Tag Archives: community

Calling Pagans of England and Wales

Pagans of England and Wales, the Pagan Federation is looking for nominations for Pagans who are making a difference in their communities.

Do you know someone who deserves recognition for the work they do? event organisers, moot leaders, celebrants of local rituals, teachers, healers – who do you feel should have their work celebrated?

Surviving is winning

I have a lot of friends who are going through hard stuff, or have been in the last few months. Folks challenged by illness and job loss, others whose worlds have been torn apart by bereavement. People facing all kinds of practical difficulties and personal challenges. We swap notes. Not to compete, not to say ‘my problem is worse than yours’ but because telling tales from the edge makes it easier not to fall over it. Talking about what’s happening is a way of coping and surviving.

And there’s a thing we do, all of us, which I wanted to share because it helps. We point out each other’s successes. Often those are not big achievements by the standards of those involved. There are days when just doing your regular job in a passable way is a challenge of epic proportions, when giving your family something like a normal day is a heroic achievement. So we help each other recognise that, and take pride in what we’re managing to do despite what we’re up against. Sometimes that means going “but hey, you’re still here, still fighting, you got through today, well done.” There are days when not being beaten, dead or incapacitated by the end of it is pretty impressive. Today I did not actually go mad. Today I broke and wept and did nothing but weep, but I am still here. Today I did not walk into the sea, even though I thought about it. There are times, in extremis, when this too is achievement.

There are times when, through no choice of our own, life just swamps us. It piles on more than we can bear, demands more than we know how to do, takes more than we had to spare, and then you get up the next day and it starts again. No amount of saying “please stop I can’t take any more” makes the blindest bit of odds. What do you do when you have to endure more than it is possible to endure? When you have to bear more weight than your shoulders can take? What happens when failure isn’t an option but you can’t see any way out that doesn’t in fact look like fail? Day after day after day…

Some people give up, sliding into absolute despair and inaction. Some people kill themselves, or break down mentally such that they can no longer function.

And some people get through it, crawling where they have to, howling frequently, barely functional, but somehow still moving, still alive. Not successful by any regular measurement, not ‘achieving’ but holding together enough to get through, keeping going enough that there’s just a flicker of hope things might improve. How? Because today, they did not give up. Today, when it all seemed impossible and too painful to bear, they crawled out to face the day anyway, and they tried. Today, they did not commit suicide or admit defeat.

That refusal to give up is the only difference between absolute total defeat, and the chance to make things better. And if that’s all you have left to hang onto, it is both everything, and terrifyingly flimsy.

So if you’re having a hard time, or you know someone who is, remember this. There are days when getting through and surviving is win. It is heroic success and inspirational levels of achievement and needs treating as such. Every small thing you do is a thing to celebrate.

Today I wrote a blog post. Today perhaps I asked the right person for help. Today I did not give up.

What we don’t see

How many times have you seen a dead person, or sat with someone you knew was dying? When did you last have to deal with someone in the throes of total mental breakdown? How about care for an incontinent adult? When did you last encounter someone with serious physical disabilities or learning difficulties? Unless it’s your job to do so, or a close family member has been in this position, the odds are you don’t have this kind of experience at all.

Modern, industrial, affluent culture likes to have things tidy. If you aren’t able to cope with the mainstream it means the odds are you are tidied away from public view. Now, on the one side there’s a lot to be said for having experienced professionals care for people who need extra help – they know what they’re doing. Caring is incredibly hard work, and being able to go home at the end of the day and rest is worth so much – those who look after an ill person at home seldom get much respite. But many people do it, and are very isolated as a consequence, as are the people they care for.

One of the consequences of this, is that when we encounter these kinds of scenarios full on in our own lives, that’s often the first time we have to deal with it. People I know have managed to get into their thirties without anyone they care about dying. Lots of folk only start dealing with the trials and distress of old age when their parents get into difficulty. People who become physically or mentally disabled often do so not having had any prior experience of people in the same situation. It’s frightening. We hit crisis with no points of reference, and no idea of how to cope. We may be the one being shuffled out of the way. That’s a very scary process as well.

Community is about sharing – not just in the good times, but with the harder stuff too. Altruism aside, there are a lot of good, pragmatic reasons for being more involved. If you’ve listened to someone else when they were close to cracking up, if you’ve sat with someone bereaved and grieving, if you’ve kept in touch with someone obliged to go into a home… not only are you supporting them and doing a lot of good, but you are also learning. The hard times are that much harder when you have no idea what’s going on or how to cope. None of us are immortal. None of us are immune to accident or injury.

It may seem like defensive behaviour, moving away from the hard stuff other people are going through. Who wants to hear the doom and gloom stories? Who wants to deal with another person’s grief? It’s all hassle, it’s not our problem. Only it is, and it will be, sooner or later. If we can’t reach out to each other for reasons of compassion, we ought to be doing it out of self interest.

We don’t benefit, as a culture, from hiding away the people who aren’t part of the whole working and breeding system. The sick, the elderly, the troubled… most of us do not have to think about them, most of the time. We are ‘free’ to get on with our lives. Right up until it happens to us. If we weren’t so keen to hide away the ‘problems’ there are a lot of people whose quality of life would improve dramatically. There would be less to fear – it’s bad enough being ill of body or mind without the added fear of social rejection and isolation. We could do so much better with this issue.

Help!

Being a good natured, well meaning chap, James likes to be helpful. We’ve had a fair few interesting discussions around this, as he’s learned about the issue. Like most children, James started out with play helping – and frequently that’s entirely unhelpful. I wondered about letting him do that, but opted to very gently suggest that helping in an actually helpful way would be more use. He turned out to be totally open to this. Since then he’s become really good at responding to requests for help, and asking what help is needed rather than assuming he knows.

It’s very easy, when trying to help, to end up swamping, disempowering or depressing the person you meant to assist. It’s an easy time to accidentally patronise, or make the recipient feel that they’re not doing well enough as it is. “Is there anything I can do to help?” is much better than “Let me do that for you.” Or worse yet, “I can do that properly.” How we offer help shows our respect, or lack thereof for people.

If a person needs help because they are in difficulty, it means pretty much by definition that they have lost control of something. That might be through ill health, misfortune, injury, job loss, or any number of small or vast setbacks. The one thing a person in crisis needs more than anything else, is not to lose more autonomy. Genuine help means not taking more power from that person. It’s always easier to see the solutions to other people’s problems than our own, but rushing in with too much enthusiasm can do more harm than good. ‘Help’ that denies a person choices, or disempowers them in any way, is not useful.

If you want to help, with anything or anyone, then begin by asking what you can do. Don’t assume you know what they need, or even that you know what the problem is without checking. Ask what the other person needs, how you can support them, what they would like. Be willing to listen. Unless they are in a coma or otherwise totally unable to act on their own behalf, don’t act for them without consent, that can add to distress. Give a distressed person as much time as you can to speak for themselves and make their own choices. It’s not just a matter of fixing whatever the short term issues are, consider their longer term needs, dignity and sense of self.

If we rush in too fast, we can cause more harm than good. It’s so easy to railroad a person who is already in distress. The loss of control that goes with crisis creates fear, anxiety, and can make a person feel they do not know how to cope. Coming in and rushing someone can increase the feeling of lost control and make it harder for them to make good choices. To give true aid, it must be offered on the terms of the one who needs it, not on the terms of the ‘helper’ or what we do can easily make a bad situation worse.

Druids and the Church

Druidry and Christianity have a very interesting sort of relationship. There are folks who do both, and most of the folks who only do one find this a bit perplexing. And no, I have no idea really how it works, but so long as it does work for people, then fair enough.

Churches have a very strong physical presence in a lot of communities. They are a hub point for activity, as well as the focal point of worship and religion. Contemporary druids do not, usually, have anything comparable. There aren’t enough of us, we don’t have the financial backing, and there is the whole issue of liking to do it in the trees. Groves are good for rituals, but less good for playgroups, jumble sales, coffee mornings and all the other social glue that holds church communities together.

I’ll freely admit that every now and then I get an attack of building-envy. Churches tend to have very good acoustics too, they are fabulous places to sing. Often they have interesting windows and art work to explore. In rural places, churches are often where the local history, archaeology and myth wind up. If you want to find out about a place, poking around in the church will give you a good place to start. Then there’s the graveyard – frequently a wildlife haven and full of ancestors – ancestors of place, if not bone or tradition.

If you’re getting the idea that I love churches, you’d be right. But the trouble is Christianity doesn’t speak to me and never did. I am very fond of many lovely Christian people, and I have a lot of respect for what they do, but I’m never going to be going that way.

The trouble is, being a Druid, by definition involves having a community to be a Druid for. Which is fine and dandy if there are plenty of pagans about. But what do you do if you are the only pagan in the village, or your part of town? The private, solitary aspects of Druidry you can do anywhere, but the community aspect means people.

When I was in Redditch, I had a good relationship both with the nearest vicar, and my son’s school (which was a faith school). We were entirely open about the paganism. I’ve sung in the church (because I love mediaeval music) and supported church events. It depends a lot on the nature of your vicar, but many have an attitude that the church exists for the community, first and foremost. Being openly pagan, non-confrontational and interested in giving service, I found it easy enough to find a place.

My new home, unshockingly, turns out to have a church in viable walking distance (this being the UK, I’d be hard pushed to live somewhere this wasn’t true of). It’s a significant hub of local life. I love the graveyard, and have snuck into the building when no one else is about. Empty churches can be very lovely places to meditate on a rainy day. In time, I’ll start offering all the things I’ve given in other places – music, harvest loaf making, help with practical things. All the community and craft aspects. If the community I’m in turns out to be light on pagans, and more Christians, then to serve, as a Druid, I need to find ways to serve within a Christian-defined context. It can be done.

Acknowledging the Flaws

As a writer and a pagan, I want to write about pagan people. That creates some interesting tensions. As a writer, I know that interest and sympathy come from flaws. Overly perfect people aren’t realistic, and it’s the problems that create plots and interest. As a pagan, I want to represent paganism well. In reality, there are some problem folk in our community – as there are in all communities. There are people who are drawn by a desire for power, who claim knowledge they don’t have, who use their status for abusive or sexually predatory reasons. There are nutters, (as in any community) there are airy fairy fluffy types and hard core intolerant folk. Pagans are people, and people tend to be complicated, messy, flawed entities.

There isn’t, to the best of my knowledge, much fiction out there dealing with real life modern pagans. (If you know of anything good, please comment!) Much of it is more on the fantasy side, delving into magic and witchcraft in ways that bear no resemblance to the realities of being an ordinary pagan. I think because so many pagans have a non-conventional relationship with reality, we tend to write more ‘magical realism’ than not, but a great deal of what I’ve seen claiming to show pagan characters, looks more like full blown fantasy to me. This may be because at least some of the writers of such fiction are writing fantasy, not speaking from experience. 

I have absolutely no idea what market (if any) there might be for stories that reflect the reality of pagan life. I haven’t the faintest idea what affect it might have putting such material out there. How would other folk relate to us if they knew about the bitchcraft and witch wars, the in-fighting, the predators, the politics, and the challenges of ‘normal’ paganism. Stories about happy functional groves, hearths and covens aren’t going to make good reading. Plots require tension. Fiction that makes use of the very real and actual flaws, isn’t necessarily going to make anyone comfortable.

The writer in me rather fancies taking what I know of the pagan scene, and making a story of it. The pagan in me is horrified by the idea. So for now, my pagan work is also more on the magical realism side, and I’ve not tackled the personalities, politics, and weirdness that I know is out there. If anyone else has braved it and written honestly about modern paganism, in all its complexity, I’d be very interested to know about it.

Creative Community

One of my happiest memories from childhood revolved, perhaps unsurprisingly, around books. We didn’t have a television, and before bed, we gathered in the living room. Dad would read aloud, mother would sew or knit. My brother and I would draw while we listened, or I would practise my various needlecrafts too. I listened to Lord of the Rings, Douglas Adams, Alan Garner, Narnia – all manner of classics that fed and shaped my growing mind. It also formed my sense of how best to work.

In my teens, hanging out with other creative folk, we developed something similar – we would gather at someone’s house, bring books, sketching paper, writing equipment. Some of my happiest teenage memories are of groups of us, quietly working in the same space, listening to music, sharing our inspiration. I’ve been able to do similar things of late with Tom, James, and occasionally Tom’s son Cormac (who is a fine musician). Inspiration flows best where it is shared. Creating alone can be an isolating experience if you are a sociable person. Sharing space suits me far better. Such sharing enables collaboration and the movement of ideas, it creates nurturing, productive environments. There’s much benefit in feeling supported and being part of something bigger than just yourself.

The internet offers all kinds of spaces and communities where creative folk can interact. Some of them are inherently competitive, where folks are fighting for resources and opportunities. I don’t tend to go in for those. Most publishers have private spaces for staff and authors – those can be wonderful, sharing wisdom and taking everyone forward through mutual support. There is such a ‘back room’ here at pagan and pen, there is a community underpinning this blog, and it’s something I love being a part of. It’s not the same as working in shared space, but it is helpful and valuable none the less. Many of the spaces that enable people to chat and interact fall short because they don’t offer any way of taking things forwards. Facebook is a nice resource, but it doesn’t lend itself to making. I like www.deviantart.com because there is a sense of community there and folk helping each other improve. Most such spaces are little more than talking shops though, and there’s scope for doing so much more.

My fabulous agent, Killing the Grizzly, is going to launch a new collaborative space for comics folk. I don’t yet know the full plan, but the mission, as described on facebook, is as follows – “bringing together communities as part of the process of creating, producing, and promoting new creative works.” This sounds good to me. It won’t of course be quite as much fun as buying a big house and filling it with arty people, but it could just be the next best thing, and it’ll be far more widely accessible.

(If I am ever disgustingly successful, I will very likely do the big house full of creative folk thing.)