Tag Archives: pagans

Windowsill gardener

I don’t know how many times I’ve seen the suggestion that if you don’t have a garden, you can always grow some herbs on your windowsill. It reflects a lack of experience of life without gardens, and I think this is advice Pagans need to stop offering other Pagans about how to be greener.

Not all living spaces have windowsills. Boats don’t, caravans and static caravans don’t. Not all flats do, either. I have a friend who has no windowsills in her flat. Having a windowsill also doesn’t mean you have enough light to grow herbs. You might be able to grow ferns because those are shade-dwellers.

You have to get the plants from somewhere. If you’re the sort of person who doesn’t have a garden, you may also not have a car. Plants on the bus or taken for long walks are not reliably happy plants. Garden centres tend not to be in urban areas, so you may be limited to the things in pots you can get from supermarkets. Supermarket herbs in pots die.

Not having a garden can also be connected to poverty. You may not be able to afford plants. You may only be able to grow plants if other people give you plants. No one should be shamed for this.

Let’s imagine that you’ve got a flat, and you manage to grow plants in pots. After a while, the plants get bigger, and need potting up. You need soil to pot up a plant. You may have a nice friend with a garden and be able to move a little soil about. You may not. If you buy soil, it tends to come in large bags – larger than you need, larger than you may be able to store if you live in a small space. You might not be able to store pots, either. Of course you could buy plants and throw them away when they get difficult, but that’s not a very green solution.

Where are you going to pot up your plant? You may not have any safe outside space you can use, which leaves the choice of doing it in the kitchen or bathroom. If you’re renting, you cannot afford to mess up a carpet. Kitchens and bathrooms aren’t really designed for indoor gardeners, it is doable, but the smaller your space, the more awkward it all is. The less mobile you are, the less feasible it is. These are jobs that take both hands, and bags of soil are heavy. Not everyone can do it. As an indoor gardener, you won’t have gardening tools either. Yes, a lot can be done with spoons and knives from the kitchen, but if you’re worried about contaminating eating utensils, you might not want to go for that. And no, a set put aside may not be viable, because there may not be enough room even for that.

If the plant dies, what are you going to do with the remains, the pot and the soil? Disposing of a dead plant is part of its environmental impact. If you can’t do this well, then the green advantages of having it in the first place are questionable.

Yes, it is lovely to have houseplants and a garden, but if a person says they can’t do that, take them at their word and don’t make them feel awkward about it.

Advertisements

Druid rituals

When I first came to Druidry, quite some years ago, I was really excited about doing ritual. I prepared in advance, I learned anything I was going to contribute, I chose offerings with great thought, planned what I would wear, made bread especially and so on and so forth. My own enthusiastic participation gave a sense of importance to ritual, and I got a lot out of doing it, at first.

I was lucky enough to be able to do ritual with a number of groups in different places. What I found was that plenty of the people attending weren’t putting everything they had into ritual. They didn’t learn the words, they brought pre-packaged food to share, they entered ritual space chatting, not in the state of awe and reverence I was trying to cultivate. Some of them chatted once the ritual had begun. Many turned up late.

I learned that it isn’t easy doing ritual as a deeply involved personal practice when the people around you are simply having a nice day out and some social time. For a while, I was resentful of this.

Over the years I softened at the edges, and I started to see how much most people needed that gentle time in the woods or sacred sites or other outside places. They needed the time to catch up with other Pagans – I couldn’t ask people to rock up and do all night vigils, they needed time to be with each other. I came to see ritual as primarily a community activity. My role in it shifted from the quest for personal enlightenment towards a role of serving and facilitating the people who wanted to be there. I brought talking sticks and toasting goblets so that people could share what they needed to say, and be witnessed.

I never got on with solitary rituals. Left to myself, there are other, simpler and more private things I will do. I figured out, eventually, that this is because I thrive on having an audience. Give me a bunch of people in front of whom I can look all spiritual, and I’ll play up to the role. There are plenty of people who want to watch ritual as a form of theatrical action, rather than do their own thing. It’s easy to get grumpy about what other people are doing, or not doing, and not look at your own crap. ‘Look at me, I’m being all spiritual here’ is not the most spiritual of things to be doing, after all.


Pilgrimage to the flowers

In previous years I’ve managed both an Easter and a Beltain pilgrimage. The Easter walk talks me via two Iron Age hill forts to Gloucester Cathedral, and is very much a pilgrimage honouring the ancestors. Like most modern Pagans, I have my share of Christian ancestors, and the cathedral itself has family stories associated with it. The Beltain pilgrimage is all about wildflowers – bluebells, wood anemone, wild garlic. This year the flowers came before Easter, and I had to choose. I chose to honour the unsettlingly early flowering and to make my ancestral pilgrimage at some later point in the year.

Part of the route for my Beltain pilgrimage takes me along the edge of the Cotswolds, through an area dense with barrows. People have been walking that way – but not that path, I assume! – for thousands of years.

The flowers I go out to see, the garlic, anemones and bluebells, are all indicators of ancient woodland. It’s not my motivation, but it is certainly a bonus. Beech trees are not long lived, so the age of trees round here is not an easy indicator of woodland age.

It was a beautiful day. Bluebells in swathes, like a misty sea in the Woodchester valley. The scent of them subtle and gorgeous. Very small lambs out in the fields. We sat near some of them (but not too near so as not to cause alarm) to have lunch. As we ate, a raven sang to us from nearby trees, pausing for the odd fly past to make sure we didn’t miss any of its raven-ness. It’s such a distinctive voice though that we didn’t need to see in order to know. Later, we found the heronry, which we’d been looking for, and several herons who looked to be in the business of making more herons.

I have personal stories and family stories about Woodchester Valley. I have folklore and history as well. Repeatedly visiting an area at a specific time of year adds to the web of stories as things happening to us are woven into the tale of our relationship with the land. The year we saw a buzzard take a rabbit. The variations we’ve walked, the people we’ve walked with…

We walk fairly quietly, but it is about engagement and engagement includes the people around us. The valley is managed, and home to a lot of wild things. There was a large flock of tufted ducks, bigger than any group we’ve seen there before. Last autumn there were dragonflies in great number. It’s not a pilgrimage to somewhere, but a big, circular walk. It’s a pilgrimage into the land and the season, a deepening of relationship with place and a commitment to holding that connection.


Not doing Mother’s Day

Mother’s Day makes me profoundly uneasy, so I don’t do it. All the usual things can be said about how it makes life harder for those whose mothers are gone, those whose children did not survive, or never were… and it is a modern festival based on promoting consumerism. But those are not my major issues.

The modern tradition of mother’s day involves kids and/or dads making breakfast in bed for mum, who may be bought flowers, taken out for lunch, cooked for, or otherwise allowed some time off. My concern is that this functions in the same way as the Lord of Misrule and twelfth night carnivals did for feudalism. That basically this is a break from the norm that serves to reinforce the norm. And the norm does not include mum getting breakfast in bed, or someone else doing the cooking. It may serve to enforce the least good things about modern motherhood.

It’s worth noting that Father’s Day involves cards and gifts, but not the same emphasis on the pampering and certainly no flowers. I’ve yet to see a cafe or restaurant advocating that you take your Dad out for a Father’s Day lunch.

There are plenty of stats out there to suggest that while most women now work outside of the home, the majority of housework and childcare still falls largely to the women as well. I don’t want Mothering Sunday as a special day of my family being nice to me. I also don’t need it, because we’re a mutually supportive unit, and I am not the house elf. One day a year of being looked after isn’t enough for anyone, and even if you add the birthday and valentine’s day to the list, it’s still peculiar if you take a hard look at it.

Every day we all get opportunities to be nice to each other, to extend small kindnesses and gift each other in all kinds of ways. Much better that than an occasional blowout for the benefit of supermarket chocolate sales.

I have seen Pagans reinterpreting this day as celebrating femininity, or Mother Earth – I have no argument with any of that. I’m a big fan of people doing what makes sense to them, but I think we should always pause and question anything that becomes normal.


Holding up mirrors

We all hold up mirrors for each other, and use other people as mirrors. Often it’s not conscious, and often we have no idea whether the reflections we see are clear and true, or alarmingly distorted. Here are the methods I’ve been able to identify, there are probably others.

We project, and then see in the other person things we don’t like about ourselves. We don’t know that we’ve made the other person into our mirror, so we may well try to punish them for how uncomfortable the likeness makes us feel.

We assume that everyone is just like us and would naturally mirror our feelings and thought processes. When they fail to be this kind of mirror, we can get confused, upset and even angry.

We see things that, when other people do them, look terrible, tragic or otherwise uncomfortable. We may not be able to see it that way when we do all the same things to ourselves, but if we can recognise the mirroring in this situation, both parties can help and heal each other.

We can hold up mirrors made of compliments, encouragement, love and support so that the person we are showing the reflection to sees themselves in the best possible way. This can help them have faith in themselves to be that person, and more.

We see the worst in what a person does – all the flaws and inadequacies, all the scope for ghastly motives, and we reflect that back to them. We show them the worst of themselves, and undermine their sense of self with it, or make them angry and defensive. In reflecting and expecting the worst, we can push a person towards being and doing the worst that they can.

We can have beliefs about what it means to be the other sort of person – as Pagans we can still be hit with crazy ideas about what Paganism means. It can be disconcerting to be reflected back as the other person’s prejudices and unfounded assumptions. (Examples – you are not thin and therefore you are lazy. You are poor and therefore talentless. You are lgbt and therefore predatory etc).

If we’re really paying attention we can hold up mirrors that simply reflect back something true about how the other person is, but this is the least likely outcome, I suspect.

We won’t always be conscious of what we’re doing, but the more alert we can be to the idea of playing with reflections rather than reality, the more scope for spotting it we get, and in turn that means not having it take over.


Walking without conquest

We did not go to the top of the hill, and as we skirted the side, the thought came to me ‘feminist walker does not conqueror the summit’. Exploration and adventure can often involve the language of conquest. There can be something decidedly macho about the bid for the top, or for covering the distance. Look back at older explorers and adventurers, and there’s a language of penetration, as the man takes the landscape, and the landscape is female. This is something H. Rider Haggard took to a wilfully absurd extreme in King Solomon’s Mines (the mountains that are the breasts of Sheba, and the treasure cave are, when you look at the map, pretty unsubtle).

It’s easy to have even the tamest of walks turn into something that is about achievement, in a way that has a really interesting impact on our relationship with the land itself. The top of the hill is just as much about reaching the summit and looking down on everything as the top of a mountain might be. Not that there’s anything wrong with climbing things or getting to the highest point. The issue is how motives and intent affect experience. There is more to a hill than reaching the top of it, but if we’re only interested in the summit, we may miss a lot of things along the way.

This is perhaps doubly interesting  as an issue for Pagans. Many of us see land, or the Earth as a whole, in terms of goddess. Mother Earth, Gaia; if we understand this as her body, then how we walk upon it, is worth thinking about. Are we here to penetrate the forest, or the cave? Regardless of gender, we can cast ourselves in really macho roles in relation to our journeys.

It’s a different process to walk as someone who is interested in seeing how the landscape unfolds. Being someone for whom each wrinkle, each bump and curve, is important, and engaging. To be someone who seeks out not just the pretty, picturesque faces but is willing to walk through old industrial sites and new ones, along main roads, under motorways – this too is the land. The land does not always wear the face of a beautiful virgin goddess – if previous visitors have ravaged her, she may bear scars and open wounds, lines of sorrow, and she may seem hostile.

If we simply go to take, if we walk to possess and to be gratified, seeking only what is most pleasing to us, caring only for the face of the land where other humans have not bruised that face with careless treatment, we are still colonialists. Regardless of personal gender, we are still the man in the pith helmet who wants to penetrate virgin forests to bring back prizes. We don’t have to be that. We can walk in sympathy. We can walk with empathy and with a desire to know and understand, to be present rather than to conquer. Then we find that the side of the hill has its own precious qualities, different from the summit but no less worthy, and everything changes.


Earth Memories

I’ve recently had the pleasure of reading Llewelyn Powys’s collection of essays: Earth Memories, from the 1930s.

Some of the writing is exuberant and gorgeous, some is weighed down with despair about the inherent cruelty of the world. There’s an innate Paganism to it all that I think most modern Pagans will find utterly delightful. Below is a short excerpt by way of illustration – the words are so very relevant today, as are many of his observations…

“The way of the senses is the way of life. It is the people with their hands in the till and their eyes on heaven who ruin existence. There should be open-air temples in every town and village where philosophers could expound this soundest of doctrines. Why is half the population tormented with restraints, obedience to which in no way furthers the public good? Because the priests for generations have been confederate with the money makers, and they both know very well that if natural happiness were allowed the generations would no longer accept their shrewd worldly maxims, no longer be so docile, so easy to be exploited. Without doubt, half the ethical rules they din into our ears are designed to keep us at work.”

I found it an odd read in one regard – the assumption that the reader is male, which as a female reader left me feeling quite odd at times.  Otherwise, a wonderful read, and well worth your time.


Small books, big ideas

The trouble with introductory books in Pagansim, is that most of them keep introducing the same things – basic guides to well trodden paths tend to dominate. There’s a logic in this because it is in theory the biggest market and the author who becomes the definitive writer on how to be a what-have-you could do quite well. Except mostly this doesn’t happen and we get a proliferation of ‘how to do the things you already know how to do’ books, and from a reading perspective that’s not a great thing. What do you do once you’ve read a couple of introductions and want to go further? That transition out of beginner Pagan status can be immensely frustrating.

One of the things Moon Books is doing that I think has considerable merit, is offering an array of very small introductory books. Little and cheap, they don’t require a big investment of your time or money, which makes it easier to poke about and see what appeals. They are introductions to niches, small areas of thinking and practice introduced in more depth, which makes them handy for transitioning out of beginner status, and also useful for the more experienced Pagan reader who just likes to have some idea of what everyone else is up to. Kitchen Witchcraft, hedge riding, working with power animals, fairy witchcraft, pathworking through poetry, to name but a few. It’s a diverse set of books, and growing all the time as authors come up with new niches they want to explore. I’ve read many of them, the diversity is wonderful, and I’ve learned a fair bit.

There’s now a page where you can look at all of them, which is handy for browsing. Do check it out.

There is one of mine in here. Spirituality without Structure is in part a response to Alain du Botton’s Religion for Atheists. It’s a look at the nuts and bolts of religion, considering what religious experience does for us socially, psychologically, and in discernible real world terms to help a seeker figure out what it is they need. Even Pagans following a defined path tend to be on their own in terms of putting together a practice, and for that matter a belief system, and I think there’s much to be gained from asking how and why we do that, what we get out of it, and what it might cost us. There’s a trade-off between dogma and reassurance, conformity and authenticity, we have to weigh shared participation against personal experience often, too. I know from reader feedback that this is not a happy, uplifting sort of book full of joy and sunshine, but on the other hand if you need to poke around in the underpinnings of what you’re doing, it may prove helpful to you – I have had some good feedback on that score.

If you’re reading this, and have looked at the page and are thinking ‘but why isn’t there a book on…’ do please consider that you might have a job to do.

And you can get involved here – http://www.moon-books.net/jhp-get-published.html


A gathering of tribes

It’s interesting to think about where we fit and belong, the communities we call home and the relationships we have with them. I started pondering this a couple of days ago, and making notes, and the scale of it surprised me.

I have my blood family and the people I share history with – people who have lived in the same places, been through the same schools.

There’s the folk community – full of family ties and personal history. People I have played music with, people whose songs I sing, people I listen to. Also there’s the tribe that gathers for Genevieve Tudor’s folk program, and that’s an important weekly moment of belonging. I hope to put dancing back on that list.

I identify with the Pagan community, and with Druidry, and within that I belong a whole host of places – OBOD, The Druid Network, Druid Camp, Contemplative Druidry, Auroch grove, and through the bard side, it overlaps with the folk, and through my writing with the next lot…

Authors, book people, bloggers, readers, Moon Books, JHP fiction, other publishers. People I read and admire, storytellers, the local writing community and through those connections I branch out into…

Wider creative connections with artists, musicians, local creative folk, organisers of things, and I branch out into Steampunk, Comics, and geekery in general.

My Paganism also directs me to green activism, so that’s The Green Party, which is part of my local tribe, as is my engaging a bit with the Transition Network and other local, green, sustainable alternative outfits. People I know because they are local.

Eventually, I also managed to recognise that there are people who are in my life simply because they like what I do. I have a number of important connections based entirely on that.

Inevitably it’s the people who fit in more than one of those circles that I interact with most, because time is also a factor in all of this, and the more I share, the more time I tend to spend with someone. There are people I see once a year, or less, and there are people I pine for if I have to go more than a week, and I can manage an afternoon without Tom, but that’s my limit.

Of those people who I interact with in numerous ways, there are a few with whom I share creativity – either working together, or working alongside, swapping ideas and inspiration. This is a small tribe, and these relationships I pay a lot of attention to. They are the most defining ones in my life. It’s not any kind of coincidence that I married my artist… I am most emotionally invested in people with whom I can share creativity.

Beyond that, and overlapping with wider circles in all kinds of ways, is the tiny tribe I walk with. My most essential tribe.


Affirmation – Community

The exchange of affirmation is one of the core features of a viable and self-sustaining community. Without affirmation exchange, you probably have a group defined either by necessity or leadership, which will not survive the loss of either. To make a tribe, I firmly believe that you need to create an affirmation culture.

Affirmation can mean a number of things. Without getting bogged down in detail, here’s a quick list. Respect, gratitude, appreciation, encouragement, praise, compliments. Gestures that convey liking, enjoying, valuing and affection. Recognition that the person is needed, liked, valued, understood, accepted. Some or all of these things need to be expressed to take effect, and everyone must be to some degree involved in the process of affirming everyone else.

If affirmation primarily flows from one person to everyone else, you maybe have a benevolent tyrant, or a guru. Anyone excluded from affirmation will not get to feel like they are part of the tribe. In loose collections of people this can be a reasonable way of removing people who don’t fit. In families, is tends to be emotionally damaging for the unacceptable one. Equally, anyone who is not allowed to give affirmation is automatically afforded second class status. There is power in being able to distribute praise and implications for authority when praise is a common form of social currency.

I’ve started, led, and participated in a great many groups over the years. Groups with clear self awareness but permeable borders, I don’t like cliques and cults. I’ve watched what makes a group work, and what doesn’t. I have run as a benevolent dictator enough times. To be giver of praise and encouragement is a very easy way of making that role comfortable and useful, more an act of service than one of imposition. Benevolent dictatorships are good ways of getting things done, but they are not communities.

As Pagans we form into tribes of all kinds. Moot, grove, coven, learning circle, order and organisation. Sometimes for logistical reasons these have to have people running aspects of them, but that can be one role amongst many. Shared labour goes more naturally with free flowing affirmation, and people who freely exchange positivity are more likely to share responsibility and work. An affirmation culture makes you a good deal more aware of how other people see your input, and that can be a good counterbalance to those folk who make a lot of noise but otherwise contribute very little. In an affirmation culture, everyone has the right to judge you, and that in turn gives everyone a reason to be co-operative.

One person can define the nature of any group, if they’ve the will to do it. One person can shape the tribe they are in, and inform the society around them. Affirmation gets some really interesting results, some quickly, many over time. If you want a tribe, and a place to belong, affirmation might be the best way forwards. This is how we get cohesion and belonging.