Wilderness

‘Wilderness’, it’s such an evocative word. For me, it immediately evokes daydreams of wild places, mountaintops, vast plains, windswept beaches, storm-drenched coast, beautiful nature in its unspoiled element. Our genes are programmed to love these places, to crave air and space and sunshine and rain. We need these things to thrive, to be happy. Research shows us this time and again. Yet, here in Britain this small crowded island with its cities and agriculture, for all our green and pleasantness, mountans, valleys and rivers, there is little that is truly wilderness; by which I mean, the places that nature is allowed to be, untouched, unmanaged by humanity. Almost every inch of these islands is grazed, managed, copiced, cleared or ‘protected’. Short of travelling a considerable distance most of us have very limited access to wilderness.

If you are anything like me though, you crave it, feel the ancient need for it deep within your bones and search for it as an essential source of healing. As a pagan, nature is where I find my deepest source of solace, I think of my ancestors who for thousands and thousands of years walked and lived in vast tundra and dense forest, the nearest neighboring tribe might have been days walk away. That’s not to over romanticise an idyllic existence of course, modern life brings us much comfort that I would not be without, but it illustrates the point that we’ve lived in the wilderness for far longer than as urbanised creatures. Even here in rural Leicestershire, in my tiny village of 180 people, I struggle to think of a single place I can go, certainly without getting in my car, where the horizon in every direction is free from settlement or farm building, where my view contains no field boundary or managed hedge.

In a search for the wild, perhaps for many of us, the places that we find wilderness most easily may be on the inside. We are animals after all, our humanity is just a civilised gloss over creatures who just need to eat, sleep, love, birth and screw; just as every other creature does. It is only our unique mental processes and the ability to manipulate our environment which affords us an illusion of difference. However, whilst we crave the romanticism of the wild, so often we fight it too with every fibre. We are social beings. We fundamentally need interaction, relationship and support in order to survive. We fear to be alone, really alone, or venture into the dark places of our heads where no one else can follow. Those places are scary and we avoid them, often for good reason. We fill our lives with constant interaction, facebook, phones, TV, radio. I suspect that we do this sometimes, to avoid the dark places. There is good evidence to suggest that the sights and sounds of the modern world, noise, traffic, screentime, crowds actually have abnormal affects on our brainwaves, changing our thought patterns and responses to the world negatively. Conversely, natural sights and sounds, green spaces, woodland, sky, birdsong, positively modulate and normalise our brain patterns and responses to stimuli.

How many of us can say that we have the balance right, spending MORE time in benefical environments allowing ourselves to naturally process our feelings and emotions than we do in the places, both physical and virtual, we are bombarded with images and chatter? I know that my interactions with social media for example can be profoundly damaging if I am not extremely careful, at times removing my ability to think clearly or independently. I’m overwhelmed by the detail of others lives and a level of interaction and sharing that feels to me sometimes, to be profoundly abnormal and intrusive. I am caught between the need and want to support friends and the need for peace, headspace, and solitude. It’s hard to get the balance right. For many of course, social media is extremely beneficial, relieving feeling of lonliness and social isolation, connecting people accross oceans and distance. But for others it adds another layer of complication to modern life to be navigated and managed. Or worse, becomes a sticking plaster to the things we really should be thinking about and dealing with, but aren’t.

All this returns me again to the need for wilderness. Sometimes we just need to disconnect from the chatter, let it all go, and to work out again what is authentic, the people, relationships and things that matter to us most in the real world. Sometimes in order to do that we need to be alone, to wander a little and get a bit lost. I would argue that there are times in our lives where this wandering is not only desirable, it’s absolutely essential because without it we only ever know ourselves as we are reflected in the eyes of others. To return to the wilderness even if that is a metaphorical wilderness is part of an ancient human process, when we can no longer bottle it up, button it up, suck it up, and when to continue to do so does us more harm than good.

When we need to find again a sense of self which is independent and a strength which comes from centre and not from others, getting lost can be helpful. There is profound use in stopping, sitting and peacefully acknowledging your surroundings, realising that you have no idea where you are or what to do. In the moment that you stop pushing, stop fighting, stop running, stop trying to be somewhere else, and recognise that you are lost in the wilderness, the panic and urgency is calmed and the answer emerges – for there is no other – you learn to say simply, “I’m here” and find a sense of presence in the moment. In the moment, we breathe, are able to hear the birdsong, the sea, the wind in the trees, and smell the honeysuckle when before we were distracted. In the moment, we can look for the place on the horizon where the sun rises or the side of the tree that the lichen grows to help us orientate again. But we can only do this effectively when we have the space and time to do so.

Of course few of us are ever truly alone, enforced  lonliness is a terrible place to be and the point is not to permanently isolate ourselves in the quest. Having people around us, who honour our need for wilderness and support the vision quest is vital. In such a way we can be lost in quiet company, where those who understand the need will stand with you and hold the compass as it spins, or quietly watch as you smooth out the map. What is needed in the wilderness are those able to suspend their own need to locate, push, solve the problem, move, chivvy or cheer us, knowing that wilderness is healing in itself, and the process of stopping and locating ourselves is the only way to go forward. This may take time, a lot of time, but when we finaly find the courage to move again, located in the moment, the path will emerge from the undergrowth and the wilderness will return to the familiar. The clarity and strength we have gained will teach us to be less frightened of returning to the wilderness again when we need to, because we come back to the world stronger than we left it. Perhaps most importantly though, in experiencing wilderness and its capacity to heal, we learn to support the process for others, suspending our own needs, and witness quietly as they too stop and smooth out the map.

 

 

 

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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.

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.

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.

Walking the Cotswold Way.

A Pilgrimage to Sulis Minerva.

The Beginning and the End

The Beginning and the End

The idea of pilgrimage is always one that has fascinated me; there is something very sacred about taking the time out of day-to-day life to devote to making a journey. As a teenager I studied Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and was swept up as much by the act of travelling to a place of reverence as the characters and their raucous stories.

In a world where we travel a hundred miles in an afternoon and think nothing of popping down the road by car to our ‘local’ sacred site, which may actually be 20 or 30 or even more miles away, so few of us know how it feels to walk 100 miles or more, or the effort, energy and the determination that takes even for someone as blessed as I am with good health and the use of my legs. Yet, it was a more common occurrence to our ancestors for whom often, walking was the only means of transport.

As pagans, we often talk of the act of journeying as being central to our spirituality. Whether we track the inner paths of meditations, the shamanic journeys of healing and divination or the perfectly orchestrated journey of a well planned ritual for a rite of passage or celebration, the language of the journey is common to most of us. But, how often do we make a journey that is consciously and actually walked, step by step and moment by moment, a journey that may last a few days, a week, a month or even longer; surrendering ourselves completely to where that journey may take us and the challenges that may be encountered along the way? Of course there are many ways to create this kind of journey but as I discovered this week, a long distance walk is particularly powerful.

When my friend Sophie asked me at New Year if I would like to walk the Cotswold Way with her in the coming May, a 102.5 mile route that stretches from Chipping Campden, down and across the entirety of Gloucestershire, to Bath in Somerset, my immediate reaction was ‘YES!” quickly followed by a feeling of trepidation and the wondering of what I had let myself in for. I was a casual walker, easily capable of 7 or 8 miles without a problem, but I knew that that was not going to be adequate for this kind of journey where a pace of 10 -16 miles needed to be maintained every day for 8 days. Not only that, but we decided very early on not to use the services of a sherpa to carry our bags. We were going to do this properly; carrying everything we needed was an important part of the journey.

For both of us, the Cotswolds are a sacred place. The escarpment that stretches from the Midlands to the south of England has been a backbone to much of our lives. For me, it links the Cotswold stone of my childhood, the bedrock upon which I now live, a significant part of my life for the last decade, and the ancestral land of my mothers line deep into Gloucestershire and Somerset.  We knew that to make a pilgrimage along the escarpment following that line down to its natural end in Bath where the steaming red water pours from the rocks into the roman baths at the shrine of Sulis Minerva, who became our constant companion en route, would be powerful.

Having trained extensively this spring, we both had a fair idea that we could cope with the maximum daily distance of 16 miles. But, we had no way of knowing whether we could cope with it day after day without actually doing it.  In the event, the repeated distance, carrying of a pack and the hot weather we were blessed with for the first three or four days became a recipe for blisters, sore feet, and a not insignificant amount of pain and it seemed to be so for many of the other walkers we met on route. We quickly realised that this too was a part of the journey and that the pain became a devotional act, a sacrifice to the gods of the landscape through which we passed and in sympathy with the many ancestral feet that had walked the path before us. We soon understood that pilgrimage is not supposed to easy and the satisfaction and achievement of reaching the end is in direct proportion to the trials experienced along the way.

We were overwhelmed too with hospitality, folk seeming to understand on some level the importance of what we were doing. We met friends, and relatives who took us in, fed and watered us, shared supper or a drink and walked with us along the way. Other walkers on the same journey became our companions and whilst we were all walking for very different reason, there was a shared understanding, each became an important part, the journey being as much about the people we met as the landscape we walked through. In Sophie’s words we “had one the most fabulous and memorable weeks of our lives. We giggled and sang our way along the Cotswold Way repeating the mantra that ‘pain is only sensation and will arise and pass away’, when the pain in our feet was hard to bear. We walked through blazing sun and howling gale, climbing up and down the escarpment time after time. We walked through bluebell and garlic filled woods, regaled by birdsong and the wind in the trees; over hill forts and long barrows covered in cowslips where we stopped for the odd extreme knitting session; crossed trunk roads and the M4 and finally arrived in Bath where we made offerings to Minerva at her spring,” tears running down our faces as we cast the traditional offerings of money into the blood-red waters, breathing the warmth and steam of her sanctuary whilst tourists snapped pictures and milled around oblivious. For most, the traditional end to the Cotswold way is the Abbey, but for us it was here, in the caves beneath the city.

Having completed the journey and today resting at home, I am left with a deep impression of the power of the pilgrimage. Its ability to challenge and focus us, provide a medium for the outward expression of an inner devotion to ancestors and landscape. I know that I will do it again and I know other pagans who are helping to resurrect that tradition within our religion where it is sadly lacking. For me it has been the ultimate experience of learning to walk this sacred land in a way I had not experienced before and one I hope that others might be inspired to explore.

With thanks to Chris Hastie you can see the route from our GPS tracks here

Very many congratulations to Sophie too, who raised over £1300 for Prostate Cancer UK. You can still sponsor her here

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.