. Someone touched your possessions before you did. People got sick and died so that you could have cheap things. Landscapes were impacted by your diet. We’re in constant relationship, and the idea of independence is a fantasy that insulates us from knowing what kind of impact we have.

We’re all participating in exploitation, in degradation of environments and in the destructive nonsense of capitalism. Individualism is just a way of ignoring this. We are all held by countless relationships, most of which are invisible to us. I’d rather be dependent on my relationships with my friends than, for example, getting my emotional viability by buying new clothes on a daily basis.

Community Spaces

One of the great things about libraries is that these are spaces you can be in where you don’t have to pay. Warm, dry spaces with seats and things to do, where you can be for hours, no questions asked. 

In the warmer weather, there are parks and green spaces – for some of us, at least. There are benches in the high street. However, for the greater part, your scope for community participation, social spaces, activities, entertainment and leisure all depend on your ability to pay to access the space in the first place. It means poverty increases social exclusion and with the cost of living rising, ever more people will be priced out of opportunities to meet people and to socialise.

There are people who are perfectly happy being alone. However, most humans are social creatures and suffer intensely from loneliness without enough human contact. Passing people in the streets and seeing them in shops is not an answer to social needs. It’s better when we can do things together, form bonds, share things and feel like we’re part of something.

Stroud has a great initiative on at the moment and I wanted to flag it up as an example of a good project. We have a market area in town, but for much of the time it isn’t used. It’s a mix of open space and partially sheltered space – well ventilated but ok on a wet day. This summer, the council are opening it for a lunchtime each week and inviting community music groups to perform in the space, and putting out chairs for anyone who wants to come along. Bring lunch. Bring children. Bring the dog. It’s all good. It’s free, and friendly and pretty safe.

These are the kinds of spaces we need. Spaces that invite participation, that create interest and that don’t cost participants anything.

Crime and Community

Last week when I posted about writing a murder mystery, HonourTheGodsBlog came in with some powerful comments. I’ve been thinking about that a lot. I’ve no first hand experience of how murder impacts on people. I was however a teen in Gloucestershire during the Fred West case, and that certainly had a widespread impact on many people in the area, not only those who were directly affected.

Crime is something we tend to treat as a very individual issue – with individual perpetrators and individual victims. It remains difficult to do anything about situations of negligence that harm people in more subtle ways. If a person steals because they are hungry, then framing the crime as the theft, and not the hunger has significant implications.

I’ve poked around in this as an issue before – it’s something I raised in the novel Letters Between Gentleman – which had a Victorian setting. The deaths of workers in factories and as a result of industrial processes was widespread, but it wasn’t considered to be murder. That’s a political choice with a lot of implications. We’ve seen considerable improvements in labour laws, but we aren’t currently looking at the enormous damage to health and quality of life caused by work stress and insecure work. It’s not like beating someone up in an alley, except that in some ways, it’s exactly like beating someone up in an alley.

We don’t treat wage theft by companies with anything like the attention we might give to someone who stole from the till. Politicians don’t end up in court when their policies cause people to starve to death, or freeze to death, or die homeless on the streets. Even when the lines of cause and effect are perfectly clear, we don’t treat these deaths as crimes or as murders. We’re more likely to take to court someone who killed accidentally and do them for manslaughter than we are to challenge someone whose policy has demonstrably killed multiple people. 

The difficulty is that murder is framed as the intentional killing of a specific person. We aren’t really set up to deal with the deliberate killing of non-specific people. We’ve got international laws about doing it based on race, but nothing to hold to account someone whose deliberate and knowing choices result in the deaths of thousands of elderly people in care homes. 

Making things for people

My inspiration has always been really people centred. I do my best work when I’m writing for specific people and when I’m interacting. I had a team for the Wherefore project who made suggestions and who were a keen audience and that me going through lockdown when isolation and anxiety might otherwise have made it hard for me to create. Usually when I’m working on a large project, I have some people in mind who I hope will like it.

Acknowledgements in books I’ve written tend to be all about the people I was writing for. There are some regulars. Some, like Lou and Merry are very visible in my online community. Some of them are secretive and like to stay in the background. I name no names. My immediate household are very supportive. It helps to have more input from more people – I can get through a lot of input, and I don’t want to burn anyone out. 

I’ve had a few more involved creative partners along the way. Varying degrees of intensity and commitment on that score. I had a fabulous time writing a novel with Professor Elemental. I have a longstanding creative relationship with Tom, and we’re looking at how that will change after the graphic novels. Keith Errington has become a serious Hopeless Maine collaborator, and we’re exploring more territory there. I’m really enjoying writing for The Ominous Folk, and seeing how the performance and scratch theatre side evolves and who I can include in that.

I’m high maintenance around inspiration and needing people to interact with. I need a lot of engagement – it’s why I do things like writing blog posts and putting out the Wherefore series. Going away for months to write a book and coming back with a finished thing no one will see for ages isn’t really sustainable for me. I need the feedback, but more importantly I need to maintain a strong sense of who I’m doing this for. Thank you for reading and being part of that process!

There’s nothing like someone wanting something from me to get my brain working. It takes me places I can’t go on my own. If you’re ever reading this blog and wish I’d dig in more with a subject, or there’s something you haven’t seen me write about and wish I would, please say. That kind of feedback is really good for me.

Community and personal resilience

Being resilient is awful. Being encouraged to be resilient tends to mean making yourself keep going when you don’t really have the resources. Be that time, energy, money, health, bodily strength – keeping pushing on when you don’t have enough to push with is soul destroying. The longer you have to do it, the more damage you take. If you are well enough resourced to deal with a thing then you aren’t being resilient by dealing with it, you’re coping just fine.

Difficulty and challenge are inevitable. We all face setbacks. We all get knocked down. Having to pick yourself up and trudge on is not the only answer. Resilience is something we should be doing collectively. If we help each other, then it will less often be the case that the person who is least able to cope is obliged to bear the weight of a thing.

In a resilient community, people support each other and cover for each other. You do what you find easiest for yourself and others, and maybe someone else can pick up the thing you find prohibitively difficult. Or at least you don’t have to do it alone, if it is unavoidable. Rather than finding individual solutions to problems, we become each other’s solutions. Of course this depends on people being kind to each other, and being honest about what they can and cannot do. When we see it as an honour to help those around us, not an imposition, everything changes.

Imagine instead of having to crawl back up when you’ve been knocked down, being lifted by those around you. Imagine finding the ways in which you are especially capable and can help others. When we all lean a little on each other, we are collectively stronger than we could ever have been while standing alone.

Distress as a community issue

The worst experience you’ve ever had is going to inform your sense of perspective. I ran into this a lot when James was young, and it’s quite a process giving a child a framework in which to consider their experiences without invalidating how they feel about things. Distress should not be competitive, and the idea that you shouldn’t make a fuss because other people have it worse, is abhorrent.

How distressing something is depends a lot on how resourced you are. If you’re already at the margins, smaller things will have more power to break you. Getting the flu as a basically healthy person is different from getting the flu when you were already ill. From the outside, it isn’t easy to tell how overloaded someone else might be. 

Even so, in my experience it is often the people who are most privileged and most comfortable who make the most fuss about their setbacks. The more insulated a person is in a bubble of comfort, the more intolerant they are likely to be of other people’s struggles, too. Most of us are challenged and knocked about by life and most of us have more compassion and empathy for other people than that. Unfortunately the UK government appears to have a lot of whinging privilege in it at the moment.

Community is really important in all of this. Investing care in others – humans and non-humans alike will give us a context for our own experiences. Very little is new, most of us aren’t desperately original about the things we struggle with, and I think there’s a kind of beauty in that. We share so much common experience in our flawed humanity. When we talk about that and make the stories of our trials available to each other, we open up to compassion and empathy. It’s also a way of sharing knowledge, and if you’ve seen someone else go through something you’re much better prepared to deal with it if you encounter something similar.

I’m always uneasy about the people who constantly need to prove that they’re the biggest victim, the most hard done by, and the only one who should be getting attention. It’s not healthy. It’s vitally important to be able to look around and see what’s most urgent right now, or most fixable. When we look out for each other, we build resilience and resources. If we all sat in little puddles of self pity demanding that we be recognised as the one with the best sob story, nothing good would come of it. We all need room to express our woes, but doing that together is far more powerful. 

When we rage, and grieve and struggle together we can build things that are more than the sum of our misery.

Love is an Ecosystem

For some years now I’ve made green hearts for the climate action #showthelove campaign.

This year’s heart is more conceptual than usual. It’s all about ecosystems. It’s both a celebration of the natural world and a pushback against some of the toxic norms around romantic relationships. We all need to be part of ecosystems, and this includes emotional ecosystems. The idea that two people should be everything for each other is a really damaging one.

In a wood, branches and roots are in communication. The dead feed the living. Fungi interact with trees, and every tree supports a profusion of other beings. A human community should be very much the same. For humans to flourish, we need to be part of our surrounding ecosystems, too.

Love is life rejoicing in life.

Debunking the lone genius

I’ve been talking recently about meritocracy. I feel strongly that for meritocracy to work, one of the things we would have to do is give up the story of the lone genius. It’s not a true story, but it is a story that feeds into the idea that some people are more entitled to lead than others. 

Historically the lone genius has often been a man. Presenting him as a lone genius disappears from the story the ways in which that wasn’t true. We’re hearing more of the real stories now. There are many examples, historical and contemporary. Over here there’s one about John Le Carre and his wife – https://www.theguardian.com/books/2021/mar/13/my-father-was-famous-as-john-le-carre-my-mother-was-his-crucial-covert-collaborator

We might think about the way economist Adam Smith lived with his mum and completely ignored the role of unpaid labour (usually undertaken by women) in his economic models. Thoreau also left his mum’s critically important efforts out of his descriptions of living in a cabin and being a poet. 

No one is brilliant all by themselves. At the very least everyone is stood on the shoulders of the people who went before them in their field. We’re all shaped and influenced by the ideas, beliefs and actions of others. We overlook and downplay the role of supporting workers. But to clean the lab, or stop the scientist having a meltdown because they’ve not eaten properly, is also critically important. 

It’s important to name the team, and to acknowledge the community that makes anything possible. I’ve tried to be explicit about this around my own writing. I’m very aware of the people who make my work possible. The people who taught me as a younger human. The people who inspire me. The people who provide technical support, and practical support. 

Ideas, experts, creativity and all of that depend on community. When we put the community back into the story, then meritocracy will work in an entirely different way, I suspect.

Fictional Pagans

Over the years I’ve read all sorts of Pagan fiction – including material sent for consideration to publishers. One of the things I find curious is how popular the wheel of eight festivals often are in Pagan novels. In all kinds of different scenarios, historical, fantastical and futuristic, I’ve seen fictional people default to a kind of Paganism that has these eight festivals, and no others.

My understanding of Pagan history (patchy, I grant you) is that the eight festivals are a 20th century thing, and that there’s no real evidence of people anywhere celebrating all eight in the past. The eight are by no means all of the Pagan festivals available – every people, every pantheon has celebrations in addition to this. If you’re keen, you can celebrate a Pagan festival pretty much every day. There’s an incredible wealth of celebration out there to draw on.

Then there’s the local festivals for local people. Those aren’t always ritualistic exactly, but I can’t see cheese rolling without thinking of the sacrifice of human ankles… Local rituals mark significant local seasonal events, local history and provide celebration of your specific community. Not only are they a great way to add colour to the lives of your fictional Pagans, but they’re an excellent way of slipping in some elegant world building without having to give us a history lesson. For actual, living Pagans, local events and customs should be part of the wheel of the year because they ground you in your landscape and connect you to your ancestors of place.

One thing that can be said with confidence of Pagans historical and contemporary, is that we like to celebrate. We’re the people of the wine and the mead and the beer and the cider…. Feasting is part of our culture. We’re earthly, fleshy creatures and having a good time is intrinsic to who we are and what we do. This is not a spirituality based on the idea that life is full of temptations we have to resist. Paganism is joyful, life embracing and convivial. Think about how much we actually celebrate as the wheel of the year turns – cultural festivals, personal festivals, other people’s festivals… why would fictional Pagans be any different?

Inclusive thinking

One of the easiest and most problematic mistakes to make is simply to assume that everyone else we deal with is just like us. I’ve seen it in books and articles, in how people organise events and manage volunteers, and more. It tends to come from people who have enough privilege that they don’t have to pay attention to how privilege manifests in their lives. When you think you are normal, it’s a small step to thinking that anyone different is just being awkward or uncooperative and thus feeling no obligation to respond to their needs.

If you’re stepping into any kind of leadership /authority /author role as a Pagan, I think it’s incredibly important to consider how your notion of your own normality might impact on how you treat other people. It takes effort and empathy to look past your own experiences to learn about how the world works (or doesn’t) for other people. It takes effort and imagination to consider where your assumptions might make your efforts exclusive. It takes integrity and courage to look at how your beliefs might unwittingly have made you ableist, racist, sexist, classist. And it is so important to dig in and do the work.

If leadership is the comfortable acting for the benefit of the comfortable, while leaving the disadvantaged on the outside, it’s more about self indulgence than service. It is certainly the case that making everything totally inclusive for everybody tends to be both prohibitively difficult and expensive, because we operate within systems that are problematic. But that doesn’t mean you are free to not try.

This isn’t about the imaginary people who might want to get involved. Not being able to cater to the need of the imaginary people can just be a way of letting yourself off the hook. What matters most is to include the people who show up wanting to be included. The real ones who are in your immediate community.

Here are a few things you can do in this regard. 

  1. Be explicit that you are open to hearing from people about their access needs or barriers to attending.
  2. When people tell you about access issues and barriers, listen with respect and take them seriously.
  3. Try to find workarounds based on what you are being asked to do, trusting that the person asking you to improve inclusivity knows most about what would help them participate.
  4. Consider it your responsibility to enable participation.

If you aren’t acting as a leader in any capacity you can help by flagging up access issues when you see them, and by supporting people who ask for things to be made more inclusive. Amplify, affirm, take seriously and treat with respect people who need help around access.