This week, Pagan Dawn magazine came out and in it was my final Quiet Revolution column. I’d written it every quarter for years. When I started, it made sense to be talking about lifestyle changes like not picking up single use plastic carrier bags. We’ve all come a long way since then. Over the years, I’ve talked about the need for radical changes to our lifestyles, culture, ways of working. Sometimes I’ve put this in a context of spells, prayers and acts of religious devotion.
This summer I made the decision to let the column go. Partly this came from feeling that I would not have the time moving forward. I’ve spent this year reducing the number of things I do. I need a gentler, slower paced life, and I need to focus on the projects that are working for me and where I think I can do my best. My quiet revolution work will continue here on the blog, and no doubt new energy and ideas will fill what space I leave behind in Pagan Dawn.
I’m ok with the amount of upheaval this last year or so has brought. Letting go and doing less are principles that are important to the kind of change I think we need. We aren’t likely to help ourselves or save the planet by working ourselves to death. It is better to slow down, do less, consume less. It’s also good to share out the opportunities.
I’ve cut right back on my volunteering. I’ve done a lot of service over the years, for various Pagan organisations. I feel good about not doing that anymore. I feel strongly that the most good I can do right now is going to come from what I do creatively, and that this is where I need to pour most of my energy.
There can be grief in letting go. It can be scary. Right now it feels good and necessary. My gut feeling is that I’m doing what I need to do – and I’m just going to trust that and see where the path takes me.
I’ve written a number of Pagan and Druid books, and of the ones published by Moon Books, Pagan Dreaming has been by far the least successful. It’s been out for years and has just broken through 500 sales. For perspective, the average book sells 3000 copies in its lifetime. Most of publishing does not look anything like those multi-million selling famous authors. For every massive international hit, there are many, many books that don’t even sell a hundred copies.
Part of the problem is that there are a lot of dream books out there, it’s a really saturated corner of the market. Most dream books are either dictionaries of meaning, or are focused on teaching you how to control your dreams, and these are not things I’m interested in. Much of the motivation for writing the book came from wanting to offer alternatives to the x=y approach to dream symbolism, and the idea that control is the goal.
The trouble with publishing is the assumption that people want more of what they already have. It’s perhaps less of an issue in Pagan publishing because it’s still a new area and we haven’t established hard rules in the way some genres have. Long may it continue so. As a reader I am not even slightly interested in reading books that are just like some other books I’ve read. I want to be surprised. I want something different. This is one of the reasons I read a lot of books from indy authors and small publishing houses.
Of course I’m not alone in this. Netflix are proving over and over that there is an audience for films and series that are not exactly like everything else. Books that are unusual can and do sell too.
The trouble is, that books, films, etc are all easier to sell if you can go ‘if you liked that other thing you’re going to love this.’ I’ve worked in marketing. There’s an obvious attraction to things that you can easily see how to pitch and who to pitch to. But that doesn’t get you the best books, or the most original books or the books that could actually sell the most. If no one has done it before, you have no idea if this is the book everyone is waiting for. It could be. It might not be.
Some authors are amazing and brilliant, timely and trendsetting and deserve every success. Some authors are successful because they’re really good at figuring out what people want from them and how to pitch it. Some authors are simply lucky, and catch the zeitgeist in some way. Some authors keep churning out the same thing and get enough marketing support and sell far more copies than perhaps they deserve to. It’s not a meritocracy.
I prefer to take risks, write things that interest me and hope for the best. I’ve tried to be commercially oriented, and frankly I don’t do that well. There are enough people who like what I do for it to feel worth doing. That’s enough.
One of the things Paganism doesn’t really do, is enable people to live full time as devotees to their path. Many religions have monasteries, allowing people to make a full time commitment to spirituality. Many religions have paid posts for priests so that the person called to work in their community has a viable way to do that.
This kind of infrastructure isn’t possible without the religion itself being organised and having a hierarchy. Pagans tend to rebel against that sort of thing. We mostly want to be independent and free to follow our own calling, but the trade off means that there are economic restrictions on following your own calling.
Yes, we have paid priests, but that income is occasional and unpredictable. Doing a job where part of the job involves chasing the work and trying to make yourself financially viable is a lot of extra job for the money and it takes a toll.
The calling to work as a Pagan can also take people into writing, healing, teaching, divination, making clothes, tools, and other materials, and offering guidance. None of these jobs pay a person much unless you also spend time promoting yourself and your work – this doesn’t always go down well and can lead to resentment. Pagans all too often resent it when other Pagans need to be paid for the work they do. The jobs that might make you a full time Pagan actually don’t make you a full time Pagan because of time spent on marketing and accountancy and business type things.
I don’t have an easy practical answer to any of this. Clearly there are a lot of Pagans who feel the call to be full time in just the way many people around the world feel called to centre their lives in their beliefs. We don’t have the support systems to make that possible and I doubt we ever will. But we’re also not really dealing with the implications of that. We could do a lot better in socially supporting our would-be full time Pagans and we could at least have a culture of treating people kindly when they step up to this way of working and being.
We exist in a capitalist society, and Pagans have bills to pay just like everyone else. Much of the work a person might do is not spiritually nourishing. Those of us able to do work we find ethical, rewarding and intrinsically worthwhile are in the minority. Not everyone can balance part time work with part time Paganism. At the same time, not everyone can afford to pay for the kind of work we want and need Pagan priests to do for us. The answer is not to get angry with our full time Pagans over this. As is so often the way of it, the actual solution will lie in dismantling capitalist systems, so that we can all live on better terms.
There’s not a lot of tradition to draw on for the equinoxes. In the autumn it can make sense to think about harvest and what’s being harvested locally. It can make sense to think about balance, and there’s also the modern tradition of Peace One Day to draw on.
As we approach the equinox, no doubt many Druids and Pagans are considering how they will celebrate. One of the big challenges for us is that most of us do not live close to the land. We are not celebrating the harvest we brought in.
The equinox is a time of balance between light and dark. For the urban Druid this means more streetlighting is on the way as the amount of daylight decreases. The idea of a ‘dark’ part of the year makes far less sense in an urban context. Most of us will not experience much darkness.
I think one of the great challenges for urban Druids (and that’s most of us) is to make sure we don’t end up worshipping an idea of nature that mostly exists in our heads and in our living rooms. It’s so easy to romanticise the natural world, or to embrace stories that suit us but are problematic. That we are heading towards the great sleep of winter is one of those.
Not everything hibernates, and for many people winter is a time of struggle, challenge and discomfort. Winter is only a time of sleepy gentleness if you can afford to heat your home, eat well and aren’t walking for transport in all weathers or working outside.
It’s always good to ask how our lives relate to the wheel of the year and to consider the relationship between our lived experiences and our stories about the seasons.
The first ritual I was invited to participate in through a moot I attended. At that point I was in my twenties. I was self-identifying as an eclectic Pagan, and I’d read very little about ritual. Back then, there weren’t many books about ritual to be had, and most of what there was, was Wiccan and I had read some and knew it wasn’t for me. I’d also never felt drawn to exploring any kind of solitary ritual.
I was given some lines. I took it all very seriously, learned my lines, thought about what to wear, invested in the idea of ritual and doing something sacred and significant. I was prepared, and wholehearted.
Unfortunately, the same could not be said of the chap running the ritual. He was not prepared and had not learned his lines. Quarters were called badly, while being read from a script he could barely see because it was dark, which seemed to surprise him. He laughed a lot – probably from nerves. The whole thing was an awkward mess and I felt embarrassed to be offering this to anyone or anything. I spent a lot of time towards the end of the ritual quietly apologising to anything that had been obliged to witness this shambles.
After the ritual, owls started calling. Some of the participants found this really validating. To me, it felt like forgiveness, for which I was deeply grateful.
After the ritual, it was also clear that the man running it felt it had gone really well. I did not go back for a second ritual with him. He also talked a lot about how important he felt imagination was for ritual. It’s an idea I rejected on the spot. It’s not enough to imagine. If ritual is going to be meaningful, it has to feel real, on whatever terms that can be a thing for you.
I’m not great in the heat. I’m not the sort of person to rush enthusiastically into the blazing sun with the expectation of being able to do stuff. However, the sun and the summer are part of the natural world, and furthermore, I pledged some time ago that I would undertake to love the world as climate chaos manifests, and not in spite of it.
How does a Pagan who does not cope well with hot weather honour the sun while trying not to go out in it?
On some of the really hot days I’ve been unable to function at all in the afternoon. I’ve had to flop out, and this has meant being entirely focused on the conditions, as I could think of little else. It’s possible to be intensely involved with the sun and the heat without being directly exposed.
I’m outside more at twilight. For me, the summer evenings and the night time are central to how I experience summer, because I can safely go out and do stuff. Twilight is as much part of the summer as the sun is, and many creatures are abroad at this time who also avoid the heat of the day. As the air cools, I notice where the ground and the brickwork are still hot from the day. I experience the residual heat. There’s something magical about being able to feel cold at night when the day has felt like being in a furnace.
Experiencing the sun is very different if you are under trees. This landscape should be wooded. Most of our ancestors had far more access to trees than we do. I’m lucky in that there is a shady cycle path close to my home, and I can be out on it without overheating. You can experience the sun in nature without being directly under the sky.
Humans do some rather odd things in response to heat when you compare us to other mammals. That we work, and don’t normally change our sleeping and eating habits in response to the conditions is unusual. Most mammals aren’t active when it’s hot. Anyone wearing a fur coat is obliged to take things gently in hot conditions. Anyone who isn’t wearing a fur coat is at high risk of sunburn.
I spent some time with some pigs recently, and in the hot part of the day they just flopped out in the shade. Many of us are not cut out for sun worship, and there’s nothing unnatural or un-Pagan about that.
I’m a long-standing fan of Lorna Smithers. Recently on her blog she wrote about her intention to stop writing because of the way it has impacted on her. I recognised what she was saying – that you can end up having all of your experiences filtered through the process of writing. It can feel a lot like strip-mining yourself, and you end up depleted, empty, a ravaged landscape.
It can be hard to be fully present in an experience if part of your brain is making notes so you can write about it later. It creates pressure around anything you do. It can actively get in the way of your personal, spiritual life. It is not good feeling like you’ve become a spectator sport.
I went round this some years ago when I realised that trying to write Pagan books was having a problematic impact on my own lived experience of being a Pagan. To deal with this, I’ve slowed down and taken a much less commercial approach.I write what I feel moved to write and I’m not trying to crank them out. One of the unfortunate features of publishing is that without regular new books, it’s hard to stay visible or get the sales. So be it. I’m not going to sacrifice my Druidry for the sake of writing about it.
I’ve been round this with the blog as well. I have rules. I don’t post about anything large and personal when it’s still raw, I give myself time to reflect and process. I focus on ideas and technical stuff and I don’t talk much about recent personal experience. I keep my most numinous experiences private. That’s helped me hold the feeling of sacredness. There are things I’m currently considering writing about that happened to me more than ten years ago – which feels like an appropriate distance.
There are tensions between what it takes to be a good and successful Pagan author, and what it takes to follow a Pagan path. For some of us, those tensions will be a bigger issue than for others. I’ve been able to find balances that work for me, but I have run headlong into these issues and bruised myself by so doing.
It’s important to hold something as sacred, secret, too personal to share. It’s important to not feel you have to do everything in public. Social media means you don’t have to be trying to become a Very Important Pagan to feel that pressure to share precious things in public. Hold what you need to hold. Even if teaching is your life, you do not owe it to anyone to expose more than you can bear. It’s good to be able to treasure things, and hold them close.
The Elemenpals is aimed specifically at infants, young children and early readers. It’s written in such a way that children too young to read independently can be read to and so that children who are beginning to read independently can manage with little help but still with adult supervision. I wanted the book to encourage family bonding time through shared reading experiences.
I know you’ve done a lot of studying of child development. How does that relate to your writing?
I’m currently working towards becoming a developmental psychologist and am particularly interested in neuro-developmental psychology and the way that children’s brain development affects, and is affected by, their behaviours, their personalities, their development of their sense of self and autonomy. The books were my way of empowering my own children to form a connection with nature and to explore their own narratives and self expression through finding parallels in nature and the elemental cycle and perception. I also wanted to include some neurominority characters who actually reflected my children’s experiences as most autistic characters in books only reflect the “classically autistic” narrative and none of my children relate with that at all as it’s such a narrow view. So Menme, the Spirit Imp, is non-verbal and, as you can see in the book, speaks with gestures, facial expression, body language and hand movements. This isn’t an obvious thing, it’s not a plot point. Menme just is and fits into the story authentically and organically and it was really important to me to do that well. As an autistic writer, I feel it’s part of my duty to include those narratives ethically.
Is this a Pagan book? the elemental aspect certainly suggests that it is? would it work for non-Pagans, could it get into schools under the radar?
The book is definitely based on Pagan beliefs and folklore but it’s the sort of folklore and belief that society has carried with it, protecting their Pagan heritage whether they knew it or not. The archetypes of Mother Earth, elemental beings and deities of sacred life such as rivers and trees are things that modern and Abrahamic beliefs could never quite quash and they’re the main theme of the book. I’d love for them to get into schools. Every aspect of them has been written with empowering children in their development at the forefront. My biggest dream for them would be to see them in schools. I’ve already written some classes that would work with the UK curriculum that could accompany them but that’s just how my mind works, I’m not sure they’ll ever be used.
Can you talk a bit more about what representation, or the lack of it means for children? How it impacts on them…
One of the most oppressed groups on this planet is children. Most adults believe that children should obey, shouldn’t “talk back” and don’t allow them any voice or autonomy. Our education system is designed to spit out conformists on a conveyer belt and punish any form of individuality from what they wear, to how they speak, even as far as policing their facial expressions which are mostly involuntary. It’s a mental health crisis waiting to happen! Except it is happening already. We are the product of that education system, we adults. The problem is that many of us perpetuate it and take agency away from children from the moment they’re born. Giving children some control over some aspects of their lives is extremely beneficial, teaching and empowering consent, emotion development, conscientiousness and more. How can we teach our young girls that their body is their own and that no one has the right to touch them without their consent on the one hand and then force them to wear what we say on the other? How can we teach our young boys that when a girl says no she means no if we do the same to them? For that matter, how do we teach boys that their own body is theirs and no one can touch them without their permission? Giving children agency and representation on how that agency can work in various settings is the only way to give them this power effectively.
How did you find your illustrator?
I’m not sure how Adam and I connected. Totally by accident, probably. We both have a love of wordplay and respectful debate and discourse so it was likely that we had a mutual friend and ended up chatting that way. But one day he saw that I’d written a children’s book and as he’s a published children’s author himself, we were discussing writing for children, one thing led to another and I had myself an illustrator who really understood my vision of what I wanted to convey in my books. The fun and whimsy of the characters, the fluctuating moods to expose children to as many emotional possibilities as we could, which is extremely beneficial for their emotion development and expression. Adam is incredibly talented, as a writer and performer, as well as an artist, and he understands my mind in a way that I feel is a must for people creating together in this way. The books are as much his hard work as mine but I know he’d argue with that.
We’re Pagan. We want to commune with nature. We want to be out there in the wilds, off the beaten track… Us and everyone else. The pandemic has led a lot more people outside. More people are having vacations closer to home this year, and this is putting far more pressure on the land.
It’s not just the people who rock up to litter beaches and poo in the Glastonbury fields while wild camping. It’s the increased traffic around beauty spots, and the damage done to landscapes just by too many people going through them. It’s people taking from spaces, and mistreating what’s there. Pagans can be just as guilty of this as anyone else. Our tea lights, inappropriate offerings and rubbish tied to trees are just as problematic as anyone else’s mess.
If you truly want to commune with the land rather than consuming and damaging, here are some suggestions.
Stay as close to home as you can. Explore the green spaces nearest to you and minimise driving. There are a lot of green spaces in urban environments and it’s great to explore those. Footpaths, cycle paths and tow paths are good. Lanes can be well worth exploring but you are at more risk from irresponsible drivers so be careful. If there’s an artificial surface, you aren’t going to cause erosion.
Stay on the footpath. If you go off the path you will damage plants and habitats. You may feel more magical and special, but the birds, insects and creatures you disturb won’t thank you for it.
Take nothing, leave nothing. Try to make sure you don’t need to shit in the bushes. Don’t leave shitty offerings that may harm the wildlife. Don’t light fires. Don’t burn anything, not incense, not candles, not anything. Don’t pour alcohol on the ground, it’s not good for the wildlife either. Don’t pick anything, don’t dig anything up. Windfalls are probably ok, but give serious thought to anything you think it would be ok to take home.
Don’t take your mountain bike offroad. Footpaths take a lot of damage from bikes, and in sensitive environments they can be really damaging. Don’t cycle over ancient monuments. I hope this is something no Pagan would ever consider doing, but I see so much of it happening that I have to mention it.
If we’re heading out into ‘nature’ because we want to be nourished and spiritually supported, we need to be alert to what it costs. The wild world is under immense pressure from humans and there’s nothing spiritual about adding to that. Any feelings of being special, exempt, entitled or important that justify why we should put pressure on wild things need serious scrutiny. There is a real and important issue around the impact of green spaces on mental health, but we can seek the green without harming the wildest places.
Alongside this, we need to push for more green urban spaces, more urban trees, and more safe places to walk. Imagine what a difference it would make if just a small percentage of urban parking spaces were given over to plants instead.
I’ve been interested in Pagan deities since childhood. I’m deeply attracted to the stories, and early on I was much more of an active polytheist, seeking relationship with deity. The reasons that I fell out of that are many. I’ve no problem with the idea that gods exist and that people interact with them, it just doesn’t work for me.
I struggle with the feudal language that always comes up around deity. It’s funny because there’s a massive sub streak in my nature but most of the time I have no desire to be in a relationship with a being who is so much more powerful than me. My urge to serve doesn’t translate into an urge to serve a deity, and I have no idea why.
I struggle with the gendered language. It’s taken me a while to figure out anything much about the ways in which gender doesn’t do it for me. So much of the language we have is so very gendered when it comes to deity. Some days I find Goddess material difficult because while I have a (mal)functioning womb, my experience of being embodied just doesn’t chime with a lot of what other people seem to be doing around Goddess worship. I know there are gender complicated deities out there, but none of them really speak to me either.
I struggle with the whole notion of anthropomorphic Gods, a lot of the time. I think humans tend to favour picturing Gods as a lot like humans because for many people that helps. For me, it’s a bit of a barrier. I don’t actually want the spirit of the land to show up with a human face and talk to me in my own language. For me, that would feel like a loss of magic, not a more accessible manifestation of deity. If I want to talk to the land, I talk to the land, and I don’t expect any kind of reply.
Around all of this, I have an experimental and intermittent prayer practice. I’ve found that it works best for me just to address things to the universe, or to any bit of the universe that might be listening and interested. I listen, on the off-chance there’s anything out there that wants to talk to me – and mostly there isn’t, which is fine. Most days, there is no reason at all for anything out there to take interest in me, and most of the time I feel that this is far better for me anyway. I’m not sure it would be at all healthy for me. I have too much hunger around wanting to feel special and important, and I think that would make me a problematic worshipper, and an even more problematic priest. Better to work through those issues in my own time than load that onto a relationship with a deity and risk where that might take me.