Tag Archives: identity

Story Compass – a review

Story Compass offers the reader an interesting and original set of tools for self discovery. You could use it as a workbook, or as the basis of a set of retreats, read it flat out and take what suits you, or dip into it.

I think there are several kinds of people who would particularly benefit from this book. It’s very much aimed at the reader who wants to explore themselves in a contemplative way, and who needs tools and maps for this. It assumes that you’ve not done a deep dive into your ancestry, or the water you swim in, and that you have yet to figure out how your culture, background and life experiences have informed you.

It’s designed for people who are not squaring up to massive trauma legacies. If that’s you, then this probably isn’t the ideal book and you’ll need to find something more trauma informed.

I think this book also has ideas to offer to new bards. If you’re starting out on a creative path and figuring yourself out in relation to the work you want to do, there’s a lot here that’s usable. The relationship between self and creation, history and inspiration, how we draw on experience and work with the material of our own lives is all highly relevant.

Taking control of your own story, and being the teller of your own life can be an incredibly powerful and empowering process. The stories we tell define us, and if that is something you have no idea how to engage with, this is a book, and a process, to consider.

The writing style is easy going and enthusiastic. If you like the idea of taking your inner child on an adventure, then you’re going to love this. There’s a playful, open hearted tone to the whole thing – which isn’t for everyone. If you suspect you might find that patronising rather than engaging, you might well not get along with this book.

The work outlined in Story Compass can be approached in a number of ways. You could be fairly pragmatic about it and go for imaginative journaling and creative thinking. You could use it as a guide for visualisations and journey work and really go for that – depending on your needs and preferences. One of the things I liked is how unprescriptive the author is when it comes to these kinds of inner journeys. You’re given the gist of where to go and what to do, but how that plays out is very much down to you. It made me realise how normal it is to see this kind of practice described in a lot more detail, where you are told what spirits or ancestors are going to say to you. I found it refreshing to see such open ended explorations.

I came to this title as a book reviewer interested in working with story. It’s not come to me at a time when I could personally make much use of the contents – although twenty years ago it would have been a divine gift to encounter something like this. It means that a lot of what’s here is not material I’ve felt moved to test – I’ve already done this sort of work, in my own ways so there’s not much for me to delve into and unravel. However, I think the whole approach is useful and fertile, and likely to be worth exploring for anyone who is setting out on a journey of self discovery.

More on the publisher’s website – https://www.johnhuntpublishing.com/moon-books/our-books/story-compass-journey-discovery


Masks and Authenticity

We all wear masks some of the time. We adopt ways of being that are necessary or appropriate for the roles we are performing. Who you are as a family member is probably not who you are at work or when you are socialising. These kinds of masks can be effective, protective measures that help you get through aspects of your life. They can also be exhausting burdens. Too much time feeling fake can undermine your sense of who you are and crushes your spirits.

To what degree do we become the people others expect us to be? Are we playing out roles we have chosen, or ones we’ve been cast in, perhaps even without our knowledge. Handing out roles is one of the ways in which families pass trauma through generations. Family stories can sorely limit who you are allowed to be and this can be incredibly damaging.

Are you playing the part of ‘cog’ in the theatre production Crushed To Death By Capitalism? Are you playing a role based on how your society views your gender or sexual identity? Who are you allowed to be? What is forbidden? How much of yourself do you feel obliged to hide?

How much room do you give other people to be authentic with you? Are you using techniques like minimising, or toxic positivity to stop people sharing anything that might make you uncomfortable? Do you punish people for not knowing things, for being anxious or for getting things wrong? If you do, then they have to learn to be dishonest with you around anything difficult. How do you treat other people when they act outside of their designated role? Do you have room for that, or do you want everyone else to stay in their neatly labelled boxes?

Many adults seem to me to be involved in a great deal of pretending. They dress the part, learn the lines, collect the correct props. They do what they are supposed to do according to the people around them. Where the props and costumes are expensive, many even imagine that the performance makes them important. That they have more rights than other people. That laws do not apply to them. Some of these make-believe games are seriously out of control.

Authenticity is not something we can pursue solely as individuals. It’s something we have to do collectively, making space for each other to be real as well as questioning when and how we fake things. Sometimes it’s ok to fake things. Sometimes the job requires pasting a cheery fake smile on your face and making other people comfortable. But we should think carefully about the roles we ask other people to perform.


The trouble with being a person

One of my early memories is of going to playgroup for the first time, looking at the other children there and having no idea what to make of what I was seeing. Throughout my childhood, people and social situations were scary and incomprehensible. 

Over the years I’ve put in a lot of work trying to make sense of people – as individuals, and as groups. Being a person has never come naturally to me and I mostly feel that I just don’t qualify as one. I’m currently trying to imagine a more cheering approach to this, hence the picture. I’d probably cope better with all aspects of life if I had enormous, creatury ears. 

This was based on a photo of me. Something about the lighting and my head angle combined to make me look more like my mother and great grandmother than I usually do.


Choosing who to be

In my late teens, I set about deliberately constructing a set of values to live by, and some aspirations about the sort of person I wanted to be. My twenties brought me a lot of challenges. I was living with someone who went to some effort to make me feel awful, useless and miserable. The things I had tried to do were weaponised against me. He’d tell me, for example, that I looked down on everyone else and this was evidenced by my holding myself to higher standards than other people. How do you go about trying to be the best person you can be in face of someone who treats that like arrogance and superiority?

When I first started talking to Tom online, he offered me a reflection of myself that was wildly different from the feedback I was otherwise living with. I felt like a shabby, unacceptable sort of entity. At the same time I desperately wanted not to let him down. I wanted to be the person he thought I was. I think that did a lot to hold me together and to give me motives for doing my best.

I’ve thought for a long time that your most authentic self is the person you aspire to be, and work to become. That’s not easy to do when there’s someone in the mix who sees you as your worst possible self, attributes terrible motives to your every action and reduces any good you try and do to ’virtue signalling’. Based on what I see online, there are some people who cannot imagine any other person having genuinely good or kind motives. When you start from that belief, anything another person does that seems nice must in truth be really nasty, manipulative, part of some plot or scheme that is even worse than the honest misanthropy they themselves are in to.

There are qualities I try to develop in myself. I want to understand people, because for me that’s the best basis I have for compassion. I want to be kind, without that enabling other people to be unkind. I try to be patient, but I do struggle with that. I try to notice how my own assumptions colour my interpretations of events. I don ‘t really mind whether anyone else notices me doing these things – I’m not in it for the applause, it’s simply about how I want to be in the world and what I want informing my choices and actions. I don’t always get this stuff right, but I’m also trying to learn how to be kinder to myself when I mess up.

There are questions I’ve been asking myself a lot recently. Could I have been kinder? Could I have been more forgiving, or more generous? I know I’ve been dealing with things where my failure to understand the other person’s perspective really hasn’t been helping, but I don’t have a lot of information to go on. How much slack should I cut myself for the way panic can influence my responses? Am I allowing the other person in this situation the same kind of understanding if this is because they are panicking? Do I have unreasonable double standards?

What I’ve learned is this: I have no hope of being perfect for anyone all the time. What I can choose to be is as fair and as careful as I’m capable of. I can choose to try. I can act on my best understanding of what kind and reasonable look like in a given situation. I am allowed to protect myself if I’m overwhelmed or not able to cope. I need to be ok with being fallible, because I’m human and I make mistakes. I need to be ok with not always being good enough by other people’s standards, especially when what’s wanted of me hasn’t been made clear. How I’m doing in terms of being who I want to be is not something other people can measure for me, and I should not allow anyone to tell me whether I am good enough in that regard.


Half Human – fiction

It is a half human.
Half female.
Perfect prayer to make balance.
No bad, No good, JUST exist.

Do you see me? Do you see my otherness, my difference, or is what speaks to you the parts of me that are resonant, similar? Can you forgive my non-human half in recognition of the ways in which we are akin? Only half human, only half female, can you make that be enough?

How generous of you!

And you wonder why I do not rejoice.

Where is the being who can look at me and see wholeness, not fragments? Who is the person for whom I too would seem fully a person? Can you look at my many parts and see perfection? For I am whole in myself, I am true and real, and not a creature of pieces. My facets are not brokenness, this is not contradiction, it is a completeness that your apparent humanness cannot embrace.

I do not want your pity.

Don’t bring me kindness and tell me you understand how hard it must be for me.

Bring me the wild wonder of recognising my existence.

(First text piece and art by Dr Abbey)


Non-Binary Parent

In my twenties, the best term I had found was ‘psychologically androgenous’. I entered ‘motherhood’ and only then discovered that I was experiencing distress and horror around the way a gender identity was being assumed for me. I fought not to have my name replaced by ‘mummy’ – profoundly uncomfortable that adults in my life now thought I should be called that when speaking to my child. I didn’t want to go to mother and baby groups. I didn’t want a social life based on interacting with other mummies.

There’s nothing like giving birth for getting you shoved unceremoniously into other people’s gender ideas. We attach a lot of meaning to ‘motherhood’. After I gave birth, members of my own family took to sending me Mother’s Day cards, which made me feel bodily sick. I had no way of explaining what was happening to me or why it was all so difficult. I did not want all the cultural gender baggage of being a mummy. I just wanted to be a parent. It’s only in recent years that I’ve found any of the language to express this.

Gender identity isn’t a conscious choice. It’s only when your gender identity is out of kilter with how people treat you that you are likely to notice how what goes on inside does not match with social expectations. When inner experiences match how you are treated, you are likely to find your gender identity seems normal, natural and inevitable. When your inner experiences don’t match how you are treated, this can be confusing, distressing, and can make you feel very much an outsider, an ‘other’. 

 I spent my early years as a parent struggling with other people’s language, expectations and treatment of me. I struggled with assumptions about what my parent-status meant in terms who I was and what I was doing. “You don’t need to tell me what you’re doing,” my mother said. “I know what you’re doing.” At that point, the baby in my life was not the only thing going on. I’d stepped onto the Druid path and become active in my local Pagan community and that mattered too. She didn’t know what I was doing, and that my life did not 100% revolve around the child was unthinkable. I never wanted ‘parent’ to be the biggest part of my identity, I certainly never wanted ‘mother’ to be my identity.

Generally speaking our culture allows men to be parents and to also do other things. Men are not expected to give up their work, their hobbies, their social lives, to parent. Women can be under a lot of pressure to do any and all of that, and to make the child the centre of their being. My desire for children did not include a desire to mother them, or to sacrifice my life for theirs. I parented, and I kept working, and kept doing music and hanging out with people and did my best to have a life. 

I’m a person who was pregnant. I’m a person who has a womb, and for that matter a cervix. I’m a parent. I find it difficult when public discourse around gender insists that you can’t be a pregnant person, or a person with a womb, that these conditions mean woman, and mother. It feels like running face first into a wall. I have no desire to stop anyone else from identifying with femininity, womanhood,  motherhood or whatever else speaks to them. I struggle with the idea that my own discomfort with these terms somehow erases people who prefer to be identified as women.


Social identity and not fitting in

I’m trying to make sense of myself to figure out how to navigate life in ways that are more comfortable for me. In recent years, I’ve had quite a few people suggest to me that I might be autistic, and it’s something I’ve been looking at, because there are certainly areas of overlap.

I struggle with social situations. As a child I could see there were rules for interaction but had no idea what they were. As a teen I did a bit better in geek spaces, and favoured spaces where music or dance dominated, because these are things I can do. I’m fine if the structure is overt – as in a class or a folk club. I’m fine running a space because then I know who to be and what to do. Curiously, the social spaces I don’t find stressful are steampunk ones, and that may have given me the key to unlocking this, because at the same time, spaces dominated by straight women terrify me.

I have never known how to perform femininity. I wasn’t taught how to do it as a child, or given any of the usual props – no pretty shoes, no toys targeted at girls etc. My mother and grandmother did not perform femininity either so I didn’t learn it from my environment. All of the gender based aspects of social interaction made no sense to me as a child, but I also didn’t know that was something I was struggling with. I also wasn’t a tomboy, I didn’t have any idea how to perform ‘boy’ either. 

Many of the unspoken rules for social spaces involve gender performance. Those performances change over time for young humans, especially around how your gender is supposed to interact with the other gender. The child who cannot perform gender appears weird and incomprehensible to the children whose sense of self already has a strong gender identity wired in, and a strong binary sense of what gender means. I didn’t want the things little girls were supposed to want, or the things the little boys were supposed to want. I had missed all the gender stereotyping memos. I had no idea how to interact with anyone else.

Steampunk spaces are remarkably uninformed by gender. People wear what they like, enthuse about whatever they like, there’s not much social performance of gender, no expectation based on apparent gender. You might think with the dresses and corsets that there would be, but mostly, there isn’t. How I present socially actually works in a steampunk space.

I recognise and empathise with things autistic people say about navigating neurotypical spaces and the stress this causes. But I think for me the issue has been the way in which so much social interaction is underpinned by the expectation of, and performance of binary gender identities. I never understood what the rules might be, to be honest I still don’t really get how any of it works. I have no idea whether social interactions based on gender binaries are intrinsic for some people, or just constructs that they get along with – and perhaps it doesn’t matter. What I need for my own wellbeing are the spaces where gender performance isn’t a key part of social interaction, and if I’ve got that, I’m good.


Nature, culture and healing

What makes you feel like yourself? What do you do that gives you a sense of being fully present, alive and acting from a place of authenticity? Conversely, how much time do you spend in spaces where you have to pretend to be other than you are? What do you do that robs you of identity and leaves you numb, disengaged and dysfunctional?

One of the truly great things about being outside and alone is that you don’t have to perform. The elements do not require you to be other than you are. If your sense of self has been crushed by pressures and expectations, this time alone might be your best hope of healing and finding yourself. We don’t lose ourselves anything like as much as we have our identities taken from us.

We can end up feeling that we are the roles we are obliged to perform. If our work, our usefulness, our family identity is the only thing anyone else sees and interacts with, the result can be lonely and demoralising. We all need the room to be more than the utility we provide to others.

Running off into the wilderness can be a tempting antidote to this. But, humans put a lot of pressure on what wild nature remains. It might be more productive to stop looking to nature to heal us and start looking to human culture not to ravage us in the first place. A better work-life balance would do a lot to restore many people to themselves. A kinder, more inclusive, supportive and spacious society would really help too.


Adventures in body chemistry

It’s a curious question to ask how much of your sense of self pertains simply to hormones and body chemistry. I had my first serious run-in with this issue in my twenties, when I learned how much my attraction to a specific person had been based on how they smelled, and when that changed, the attraction vanished. It was a disorientating experience.

As I waft about in the weirdness that is the menopause, my hormones are doing all sorts of exciting things. I get surges at night, that feel like being hit by some sort of massive wave of emotions that are just body chemistry and not otherwise caused by anything. These can leave me weeping, or overwhelmed with anxiety. Again it’s disorientating because it doesn’t relate to anything else that is happening.

I’m fairly confident at this point that I used to produce a lot more testosterone than I do now. I was a tougher, pushier, more enthusiastic, more driven sort of person when younger. I miss my fighting spirit. I miss my ambition and determination, but it just isn’t there at the moment, and the trade-off seems to be less leg hair, and I’m not entirely persuaded it’s a good trade!

I know all sorts of things influence my mood. Blood sugar levels can be highly influential. Temperature has a big impact on me. 

What I experience as ‘me’ is the chemistry in my body. It’s informed by what I do and what I eat, and by the process of aging and the strange tides of fertility. I am a cluster of haunted molecules, and the molecules are at least as influential as whatever’s doing the haunting. It’s making me look hard at who I think I am, and what I think defines me. For all of the chemical chaos, I am still able to make a lot of choices and I still think that who I choose to be is the most authentic part of who I am. The chemical adventures are intrinsic to being me right now, but its what I do around that which will define me most to myself.


A sense of self

This is me, onstage at Festival at the Edge this summer. The photo was taken by Allan Price, and I was there doing a Hopeless Maine set (more of that over here – https://hopelessvendetta.wordpress.com/2021/07/20/ominous-folk/ )

I love being on stage. There’s a bit of me missing when performance isn’t part of what I do. I freely admit to craving the applause. More than that, though, I want to surprise, delight, amuse and inspire. I’m happier in myself when I can get out there and entertain people.

During lockdown I’ve done a lot of soul searching. I’ve not felt like myself, and part of that has been about not having the sort of engagement with people that I can have in person. Being on a stage again, I’ve felt more like myself. 

It’s rare for me to have a photo that captures something of how I want to be seen, but this one does. I am clearly ridiculous, with my sparkly horns. I’m wearing the waistcoat I made and embroidered – an act of creativity I am deeply proud of. Eccentric, and unapologetic about that. I didn’t put this outfit together with the aim of looking non-binary, but in many ways it captures that side of myself too. I’m still trying to figure out what I need to look like to feel comfortable, and this is the first time I feel I’ve nailed it. Being fluid and shifty, I will clearly also need to look like other things.

Who we are is such a curious mix of things. What we seem like on the inside, what we deliberately present or hide, how people interpret that, how we feel about those responses, and what we do. So much of my sense of self depends on what I do, what I put into the world. In theory ‘be yourself’ sounds like it should be the easiest option. Trying to figure out what that would mean remains an important area of exploration for me. In this photo at least, I’ve seen someone I recognise and feel comfortable with, and that’s unusual for me.