Tag Archives: relationship

Celebrating Friendship

I spend a lot of time on this blog writing about the ways in which human relationships can break down and go wrong. I think it needs exploring. However, there’s a lot to be said too about how good relationships work. I’m in the fortunate position of having an abundance of experience to draw on to write about good relationships.

Good relationships often don’t generate the same kind of drama that problematic ones do. What makes a relationship good tends not to be about massive, heroic acts. Most of us do not have to help Frodo carry the ring to Mordor nor do we have to help Harry defeat Voldemort. The material of our relationships is made of the fine details of everyday life. Small acts of care and kindness, support and assistance, generosity and encouragement.

I am in no doubt that life is better when we co-operate with each other rather than trying to compete. Life is easier when we share opportunities and resources. Life is happier when we enjoy each other’s successes rather than feeling jealous of them. If we see each other’s needs and concerns as opportunities to deepen relationships, rather than reasons for resentment, that helps as well.

It is interesting to ask how we share our lives with other people. What underpins our interactions? What do we want out of time spent together? What do we do together? Where is the joy between us? Can we talk about the big life issues when they come up? Can we laugh at life’s absurdities together? Can we hear each other? What can we share? And how often?

I have some profound relationships that are mostly made of emails and photos and shared creativity. I have people I see a few times a year at most, and it is always a delight to see them and to catch up. There are people I see every week, whose lives are increasingly intertwined with mine. There are people I see every day, and whose lives are inseparable from mine. Realities of time and space mean there are only a few people I can be totally involved with, but I am continually moved and delighted by the sheer number of totally awesome, lovely and inspiring people I know.

This weekend I will be at Asylum in Lincoln – a massive steampunk event. I’ll be seeing some of those people who I only get to spend time with occasionally. In the meantime, the blog will be populated with guest content from some of the splendid creative folk I know online – some of whom I have never met in person. As life has thrown me some curve-balls recently, I won’t be doing as much book reviewing into the autumn. I am throwing that Sunday slot open to guest bloggers, so if you’re interested, leave a comment and I’ll get in touch. If you’re unsure as to what might work, look at the categories list for ideas… As the year turns, I’ll be asking how we can help each other, who –specifically – I can help to best effect and what collective good we might do.


Good Friends

I think it’s interesting to ask what makes for good friendship. I expect a wide range of answers are available, as we all have different feelings and needs.  Is friendship a description of a relationship? Or might it be something we do for each other? You can choose to be a good friend to someone when very little is offered in return. You can choose to act as a good friend to someone in the short term to help them in some way – this may be someone with whom you will not have an ongoing relationship. How much give does friendship call for, and how much reciprocity?

While it can be tempting to think of friendship as an arena in which we can heroically practice the art of sacrificing ourselves for love, massively one sided relationships do not do anyone much good for the longer term. It can be really demoralising feeling that people stick around to help you because they feel sorry for you. A relationship based on pity, and on other people being heroic, is not a good relationship to be in. That kind of friendship can help a person feel small and stay put, or it can create weird power flows around who has the biggest crisis, the most problems etc.

For me, the most rewarding friendships are based on mutual enthusiasm – liking what a person does and how they do it, how they think and respond and how they are to be around. We don’t have to be doing anything for each other if we can enjoy doing things together. That in turn is underpinned by care and respect. I think highly of my friends, and over time, what they do justifies my belief in them. I care about them, I care about their successes and setbacks, their aspirations and challenges. I like to be cared about in these kinds of ways, as well.

There have been people along the way who clearly didn’t respect me or much care for me, and wanted me to know what hard work I was. People who have to tolerate me in some way or find me a struggle. I’ve no idea why anyone thinks that kind of self sacrifice is attractive. If you don’t like me, move on, with my blessings. I don’t need to be put up with. I don’t need people having to make a massive effort to cope with me. I’d rather be entirely alone than have that role in anyone’s life. Not that this has ever been necessary.

When we run on a scarcity model, it can be tempting to hang on tight to anyone who stops long enough to let us do that. When we imagine there won’t be many people we have anything in common with. After all, how many queer pagans with an interest in comics can there be in a small town like Stroud? (Plenty enough, in case you were wondering).  How many creative people are there in a small town like Stroud? (more than I can get to know). How many druids are there… and so on and so forth. For any of the things that matter to me, for any of the overlapping areas, I can find people. I don’t think Stroud is that exceptional. Interesting people are everywhere.

How much do we owe it to people to include them? How much do we owe it to each other to provide one sided care? How much should we make ourselves available as resources, and make what we have available? How much crap should we tolerate from each other in the name of friendship? There’s clearly no one right place to draw the lines here, but the act of drawing lines is important.

Humans are social creatures. We all have a need for care and contact. Draw your lines in the wrong place, give too much in exchange for little or nothing, and it will eventually wear you down.  No one is an infinite resource. Ask too much of the people around you and you’ll find they can’t sustain it. Accept too much of the shit and you’ll take damage. Dish out too much crap and people will move away from you. We all have hard times and rough patches, and we all need to be supported through those, but friendship requires balance. It calls for respect, for mutual concern, and for scope to take delight in each other. If we do not find joy in each other’s company, it isn’t going to function as a friendship.

Dealing with broken trust

Betrayal is a normal human experience. Having gone a few rounds with it myself, I’ve come to the conclusion that the worst of the pain and damage betrayal causes is not about the immediate harm done. It’s about my relationship with reality.

Partly this is because my sense of self is relational. I don’t see myself as a discreet unit. Who I am is informed by who I interact with and how I interact with them. Who I love, who I invest in, and who I spend my time with shapes my identity. If I trust someone and they betray that trust, I am left questioning who I am. The more invested I was, the more disorientating it is. I then have to decide whether the broken trust is somehow my fault – I know I am pre-disposed to self blame. I question whether I deserved it and what it says about me. On several occasions of back-stabbing, I’ve just had to retreat from everyone because it has left me feeling like I couldn’t do relationships with people at all. These days I am a good deal more resilient.

When we invest trust in a person, we invest in them as part of our reality. When they break that trust, it can be world shattering. I’ve been round this a few times now, and for reasons of comfort am going to focus on the oldest example I’ve experienced. I was in my early twenties, and I worked with someone for a year. At the end of that year, it became obvious that I’d been lied to at every turn, used, and compromised. The worst of the damage was done to someone else. My reality was broken. I no longer knew what was real, or what I could trust. It took me a long time to pick the truth from the lies, and I felt very unstable and vulnerable as I was doing it.

I’ve had to repeat that process several times now, with varying degrees of severity. I note that the shock to my sense of what’s real is the hardest thing to take. I watch myself flailing about trying to make a new story that accommodates everything. I doubt myself – how could I have been so blind, so foolish, so naive? Is this what happens to people who are too trusting? Should I harden myself, close my heart, keep everyone out… Each time I’ve been round this I’ve taken the conscious decision not to let whatever’s happened become the story my life revolves around. I choose not to treat anyone based on the ways I have been betrayed by those I trusted. I give other people second chances and third chances and opportunities to do better. I keep my heart open, even when openness feels like a bleeding wound. It is a choice.

Not all betrayals are deliberate, some are just awkward collisions of people on different trajectories who mean each other no harm but cannot help the damage done. It does not take long to see that in a set of experiences. The normal ending of a romantic relationship can be much that way. What feels like betrayal at the time softens with perspective, becomes understandable and easier to let go of. Deliberate betrayal is a whole other thing. It’s usually full of lies and the intent to mislead. It may well include the intention to cause harm and inflict suffering. It may want your money or other resources, it may just be in it for the pleasure of seeing you knocked down. It encourages you to see the worst in everyone.

I think back over the people who I know have deliberately betrayed me in this sort of way. I note that none of them were happy or confident, even though most presented as really sure of themselves. I note that there was a lot wrong in their lives, and where I know how it played out after me, that remains the case. I think they were all so invested in the idea of being unlovable, that they would break the person who loved them rather than change their own story. Which is tragic. Most people, given some safe space to thrive in, will thrive. Some people are so wounded in themselves that they have to fail, they have to ruin everything so as to confirm their own stories about their own identity. Of course it’s disorientating when you get caught up in someone else’s madness in that way. But, the one thing that cannot be done, is to save a person from themselves. Only they can do that.

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.

Long term relationships

It’s easy to get excited about another person in the short term. Some of that has to do with the chemistry of sexual attraction and all the mad, glorious things that does to us, briefly. Emotional, intellectual, even spiritual attractions to people can be very intense at the exciting, beginning period, and then fade over time. We’ve heard all their stories. We’ve found out more of who they really are, and they turn out to be as flawed as everyone else. The promised magic of those early days turns out to be just another illusion.

This is something I’ve been talking about a lot with my other half, having spent most of our time together over the last seven years. We’ve both been in other relationships in the past, and this one, is definitely different.

One of the conclusions we came to is that we don’t treat our relationship as a defined, settled tidy thing. We never will. We check in with each other, and things change. We’ve both changed a great deal since we got involved, but rather than growing apart, we’ve grown together.

We make a point of being interesting, and being interested. We do things for each other and we do things together – not as some kind of special occasion activity, but as a default setting for daily life.

It is very easy for established relationships of any shape to become habit, and thus become dull and lacklustre. Once we think we know each other. Once we’ve settled into a nice routine. Once we don’t think we need to ask, or check, or discuss. When people take each other for granted, they don’t give the other person any room to change, and when the other person changes, they miss it, and it can so easily spiral out of control from there. Hold someone to the needs, beliefs, hope and desires they had when you first met them, and ten years later you will not be dealing with the reality of who they are.

Relationships that work are not boxes we make to shut ourselves into. A good relationship is made of deliberate choices – from moment to moment in every word, gesture, thought and action. A good relationship is about how we are when we wake up together in the morning. It’s what we do, and choose to do. An ongoing, deliberate process of commitment, exploration and care.

Non-competitive conversation

I hate competitive conversations. The sort that are all about point scoring, or arguing over hypothetical ideas. I am particularly unfond of being backed into the kind of corner where, having identified a problem, it’s all ‘and what are you going to do about that?’ Once it’s about imagining what governments should do, or what I might do if in charge of everything, I really don’t see the point. I am no fan of conversations where people are vying to prove who is the cleverest, by knocking holes in each other.

It is entirely possible to have exchanges that are purely about the exchange. To kick around ideas with no particular aim of proving anything, just to see what comes up along the way. Those are the conversations in which I do take on new ideas and in which I can be persuaded to change my mind. Not least because I am not then a ‘loser’ for doing so.

I like conversations where people share their truth, their experiences and stories, and witness each other, and make what sense they can of the compare and contrast options. Those tend to be both affirming and informative exchanges. They require really listening to each other, and really caring about what other people are saying.

When listening comes from a desire for one upmanship, it’s all about latching onto the points you can knock down, or twist in your favour. It’s about looking for mistakes, or places people may not be able to quote dates and stats off the top of their heads. And it means knowing all those things will be done to you when you try to speak. I find this stuff exhausting. It’s part of why I try to avoid meetings, and why I don’t do certain kinds of politics anymore.

When listening is about the desire to really hear and understand what the other person is saying, it’s a whole other process. Not just listening carefully to the words, but to the tone of voice and the body language. Not listening to see what you can do with it, but listening to try and grasp what the other person wants to express to you. It means asking questions for clarity. “Do you mean…?” “Is that like…?”

There are conversations that can only keep us on our toes, dancing cautiously around each other like boxers, watching the opponent to try and predict the next blow, or land our own. There other are conversations that enrich us and bring us into greater depth of understanding, greater harmony, greater intimacy. For some time now I’ve been trying to avoid the competitive conversations, I think I’m going to be clearer at expressing my dislike for them and my unwillingness to join in.

Presence and Druidry

What does it mean to be present in the moment as a Druid? For me, it has come to mean being in an active state of relationship and engagement with whatever is around me. That doesn’t have to mean being silent – although silence is fine. It doesn’t require me to be ‘alone’, although being the only human is workable, and some humans demand all that active engagement and make it trickier to engage with the non-human. It certainly doesn’t call for bodily stillness, inner stillness or inner silence.

I measure my presence and connection by my ability to notice and respond to other presences. This may mean noticing details of light and the shape of the land. It may mean seeing birds, wild animals, noticing unusual flowers or seeing how the season is progressing. The more open I am to the wild world around me, the more of it I see. I can hold that openness when reading a book, looking up somehow, magically, as the buzzard spirals above me. I can sit at my computer and be open enough to look up when the nuthatches, woodpeckers and other small birds are active in the tree opposite. I’ve raised my head from work to see a heron fly right past my window. I can have conversations with humans while walking and still notice the deer, and stop for them.

I don’t have to greet the world with an empty head. There can be ideas bubbling away. I may have a song as an inner soundtrack, I may be just letting random thoughts collide, but I certainly don’t need inner silence to notice the dragonflies or to spot a tiger moth. I don’t see the flow of inspiration as any kind of distraction from spiritual work – why would I? Awen is sacred. Experiencing inspiration as thought, energy and emotion is part of what it means to me to be in a state of presence and connection. I am not wholly separate from the rest of the world. My thoughts and feelings are part of my process of experiencing and participating in existence.

Quality may be an important issue. The quality of a conversation, or of silence can vary considerably. The quality of the thoughts in my head. Is my inner soundtrack a beautiful and much loved piece of music or an awkward jangle of half remembered commercial pop? What is the quality of attention I am paying to my surroundings? Do I care about what I’m doing? Care creates depth, richness, and opens the way to a better quality of experience. A person can stare hard at the world and still see nothing, can be silent and still not really hear what’s around them, can see and hear, and still not be moved.

And what is Druidry if not a thinking and feeling participation in existence?

Bodies in close proximity

I’m odd about matters of touch. The majority of people I prefer to have a good four feet away from me, and I hate being touched by strangers or touched unexpectedly. Where I have deep bonds with people, I am a very tactile person.

I don’t like fleeting contact with strangers. I find it emotionally disturbing and disorientating and generally not worth it. If I’m going to invest in touching someone, and dropping my defences to do that, I want it to be moving towards deeper, soulful connection. I tend to find that my first physical encounters with other people are awkward and weird. It probably means I am awkward and weird to deal with initially.

I find it takes time. I need to learn how my body relates to the other person’s. There’s simple physical components here – height differences, and establishing what feels right and appropriate and what doesn’t. I may need to talk about it. There’s also the unpredictable body responses – sometimes my body reaction is to want to hug close and tight, and those people are usually really important to me.

There seems to be an assumption out there that we just magically know how to make contact with each other. This is especially true in romantic encounters. So, I’m going to put a hand up and say I really have no idea how to do this, not the first time. Give me a dozen times, a hundred, a thousand, and I will be able to move through your personal space with more grace and poise and touch in ways that work for both parties. For each person I encounter, it’ a process, and usually a slow one. I wish it was normal to talk more about these things, but many people shy away from it. I’m going to change that where I need to.

Reclaiming Attraction

There are quite a few people I’m attracted to. I know what a loaded statement that is, and in this culture that is both sexualised and prudish at the same time, to say ‘attraction’ is to imply sexual attraction. To imply sexual attraction is to suggest following through with action. Attraction becomes a hazardous thing, perhaps even a threat to the person it’s a reaction to.

I think attraction is something we need to reclaim for broader and heartfelt use. There are so many things to find attractive in other people. Their ideas and beliefs, their passions, obsessions, creativity. And yes, faces, bodies, physical presences but even that can be non-sexual and we could allow room for it. With those in place, allowing sexual attraction to be one form of attraction amongst many, it might be possible to openly hold relationships with all kinds of shapes.

Attraction means a desire to move towards. A yearning to be closer, a keenness for the company of the one who attracts. A catalyst for action of some sort. We have evolved to be social creatures. We are designed to interact with complex networks of some 150 people, we are meant to be attracted to each other in all kinds of ways. Attracted to skill, to leadership, to ideas, to companionship, kindness, warmth. The pulls of attraction thread together communities, if we let them.

Try and talk about it, and all too often it’s seen as troubling, or weird. My attraction causes repellence sometimes, like two north ends of magnets. All too often, we’re only allowing each other to act on all those many forms of attraction if nobody talks about it. As soon as something is named, a kind of fear enters the mix, and a backing away. I’ve experimented repeatedly with an assortment of people of various genders over a lot of years. My conclusion is that almost any relationship shape is feasible so long as no one admits to it. Honesty is usually more difficult. This, I do not find attractive.

Fear of vulnerability, fear of giving too much away, fear of being misunderstood, fear of the power of attraction itself. Having no safe language with which to honour the pull. Feeling an element of sexual attraction to the other person and being ashamed of it. There are lots of reasons a person may not want to be honest.

On the other side of this, I know people who are able to be honest and open hearted about attraction. Some do it with more grace than others, but it’s not necessarily predatory or promiscuous. It can be a warm, affirming thing to encounter, even when highly sexualised in nature. It can be a gift. To enjoy and admire another human being, to treat them as attractive can be uplifting, if the recipient isn’t afraid of it, and if the one expressing it is good at issues of boundary. Attraction as something given, rather than an attempt to take from the ‘object’ of desire.

I have people in my life who have owned all kinds of attractions – mutual attractions. When it can be held honestly, without fear, it becomes something else entirely. Even when there’s a buzz of chemistry that you don’t want to follow through on. Not being ashamed of it, not hiding it, giving it room to breathe, it becomes something else. Not an affair, not a hazard to emotional wellbeing, not a point of tension or weirdness but something warm and worth having.

I speculate that attraction is far more common than most people admit to. I think there’s a lot of it out there, unvoiced, unexpressed, held in fear and in shame. I don’t think we need to be ashamed of feeling pulls of attraction to each other. I think if we were all more honest about it we might all be happier. I think non-sexual attraction is something that deserves a lot more thought and attention, and that sexual attraction is something to stop shaming people over. Perhaps if we could hold attraction more openly, we’d be able to have deeper, more fully consensual, safer and happier relationships with each other, in and out of bed.

The price of romance

Valentine’s Day can be an uncomfortable time if you’re single and don’t want to be. It can be a challenge if you’re happily single but feeling pressured by all this focus on romance and coupleness. Not everyone wants, or can sustain long term relationships and not everyone is inclined towards the collective idea of romance. Dinner, flowers, chocolates, looking extra good and maybe getting laid if you do a decent enough job. Tears, rows, bitter disappointment and misery if it goes wrong.

Based on both observation and personal experience, Valentine’s Day is much more important in relationships that generally aren’t romantic. The focal points in the year – this, birthdays, anniversaries, Christmas – become times of really needing some sort of gesture from the other person. I see it most amongst women who are mothers to young children and who feel taken for granted. I honestly have no idea if men feel as pressured about these dates, and as in need of some obvious show of care and attention if they aren’t feeling it the rest of the time.

It’s not about spending money (or at least for me it isn’t). It’s the idea that the other person has taken the trouble, remembered, bothered, cared. When there aren’t many signs of that, the smallest gesture is worth a lot. It’s about needing some sign that you are loved. I’ve had birthdays that were forgotten, spent mother’s days alone doing the cooking, and many a Valentine’s day passed by ignored in my twenties. “We’ll go out and you can pick something’ is not much of an answer, if what you wanted was the other person to care enough to pick something for you.

I’m not doing much this year. There will be something – we might buy ourselves a box of chocolates to share, or go out for cake, and it being a Sunday, we’ll probably have a slow and snugly start to the day. Over the last five years of married life, Valentine’s Day and Christmas have become understated things. Birthdays we make more fuss about, and we always do something for our wedding anniversary. Usually these things are jointly planned.

The difference is that this relationship does not leave me looking around desperately for some signs of being cared for. That I am cared for is obvious, and woven in to every day. I hope I do as much of that in return.  We have dates – again not big showy things, but time for us. When there is a constant exchange of care and attention in a relationship, big romantic gestures aren’t needed in the same way. And when there are big romantic gestures, they’re triggered by something other than it being the 14th of February and some sense of ‘ought to’.

Big romantic gestures can be used to offset a general absence of care and romance. There are people for whom the answer to the emotional side of a relationship is to throw money at it, and buy expensive gifts now and then. Big gestures can be used to keep a relationship viable, to assuage guilt, to compensate for things that are lacking. I’ve had some experience of that, too. It’s a no-brainer for me – I’d much rather have the day to day expressions of love, affection, care and consideration, where those things show up in the details of how you treat each other, than any of the alternatives. For me, romance is not about money spent, but about the person who will flirt with me across the table any day.

Of course we’re encouraged to focus on the big gestures, not least because at key points in the year we’re being sold the idea of romance, or mother’s day or what Christmas *should* look like. We are relentlessly sold these big dates as focal points, and told what we should be buying to properly express out relationships. I don’t think it helps in the slightest.