Archive for October, 2012

Life – a Tale Told…

Sometimes it’s all about the words. And sometimes, words just aren’t enough.

It’s part of our makeup as humans to communicate, to convey our experiences to others, both as a validation and to make sense of them to ourselves. We journal as an act of personal psychiatry and historical record. We blog to tell our stories to others, and to throw ideas out into the wider world, entirely unknowing of who will read them.

The paradox of what could be called Contemporary Pagan Practice (or 21st Century Magic, if you want to be glamorous) is that so much of it is hidden behind words. So many books, websites, so much talking, setting down traditions in stones of words mortared with vague ideas… and yet not much of it actually containing much that helps. So many secrets… or are they, really?

Since my last post, I’ve been pondering those Pagan ‘absolutes’, those key tenets that we are taught to work from. Each theory came from another after all, like any philosophy, those stones building on the work of others, tested by new readers/practitioners for strength and relevance, and built on in turn.

But how lazy have we become, with our ready supply of electronic information? Remember when to find something out you had to actively seek it? Go to libraries, order books from far away, write letters to pick the brains of others. Now the dilemma (and skill) is sifting through the overload of data, the ‘fact’ from opinion, the truth from fiction. Isn’t it just easier to pick the ‘facts’ that we like and work from them, without testing them to see if they actually fit our own needs, worldview, life?

And that in itself is another paradox. How can any spiritual ‘truth’ truly be true? Surely every spiritual experience is subjective, open to interpretation… and when turned into words, pinned down like a butterfly in a presentation frame, losing so much of its reality as to be useless – or at best, a story.

I know that the irony here is my writing of such things itself being so limiting, as I try to pin down concepts that are just too amorphous to be adequately portrayed in language. But that’s the rub for me – that’s the mystery itself.

The ancient Bards told stories to convey meanings, human truths that exist beyond ages, passed down through generations. Life is hard, but we’ve lived it – here’s part of the map that might help. Stories worth telling and re-telling. The value of fiction is lost, found, lost again, repackaged, hidden in marketing jargon… but when the words themselves convey Truth, you read or hear them and feel the difference. Compare a daily newspaper story with a much-loved tale that you know so well, you could almost quote it. Or imagine it so vividly that you could describe the landscape, how the wind feels as it blows across moors in Middle Earth, the stink of smoke in Victorian London, the fear in the heart of a lost hero.

True words are more than just swirls on pages (or pixels on screens). Words told well can go deeper, past the intellectual, the grammatically correct, the Award-winning. Enduring words pierce the heart, the soul, conveying experiences that we all know at some level, or want to know, actively seeking out again to feel for ourselves.

This is the heart of the Bardic mystery, for me – where words resonate as experiences.

Paganism (ancient or modern), as it is understood as seeing the sacred in the world around, conveys in words what has been called a ‘mystery religion’. In other words – ahem – you need to understand the mystery to gain the knowledge. It’s experiential. Books can guide, but only you can get out there and really do.

And that, dear reader, is the laziness we so often see. People want the books to give them answers, which they can learn and parrot back without true understanding. We all do it, there’s no shame – that’s how we’re taught these days. 2+2=4 (allegedly). Or the simpler alternative: the soundbite. Look deeper? Why should we, the story’s right there in the headline! But then as a young practitioner, someone will ask you a question about those rote-beliefs and over-simplistic statements… and you’ll realize how little you truly to know.

This is the point where many step away, returning to something a little safer, more easily quantified and understood. Those who continue are essentially readying themselves for the next step – moving into the story, becoming the hero, aiming to take part in the journey to understand where the writer is coming from. And, in due course, having their own story to tell, being a guide themselves, with all of the hard-won scars they earned along the way.

So what’s the point of the words? As I said, maps are handy, guidebooks, stories from those who’ve been there before. Every journey is unique (ask any explorer), but it’s always nice to set off with a rough idea of where you’re going and what you’re going to get into.

To me, Pagan/Druid (whatever label-word you wish) practice is tangible. Proper practice, that is – real work. Feeling the change in the seasons, the different tastes of energy in a crowded room, woodland, seashore or street. The deeper knowing that goes past the regular sensory input – seeing the relationships, the meanings, the motivations, the undercurrents. Going beyond the directions and out the other side of the map book: blank page, ‘Here be Dragons’.

The difference, for example, between casting a circle as per the instructions in your first guidebook and truly doing it truly, your way, when needed. The worry in the back of your mind that you’re ‘doing it wrong’, something bad may happen, you’ll feel stupid, it’s all just playing about anyway. Then the achievement of actually feeling that connection as you work with spirit, energy, however you wish to define it. Gained by practising, getting it wrong a few times, stumbling and carrying on anyway.

That’s what helps you build your own map. Describe it with words if it helps, but the memories of those experiences become familiar with practice, even with their subtle differences based on time, location and situation. Then you know what you’re aiming for, the goal, the circuitous route to it from the initial idea of ‘I want to perform a rite for this reason’ to standing there, at the focal point of that journey, almost at the summit and prepared to truly do

When it’s no longer about having the right coloured candles or the Very Expensive Altar Tools. Your Gods will know what you mean – step forward with honour and trust (in ritual and in life… because what’s the difference, anyway?).

This post was inspired by reading the story of a City magician, scrawling his runes in spray-paint on walls, recognising the power that we give to simple symbols – the Apple, the Golden Arches – and the simple transport magic of waving a Travelcard in the right place. The protection rite of a Lollipop Man, with his gilded robe and staff. The magical web of social media sites. We take so much for granted, that this is appropriate, that is not. What works for us, personally, ourselves? What stories do we live in, every day?

When the Bard tells his story, listen to the words. Listen deeper. See the look in his eyes, the smile on her lips. For a tale to truly be told, it must be known inside and out, otherwise the discordance is audible. The note struck true, the poetry of inspiration, Awen, muse, conveyed through a skilled traveller, is no substitute for your own experience – but if it inspires you in turn, it has fulfilled its purpose.

Sometimes a metaphorical lightbulb over the head; a cosmic kick in the rear; an ‘oh yeah, silly me’ moment when something clicks into place. The words get us there… if we let them. Learn to listen, but then be brave enough to explore for yourself. Have no doubt that someone will listen to your tale in future, to chart their own course.

As I’ve said before, you’re never alone.

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Birth and Creativity

I’ve often said that being a mother is the bravest thing that I could ever imagine doing. From the process of pregnancy to birth, to the ensuing life of an entirely new being (with all its ups and downs), it’s hardly surprising that many mothers – yes, including mine – appear a bit bonkers. A young mother friend of mine once said that you either have a nervous breakdown the first time you lose sight of your child in a shop, or you get over it and get on. I heard a story this week of a poor child being bullied in school because at age 10, his over-protective mother still won’t allow him to look after himself. It’s a tricky balance, and despite the amount of advice on the bookshelves, I doubt there’s really a ‘How To’ manual that’s actually relevant or useful. And I love those reports that come out periodically along the lines of ‘if Wife/Mother was a job, its salary would this much.’ We can never value those hard-working ladies enough.

The image of the Mother, both in life and in Paganism, has been on my mind lately. My 36th birthday looms (vast dotage indeed), and many of my friends and family members have youngsters in various stages of schooling or upbringing. My sister-in-law queried a while ago whether I intended to have kids, enthusing about how wonderful it is, fulfilling etc – before having to deal with my screaming 3-year old nephew and demanding 1-year old niece. My brother has asked for ‘piece and quiet’ for Christmas; possibly ‘a lie-in’.

I’ve never felt myself to be the mothering type. I’ve still yet to feel those mysterious urges of ‘broodiness’. Not having children with my now-ex husband was an extremely wise decision, but my views haven’t changed. Despite others telling me often that I’d make a good mother, I just have never felt brave enough to undertake the staggering life change that having children involves. Also, there’s surely enough children out there who need a good home? Who am I to add to that, when I could surely help those without?

Yesterday, I found an rather odd article in ‘The Independent‘ (also of the type that is reproduced periodically depending on the level of newspaper pages to fill) that brought this to mind again. Is it society’s fault? Is it an outdated religious ethic, that as animals we must breed, to perpetuate the species? Surely not. Are we not free enough to make our own decisions, as individuals and couples?

Yet I’ve heard the comments as well. ‘You’re not a proper woman unless you have children.’ ‘Oh, you’ll regret it when you’re older.’ Or the assumption that there’s something wrong biologically.

I fully understand and agree that parenthood is a difficult job. Yet, given that it prides itself on its return to traditional ways of life, diversity and eclectic practices, how far does Paganism support the societal view that to be a Mother is a natural – if not essential – step in a woman’s life?

(Apologies to the chaps out there reading this; I’m hopeful that you’ll consider my words as they are meant. I’m absolutely in favour of equality, so bear with me – I’m pretty sure you’ve been short-changed here too…)

Maiden, Mother, Crone. Is that it? The wonderful SageWoman magazine printed an article a while ago about ‘The Queen‘, filling in the space between Mother and Crone, noticing that it’s a time when much can still be accomplished – you’re not just stuck at home with the housework anymore. But what if you don’t want to be a biological Mother?

It’s tickled me in the past in ritual or other such Pagan settings. ‘Oh, you know how kids are,’ happily chirped a young mother during some Reiki training that I was helping with. My reply – a simply ‘No’ – brought her up short so fast, I almost laughed at the shock on her face. Because she was in her mid-20s with a brood that would do a hen proud. Clearly something was wrong with me!

My Goddess is so much more than a biological Mother. Motherhood is the giving birth, the creative act as a whole – not just reproducing children, but the lives contained in the multitude of inspirational sparks of Awen. From art, to feeding others, to building a home, to maintaining a garden… every aspect of life that requires that first initial Go! is given birth.

So… surely I do this already, in my own way? I’m doing so right now, kind of: putting thoughts into words to inspire and provoke thought. I’ve run a household since I left University; I care for my partner and animal family as much as I would any others that I love and live with. The basic idea that leads to a book involves a writing process often compared to pregnancy, with all of its pains and joys.

And this is where the guys come in too. There is no Maiden/Mother/Crone for chaps – why not? Yes, I know, God = Male by default for so many years, they’ve apparently had their go. But that’s an equally daft assumption. I don’t want to go too far the other way – this is about balance and reality combined with spirituality. While I’m obviously a girly and therefore can’t speak from experience, I’m pretty sure that men go through life seeking direction, archetypes and ideas in the same way as women. While it may appear they’re endowed with God-given (ahem) knowledge – you know, how to lead nations, run companies, never cry and understand the offside rule – at puberty, that may actually be as ridiculous as women gaining knowledge of how to be A Good Mother and Keep House at the moment of succcessful insemination.

To me, Druidry is ultimately realistic. It’s a spirituality with its mysteries, yes, but those are experiential – necessary to explore if you wish to learn, and worth so much more as a result. Just simply accepting something because it’s ‘traditional’ (actually less than a century old, if we’re referring to Wiccan archetypes) is as ridiculous as mindlessly accepting any other given truth.

‘God created the world’ – how? Not to provoke argument, I just actually would like to know the explanation behind this. But let’s assume that such a creative act as The Big Bang happened (we’re here, after all) and life has been sparking into being ever since, in all its form and wondrous variety. Coming from both men and women – as we understand it, as limited human beings – often working together.

We have to question our roles in life, to challenge, to explore. If not relevant, then we can (hopefully) be free to discard and find alternatives. One size of life does not fit all, and nor should it – how boring would that be?

Perhaps Maiden, Creatrix/Lady, Crone or suchlike might be better? And Boy, Creator/Lord, Teacher? Just basic ideas from the top of my head here, but let’s step out of our boxes, or feel free to relabel our own.

Establishing Pagan Traditions is one thing. Settling into Pagan Ruts is quite another. How much do we take for granted… and how much do we create? That’s surely a core tenet of Paganism, right there.

 

NB: I have intentionally left homosexuality unmentioned here, as I do not have deep personal experience of this and so do not feel qualified to speak on it. However, I see no reason for male/male or female/female balance to be in any way less valid that any other sort (including parenthood), and have seen it work a fair bit better on occasion! For those who can speak on such a basis, please feel free to add your thoughts, as always  🙂

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Unity

Right, be warned, folks. The following post contains jokes that may be seen as contentious. They aren’t intended as offensive, but to challenge and provoke thought. Comments are, as always, very welcome, but I’d rather have debate than argument. No abusive behaviour will be tolerated.

Still with me? Lovely.

Today, the lovely blogger Mrs B posted up her ‘Question of the Day’ on Twitter: ‘What’s the most frustrating part about being Pagan?’

I’m certain this received some colourful responses, but let’s face it, being a public (or even just ‘out’) Pagan is not all sweetness and light; nor should it be, especially if you’re living in the real world. Interesting to see what people say.

I responded in jest: ‘Surely the weekly requests for Guru-style teachings from those unwilling to make any effort whatsoever…?’

This is an old bugbear of mine, as some of you will know. It’s inevitably become worse since my book became popular and known, and it’s not actually something I object to – as I’ve often said, I’m happy to help and advise, and would rather questions be asked than suppressed because of fears of Appearing Stupid.

Frustration arises (as I’m sure any social, spiritual or psychological advisor will agree) when seekers appear seeking ‘quick fix’ teachings or help. When they discover they have to play an active and responsible hand in their own life-changes, they often then vanish quickly. The degree of time-wasting involved in such cases is variable, but this seems to be just something which happens – again, as a public/out Pagan.

‘Gerald Gardner’ (also a fairly ironic Tweeter) responded with a very thought-provoking reply: ‘Unfortunately modern Paganism still breeds these people because we lack unity in order to make progress.’

Now there’s an intriguing statement.

First off, is this an inevitable symptom or consequence of modern Paganism being the way it is? Is this over-simplifying, or describing with an overly-broad generalisation? Or is there a point here?

A while ago, I agreed to write an article about Pagan Leadership for a UK publication. It’s been germinating away, as I consider the evolution of this topic since Gardner himself first put pen to paper back in the 1950s. We’ve come a long way.

I said at Pagan Pride this year – while addressing several dozen people under a huge and beautiful tree in Nottingham’s Arboretum (surrounded by about a thousand more going about their business as public Pagans) – that such an event would have been unthinkable even 10 years ago. Out and proud or just local and curious, Pagans are a social group to be counted. The Census issue has proved this, as has the publicity surrounding The Druid Network‘s Charity status.

But Paganism is essentially still finding its way. It is made up of many disparate groups, with leadership based around those who stand up to take on the job. Paganism is inherently tribal. From the multitude of beliefs, to the shading within those faith paths, even different local characters – ‘Pagan’ will never be as simple and clear-cut a spirituality as one of the more mainstream religions.

I’ve seen full-on arguments about whether Paganism is even a religion (not getting into that today, thanks). What qualifies someone to be a Pagan Priest. How ‘valid’ is Paganism. All the old questions, that boil down to ‘who do you think you are?’ We aren’t taught philosophy these days; complex ethical questions can be tricky. It’s far easier to get passionate and kick out/back.

We are a generation that challenges, that has the confidence to speak out – and this is no bad thing. We are curious, willing to explore, to ask those questions that need asking. I’m a firm believer that any religion has to be able to stand up to scrutiny (and to have the strength to laugh at itself). My old Catholic RE teacher was quizzed by me on numerous occasions, and even the response of ‘ultimately, we don’t know – but I just have faith that it’s true’ is absolutely valid… and yet for some, that’s not enough. But that leads into fundamentalism, which is also not a topic for today.

I’ve been flamed online before for suggesting that faith paths have more in common than they do difference. To mel, this is because we are all humans, trying to make sense of the world. Again, those who follow the ‘I’m right, you’re wrong’ path don’t like that, because it stymies the ‘Us/Them’ arguments that hold them up, but I think I’m safe in that simple truth.

The difficulty with Paganism is that it’s a group with a label – which is made up of very individualistic people. Some wish to come together to learn, socialise, whatever, and that’s fine. They still retain their individuality. Others wish to remain solitary in their practice. Both will fight tooth and claw to do this (and rightly so). This all leads to the difficulty of a truly ‘Pagan’ unity or identity. We are a faith like no other. As far as I’m aware, nothing like this has been seen before: no doctrine or set text, no hierarchy… and an awful lot of unproductive bitching as personalities collide. But that’s humanity for you.

As I’ve said before, the issue of leadership seems to be one where Priest (as spiritual servant) clashes with Priest (as Power Tripper). Those willing to teach, to pass on skills and information, versus those seeking authority over others. Obviously this isn’t just a Pagan thing, but it’s there, a problem to be acknowledged and worked upon. How are we, as Pagans, represented – and how do we wish ourselves represented? The fact that we’re talking about it, having a public voice, means that we’re out there in the world, with no going back.

(I’m pretty sure that because I can string words together and speak about my spirituality openly, some do think that I have ultimate cosmic secrets that I can tell, which will then make their lives better. I have yet to encounter any way of life that holds such information. Sorry about that.)

While simplifying a little, Spiritual seekers – as I’ve seen them – are Genuinely Curious (willing to learn) versus Quick-Fix Answers (abdicating responsibility). Both are fearful; some are braver than others. Again, very human.

The positive thing about Paganism that I’ve perceived is that it takes all of these groups (good or bad) and challenges them. I’m not sure that any are ‘bred’ to act a certain way, but a decent Pagan path will make practitioners prove their worth, to their supporting spirits, ancestors, deities and immediate community. Why? Because unlike a lot of other faiths, we aren’t actually interested in converting anyone. We aren’t out for numbers. We’re just out to do our thing, our way. That’s enough, most days.

Every single life path requires you, as the one living it, to play an active part. This is a key tenet of my Druidry. If I were just paying lip-service to it, I’d be caught out in no time. I’m happy to admit things that I don’t know, and am always seeking out new and interesting information (hey, I’m a bookworm). I’m also entirely happy for others to live and practice in a way that best suits them – so long as they don’t mind questions either, should they be asked.

I doubt Paganism will ever have its figurehead, its ‘one true leader’ – we’re too individual, and yet too tribal as well. Eclecticism has become the norm. We have taken traditions and evolved, adding our own ideas, our particular shadings to the overall picture, our notes to the song. And this, I believe, is what makes Paganism so wonderful. We do (really!) have a unity… it’s just something we haven’t really quite got to grips with yet. Wild as nature, and as varied, after all, constantly fluctuating as we test its boundaries – and our own.

So. Are we working together in our differences yet…? And how much do those seekers really want to be part of a spirituality that can be felt in its evolution as it’s happening?

Is it worth it? Well it’s hard some days, for sure. But that just makes life interesting. I’m still here, after all. Coming with me?

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Changes

The year is turning. We approach Samhain. I’ve written about it before, but suffice to say, this time of year makes sense to me as a ‘New Year’, a time when the harvest is done, the latest season is concluded… and newness is on the horizon.

While life has still been busy for me recently, I’ve noticed more and more ‘writing on the wall’ – repetitive signs of what I need to be looking at, now and in the coming months. I get the feeling it’s a seasonal thing, as my connection with the wider world always flows strongly at this time of year. The spirit of Autumn, with its beautiful colours, scents and textures, has been my favourite since I was young. One of the first ‘tasks’ suggested to me as a baby Pagan was ‘get out there and roll around in the leaves!’

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While I’m being called to explore certain avenues in my personal practice, it’s been suggested (by a much respected, wise and (at times) extremely marvellous/silly friend) that I move this blog further as well. It’s been a few years now, and I agree: it’s time to move things deeper.

As you may have noticed from recent posts, I’ve been increasingly frustrated with certain aspects of the wider world, both in the Pagan and secular communities, and am less inclined than ever to suffer fools gladly. This may signal that I’m getting older and turning into a grumpy Crone before my time, but I suspect it may just be that I’ve now reached some internal limit with bullsh*t, and want to dig my heels in – to actively challenge, to encourage change.

My constant mantra of ‘what are you doing’ now has the well-known addendum of toddlers (and, rather significantly, philosophers) everywhere: ‘Why?’ So much of what I’ve seen around has made absolutely no sense to me lately – alleged adults acting in ways entirely contrary to their wishes and wellbeing, with the sense of ‘I do it because I should’ still in control.

Look around. Never before have we needed to challenge outmoded ways of living. We fancy ourselves Modern and 21st Century, yet we act in ways that would make our ancestors cringe. Including those recent ancestors, still within living memory, who fought (sometimes with their lives) for the ‘rights’ we take for granted today. Somewhere in our comfortable lives we’ve become complacent, and in doing so, forgotten our own power.

Please remember, though, that there’s already a lot of positive out there. Mutual feeling, desire for united change, growing communities (tangible and online) – we can’t stop evolving, learning. We just have to check our motivations and methods as we go.

I’m sure you know this already, Preaching to the choir. So:

Why are we doing what we’re doing? And, to inspire action rather than cynical giving up: ‘What do I really want to do?’ This isn’t selfish. This is looking inside, to consider oneself as well as those around – to see where those connect, personal boundary to wider world, rather than being subsumed by the mythical societal ‘should’. What are our real priorities? How are we bringing them to fruition over the next year?

Let’s trust ourselves, and move forward. The New Year approaches. I can feel it in my blood and my guts, smell it in the woodsmoke, feel it in the hard ground of new frosts. I’m excited to see where the path leads as I walk forward, both alone and as part of this community.

Oh, and by the way – this is also the time of gathering around the fire and telling stories, to nourish and inspire. Do feel free: comments are there for sharing 🙂

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Photos by bish – used with grateful thanks

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