Tag Archives: pagan

A body in a landscape

One of the reasons I’ve not written a Pagan book in quite some time, is that my practice has changed and I didn’t want to over-intellectualise the process. I realised that I needed to get out there and try things without setting myself up to think that I was going to come back and write a book about it afterwards, and in terms of my personal spiritual journey, that’s been a really good thing. I don’t find this blog gets in the way, because there’s always stuff going on that I want to talk about.

I love words, language and communication. Which at first made it a bit odd for me wanting to go into something that wasn’t about words, and where the communication wasn’t about dealing with other humans.

It was an idea that occurred to me while working on the Pagan Pilgrimage project. I was going to write a book about that, but was finding the writing process getting in the way. I hit on a phrase – walking my body into the landscape and the landscape into my body, and beyond that statement, there was no real place for words. Mostly there still isn’t, although I’m getting to the point where I feel a bit more able to talk about what I’m doing.

Too often, the use of planned and ritualised language can actually take us away from the living moment and all that is happening in it. If we go in knowing what we’re going to say, our words get between us and our experiences. We make the spiritual experience about the inside of our own heads and not about any relationship with what’s outside our heads. Wordless and without so much agenda, there’s room for other experiences.

I’ve become interested in how sounds impact on my body. I’ve become alert to how the shifting patterns of sun and shade affect my mood when I’m walking. There are places I’ve walked often enough over a long enough time now that the shape of them, and the rhythm of moving over them is very much inside me. I don’t have much language for expressing this well. I’m not even sure I should be looking for such a language. Perhaps it is enough to offer wordy gateways, because any expressing of my experience, is only ever that, and what’s called for here is the first hand encounter between body and place.

We need to put ourselves back into the landscape. We need to stop treating landscape as a pretty background in which to do our exclusively human things. We need to get over the idea of scenery and into the idea of relationship. We need to show up, in our bodies, with our senses, and be places. Be part of places, involved with them, not casual users passing through. Not so locked into our human-centric concerns that we don’t see the wood, or the trees.

Things happen when you do this. Things that are not translatable into human words. Body knowledge and awareness. Felt things. We change, when we let the landscape inhabit us. It is a good change and I recommend exploring it.

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Community is people

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

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

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

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

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

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


No Seasonal Pagan Shaming

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

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

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

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

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

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


Leadership and conflict

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


What makes a good community?

I’ve been asking a lot of questions lately about how we might do a better job as Pagans of being a community. So, here we go again!

Modern Pagans often only assemble to do Pagan things – moots, rituals, festivals, camps, conferences… I think this is true for people of other faiths too, in the west at any rate. We don’t live in our faith communities, our lives are fragmented and we do different bits of it with different people. Our Pagan ancestors lived together. They worked together, celebrated together, dealt with sickness and injury together, grew food together, and ate it together. They sold their wares to each other, married each other, gave life to the next Pagan generation together, raised their young folk together. We don’t do that.

For me, one of the defining qualities of a real community is that it has depth and breadth. People are involved with each other’s lives, interdependent, and connected in multiple ways. Now, with the way the world works at the moment, we can’t have Pagan villages to re-enact ancestral lifestyles. However, we can do more to create threads of connection between us.

Communities need to come together as big groups where people may only be loosely affiliated with each other. They also need to be able to hold within them many smaller groups, sometimes overlapping, where people are more closely involved. There has to be some room for fluidity – movement in and out of the big group, and movement between small groups, with new small groups forming at need and ones that are no longer needed falling away.

For a while when I lived in the Midlands, I think I managed something that worked on those terms. There was a moot, a folk club, a local ritual group, and a bigger more centralised ritual group drawing from a wider area. There were several meditation groups, the people who made the wicker man each year, and numerous musical configurations overlapping with those groups. It wasn’t all Pagan, but the Pagans tended to be the core of a lot of the things going on. It had a real energy to it.

It’s very difficult to run that as a top-down operation. I don’t recommend it. This kind of breadth of community works better and is more sustainable when it occurs in a more organic way. Key to developing it is good communication so that people can get involved with various aspects. It is really important that most of it does not end up too cliquey and exclusive. It also depends on no one being too power-hungry. If there’s someone who runs The Moot and it is their moot and the only moot in town, a new moot running on different terms for different people may cause unrest and trouble. If there’s someone who thinks they alone should run ritual in the area, or someone who objects to the Pagan knitting group as too fluffy, it can be hard work getting things sorted.

It takes a lot of people with will and patience to make a real community. It takes people who are not willing to be told what to do by people who want power over them. It takes a willingness to nurture diversity, make mistakes, give up on ideas, try new ones… and as we argue, negotiate, experiment, and evolve our way through various forms and configurations, we stand a chance of becoming something a bit more recognisable to our ancestors.


Alternative daily practice

When we talk about having a daily practice in Paganism, we tend to mean ritual, prayers and meditation – separately or in combination. That doesn’t work for everyone. However, doing something every day can be affirming and help you stay active in following your path, so here are some things that are worth trying. It’s important to do things you can sustain and that nourish you, and that suit how your mind and body works. Many more options exist.

Communing – just spending time with something else, be that a plant, a stone, a stream. Not doing anything necessarily, not asking anything, just being there, with whatever you’ve chosen to be with.

Getting outside – to walk, or stay still, or move slowly by any other means. To be on the land, and with it in a conscious way. To just let that happen to you and be open to what it does.

Making a deliberate sensory engagement with the world – be that looking, listening, touching or smelling (tasting is risky!) taking the time to connect with some other thing in a conscious way, but not necessarily with any intent beyond that.

Resting – for many of us, stopping is as difficult as it is necessary, but you can make resting a sacred act of honouring your animal body, and you can use it to make time for your animal body, and that can be powerful.

Creativity – creating is good for the soul. It doesn’t matter how good you are, or what anyone else might think of it. Whether you’re singing the half remembered pop songs of your youth, making exquisite ink drawings, learning to cook, dancing with just your hands… making time every day for something creative is a good way to let magic in to your life.

Some of us don’t have the heads or bodies for the kind of formal discipline some paths may suggest. Some of us really can’t do half an hour of meditation and may be panicked by the memes that say in that case we should be doing an hour. Making Paganism an every day thing does not have to mean hurting yourself or struggling, or fitting in to anyone else’s ideas of what a daily practice should even look like.


Pagan Community and predators

I’ve written plenty of posts critiquing aspects of the modern Pagan community, so I’m going to try henceforth to find more productive approaches. What can we do to mature as a community? How can we do a better job of things?

One of the underlying problems is the attraction and repulsion authority creates in Pagan circles. None of us wants to be told what to do. None of us wants there to be an outfit with the power to police their practice. However, it’s a different matter when some other Pagan is doing it wrong and we want someone to police their practice and make them stop. I’ve certainly been there and I know I’m not alone. Policing only works by consent, (leaving aside situations where policing is rooted in force)and it isn’t something we, as a set of people, are likely to consent to.

We don’t have collective approaches to witchwars, or to situations of genuine misconduct and we have no collectively strategy for telling one from the other. Obviously, an abuser is going to claim they are the victim of a witchwar. Obviously, anyone undertaking bitchraft is going to try and make out they are responding to a situation of someone else’s misconduct. I wish there were parallel Druid words for this, because it certainly isn’t a problem exclusive to witches! We don’t have anyone with the authority to step in and make a call, to investigate, or do anything else that might help us collectively deal with community problems.

If we insist that misconduct, bullying and other abuses of power are individual problems, then we are not a functioning community. We are leaving our least informed, least powerful, most vulnerable people open to predation. To function well as a community, we need ways for dealing with the problems that invariably arise between people. Scope for power and income attracts people who want power and money. Holding power can enable abusers to operate unchallenged. It happens in politics, in business, in celebrity circles and in other religions. We are not magically immune.

So, what can we do?

Firstly, if someone is accused of acting in a criminal way, support and encourage the victim to report it to the actual police. Fear of making our community look bad must always be less important than dealing with the problems. If you ever catch yourself wanting to protect Paganism by covering something up, remind yourself about how well that’s gone for the Catholic Church.

If there is, or appears to be a problem, encourage people to collect evidence – screen shots, for example. Write down the day, and if you can, the time things happen, write down exactly what was said. Keep those notes. You can show them to the police. Detail is key in proving that someone is out of order. Small acts of infringement may not be of interest to the police, but a record of dozens of them over months could well be.

Always look for the power balance. Abuse always involves a power imbalance, although that might not be easy to see at first glance. It is practically speaking very difficult to bully or use someone who has power over you. It is very easy to bully or misuse someone you have power over. We come back to the attraction and repulsion of authority here, because while Pagans can be really resentful of authority, we love our gurus as much as any other group does, and when we’ve set someone up as important, we can be reluctant to see what’s out of order.

It is a commonly held assumption that any sensible person will just get out of a bullying situation. It is important therefore to understand why people stay, and that staying is about vulnerability, not consent. People stay because they’ve been given reasons to fear leaving. They stay because gaslighting has damaged their ability to make good judgements. They stay because their self esteem is so trashed they don’t think they can find anything better. Victims can be surprisingly defensive of their abusers. If it takes someone years to get out or speak out, this does not undermine their claims.

As it stands, we may not have community solutions to community problems, but we don’t have to turn a blind eye to them. Be prepared to notice, to listen, to take seriously and if needs be, to take sides. Remember that to do nothing is not a neutral position, it means you are effectively supporting the abuser, if there is one. Sometimes there are two sides to a story, two people or groups, or more, equally responsible for the shit storm they’ve brewed up. Sometimes, there aren’t two sides, there’s someone lying and abusing, and someone suffering.

For some people, Paganism, magic, ritual and roles within the community are always going to look like opportunities for power. For a minority, that can play out as getting money, sex, influence or the freedom to hurt people. So, if you see someone wielding a lot of power, ask what that power serves. Does it serve the gods, the land, the community? Or does it serve the person wielding it?


Pagan Community – matters of access

To be a proper community, we need plenty of spaces people can access without having to pay. Many other religions have advantages over us in this regard – having physical spaces people can turn up to with a paid clergy on hand. Many other religions set the bar far lower than we do – a person need only show up to a church to be included in a service. Modern Paganism doesn’t recruit and fundraise in the way some religions do, which is also why we don’t have the infrastructure. I like us better for that, but it does mean we need to be careful about access.

I’ve been in and out of an assortment of big Pagan groups over the years. I have paid my way over the threshold, and, once in have usually felt some degree of belonging and involvement. Every time I’ve left somewhere, I’ve noticed how easy it is. How ‘community’ evaporates when I can’t, or won’t pay to carry on there.

In more local contexts, participation has often meant being able to afford to access the venue. Can I afford to go out for an evening? Do I have the clothes, the money for the door or a half of something? How am I going to get there, and back and who will take care of my child? For most of those questions, physical energy can be as much an issue for me as the financial cost.

The internet has given us a lot of space where people can meet. Many Pagans are still geographically isolated from other Pagans, and it is only via membership of the big groups or participation online that they can connect with other Pagans. However, the quality of online spaces isn’t what it could be. It’s very hard for a new seeker to tell what’s reliable and what’s wishful thinking, what’s trustworthy and what’s a bid to get into their wallet or pants. There are far more people who want to learn than there are teachers – that’s been an issue for decades. Much as I love the internet (here we all are, after all) there are things that can’t adequately be taught long distance and that need the energy and magic of being in the same place.

There are lots of reasons to set the bar high with access to our working groups. If you want to do serious Pagan stuff, then constantly having to educate newbies can be a real distraction from that. Not everyone wants to teach. Too much fluidity in a group makes it unstable and stops it feeling like the safe and intimate space many of us prefer for ritual. There isn’t really a space in a Pagan ritual for lay Pagans, you can’t be stood in a circle and not be an active participant, it just doesn’t work. So we can’t have the same casual attitude to people rocking up that a Christian church might have. What works for them doesn’t work for us.

I don’t think there are many widely applicable answers to the question of making the Pagan community accessible, and not dependant on jumping through hoops. It does however help to have slightly permeable edges to groups and to do the occasional public facing thing that allows the curious to make contact and have a look. The more groups are able to be a little bit available sometimes, the easier it is to answer this need without creating too much work for anyone.

I can’t help but feel that learning your Paganism from Facebook groups and chat rooms, and the odd blog, or even books, is probably about as good as learning all your sex style by watching pornography. There’s a lot of technical stuff that you will certainly pick up. But, odd things may happen to your expectations, and you may get some unhelpful ideas about how the relationships work. There is more we can do to make internet and book experiences more real and grounded, and less like magic-porn.


What makes a good teacher?

Whether you’re looking for a Pagan teacher to guide you on your spiritual path, or for other kinds of guidance, it is tempting to seek out the teachers who have it all figured out. The folk for whom life is good, spirituality is easy, who are totally on top of everything, get it all their own way and can tell you how to achieve that as well. The teachers who promise it will be easy, and happy and that the path is just made of good things.

Who isn’t attracted to good, easy and quickly available?

With non-spiritual teachers, I have noticed repeatedly that folk who do things easily and naturally are not usually great at teaching. They don’t always know what it’s like to not get a thing, or to struggle. They don’t have any tools for overcoming problems, because they’ve never had to overcome problems. I notice that I have to try hardest to teach the things I am actually good at, and can more easily teach someone to do the things I had to grapple hard with to learn. Teaching my son to swim was easy, because it was hard for me to learn. Teaching him ways round the things he struggles with on the essay writing side, has been much harder going.

My spiritual path has not always been smooth or easy. I’ve had doubts and setbacks, I lose direction, I worry about things. I do not have a perfectly smooth, flawlessly happy life in which everything is in line with my will. I’ve not found Druidry to be comfortably easy. It has brought me challenges, periods of struggle, and a lot of questions. I look at the teachers who say they have answers for everything, and I know (now) that it won’t work out well for me.

If the teacher is (appears to be) totally good, wise, right, experienced and able to make everything lovely, while the student is some awkward, sometimes malfunctioning lost soul like me, there is a likely outcome. The teacher will reject the student they cannot teach, fix or heal. It will be the student’s fault for being unteachable, not positive enough, not really trying. Been there, bought that t-shirt.

On the other hand, teachers who admit to being flawed and struggling humans too, who can get things wrong and have off days tend to have the insight to help others who are struggling. For me, Cat Treadwell is a great example of someone with deep and long term dedication to the Druid path who does not tell people they can easily have all the things. I’ve watched her battling against depression for years. Her dark nights of the soul led her to write Facing the Darkness, which is a truly helpful book for a Druid or Pagan who finds themselves in a bad place.

I’m not sure I believe there are people whose lives are just good karma and fairy dust all the way. It may be good PR to pitch yourself that way. It may sell more books and fill more places on courses, it may do the perpetrator more economic good, but I think that’s all it does. Sooner or later, most of us find something we stumble over or struggle with. Most of us don’t get what we want purely by visualising it and stroking our power symbols.

When you’re chasing the idea of the perfectly easy magic solution to all things you can spend a lot of time chasing, only to be let down over and over again. It can lead to feelings of failure and despair – all these magic positivity solutions to align you with your dreams and yet somehow your life is still hard and unsatisfying! I’ll follow the teacher who can show me how to get along as a flawed human with issues, not some image of shiny perfection I know I can’t live up to, and that will, based on experience, reject me when it turns out I can’t reflect all that shiny shininess back to them.


Snow Sisters – a review

This is the second Carol Lovekin novel I’ve read, and I love it. As with Ghostbird, I picked Snow Sisters up as a review copy.

This is a ghost story, and the young woman who does the haunting died young for reasons, and the reasons are awful. Be warned, there is enough detail to break your heart, anyone worried about possible triggering, feel free to comment and I’ll email you the relevant spoilers.

That said, this is not overall a grim or dark sort of book. Haunted, yes. Troubled, yes. Challenging, yes. But also intensely beautiful and ultimately hopeful.

The Snow Sisters are Meredith and Verity, teenagers in 1979, living in a remote house in Wales. Their mother, Allegra, is an artist, and allows herself free rein where artistic temperament is concerned. The house belongs to grandmother Mared, who is in London caring for her brother. This is very much a book about relationships between women, about mothering, and not mothering, about what it means to be sisters. The characters are all complex, flawed, human and fascinating. There are reasons to feel sympathy for all of them – although some more than others. We mostly see events unfold from Verity’s perspective, and while Verity does not think well of herself, she comes over as a very sympathetic person.

I admit I found the first few chapters a bit disorientating and had to re-read a few sections to properly get my bearings. There is a third person narration around the events of 1979. We also get first person narration from Angharad  the ghost, and present time first person narration from Verity. I think what also threw me was that I assumed Angharad would be part of Verity’s family tree, and she isn’t. The connection between the living girls and the dead one is all about the house.

That said, there are some interesting parallels in their lives around attitudes towards education. For some – Verity, Mared and Angharad, education is the way out, the route to freedom, adventure and self determination. For Allegra and Meredith, education looks like a trap. For Allegra’s father and Angharad’s father, education is wasted on girls.

For me, there’s an underlying question in this book about the degree to which women’s lives are shaped by men. For the historical figures, it seems this is the only way, and only Angharad has a sense that things could be different. Nonetheless, her life is entirely shaped by the men in it, and it is only in death that she’s able to connect meaningfully with other young women. Allegra’s life has also been shaped by her father, by a lost love, and in the end by a failed relationship with a man. She’s a person who doesn’t seem to know how to be a person in her own right without reference to masculine influence. We never really find out where Mared stands with all of this, but we do see something of what the snow sisters do to make their own lives on their own terms.

There’s a lot of Pagan content here, too – Mared and Meredith are both spell workers. There’s an inherently animist feel to the story – the house is definitely a character, there’s a garden that is also very much a character, and an attitude to nature and wild things that Pagan readers will find resonant.

This is a book I will be reading again. It’s a book I want to put into the hands of other women who are grappling with family legacies. It’s certainly a book I want my son to read. It’s beautifully written, full of wisdom, compassion and a deep understanding of the human heart at its best and worst. Highly recommended.

You can get it anywhere that sells books, and direct from the publisher here – http://www.honno.co.uk/dangos.php?ISBN=9781909983700