Posts Tagged balance

Fantasy in Reality

I love fantasy. You might have guessed from previous posts, but I’ve always been an avid reader – stories fuel my life. Fantasy is a big part of this, be it the warped dystopian worlds of current ‘trendy’ fiction, the lost 1920s worlds of Agatha Christie, or (of course) Papa Tolkien. There are bandwagons and there are original writers who explore and subvert. All have something to say.

I’ve been seeing a lot of social media lately, however, in which people are looking at fantasy more and more as escapism. The world is a difficult place, and we need somewhere ‘safe’ to retreat to, somewhere better, just for a while.

This is completely fine. It’s an agreed function of those same stories, after all, from the fairytales of childhood to the myths of legend: to lose ourselves in the lives of others, to forget our problems, to imagine alternatives (potentially involving dragons). We need heroes when life seems just mundane, or when our own lives seem less than magical.

But it worries me a little when escapism becomes the sole function of fantasy, or fiction generally. It’s ‘just’ escapism, if you will. The story is denigrated, the humans experiences and lessons passed on as nothing more than fairytale… while missing the obvious truth that ‘fairytales’ are some of the most powerful stories of all.

Or we actively seek to live in such realms as an alternative to this one, like a reenactor who’s forgotten that he’s returned to work on a Monday and reaches for his sword… only to find a mobile phone.

Pagan folk speak of having ‘a foot in both worlds’ – meaning the world of spirit and this everyday realm – but that still requires a solid understanding and awareness of both. It’s advisable to not choose one over another, because that way lies madness. Perspective is crucial, but it can, of course, be easily forgotten with the wonder of spirit seems clearly preferable to the deluge of utility bills, or when the office seems more important than the home.

While recognising the (occasionally satirical) aspects of this world in those of fantasy, it’s certainly a good idea to notice the magical, fantastic parts of our everyday homelands. After all, these are what inspired the fantasy in the first place: London for Ankh-Morpork, perhaps, or Middle England for Middle Earth. We walk the streets of fantasy every day, in our own lives.

I’ve encouraged others to explore the heroic in themselves – and always receive the response ‘Oh, there’s nothing special about me’… followed by the most amazing story of something they’ve accomplished or felt.

We’re not encouraged to see the everyday as fantastic, because we take it for granted. Yet when telling our stories to another person, we’re surprised by their reactions, as they listen wide-eyed and ask questions in enthusiasm. Perspective again – everything seems normal from inside our heads, but may be absolutely marvellous to others. And certainly worth remembering and retelling.

We walk with a foot in both worlds every day. It’s just up to us to open our senses to see.

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A Modern Druid

Last Monday, I greeted the dawn with my partner, as we called the Awen from within the circle at Stonehenge.

The sun was more of a rosy glow than a dramatic flaming sphere, but the atmosphere was tangible. Damp grass beneath us, the indescribable age and weight of the stones around. Dawn chorus loud in our ears, sheep and cows calling to each other from nearby fields. Security guards keeping watch, smiling, and tourists eagerly snapping away with their cameras. And the two people that we were ministering to, dressed so beautifully, nervously waiting to join hands and step forward.

It struck me later in the day that we ticked so many of the perceived ‘Druid’ boxes in that brief moment – Stonehenge, robes, Awen, sunrise, chanting… performance.

It was the last in a long month of travel, performing ritual for many, many people across the land, and while being honoured to do so, becoming aware of how very tired we now were.

But life doesn’t stop. My partner still has his day-job, and I have my own work. Self-employed means, I’ve found, working far longer hours than I ever did in an office, and for less pay. The perks are there, of course, but the life of a writer – as many others have remarked upon – can be a lonely one.

This is the balance which we are currently living: walking the line between the powerful energy of public ritual, and the private needs of two people. Bills still have to be paid, pets walked, housework done. But also articles written, talks booked, deadlines met… and of course the endless emails!

Please don’t think I’m complaining, by the way. This is the life I have carved out, so different from what I expected years ago when asked that awful question: ‘So, where do you see yourself in 5/10/20 years?’ Nobody can answer that, not really. Life is seldom that straightforward.

However, from the initial problems that I faced when starting out on this path – the combining of ‘real’ everyday life and my spirituality, finding time for ritual, questioning my ethics and challenging the integrity of my practice – I’ve come to realize that very little has actually changed. Although I now call myself ‘Druid’ publicly, those issues remain; they’ve just grown larger.

It’s less of an issue of finding time for ritual, more about finding time for personal work, private time. My way of life is constantly challenged, as now I often represent more than just myself, especially when standing up for The Pagan Federation or The Druid Network. As I told those who attended a recent talk, when you begin to identify publicly as a Pagan (Druid/Witch/etc), when you give yourself that label, people expect certain things – or they’ll be watching curiously, to see what that label really means. You’ll become that wee bit more accountable.

I’ve been challenged in person a lot recently as well. That tired old question, asked in terribly self-righteous tones, of ‘How can you call yourself a Druid?’ How dare you do what you do?

I feel as if I’ve answered this so many times. No doubt I’ll have to again. Sometimes the manner of the questioning hurts, deeply. But as my patience wears thin with lazy questions, backed up by ill-informed arguments, I’ve felt my pride in my work step up to answer.

See those stereotypes at the beginning of this post? Stonehenge, Druids, all that? I did that, yep. I will again. And not for me – for those who asked. My own practice was not at all a factor in that ritual, as it is not in any that I perform for other people. As Priest, I represent my path, my homeland, the Powers that Be as they are perceived… by and for those for whom the ritual is being conducted. I stand there in service to their need. My experience tailored to assist in the duty which I perform. If all you can see is the theatre, the robe and staff, then you need to look deeper.

I work bloody hard, every day, in service. My email box is full of questions, requests for help, tasks to fulfil. And so I am working – yes, in terms of hours of labour – for my Community, as a Druid. Because that’s what they want of me.

By this, I do actually feel the appropriateness of the word, as it ties to our ancestors. Of course we don’t know what the ancient Druids did, not in any detail. But we know that throughout human history, people have lived, loved, been born and died. Rites of passage have been crafted to mark important events. Support has been needed in times of crisis. Our ancestors did this, and so do I.

This world in which I live is so far removed from that of those ancestors that I doubt they’d recognise it – from the construction of my home to the food that I eat. The Britons have moved forward, after all: in our learning, our technology, our philosophy, our way of life (and our named identity). The specific acts of the ancient Druids would likely be irrelevant now, if they were transplanted wholesale into modern life. Modern Druids don’t forget, but we must remain relevant.

My work as Druid, as Priest, has to reflect my tribe, those who call upon me. I love history and archaeology, but I can’t be worrying about the precise ‘authenticity’ of ritual, for example (which we can’t know anyway). My concern is acting with honour and integrity for those who do ask – whether it’s for practical, tangible help, or just information and teaching. My relationship with my community is not theoretical, with dogmatic dictates or Company Policies – it’s real! Each person, each situation, each ritual request is unique. I treat them as such.

Incidentally, this is not romantic or glamorous, idealised, all flowery language and floaty robes. It’s the ultimate in practical. My robes have to survive all conditions, but so do my mind and body. Weddings are beautiful, but they’re also times of enormous stress for those involved. As are funerals and births – rites of passage which we will experience in all their bloody glory. Those times of terrible crisis where spirituality is so very necessary but which cannot provide easy answers. I’ll still be there, when called. And I think that’s the line at which modern ‘clergy’ will rise or fall.

I stepped up to this task, forced by circumstance and not entirely sure how well I was going to succeed. I was aware (and have since been reminded!) that by standing up publicly, I would be exposing myself to all those slings and arrows of others, those who disagree, who hate, who have no wish to engage or understand. And so I do.

My work is like that of any other person, when undertaken willingly and conscientiously. It can be difficult and tiring, with long days (and nights), challenges and doubts. On other days, it might be full of laughter, utterly fulfilling, glorious and awe-inspiring. My ‘everyday’ life has merged with my ‘spiritual’ life – it’s up to me to maintain that, to keep my own integrity of practice so that I might share that within my work. If I become complacent, blase, egotistical, then it will show – and I’ll fall on my face. Then have to pick myself up and carry on. My Gods constantly challenge me, whether in the form of energetic overload and burnout, or through a grilling from a well-informed journalist!

My resolve always was to do my best. I mean that; it’s the cornerstone of what I do. The difficulty right now is doing my best for myself and my immediate family, as well as those who are calling on me – keeping that balance steady so that one side does not tip the other into chaos.

Those of you who’ve spoken with me know that I value honesty, realistic spirituality (no, not at all an oxymoron!) and truly living your own life. I do my best – that is my promise.

I want to respond to those who challenge me in turn. I love what I do, I’m honoured and proud to do it. Can you say the same? Are you trying to help, by your questions, to encourage and explore? Or just raise yourself up by bringing others down?

I try to help, to bring joy or resolution, to inspire and inform. So…

What is your work doing?

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Tis the Season…

December is a month of noise. Lights, songs… sheer stuff. Preparations for Christmas (or the midwinter festival of your choice), then the day itself, then the aftermath, into New Year… and of course we all know about the increased pressure, stress, busy-ness, etc. The silly season more than Summer ever is.

This weekend, I mentioned to a relative the importance of teaching her children the true meaning of the season. She agreed wholeheartedly – and her eldest knows all about the Nativity, although she’s had a terrible time finding him a camel outfit on eBay.

Today on the radio, the DJ read a message from a listener that bemoaned a fight between husband and wife over who had to take their children to a Carol Concert, when they’d actually rather stay at home.

And before any moral high ground is taken, I’ve heard Pagan folk bemoaning the lack of decent gifts to buy for their loved ones. ‘Create your own?’ I suggested… to be met with looks of outright horror.

It’s easy to laugh at the trivial, the ridiculous – ‘problems’ that we’d never even consider at any other time, but seem inflated somehow by the expectations of the season.

But it’s also easy to forget that the importance of a festival at the darkest time of the year is simply to keep ourselves moving. To remind ourselves that we’re still here, still alive (trivia and all).

Today, supermarkets are bustling with people filling their trolleys with goods, to eat and drink to excess over the season of cheer. Not too long ago, if our ancestors hadn’t harvested enough to survive, they’d be squirrelling (literally) away every grain and drop, in order to survive until Spring.

Yule is the shortest day of the year, and the longest night. After that, we start the slow journey back towards the long-ago – and far ahead – days of Summer, but still with a fair amount of cold, wintry time until the snowdrops poke their heads into view, let alone the buttercups.

As Pagans, we’re (hopefully) aware of the need for balance. Light and dark, summer and winter…

As some of you may know, I worked for a while in End of Life Care within the NHS. This means, very basically, administrating the wishes of terminal patients, to ensure that they receive the care they wish in their last moments. Yes, this includes ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ Orders. I’ve had heated discussions (read: keeping professional and biting my lip while being yelled at) with medical professionals, who insist that I’m endorsing euthanasia. I’m not: I’m endorsing individual responsibility. This is a real challenge in a system of policy, expectation, best intentions for the greater good, and potential litigation.

I’ve worked harder than ever on Christmas Eve, while my office partied around me, to ensure that terminal children had the best possible time with their families prior to their imminent demise. That dementia patients with no next of kin received a good standard of care. The basic respect of life from our fellow human beings, when we need it most, and in the Season of Giving.

And then they move on. And I’m perhaps the only one who remembers their name, who lights a candle, sheds a tear and says a prayer to the Lords of the Otherworld. Who helps them to move forward into that ultimate unknown. My roles merge and I learn.

Winter is a time of death. Peaceful? A simple grave covered with snow? Or becoming another statistic, an elderly person unable to survive the cold because they can’t afford food and heat? A heart attack brought on by too much rich food? Life and death, feast or famine…

We are humans. We battle on. There are always challenges, the most basic of which is to stay alive. In modern times, we have the strangest relationship with death – we avoid it, look away, try to pretend it isn’t happening. But then it may hurt all the more when it inevitably does. It leaves us confused, stumbling, unsure what to do. ‘That can’t have happened’… but it has.

Today, I was both honoured and saddened to be leading that most difficult of rites: a passing for an unborn child. Nature has no care for season, or appropriate timing. Some things just have to be.

Words were said. The little girl was passed into the care of her ancestors, to return again should the time be right. A single candle burns for her, before us and in the hearts of her family.

And then came the balance. Life goes on, laughter returned, as we celebrated the joy that was her brother enjoying his toys, witnessing his giggle as he fell down while practising that trick of walking upright that we’re all so good at. Decorations were hung up, by a heart that longed for simple peace and quiet. Time is finally found to just be a family together, to move, rather than just going through the motions.

The lights may be bright, the kitchen smells enticing, but the cold wind is only a window away. As Druid and Priest I walk this line, between the living and  the dead, seeing and drawing out the needs of both that are equally forgotten in all the noise, pomp and circumstance.

December is not about money, not about Things. It’s about relationship, about us, together. Surviving, moving forward, celebrating our time properly. Seeing into our hearts, and the hearts of those we love.

The year turns and we turn with it, telling our stories day by day. Some stories end; others are left to tell them. Remembering can be the highest honour, the most valuable gift.

Not all of us will make it to Spring. This is why we celebrate. Living is the miracle. Each of us is a light.

Hold to your loved ones this season, lovely readers. Hold your stories proudly. Remember what is true, in heart and soul. And practise those oldest of rites: raise a glass or light a candle… because you are still here to do so.

Know that you are honoured, and that you are never alone – in life or death.

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