Muddy Puddles and Sheild Maidens

Hmmm, two posts in a week; I think I need my head examining. Still, as is the way with most of what I write, I start out journalling and end up sharing if it seems the thing to do. This means that most of what I write doesn’t make it, but sometimes you seem to have spent a few months having your head kicked in until you learn something. So that means a lot of journalling. This is the first time I’ve written about this and it feels like it takes courage to do so, not least because my take on this subject is probably so very different to the usual pagan/druid approach and at the very least may be somewhat controversial.

I think mostly though, I’m writing simply to find myself present in the world again as I’ve seriously frightened myself over the past month or two, sinking into a place I have felt completely incapable of extracting myself from. That’s unusual, normally I have a handle on it. I know the signs, I shake myself, refuse to submit to it, give myself a good talking to, determined that the muddy puddle will not suck me down. I’ve watched my Dad, utterly consumed with it for the past three or four years and I WILL NOT be there. Decision made, no arguments. You see, this ‘it’, this thing more normally called ‘Depression’ is interesting; firstly, I should probably say that I don’t call it that quite deliberately, not in relation to myself anyway, others do of course chose to use the word and that is fine, everyone deals with it in their own way, I’m not devaluing that.

If you read this blog regularly you probably know that I have a vivid imagination and like to tell stories. Personal mythology and imagery is such an important tool when the rational will not do, and so I prefer to think of my depression more as a muddy puddle with a whirlpool in the middle. Not a small whirlpool either, but one of those Pirates-of the-Carribean-Calypso-made-this-and-I-can’t-see-the-bottom whirlpools. My mud puddle is a selfish, clawing thing that likes attention and validation, it’s hungry and it wants feeding. To give it a label, particularly a medical label, makes it a THING, and that makes it happy and self-important and rather more powerful than I like to think it deserves, so it doesn’t get a name. It also makes it something that you can apparently treat, medicate and solve, and 20 years experience on and off of flolloping in the mud puddle tells me that this is not so.

Of course there is depression that is related to chemical and hormonal imbalances and whilst there is a huge amount of overlap on this spectrum, that is a slightly different thing. In any case the causes of depression are debated and whilst the seratonin theory is widely accepted, it’s just as widely questioned, particularly by psychologists, see Seratonin and nurogenesis. Whilst this is only an article, it’s actually quite good and will point you in the direction of actual research if you’re interested. But either way, I’m not talking about that, I haven’t the space. Nor am I talking about the kind of pathological, acute mental health conditions that get you hospitalised. I’m talking about the 40% of depression that antidepressants don’t work for, the kind of depression that happens for other reasons, and that happens to lots of us because sometimes, we are just not that great at dealing with the things that the world throws at us. Because sometimes those things are just too big and too much, and staying sane and functional is sometimes a very big ask. This is worth a read, again, just an article, but it points to some interesting World Health Organisation research about differing rates of depression around the world.

I deliberately use terms such as ‘mine’ and ‘my’ when I talk about my mud puddle, as they are incredibly important. This is me after all, a part of my soul, not something that is seperate, not someone or something else, not something that happened to me, not something I suffer from, just me. The decision to take ownership is a powerful one. There is a tendency, in modern health care to set the disease apart from yourself, to make it something that attacks you from the outside, that you become a victim of. Not something that you can own, that you create from the inside as a response to the world, something which you actually can make choices and decisions about. But I feel that this approach makes me powerless. The mud puddle is not something outside of myself, but something right in my middle, integrated, inseperable, an emotional tide that must be swum. If I’m to own it and have a any sort of autonomy with it, it has to be mine. This too is controversial; the debate surrounding the degree to which we have a choice about depression will run and run. It’s easy to write off this kind of approach when you don’t want to believe that you have a choice, but there is a stack of research on the subject suggesting that it makes a difference, which is well worth an explore if you are inclined. Personally I believe that choice is not everything (clearly it’s not) but that we have much more of a choice than we imagine. Whilst we can’t always control what happens to us, we have a choice about how we respond to the shit that does happen. I also believe (from very personal experience) that one of the symptoms of depression is that it robs us of the belief that we have a choice at all. That’s also important; it robs us of the belief, it does not rob us of the choice. Our ability to chose is in direct proportion to our belief that we can choose. Believing I am helpless is step one towards being swallowed by the whirlpool. Remembering that I have that choice not to remain there, not to allow it to define me, is what helps me claw my way out. Every single time.

The other things that help? A sense of humour. Having important people in my life who don’t give it the time of day either. That’s not to say that they aren’t supportive, but they don’t engage with the depression or validate my “poor me, I feel so awful” outlook, recognising that’s not helpful. They engage with me, in just the same way as they do when I’m ok. I have other friends who deal with chronic physical pain and in just the same way, they will articulate that engaging with them as a person not the disease and not being defined by it, is what they need. Again that’s not about not being loving and supportive but about remembering that this is a person, whole, a bit broken, a bit messy, but a person not a disease. Being normal, is so helpful, not being affected by someone else’s pain, emotional or physical is vital. As a midwife, being with women in pain is what I do. You don’t need to take it away, or feel it, or be overwhelmed or frightened by it, you just need to be there through the process. I believe that this is true whether the pain is emotional, physical or a bit of both.

It’s easy of course to tell me that my mud puddle is not, cannot be that bad. If I cope with it (usually), if I can get out of it (mostly) and am not medicated (never yet!), but this particular brand of mentalness, and I apologise for the irreverence but it’s important in maintaing my perspective, runs in my family. Lots of us are just a bit crazy. There are a number on medication, a good few in counselling and a few admissions to the local unit. As a health care professional myself, I know exactly how I would be diagnosed and probably what I would want prescribed for me, should I chose to go down that route. So I’m not speaking from the position of someone who doesn’t know how it feels. But here is the thing, the usual medical approaches don’t and haven’t helped so many people I know. The people I know using those approaches are the people who don’t seem to make any real improvement, or actually get worse.

Please don’t imagine that I’m saying that medication or medical expertise should not be utilised and is never needed, it absolutely has a place. I just cant help wondering how often we actually pathologise what is essentially normal in so many, many cases. This robs the individual of power and autonomy. Again, over pathologising mental health is another debate all of it’s own and one we are having regarding postnatal depression and the emotional changes following birth, in midwifery in particular. But (and this is my observation only, both professional and personal) the people who seem to cope best and get better, whether they take meds or not, are those who maintain the belief that they have some choice and responsibility, and refuse to believe they are helpless.

So the Sheild Maiden? Well, she’s another of my stories, my personal mythology and she is of course associated by many with Freya. She’s my medicine and my saviour. The image of the Sheild Maiden, striding forward into battle is one that is common in popular culture at the moment. She is historically rather debatable, but I’m not sure that matters overly much and she captures the mind and the imagination nonetheless. In a man’s world, I think we understand warriors best on the battlefield and so that is where she has ended up. Although as women, we do fight in the wider world, for our children and families, for justice, for peace, in the armed forces, for so many things, women also know that sometimes the greatest battles are the emotional and hormonal ones in our very centre. This is where the magic of the sheild maiden lies. Those battles require courage, bravery, toughness, fearlessness, skills of attack and retreat and strategy.  I find her within myself as the emotional warrior, she who is not afraid of what is at the bottom of the whirlpool. It’s she who says “ok, lets see whats down there this time” and walks all the way in when she feels it sucking at her toes, rather than being swept away. However scary it is, she knows that we may not have much choice about going in, so we might as well make the most of it. She makes the choice to explore and she makes the choice to fight her way out when she’s ready, bloodied and wiser, with scars and trophies but alive to fight another day. I scared myself this time, at how long it took to find her but I did and that gives me the courage to believe I will next time too.

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Stories, Assumptions and Disappearing

My gods, it’s been a while since I wrote here. Over a year in fact. As a person who has a driving, burning need to write, I don’t do a lot of it in my spare time, although I do, every day, for a living. This means that my blog gets rather neglected as a result. Often I wonder why it is that I don’t write, when it is so important to my well being. Having thought about it over the past few days and having been prodded by a husband who knows how important it is for me, mostly I have come to the conclusion that I self censor a lot of the time as I have trouble believing that a) what I have to say is of any interest to anyone but me, and b) why would anyone else care? I think that mostly comes not from a place of self-depreciation, but from a total lack of ego and much of the time, a need to hide from the world. But I also realise deep within me a fear of being misunderstood and misconstrued, of giving the wrong impression or the wrong end of the stick. I seem to do that a lot, whether through my own absolute inability to communicate effectively or through others misreading of the story. This, and a bit of a ‘dark night of the soul’ over the past few months has led me to consider some old patterns I thought I had dealt with pretty throughly and to work more deeply with the idea of narrative and story as ‘reality’.

I realise over the years that I have come to understand my life and the events I look back on as a series of stories. Some of these stories are probably true and a pretty good representation of the facts, some are probably half true, others not so much, and some I am sure that I have fabricated to suit my own perspective almost entirely. We all live our lives through stories, we are all story tellers. We write new stories to explain the world and our experiences every day, just as our ancestors did. As a pagan and animist, these stories are important because in both the telling and listening they can reaveal much about ourselves, the world around us, and the realtionship we have with ourselves and other people (other storytellers).

We craft the world (much of it crafted for us by parents and others to begin with) from a very young age, putting the bits together with glue and sparkley paper, building the tapestry that we eventually call life. Each of these individual tapestries is our own stitch pattern and colour scheme, unique and personal, beautiful, disjointed, messy. If another were to look at your at your tapestry they would undoubtedly recognise some of the images and patterns, sharing your perspective and understanding. Yet, some may be unrecognisable to others, the colours jarring or the pictures blurred, even if the events were shared, our perspectives of the same event, the things it meant to us, may be interpreted in very different ways.

I grew up being told that I was difficult, demanding, precocious and asked too much. I still carry this narrative, still tell this story because on a very deep level I still believe it to be true. When I don’t find the nourishment I need (because I ask too much!) I escape rather than wanting to be seen as unnaceptable. Consequently throughout my life I have been told that I come across as proud, aloof and sometimes arrogant. Actually what this really is, is a terrible case of shyness and a rampant innability to deal with the world, or people despite sometimes making a really rather passable pretence of it, and a deep sense of pain at my own percieved unnaceptability. I know that this has me running for the hills so very often, distancing myself from others as a defense mechanism because somewhere along the line I have learned (rightly or wrongly) that I’d rather be alone than get it wrong/cause hurt/cause offense/make too many demands.

How true this story is, I’m not sure, but either way I often end up feeling lonely and it’s difficult sometimes to make friends. It is a good example of the way in which the stories that we tell ourselves become true because they affects us profoundly in our day to day lives. Most often we do it to ourselves completely, tying ourselves in emotional knots in the attempt to tell the same stories we’ve always told, often from childhood. We hold on to these stories as an important part of our reality and sometimes, whilst rewriting them would ultimately brings us freedom from the things that stop us from achieving our potential, change is difficult and painful and sometimes strikes at the core of who we understand ourselves to be and the ways that we protect ourselves from the world.

In doing it to ourselves, it is also interesting to consider how often do we do this to others, making assumptions about what they are thinking and feeling to fulfil our own narratives. I know that I am a master craftsman at making up the bits I don’t understand and of filling in the gaps of what something unspoken might mean, or what was meant or inferred by something else without having had that conversation about where that person really is. This is neither honourable or constructive and usually ends in misunderstanding. This was brought home to me recently in a conversation with someone at a pagan event (I’m sure he won’t mind me using the conversation as it was all in the spirit of burying old hatchets), where he told me that the first time I’d met him many, many years ago, I managed to piss him off within about five minutes “Me??” I said incredulously, “how on earth did I manage that? I’m nice! I hate conflict.” Apparently he had arrived late at a workshop group and whilst I have no recollection of the event or of the meeting, I know the sort of workshop it would have been, one where a group has to create a scene or a part of a ritual that then gets put together to make the whole, I’m sure you know the sort of thing. It’s generally something I avoid like the plague; too many people, opinions and disagreements. He went on to tell me how I had basically looked at him like he was shit on my shoe and then given him a job to do that he was less than happy about! Luckily his telling was quite comical and we both laughed about it, probably realising that neither of us had handled it well. As the laughter settled I started to puzzle over my behaviour. It was so hard to think of a time when I would have deliberately behaved like that. Eventally I realised that I had probably been shy, awkward, just about coping with the group as it was, hoping I could disappear as soon as possible, and hiding my fear and uncertainty behaind a facade of cool and capable. I suspect that could easily have been construed in the way he percieved it, which I am certain would not have been my intention at all.

But this got me thinking. If he had been so very, very wrong about me in that situation, how often am I so very, very wrong about others, perhaps colouring the scene to actually reflect my own insecurities rather than seeing what was intended? How often do I feel hurt, rejected, unloved etc. because of my own hang ups, ending up doing my disapearing act because of something imagined rather than ‘real’? Probably all the time. It also got me thinking about how responsible we are for what we put ‘out there’ and how we share responsibilites for misunderstandings. It’s not ok to say “your reaction to me is your problem”, because that gives us the excuse to behave as badly as we want and take no responsibility for it. I would like to suggest that whilst we cannot control how others react to us, we have a responsibility not to behave like an idiot. If I behave badly, I can expect someone to respond to me badly. Ultimately, every action or inaction is a choice.

So in that way, however difficult a task it may seem, we have a choice about the stories we write, both about ourselves and others. I have the choice not to disappear when I hear the message that I am difficult and unnacceptable and in being conscious that is a pattern I can start to retell the story in a different way. Not that that’s easy and I certainly don’t have the new story yet, but I’m working on it. At the same time, I’m working on letting others tell their own story, without adding my own chapters (assumptions) and certainly not without a conversation. Because, if we hope for the freedom to tell our own stories in our own way unhampered by the misreading of others, then we must offer others the freedom to do the same.

Sex, Freya and maybe a little bit about what Feminism is not.

So, I am a feminist. There, I have said it. It’s often a word that makes people squirm and for so many (lots of them very good) reasons. It’s a name, an ideology, I have identified with on some level or another for most of my adult life and feminist theory is now a subject I am lucky enough to teach my undergraduates. It is always an interesting challenge to pick apart their many preconceptions about what feminism is and very definitely is not. Yet, the word is also something that makes me profoundly uncomfortable sometimes and it is usually other feminists and my resultant association with them that is the reason for this, rather than society’s attitudes to feminism itself. After all, feminism has a bad name, it makes people uncomfortable because it challenges some of the very deeply entrenched behaviours and attitudes of society, which is why I love it. It also says some profoundly stupid, although usually well-meaning things at times, which is why I don’t. I’ve been wanting to write about this subject for sometime, but to do so probably means revealing things about my own nature that it often feels uncomfortable to share. There will always be judgement on a woman for not behaving as she should and that is as true within feminism as anywhere, it’s just that here we tend to be seen to be letting the side or the sisterhood down.

There was never a subject that feminism had more to say about than sex and of late, I have found myself reading some ‘interesting’, well-intentioned, but rather misguided articles and opinions which have sometimes downright disturbed me. As usual it’s often the fault of Facebook, where these things get shared with abandon without much more thought than it takes to click a button. But I am worried about the perpetuation of some of these ideas and the effects that they have on women, men and every gender and none in between. It is the (apparently) feminist ideas that tell me how as a woman, I (or indeed anyone) should or should not behave and express my sexuality, the school of thought that suggests that if you are male you are responsible for rape culture by default, the articles which turn women into victims by removing their personal responsibility and autonomy and imply to us, often without meaning to, that all men are dangerous sexual predators just waiting to do harm. It is the feminism that compounds and protects those very stereotypes that it set out to dismantle in the first place, that concerns me.

Because Feminism is really an umbrella term covering a collection of ideas and movements, I should probably start by defining feminism as I understand it. This is coloured very much, as a Heathen woman, an animist and my relationship with the Gods, particularly Freya, the goddess I am devoted to. For me, feminism is the understanding that all people should be equal, politically, economically, culturally, socially and sexually and that no person should be at a disadvantage in any of these things as a result of their gender. To experience disadvantage on the grounds of gender is to experience sexism. I also consider that freedom is an essential component of feminism believing that no one has the right to limit to the freedom of another where that person is acting with consent and within the law. This means that ultimate personal responsibility is also essential because freedom cannot work sustainably without a conscious understanding of how what we do, directly affects others. Freedom does not mean the freedom to abuse because that again, limits the freedom of another. When talking about feminism, I tend to steer clear of a definition based solely in gender, or describing it as being only about women or women’s rights. Sexism disadvantages all of humanity and ultimately all people would find advantage in liberation from it. However it is true that feminism found its roots in women’s emancipation and suffrage and much of the work of feminism today is still focussed upon women and their lived experiences, because it is women who are so often the most likely to experience disadvantage because of their gender.

If such terms mean anything to you at all, I would best describe myself as a sex-positive, third-wave feminist. This means that I consider sexual freedom to be absolutely essential and a source of women’s power, and I believe that modern feminism needs to reach for equality far beyond the entrenched gender stereotypes of the previous feminist waves. It also means holding the belief that we are now free to define feminism for ourselves as individuals. For me that does not get much more complicated than believing in freedom, equality, autonomy, respect and absolute personal responsibility. My feminism also believes that I don’t have to be defined by my gender, but as I take complete and utter, unbounded delight and joy in being a woman, I often chose to do just that.

As a Heathen woman I am devoted to the goddess Freya. This means that I consider my primary purpose is to serve her, to celebrate and manifest her in the human world in a way which is positive and I seek to learn her mysteries, journeying into the depths of her being and stories. For Freya, so many of those mysteries are about the very many ways of being a woman: Lover, Priestess, Seer, Healer, Witch, Wife, Whore and kick-ass-independent-take-no-shit Shield Maiden. For me she is the ultimate goddess of women’s freedom and agency and a guiding principle of my life is that of striving for my own freedom and the intention never to limit another’s as far as I am consciously able. This means examining my own demands, jealousies and insecurities within my relationships with others on a fairly constant basis. As an animist, it means doing it with the non human world too. Sexism is simply one means by which an individual’s freedom can be limited, but then so is racism, abuse, homophobia, and the manipulation of others to make them behave as we would wish, and the dreadful generalisations that seek to strip a person of their individuality and autonomy.

So why the lengthy preamble and why am I writing about this anyway? Well I suppose it comes back to having been ‘told’ a few things online very recently by supposed feminists, that as a feminist myself have made me concerned. I’d like to address a few of the things that have made me hopping mad over the past month or so and look at why, despite having been espoused by feminists, these views really have nothing to do with my understanding of it at all. Those things have included such crazy things as being told that my love of dressing up in corsets, high heels and other ‘girly’ paraphernalia is not helpful to my sisters because it panders to sexual stereotypes and makes other women feel they have to conform to that idea of sexy. What the hell? Seeking to limit another woman’s freedom of expression and telling her how she should dress is not feminism. Next, that sexual submissiveness, power games, and BDSM even within consensual adult relationships, are demeaning and abusive; ergo a large part of my sexual identity is just dirty and wrong and damaging to myself and others. Hmmm, how affirmingly sex-positive. To my mind curtailing another womans sexual freedom where she choses and consents is also, not feminism. But perhaps the most short-sighted and stupid thing I have read to date is that if you are a man, you are part of rape culture, whether you like it or not.

Now, this is the one I am going to look at in detail because not only is it ridiculous, it’s also really dangerous and damaging to all involved, feminist ideologies, the way that feminism is perceived in general and above all, men! I have no doubt that the chap who wrote this piece is an honourable well-meaning gent and it’s sad really that he’s the one on the end of my pointy stick, having put together such a coherent piece which has been widely shared. But really I have chosen it as just one example of this kind of thinking I have come across. Whilst the writer of this article does not claim to be feminist, the ideas it describes are clearly feminist ideology and so it is fair to offer feminist critique of it. The first and most obvious point is that in stating that all men are part of rape culture you commit the cardinal offense of defining a gender by something a person does or does not do. Third wave feminism rejects essentialist definitions of gender that rely on such generalisations believing that the individual, their experiences and their personhood are more defining characteristics than gender. Secondly, to define an entire gender in this way is to suggest that rape culture is a biological characteristic of maleness, if this is so, it is inherent and cannot be changed. Therefore, there is little point in making the recommendations the author goes onto present in order to help men counter rape culture. Because he’s already told you that whether you like it or not, you are it, you can’t help it, and you’d better get used to it. The whole thing is a nonsense, not to mention it compounds our ideas of a binary gender structure, it really only speaks to heterosexual gender normative ideals.

Whilst the argument is fairly easily dismantled, the biggest problem with it is that it is so alienating, particularly if it gives the impression that all feminists think this way. I feel alienated by it because I don’t hold men responsible for ‘rape culture’ (I actually hate that term and could argue with that too, but I simply havent the space here!). I’ll say it again, I do not hold individual decent men, responsible for ‘rape culture’ by virtue of their gender. Please guys, you don’t need to do that for my benefit, I would much rather judge a person for their actions and behaviour because I’m the kind of pagan who believes in honourable relationship. That doesn’t mean that you have permission not to be a decent and honourable human being, guys, it just means that the rape and abuse that happens in the world is not your personal fault. If I were to hold men responsible, as a woman, what would that mean? Well the exact same thing I complained of earlier, I turn women into desperate victims without agency, freedom or responsibility and I fall into the trap of perpetuating the belief that all men are dangerous sexual predators. Conversely, the implication that men are the only ones who can change ‘rape culture’ is to suggest again that women are always in need of the protection of the ‘good guys’ who have changed their behaviour, from the bad behaviour of the guys who haven’t.

My husband feels alienated by it too, as do most of the men I have spoken to about it. He rejects the idea completely that he is part of ‘rape culture’ and I completely agree with him. I reject the idea that the other respectful, wise, honourable men I know are. It makes him angry that he cannot offer an intelligent counter argument even. To do so opens him up to the accusation of being blind to the ‘rape culture’ of which he is supposedly a part, and is therefore in denial. He is sweet, respectful and kind, already does the things listed as countering ‘rape culture’ and yet still he is guilty as charged; a part of it. Apparently. It is emasculating because it takes his voice, it is dis-empowering because he feels vilified, and it compounds some of the ideas that he has grown up with that he should keep his sexuality safely hidden in a box because it is dangerous. Not only this, but simply blaming a gender for the problem simplifies things beyond belief and goes nowhere to addressing the other factors which are so much bigger: War, poverty, destructive ideologies, capitalism.

So what is my point at the end of all this, other than to express my concern and discomfort; perhaps nothing other than that. Perhaps it’s to wave my Shield-Maiden sword for all the good guys I know who don’t deserve that kind of crap. Perhaps it’s for all the women who fly in the face of sexual norms, playing at the edges of what even feminism finds acceptable, the submissives, the ones with dark and strange fantasies, the sluts, the daddy’s girls, the hedonists, the ones in heels and corsets, the ones who like power games, the ones who refuse to be told what to do, even by the sisterhood; the women like me. Perhaps it’s to give feminism a different voice.

Or perhaps it’s just for Freya, it usually is.

Wynn

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Part of my daily practice is the drawing of a rune to work with and keep in my consciousness throughout the day. I find that it is a great way of continuing to expand my understanding and awareness of the runes, as I apply them to all sorts of different situations and listen to what they have to teach. Yesterday my rune for the day was Wynn (or Wunjo for those of you who work with the Elder rather than the Anglo-Saxon runes).  Typically Wynn is considered to be one of the most beautiful and auspicious runes of the Futhork. Wynn represents the ‘W’ sound and is usually given the meaning of joy or bliss, that wonderful place where all is easy and beautiful. I like to think of the shape of the rune as a weather vane, that which does not fight the wind but easily finds its direction in natural harmony with the forces of nature around it.

“Fantastic!” I thought, “How can you go wrong when you draw the rune of joy, ease and comfort? It’s going to be a great day”, at least that’s how it started… Yesterday wound up being just about the worst day I can remember, emotionally speaking, that I have had for some time. I ended up at my altar just sobbing by the evening, dealing with old emotional patterns of fear, loneliness, and abandonment, which I always think I’ve dealt with, and which often come back to bite me when I am absolutely least expecting it. Add to that a cracking headache and this was not the sort of day I anticipated. “This was supposed to be a Wynn day!” I railed at any person who would listen, and to the Gods: “you’re taking the piss, right? This is beyond horrible.”

Of course, there were three mistakes I made yesterday. The first was forgetting that divination is not about predicting the future, although draw a lovely rune such as Wynn and it is all too easy to cross your fingers and hope that an awesome day will land in your lap. Divination, as the name suggests, is about communing with the divine, and actually listening and considering carefully what you are being offered and why. The second mistake was being lazy and forgetting that I might actually have to do some work here to achieve the potential offered. The third mistake was not understanding that maybe I was offered Wynn BECAUSE it was a shocking day and maybe I needed to take note of the healing that it offered in order to get through.

My new favourite book of the moment is Kvedulf Gundarsson’s Teutonic Magic . It’s back in print after a while off the shelves and if you are interested in such things I can highly recommend it. He offers this description of Wunjo;

“Joy”, rules the virtue of of cheerfulness, which is as necessary… as strength or generosity. A cheerful mind through all hardship was seen as a great part of courage. …This gladness showed forth the strength of will to endure all the sorrows and hardships of a time much more beset with bodily struggles and hardships than our own… To reach the goal of Wunjo you must be able to keep your pains and sorrow from looming too large in your life, yet you must know a few troubles in order to understand how to deal with problems when they do arise” (p97-98).

This was exactly the message I needed to hear. Wynn is not about life automatically being great, or the fortune that falls in our lap, or being a naturally happy or fortunate person. It is about adjusting our attitude to life so that we can find the joy and the strength to appreciate what is sweet, even when faced with the utter crap that so many face on a day-to-day basis. The weather vane stands strong in the storm, it does not break, but it does so only by allowing the wind to show the direction rather than continuously fighting it. Wynn teaches us to flow with the wind or to swim with the tide, it is not a passive action but one of choice and conscious decision, even if that choice is about chosing to flow with something rather less than ideal than allowing it to break us. It is this ease that brings the joy, but often there must be a certain surrender and acceptance of the things we cannot change, that life will not ever be perfect, so we might as well get on with it.

For me, Wynn, carries a message of ultimate personal responsibility. No one else can do this for us. No one else can decide for me that life will be good. No one else can make me feel unafraid, or reverse those feelings of loneliness or abandonment. The people who love me can help and they frequently do, with care, love and consideration for my feelings and needs and I always aim to offer that in return. But ultimately, that healing can only come from within. If I expect it to come from others, all I do is apply a sticking plaster to the wound and a continuous supply of affirmation and attention is needed to keep it covered. This tends to be rather exhausting for all concerned. I become needy and self-indulgent in order to avoid dealing with what ugly stuff is really lurking underneath. Ideally what is required is a hug and some support when I get the to point of being brave enough to gingerly peel back the sticking plaster.

Wynn is not just about the huge moments of utter joy and ecstasy that blow us away, although it is very much that too (and bloody wonderful they are when they come!) Finding the Wynn (joy) in the small things is just as important. Joy rarely just heads our way arriving fully formed and ready to entertain. We have to seek it, craft it, have the courage to court it, understanding that we may need to let go of some assumptions about life and what we are owed (or in most cases not owed at all) and by whom. Taking a moment to appreciate just how lucky I am, helps keep things in perspective. It helps me to realise that life is really not so bad, I have food enough, people who love me, a home, and summer is well and truly on the way. There truly is simple joy in these things whatever other horrible stuff is happening. Yesterday, I forgot that. I forgot that remembering  how lucky I am melts away a good deal of the “poor me” self indulgence I was stuck in. I forgot that the Wynn I had drawn that morning might just have given me the courage to rip off the plaster to see what was really underneath, had I the wit to use it.

This morning, my rune for the day was, you guessed it (I hear the gods laughing as I type), Wynn. Again. I suspect I needed that, because I certainly wasn’t listening yesterday! As usual, I end up writing the stuff I need to hear in order to give myself a good talking to and I never know whether what I write will be posted until I’m done. So today I am determinedly taking my own advice and picking up my sword with a manic grin and possibly fewer teeth, and deciding that it will be a better day. Getting in my car this morning I opened all the windows despite the chill and the rain just to feel the wind in my hair, questing for that weather vane ease and direction. At the same time I noticed how stunningly green the leaves were in the dampness, the sky clearing to palest blue, and just how damn good that marmite on toast I had for breakfast tasted…

Gemænscipe*

As is usually the case, I don’t have nearly as much time as I would like to write within this context and usually when I do, it is because I have been strongly provoked to consider my own thoughts on something or other. I usually write entirely for myself, as a way of processing something, and more often than not, I wind up writing the words I would have liked to hear myself, in helping me to come to an understanding on something. Over the past few months I have been thinking very much about community, my place within it and what exactly it IS, other events of the past week have brought that even more into perspective. Community is a word that is bandied around a lot within any kind of pagan circle you care to mention, and the assumption often seems to be that we all know what it means, or that we are all singing from the same sheet. I usually find that the understanding of what community means will differ greatly between the traditions, even within them, understanding can be quite diverse.

If you will permit me an exploration of the word through my trusty OED (because I like words and their etymology), it offers a number of definitions:

Community

1.A group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common

2.A particular area or place considered together with its inhabitants:

3.The condition of sharing or having certain attitudes and interests in common

I find these definitions interesting because they immediately bring to mind that which is not just about the human, but the entire context within which we find ourselves. The first two consider community not just as collections of humans, but of humans within a place or landscape. There is something implicit within the word that suggests a group of people who share a commonality of experience. If we broaden that definition out to a more animistic understanding, where the people we are talking about are not just human, but plants, animals, bricks, rocks, water and the sofa, that widens again our understanding of what community might be and adds a another dimension to the picture. As I write, I consider the community I am creating in this moment simply by being conscious of it. I sit on the sofa and can feel the fabric, the cotton and plants, the oil that made it, the wool of the blanket, the wooden frame. In the hearth, the woodburner is lit, the flames adding warmth to the room, burning the wood from the basket. There is the cat on the sofa, the bricks and paint of the house, the rose bush outside and the bowl of daffodils on the window sill; it is a very consciously chosen community, my home, and the place that I feel most welcome. I am very aware that the place is happy with me too, we have an ease that has come from spending the last year here, talking to the spirits of this place, making offerings and most importantly listening to the response. It is a negotiated relationship, built with care, mutual trust, a sense of what each needs, and what nourishes who. We don’t always get it right (if I don’t hoover often enough the old lady who lived here in the 70s gets very grumpy), but the intention all round is to maintain that relationship for as long as it lasts for the good of all concerned. It takes energy, co-operation, and a shared sense of value and direction, a recognition of what the commonality is.

For me, a key part of recognising myself to be a part of a community is in understanding what that commonality is. Potentially when considering something as large and expansive as ‘The Pagan Community’, or ‘The Druid Community’, even a community such as the friends we collect on Facebook, we may have a problem, because recognising what the commonality and shared value and direction is, can be almost impossible. Go back 20 years, even 10, and there were a great deal fewer pagans and the commonality found in isolation, discrimination or even a shared sense of weirdness was enough to bring and hold communities together. Nowadays ‘The Community’ is just too big, too diverse, with too many people all with different wants, needs and opinions for me to find much of a commonality of place or shared values and beliefs, let alone that shared sense of direction, which I need in order to really invest. And this is fine so long as we recognise that the only thing we may hold in common is the word ‘Druid’ and that difference of opinion will be as broad as it is possible to be. It certainly doesn’t mean that these communities are not of value, but if we are expecting all people within them to behave, act and think in the same way, or place expectations upon them about what they should provide us with, then we will probably be disappointed because they are to big and too open to engender the kind of support, validation or affirmation that so many of us seek in times of trouble. Because here’s the thing, and I feel slightly heretical saying it, I don’t consider ‘The Druid Community’ or ‘The Pagan Community’, or even the ‘Heathen Community’, to be my community. At least, not in any meaningful sense. For the most part, I find my own values and beliefs to be so different I often wonder if I’m in the right place at all. I find the expectation that I will be all caring, all supporting, all enabling, all understanding, not upset anyone, and always say the right thing tiresome, mostly because I would never make that expectation in this context myself.

I have run into all sorts of problems in being very open in these sorts of arenas and then being very upset when I did not receive the response I wanted, entirely through my own misjudgment of what that shared commonality was. Consequently I am selective about what I share where. This of course, creates an online persona which is not disingenuous or a fake, it’s just the bits of me I choose to share in a particular space, but it means that you never see the whole person and it certainly means you are not seen within your full context. Some of the most lovely people I ever met, seem to manage to create the most noxious online personalities which in no way represent them in real life. We all do it to a greater or lesser extent, and herein lies another problem; if our online communities are made up of ‘bits’ of people, placed outside of their context, how much of a community are they really? This bits-of-people phenomena creates the danger that we will make assumptions about others, to a certain extent we have to, in order to bridge the gaps and create something functional. This is particularly true where we really don’t know the people involved well, because we may never have actually met in person, or have spent only a limited amount of time with them. But that also means that as often as we get those assumptions right, we will get them wrong and we can’t really blame other people for making up the stuff we don’t chose to tell them.

It is for this reason I tend not to use these online communities for support or validation, choosing instead to share the difficult stuff in my life with the people close to me. I might choose to use the word ‘Hearth’ rather than community in this context for the warmth at the centre that it implies. These are those people I chose to spend time with. A lot. They are the ones I love, the ones I miss when they are not around, the ones that make me laugh, the ones with whom I can cry. Perhaps most importantly, I haven’t chosen them to affirm me, or tell me I’m right, but because I know they value me enough to tell me when I’m behaving like an idiot when it’s needed. I trust them to hold the mirror up in way that will support me to learn and grow that is gentle but challenging, because they know me. They are the friends and family of blood and not-blood with whom I have chosen to create conscious and nourishing relationships and with whom I am invested in a way I can never be online.

There absolutely is value in sharing in these wider, larger, more public communities. I’ve met and made connections with the some of the most important people in my life online initially, but those relationships have always had the most value where they work offline too. There are hazards in choosing to share our deepest truths online, with people we don’t know well, and who aren’t necessarily invested in a caring relationship with us. We cannot have the expectation that they will look after us or be gentle because they are working from a place of their own troubles and just maybe there is a really good reason that they weren’t nice when you needed them to be. It’s so important to understand that the words we put out there will often really push buttons and challenge people and that we may be seriously challenged in return. We need to be really sure we can handle that or we place ourselves in danger not only of winding up very hurt, but of alienating people too.

 

 

*An Old English word meaning community, fellowship, union, common ownership,

Wakeful Priesthood

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As is so often the case, I am motivated to write by a discussion I have read or been a part of in internet land over the past few days and weeks. This post is no different and coincidentally, I note that Nimue has been motivated to write on a similar subject here with a slightly different slant. It is an issue I have considered and grappled with for a few years now, searching for a path that I would consider to hold the most honour. The issue is that of Pagan Priesthood.

As always within the pagan community and its many branches, gaining consensus on an issue is somewhat like herding cats. This in particular is a difficult and thorny subject, with many and varied viewpoints which seems to elicit some very emotional responses. Not least I suspect, because many pagans arrived in their chosen tradition, in part as a direct rejection of established religion and all that entails. The language of priesthood is for some, simply too close to this. Perspectives range from those who do not see the need for a priesthood at all, feeling that they do not need anyone to stand between them and the gods, those who rely on priests for teaching, ritual and guidance, and those who appoint themselves as professional priests taking on the role full time. Unlike established religions, there is no ‘church’ to appoint, pay or regulate those who take on the role and whilst there may be small groups and teaching schools who do offer training anyone can chose to undertake the role. Whilst I firmly believe this to be a strength of paganism and seriously hope we never go down that sort of C of E route and all the corruption it entails, the lack of it does create some problems of its own which require careful consideration. After all, where do the priests come from, who makes them, who ensures that they are not fiddling with the children, and further do we need them at all?

My answer to that final question; ‘do we need them at all?’ is an emphatic yes. Whilst many do feel that they do not need a priest to minister for them, having the confidence to do this themselves, there will always be times, and I can think of many in my own life when we need to hand that role over to someone who is really good at it. A perfect example is a wedding, a day when we have so many things to think of: the dress, the cake, the flowers, the ring, whether Auntie Betty is being looked after, that we need someone to do this for us. After all, we are probably not cooking the wedding breakfast or serving the buffet ourselves either. We need the day to be an ‘Occasion’, the community – our friends and family need the gathering, the moment, the spectacle, to feel the job well done, to recognise and support our moment of transition and change and this for many, requires a person who can hold the space and the focus for us to do what is needed. But priesthood is about more than the rituals and the weddings, it is about shouldering the responsibility that our traditions will continue, that we will teach the next generation the skills needed, and within that, comes the role of the teacher. There really is no substitute (I believe) for the dedicated, one to one teaching relationship that guides and mentors us through the decades of learning the skills and working through our own ego sufficiently to do it well. It is usually the pagan priests who offer (or should be offering) this kind of dedicated teaching.

So to return to the previous questions: who appoints a priest and ensures they are doing a good job? I would give four answers: The Self, The Gods, The Ancestors and The Community. Each are an important ingredient in the mix and a vital part of good teaching ensures that the student (and would be priest) has sufficient relationship with each to understand what they are taking on when they step forward. Each of these four is a post in itself, the first three arise out of our own deeply personal relationships and sense of duty, service and calling, but it is community that is perhaps most immediate. For unless the community we serve recognises us as holding the role of the priest and more specifically that we are doing it well, with ethics and honour,  no one will ask us for those services.

It is the consideration of community that leads me to the issue of payment or exchange. After all, the priest provides a service, gives up her time, incurs costs and expends emotional energy. Not only that, but people value what is given to them most when they feel that they have made equal payment in exchange. So should the priest charge? Again this is a loaded issue with many feeling that it is somehow wrong to charge money for spiritual services. Whilst I am not of this view, I do believe that we need to exercise care when mixing priestwork and money. There are a number of charlatans out there and integrity so often seems inversely proportionate to the sums of money involved. Priestwork is not the same as any other job where we can demand a living wage from an employer for the work we do and I worry when I hear folks expressing that the community owes them a living or has a responsibility to support them. Because I don’t believe it does; that responsibility rests solely with ourselves.

Priesthood is a job of devotion and service first and foremost; it has to be to retain its integrity. Sadly there are a number of folks out there offering magical healing, a way to the truth or worse, exploitation. The ethical responsibilities of the priest, working with people in sometimes extremely vulnerable spiritual situations means that it is of paramount importance that we keep our egos in check. Getting rich is one sure fire way to exaggerate, out of all sense of proportion, our own importance. I firmly believe in the principle of equal exchange and it is what I base the priestwork that I do upon. I will ask for expenses where I am out of pocket and an exchange of energy for my time. Sometimes that energy takes the form of money, sometimes it is a favour, a bill paid, food or shopping or cleaning. It will depend upon what the person has, how much they can afford and what they can offer. Not being paid the agreed price or not being paid on time is of course deeply disheartening, and frustrating and a different issue entirely. Yet,  most working within the priesthood do not expect to grow rich, I have a strong instinct that to struggle, to a greater or lesser extent, is a part of the role. Priesthood has a long tradition of simplicity, monasticism, and frugalness. It is integral, important and it keeps us humble. If we arrive in the priesthood without realising this, we may be in trouble. To what extent we struggle with day to day living is, to a certain extent, between us and our gods and the opportunities we make and create for ourselves. If we do not have enough, we are not asking enough or more likely, not clearly enough of the right people in the right way. Possibly we need to reassess our perspective on what enough actually is. But then I believe this is a good philosophy for life in general.

I chose not to work as a full time priest, because whilst I know and have known those who do, in many ways I feel the same about the career priest as I do about a the career politician. It is not sustainable in the long term and we are in danger of losing touch with the world in a way which is not healthy. Not only that but in making priesthood into a career we are in danger of losing what brought us to it in the first place and it becomes nothing more than a job like any other with it’s toil and tedium. Having other ways of paying the mortgage not only keeps our feet on the ground and helps us to remain useful in wider society beyond the small confines of our own perspectives, but it removes the sense of desperate financial need on our ministry and prevents the breeding of that dreadful sense of entitlement, loneliness, bitterness and frustration when inevitably we don’t earn enough.

The primary motivation of the priest must be the work we are doing for the gods and the community beyond any finacial recompense. That is not to say we should not receive fair exchange for the blood sweat and tears, and of course we all need to eat but the life of a priest was never one of ease, nor should it be. This keeps us wakeful, striving, searching, doing our best and the rewards that priesthood brings in terms of our own satisfaction, relationships with the gods and ancestors is in many ways the payment we receive for choosing to walk this road.

She who just had other things to do.

This post has been gestating so to speak, for some time now. It began in early spring last year (hence the slightly unseasonal references), got added to when Cat Treadwell posted about a similar subject last year and got completed today when I recieved yet another well meaning but ill-considered comment.

As the cycle turns again past the Spring equinox, the days lengthen and the sun warms, the world suddenly seems alive with creatures busy becoming, or preparing to become parents as if their lives depended on it. It is a little early yet for the baby birds and many other creatures, but there are lambs – albeit brought on early by artificial farming systems. Most other creatures wait a while for the sun to be a little warmer yet and the food sources to be more abundant. The sap is rising though, and the first scents of lust are in the air. It seems that each thing is starting to express that primary urge to procreate, indeed the goddess of motherhood, that deep, aching, yearning drive, begins (for the females at least) to obliterate all else. For me she is not ever loving, nurturing, soft and yielding, but a demanding bitch who will get her way at all costs and damn who gets hurt in the process. Spiders eat their mates to provide them with the energy to gestate and birth sometimes consumed in turn by their offspring. Frogs mate themselves literally to death to produce clouds of spawn, and Blue tits run themselves ragged to the point of exhaustion, sparing little for themselves as they stuff another worm down a gaping baby’s mouth. As a midwife, I know that motherhood can offer moments of utter beauty and tenderness, but I also know that a good amount of the time, it is not ‘nice’.

As pagans at this time of equinox, we start to get busy with eggs, obscene amounts of chocolate, hares, daffodils and other representations of the spring. We celebrate the first scents of warmer air, fertility and life, the growing fecund earth, our Mother. Motherhood: it is a central theme that runs through out just about every paganism throughout the world, but where does Maiden-Mother-Crone leave those of us who are intentionally childless and intend to remain so, or those who so desperately wanted children but cannot have them for whatever reason. What of the Bitch, Witch, Barren-Woman, Working-Woman, and Woman-With-Just-Plain-Old-Better-Things-To-Do? She rarely features in the equation although she is abundant in Mythology. No, whichever way we look at it, the woman without children is an oddity, a challenge and often, the rest of society is just not quite sure what to do with her. If you are unable to have a child, in addition to having to deal with your own sense of grief and often rage, you are the subject of pity and hushed voices, ‘it’s so sad…, such a shame‘ the sense that no one quite knows what to say as if you have somehow failed in your essential duty. Conversely, woman who chose to be childless often appear to be unwitting prey to those in life who, bowled over by the wonder and joy of their own parenthood, consider it their personal mission in life to win you over, not realising that the source or their own joy is rarely, if ever, as interesting to the rest of the world.

It seems that as soon as a woman gets to a certain age, usually her 30’s, other women, always mothers themselves, seem to decide for you that your biological clock is undoubtedly ticking. How many times have I heard the phrases ‘so, it won’t be long now before…’, ‘you really don’t want to leave it too late…’, ‘you’ll regret it if you don’t, my children are my greatest joy..’ and other such encouragements to bite the bullet and join the mother club. As a woman in her 30’s who falls into the Woman-With-Just-Plain-Old-Better-Things-To-Do category, on explaining my position I am invariably met with either pity or a knowing smile that says ‘one day you’ll crack and then you’ll realise what you’ve been missing.’ On posting something similar to Facebook the other day, irritated beyond measure by yet another of these comments, I was amazed at the other women and a good few men too who empathised. Childless for different reasons, the majority were irritated, hurt or baffled by the assumption that childbearing should be the normal thing to do, that anyone who goes by a different path is somehow not normal, has something wrong with them or simply will not be complete without a baby.

Without doubt, the fleetingly rare times in my life where I have been even remotely tempted to have a child have all been motivated by my ancestors. The understanding that we are at the front of a long line of inheritance that connects us back to earliest humanity and beyond is where, if there is any sense of it at all, my greatest feelings of duty and responsibility lie. If I don’t pass on that inheritance do I fail my ancestors in my genetic duty? Within a religion that holds such deep reverence for our ancestors, I think perhaps there is the tendency for pagans to beat ourselves with this particular ceremonial plank more than others. Yet, in striving to be a thinking, rational, wakeful human woman, in a world where over consumption runs rife within a growing population who not only demand to be fed and watered but comfortable with it, I would encourage every woman to make a conscious choice, wherever possible about childbearing. After all, having a child (or three) will undoubtedly be the biggest increase to your carbon footprint you will ever make, it doesn’t matter how many transatlantic fights you may have made in the past, they will pale in comparison. Apart from anything else, are my genes really so fabulous, that I just have to pass them on? I am not so special and the flow of humanity will undoubtedly continue whether I reproduce or not and I can be sure it will be just as, well… human. I would like to see motherhood as something women opt into consciously and deliberately rather than an opting out of which confounds societies unspoken expectations.

So whilst not negating the role of the mother here at all, I would like to share a celebration of the childless woman. The ones who made the choice not to, the ones who couldn’t, the ones who tore their souls open in grief at the failure and found peace on the other side, the ones who still have to find peace, the ones who never will, the spinsters, the ones who maintained their freedom with fierce courage in the face of society’s norms, growing roses and dancing in the rain. The unheard stories. Sisters I salute you.