Tag Archives: stories

Stories about ourselves

We all tell stories about ourselves. Humans are storytelling creatures and we like to make narrative sense of the world. We present ourselves to each other in the stories we tell about what we’ve done and seen, where we’ve been and who we’ve known. Many stories are very short and often we don’t notice them – as tellers or as audience, or what effect they might have.

I’m intrigued by people who tell stories about the sorts of people they are – that they are empathic people, or highly aware, sensitive, special – these come up around Paganism a fair bit. These are stories that tend to come from people who seem to be none of those things, in my experience. Then there are the people who want to tell a story about who you are – to measure you and demonstrate that they understand you. When there’s depth of relationship this can be valuable feedback, but it’s the empathic people who do it off the cuff I find least helpful.

No doubt we’re all inclined to make ourselves look good when we tell our stories. We want to pick out the best bits. At some point there’s a line to cross between a good retelling and an actual falsehood. That line is seldom easy to see.

One of the falsehoods I see frequently, and that I know to be harmful, is the habit of bigging yourself up. Social media is full of it – people putting their best self out there and doing their best to look like they have great and successful lives. I see authors doing it too – overplaying book sales, what ‘best seller’ on Amazon means, and the like. Success is attractive, is the theory. Who wants to buy from a moderately successful author? The trouble with this comes when you need help.

If you’ve been telling stories about how good you are, but those stories aren’t true, how can you ask for help? I’ve seen authors who have presented as successful start Patreons and not get any support – either because what fans they have believed the success story, or because they never had many fans in the first place. On the flip side, creators who are honest about how things work for them are often much better supported. Fans understand the struggle, and care and want to be involved. In practice, most creators don’t earn enough to live on and investing time in creativity alongside regular employment isn’t easy. But when you’ve overplayed your success, this is hard to talk about.

When you’re over-invested in the story of your own success, you can end up tied in knots about your reality. This way lies cognitive dissonance. When you have to believe in your literary legacy, even though no one seems to be reading your books. When you have presented a perfect family and cannot then admit how your household is falling apart… The greater the distance between your stories and your reality, the harder it becomes to let anyone into your life. The more you’ve misrepresented to look good, the harder it gets to effectively ask for help.

The stories we tell to ourselves, about ourselves and about our relationships with other people are tiny, every day things. We might not even notice when we do them. We might be crafting it deliberately as good PR, as fake it until you make it, as positivity or to feel better. But, these distortions come at a cost – they increase anxiety and feelings of pressure to succeed and they don’t reliably work as marketing strategies, whether you’re trying to look good to your family, or sell more books.

Most of us identify more with stories of honest struggle and occasional success than we do with people who seem to have it all. Our kindness is engaged by empathy with other people’s trials. We can enjoy the success of people we feel have earned it but may resent people who seem to have had it all handed to them on a plate. Better not to fake it until you make it. Better to be real, and human, open to being supported and able to have a wail about the crap along the way.

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Of Place and Story

After leaving Edinburgh on the train last Friday, I realised I was on The Bridge from Iain Banks’ novel, also called The Bridge. The distinctive red metalwork and design, plus the location caused a moment of intense surprise, recognition, uncertainty (is this really the bridge?) and delight. We were in a place I’d never been before and I hadn’t known what was on the route. What I recognised was a description from a book, not a memory of the location it had described.

I spent much of the weekend in Edinburgh, a city I have only previously known through authors. I’ve read a few Ian Rankins – so long ago that I remember little detail. I’ve read quite a lot of Iain Banks, such that he’s probably formed more of my sense of Scotland than any other author. I’ve read a fair bit of Robert Louis Stevenson and some Walter Scott, but not in a way that shaped my sense of place.

It struck me that when reading about a city you’ve not been to, it doesn’t matter how good the details and descriptions are, it won’t capture it for you, you won’t go there and know where you are. A city is so much more than you can get into a novel. At the same time, having read novels set there definitely had an impact on my experience of visiting – this is the first city I’ve been to where I have a body of reading experience. It gives an emotional depth that I’ve not had when visiting places that were not already storied in my mind.

There is also a world of difference between reading about somewhere you know, and somewhere you’ve never been. At some point I will have to dig out those Edinburgh set novels and have a re-read and see what visiting does to that experience.

The thing that affected me most aside from the bridge, turned out to be a song – Fish’s Internal Exile a song that’s been with me since my teens. “I saw a blue umbrella on Prince’s Street Gardens, heading out west for the Lothian Road…’ placing that opening line in physical geography turned out to be a surprisingly powerful thing for me. Here’s the song…


Revisiting a landscape

Going into a landscape for the first time tends to be exciting. Humans respond well to novelty. The excitement of a new place can have some of us making our way around the world – a habit that does not do the world itself any good at all. Novelty can break us out of our own disinterest. A distant and exotic landscape can impact on us in ways a familiar one won’t. Not because the landscapes closer to home aren’t beautiful, but because we can become complacent about them. We’re not always good at properly seeing what’s right in front of us.

In the drama of encountering a significant landscape for the first time, it’s normal to have a lot of feelings. If there are a lot of stories attached to a landscape, those can shape our responses and feelings of significance. However, we don’t inhabit those stories and they are not inherent to us – not when we’re in an unfamiliar landscape. It’s all tourism at this point.

When you revisit a landscape repeatedly, you build a relationship with it. If there are stories about the landscape, you deepen your understanding of them. A story can be as simple as a few lines about who once had a temple here, or how folklore re-imagined the bumps as treasure mounds… After a while, there will also be stories that are about your relationship with the landscape. These may also be very short – the field where we saw the huge and really shiny fox. The lane that was full of tiny frogs. A story doesn’t have to be long or complicated to be part of your relationship with a place.

Revisiting places and building stories of relationship, you bring the place into yourself. You craft relationship over time and through revisiting. Seeing a place in different seasons, your understanding of it will deepen.

Over time and revisiting you also build a body knowledge of place. A physical sense of how it feels to move through the landscape. A body knowledge of the distance between one key feature and another. A sense of where the wildlife is, or where to stop, or where to avoid. The trick at this point is to stay alive to the land and not start seeing what you think is there. It’s important to stay open when revisiting a place – as open as you would if you’d never been there before and have no idea what to expect.

Any landscape has the potential to enchant you. The question is not whether the place is new and exciting enough to move you. The real question is, are you ready to treat each experience as new, and to be properly open to it?


The narratives of meat

Diet is a very emotive subject, so let me be clear – this is not a blog post about food choices, this is a post about the stories we tell around our food choices. It’s about a set of perceptions that are so normalised, so taken for granted that we might not even notice them. We tell stories about what it means to eat meat, and those have a powerful effect on us, even though we have more up to date stories that suggest high meat consumption isn’t good for your body or for the planet.

Meat is high status food. It costs more to produce, and always has, so we can go all the way back to the Celts and the hero’s portion at feasts. At any period in history, the poor have tended to eat little or no meat while the rich have eaten a lot more of it. Meat equates to wealth, meat consumption equates to wealth. Eating meat is part of the story our culture tells itself about what it means to be wealthy. It is feasts with whole roast swans, still with their feathers on, or Henry the 8th throwing bones over his shoulder for dogs to pick up.

Meat is seen as macho – red meat especially. So eating red meat is to be seen as masculine. To not eat meat is often seen as effeminate. Meat consumption is associated with sexually powerful heterosexual masculinity. It’s also associated with muscle building and physical strength, even though you can do that with any kind of decent protein sources. I think some of this has to do with the way our feudal history has constructed both masculinity and hierarchy. We’re back to that Henry the 8th image again.

Part of that macho red meat narrative taps in to ideas of man the hunter. Now, most men are not hunting down wild cows in order to get their steaks, but even so, there’s an emotional association that suggests to people that if they are eating red meat, they are the sort of person who could have hunted it. It’s an emotional effect that links feelings of power, competence and mastery with the consumption of meat, perhaps especially potent when the person in question has done nothing to earn those feelings.

How we feel about something often has more impact on us than logic or evidence. What we eat is part of our sense of self. The stories we tell ourselves about what our food means reinforces our food choices. The stories around eating meat are stories of strength and power, of dominance, and importance. I suspect that the less actual power you have, the more affecting those stories are.

Vegetarians and vegans tell stories about being healthy, living kindly and having less impact on the planet. There’s a different kind of power here, it’s about the power to make change rather than power over other beings. These are stories that help a person feel kind and virtuous, and worthy – all of which is also very attractive.

I find it interesting the way ideas of what is ‘natural’ enters these stories as well. As far as I can make out, everyone views their food choice as natural, but does not necessarily think everyone else’s food choices are also natural. Everyone thinks their own food choices are good and appropriate, but may well not hold the same beliefs about other people’s food choices. Food choices that supposedly make you powerful can result in some very fragile and defensive behaviour. Food choices that supposedly make you kind can result in some pretty aggressive and unkind behaviour. Our food stories can divide us into tribal groups, feeling conflict with those whose stories are different.

While we stay focused on the stories and the emotions, we aren’t looking properly at the science, the evidence and the climate impact of how we live.


Doughnut Economics – A Review

 

Kate Raworth’s book on economics is a very readable and useful text. The odds are, if you’re reading this blog that you are the sort of person to question conventional economics. You’ve likely noticed that the constant growth model doesn’t make any sense and that GDP doesn’t measure anything useful. But now what?

The Doughnut, is the safe space for humans that meets everyone’s basic needs without compromising the planet.

In Doughnut Economics, Kate Raworth lays out the history of the subject, explaining how we got to this current set of beliefs about the role and functioning of money. There is nothing natural or inevitable about where we are and it is not underpinned by any real laws. What has happened, is that the people making policy and working with money have adopted the stories of economists and to some degree, made them true. That’s not the same as making them work. The exciting thing in all of this is that economic stories can change, which in turn would change our relationships with each other and the planet.

What’s particularly good about this book, is that it doesn’t just offer top-down solutions for fixing things. There’s a lot here we can take onboard as individuals and within small community groups. For anyone who wants to be part of changing our collective story about economics, there are tools here for your kit box.

This is an excellent book to read alongside Ecolinguists (which I reviewed here – ecolinguistcs-a-review ) because the stories we tell about money, finance, taxes, and the economy are both economics issues and ecolinguistic issues. How we are influenced by the language of these is really important. There is power in understanding that language – firstly the power to step out of the story and see yourself differently. Secondly we have the power to influence each other through the economic stories we tell and the language we use to tell them.

And if that doesn’t make your bardic heart beat a little faster, or swell with hope and possibility…

More about Doughnut Economics here – https://www.kateraworth.com/doughnut/

 


Lord of the Wyrde Woods – a review

Escape from Neverland and Dance into the Wyrde are two books but between them are one story so I’m reviewing them as a pair – their collective title is Lord of the Wyrde Woods. You have to read them in the right order and the first one doesn’t stand alone.

It’s been a while since an author has so completely captured my imagination. Neverland is a rundown area, with a facility for young people who have already fallen through the cracks. Narrator Wenn is one such young person. She’s had an awful life full of monstrous betrayals and setbacks, and she is as bitter and angry as you might expect. One of the threads in this book is the story of her learning to trust again and open her heart. It is the woods that she first lets in, and then the people associated with the woods. The story about learning to become a fully functioning human when reality has beaten you down, is a powerful one.

Going into the woods offers Wenn respite from the miseries of her daily life. What she finds there is enchantment. Most of this is the kind of enchantment any of us could find by getting out into greener places around us. There were obvious parallels to be drawn with Mythago Wood, but where Holdstock’s vision tells us the magic is largely unavailable, Nils Visser does the opposite. He invites us to see our surroundings in these terms, too. These novels are an invitation to magic, and to personal re-enchantment.

The story itself weaves folklore and history together around a series of locations. There’s a fair smattering of radical politics, and a fair amount of paganism, too. The story places human narratives in a landscape, and does so to powerful effect. The tale itself is full of magical possibility, but it’s also startling, sometimes devastating, haunting and full of surprises. If you enjoy the kinds of things I blog about, these books are for you and I think you’ll find much to love in them.

This is a story about how important it is to have stories about your landscape. It is through stories that we stop seeing places as so much scenery and start to have a more involved relationship with them. Those can be mythic and folkloric stories, they can be historical, and they can be personal. They can also be the stories we imagine of what would happen somewhere like this.  The process of learning and creating stories, and storying yourself into a landscape is a powerful one, beautifully illustrated in this novel.

I loved these books so very much. I heartily recommend them.

You can find Nils’s work on Amazon – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Nils-Nisse-Visser/e/B00OK5RMSY


And very little happened

Being a Pagan blogger creates (for me at least) a certain amount of desire to come back with a good story. I was hoping to write about the lunar eclipse this morning. I sat out on a barrow above the Severn, I watched the sun set (as much as the clouds would allow) and I couldn’t even see the moon, much less any part of the eclipse. Today I do not get to write a blog about how beautiful and meaningful I found the night sky on Friday.

I also find this is often the way of it when I go somewhere more as a tourist than not. If I’m going somewhere once, or not very often, even if I feel like it’s pilgrimage, I’m always going to be mostly a tourist. It is daft to expect that I can rock up to a sacred site and have an off the peg, personal, meaningful experience.  It’s especially suspect if we think our experience as a tourist gives us more authority than someone who has lived near and worked with a site for a long time.

Landscapes reward relationship. It doesn’t matter whether there’s a famous historical monument there, or not. Landscapes reward people taking the time to get to know them. They reveal themselves slowly, over time. I think we need to be suspicious of anyone, and most especially ourselves, walking into an unfamiliar place and getting a big, dramatic revelation. Especially when the main impact of the revelation is to make the person having it look shiny and important.

When you’re working with intuition, and looking for magic, you have to be alert to what could be ego and imagination. You have to be alert to what you’re taking into a space and how that might colour your experience.  I think we also need to be alert to the ways in which talking about what we experience can create a form of spiritual inflation. If you’ve read a lot of woo-woo stories about other people’s amazing and dramatic spiritual encounters, will you feel comfortable saying that nothing happened to you? Or that a very small thing happened to you?

Coming down off the hill on Friday, I turned at the right point to see the moon, low over the hill and briefly free from cloud. Even so, the moon was partially obscured. What showed was large, low and yellowish. The eclipse had long passed. Off to the right, there was a planet and my little party was not sure whether this was Venus or Jupiter. Not knowing felt perfectly comfortable. I’m glad we saw the moon, and I wish we’d seen the eclipse in all its drama and beauty. But at the same time, the land desperately needed those clouds and the days of rain that followed. I watched the clouds coming up from the south and knew they were bringing much needed rain, and was glad to see them.

There is a power in showing up. There are things that happen when you keep showing up to places, open hearted and not expecting too much. There’s a process, and it leads to small wonders and a greater overall sense of the numinous. It doesn’t always lead to good stories or even to things that are easily put into words. There’s a lot to be said for being a person in relationship with the land and I think it’s better for us than focusing too much on stories that put us centre stage.


Heroic Romance

Last week while hanging out with Meredith Debonnaire, we got talking about the lack of pragmatism in love stories. Especially in terms of how this applies to women. I went away and pondered – as I like to do, and a thing struck me.

Western patriarchal societies have not given actual or fictional women much scope in their lives. Mostly, the role of women has been to be prizes to win, or defend, or capture or the harming of women has been a motivation for male characters to do stuff. There are odd exceptions – Lady Macbeth springs to mind, but mostly women in stories aren’t like her. Women in stories are passive. Their job is to be beautiful and to inspire the men to do things, one way or another.

Only when it comes to love are women reliably allowed to do more dramatic things. Women are allowed to die for love, like Juliet. They’re allowed to throw their lives away waiting years to see if the man comes back, like Penelope. They’re allowed to ruin their lives, like Isolde. The can be dramatically murdered by their menfolk, like Desdemona, and so on and so forth. When you look at the dramatic things women are allowed to do for love, it’s clear this doesn’t benefit the women much.

As I was pondering this, it struck me that we have the word ‘heroic’ to indicate the stand out stuff that heroes do. We have heroines, but there is no ‘heroinic’. Heroines just are, it’s not about what they do. If we want to talk about women doing dramatic, brave, important things, it can only be called heroic, because they’re doing guy stuff.

If wrecking your life for love is the only kind of heroism you’re offered, it’s easy to see why women keep telling these kinds of stories, too. But, if you think that taking damage in the name of love is the best and most noble thing you can do, it has consequences. It might make you more willing to put up with violence, jealousy and mistreatment. It might leave you feeling there’s something heroic about standing by your man, no matter what he does. It might encourage you to feel that your worth is defined by what big gestures you can make for the man in your life. It’s a very narrow field to operate in, and it props up ideas about women not having lives separate from the lives of their men.

How many famous historical stories do we have in which women save women? I’ve counted Goblin Market so far. How many historical female heroes do we know of who get to act dramatically and it not be for the sake of a man? There’s Boudicca. There are probably others that I’ve not remembered, but on the whole these kinds of stories are in short supply in terms of the back catalogue.  I can think of modern examples, but what we’re steeped in has a very different flavour.

What if we could be pragmatic about love? What if we didn’t tell each other that love is enough and will overcome all obstacles – because life demonstrates routinely that love does not in fact fix everything. What if we don’t celebrate putting your life on hold for a man or sacrificing yourself for a man? What if we stop telling stories that make romantic love the centre of women’s lives and the primary focus for any heroism we might go in for? What if we make it equally ok for male heroism to revolve around sacrifice for love, rather than violent responses to love thwarted?


The story war and poetic truth

We live in a post-truth world. We don’t know which experts are real experts or who has been bought off to lie to us. For every story we hear there will be another story that tells us just the opposite. Reality and trust become subjective. Opinion demands to be taken as seriously as fact. And who knows what the facts are anyway, right? A week ago, a young man told me confidently that everyone was as much in the dark as him. I found this odd, because I knew something of what I was talking about, but when you assume a level playing field in knowledge, you can dismiss anything anyone else knows that doesn’t fit your story.

You cannot argue in this context based on facts. Your facts will be disbelieved, or countered by other ‘facts’. You can’t quote statistics, or experts, or even blindingly obvious realities to people whose story says you are wrong. Those of us who are interested in truth and evidence have been losing on many fronts to people who are willing and able to assert simple stories and offer apparently simple solutions. It is easier to hear that there is no climate change, than to deal with it. It is easier to swallow a simple lie than to chew on a complicated truth, and most truth is complicated.

I wonder sometimes if we are fighting the third world war right now. The weapons are stories. The landscape we’re fighting over is the minds of people. You can see the damage, the bombed out sites, the shell holes. This war is fought to conquer the inner landscapes of people, and to rule those inner worlds, and change how we think. One side of this war believes in holding power over others, accumulating wealth, exploiting those too weak to resist and killing those who don’t fit the narrative. On the other side of this war there are people who are trying to fight back with truth and evidence, and sometimes they do make some ground, and sometimes they look a lot like Ewoks armed with spears trying to take on people with space technology.

(That wasn’t a casual metaphor, because of course the Ewoks win.)

When someone’s mind becomes a bombed out landscape full of hate and fear and resentment, we don’t save them from that with facts. Our facts fall on them like bombs. Every time we deny their truth, we feed their hatred and resentment. You do not restore a city or a landscape by bombing it. You do not restore a hate-damaged mind by truth-bombing it. No matter how much you want them to hear the truth.

This is where the poetic truth comes in. Poetic truth doesn’t deal with the literal and immediate. It deals with Ewoks fighting storm troopers, and with Celtic heroes dying for honour. Poetic truth doesn’t call for facts that can be denied, because it works to evoke feelings. The stories we are up against encourage us to see the worst in each other, to hate and fear and resent and take down and keep on raging and hurting each other until no good thing remains. A poetic truth doesn’t enter this warring landscape in the same way. Sometimes, a poetic truth can shelter a real world truth and get it safely into people’s minds. A story about something else is easier to swallow than a story that has too much to say about everything going on right now.

I know I’m writing this blog only for people who have the means to read it. It is an idea, and not the work itself. The work will involve finding and making small stories that can travel easily, and that can saunter through the trenches in people’s minds, and un-dig some of the holes.


The distorting power of drama

Drama is, by its very nature, self announcing. It can skew your sense of what’s really going on in life, and it skews other people’s perceptions of you as well. A week or so ago someone commented to me (and not for the first time) how often I fall out with people. I find that a curious perception. I deal with a great many people with my various hats on – easily more than a hundred people in any given week. I deal with bloggers and book reviewers and authors and publishers and people running events and at events, and people who follow me on social media, and through the social media platforms I work on. Many of my online people I consider friends. On top of that I have a lively local scene and a great many people I regularly see in person.

The percentage of people in my life I’ve fallen out with is pretty small. A handful of real drama episodes (two involving the police) and, I confess, rather a lot of my just not bothering. I can’t be everything to everyone and I don’t always stay around when I’m not enjoying things. I’ll do what I can, and what I want to do, and increasingly I make no apology for it. Sometimes, this annoys people.

Drama always takes centre stage. It’s what stands out, what we see and notice if we aren’t careful. Drama itself is inevitable to some degree, but how much it gets to hog the limelight is a real consideration. It is easy to let the big things, and especially the big and difficult things, become the story of who we are. My real life, my normal, everyday life is quiet and there isn’t much drama in it.

In any given week I will have exchanges with a lot of people, in person and online. Most weeks, all of those exchanges are peaceful and productive. Some are exciting or challenging and that’s fine too, but most are not especially dramatic. I spend my days with my husband, and a lot of time with my son and we are a peaceful and functional household. My interactions with friends are – most of the time – warm, quiet, mutually supportive experiences. My real life has very little drama in it, and I like it that way. I find drama exhausting.

But, if the drama is big – which it usually is – and disorientating or destabilising in some way, it becomes the dominating story of what’s going on right now. If I’m not careful, it can become the big story of who I am and how I interact with people. It becomes the story other people tell me about myself and each other – and that bothers me. It’s what’s easiest to see from the outside sometimes. But also, stories are about drama by their nature. We don’t make stories about the thousand gentle, productive conversations that happened in the week. We don’t write songs about the sensible decision we came to in the pub – although perhaps we should. Humans tell stories about drama, and so we foreground our own drama and lose sight of the bigger story. The big story is often full of small things.

My life is mostly about the small things. The gentle details. The smooth, easy exchanges that make perfect sense and get stuff done. I realise that I am a part of a culture that foregrounds drama. I am influenced by it, and I contribute to it. I need to keep doing that – around environmental issues and speaking up against abuse, but I want to develop a better stream alongside it that is all about the small, everyday things, the good things, and the things my life is mostly made of. I don’t think it will change the perceptions of people who want to see me as a difficult, temperamental drama queen, but I don’t have to take up the roles I am cast in. I do not have to let the inevitable bouts of drama define me to myself.