Posts Tagged masks

Stripping Back

As some of you know, many years ago I worked as a PA (Personal Assistant) to high-level executives in London. Every day, I would be up and out the door, sometimes to the gym first at 6am before heading into the office for 8ish. I’d be home around 7pm, all being well, after a day of fairly flat-out Assisting. Helping others to get things done.

I was good at it. PAs run so many businesses from behind the scenes, and I have many interesting stories…

But the ones that I remember aren’t the professional moments. They’re the personal ones.

Grabbing a brief sit-down at an event (Vienna listed building, string quartet, canapes) and finding myself chatting to a friendly older gentleman as we both wonder why we can’t wear comfortable shoes with suits to these posh do-es. Turned out he ran a company, which ran a company, which owned various household name utility companies you will have heard of. But right then, he was a man who was tired, with aching feet, missing his family.

Another day, I received a surprised look, followed by a genuine smile when I asked a CEO how his wife was doing after a recent illness.

Taking the hand of someone at a bus stop outside the office, because there was a thunderstorm right overhead and she was scared. She fell into my arms, sobbing. We were both wearing suits, but that didn’t matter.

Every day, I would see my fellow commuters at the station, on the train and then the bus, gearing themselves up for the working battle. We’d all signed up for it, we all knew what we were doing (mostly). But in order to survive, we had to put on the appropriate clothing, the makeup or accessories. Displaying our professionalism through our plumage.

I’ve spoken before how I tended to wear a leather jacket (smart, not biker-style). It was my armour. I would spritz myself with perfume before I left the house, shrug on that coat and sally forth. I still have it. It looks rather like Christopher Eccleston’s costume as The Doctor now, but that just makes me smile more.

I’ve been pondering these basic survival tactics that used to be second nature to me, because I don’t think I have them any more. I somehow let them fall away when I moved out of London. Not that they’re not required anywhere else; I just couldn’t do it now. Which is perhaps why I’m where I am.

I sit here typing, in my small home office, with a home-made shawl around my shoulders. That’s enough protection, that wooly hug. But I have been wondering how much I still need when I head out into The World.

We all need our protections. I suspect some ladies may feel this more deeply, especially if they’ve ever walked home alone at night, but I mean simple daily disguises. Exploring the masks we wear is a common lesson in modern Pagan practice, but that’s only part of what I mean.

I’ve been researching and exploring the idea of connection with deity lately, as that’s what I’m going to focus on in my upcoming book. There’s no way to do that without diving deep, not for me. I’m not touching on the surface theory – I was to know why we seek such connections.

And I’ve been coming back to the idea of the masks we wear, the layers we cover ourselves with. What it takes to peel them back, or to have them fall away completely.

Thinking on those sudden connections in my old job, I see the simply humanity of basic connection. Looking someone else in the eye, or displaying simple care. That was rare, it seems.

We do it naturally, too. In public, many Pagans love to display their allegiance, from velvets and big hats to tiny symbols on their everyday wear.

But when we stand before our gods, what then? We might as well be naked, because all of that seems to fall away.

We use the masks to get through everyday life. I’ve been doing that less and less, and as a result have had trouble in busy places, tiring quickly and becoming overwhelmed easily. So do I add more armour, or just take smaller steps honestly? At the moment, it’s a little of both. I usually have a shawl about me, some tokens in my bag and yes, that symbolic jewellery.  But I’m still clearly me.

When I ‘work’ now in public ritual, I can be seen wearing robes and cloak – and some people are shocked to find out that I’m still a person underneath, happy to chat and able to joke about the difficulties of driving in a long, swirly outfit. I love to wear regular clothes when being a Public Pagan, but sometimes the ‘work attire’ is necessary. It’s not hiding me, but accentuating the role which I am performing. It’s not to display my ego.

As we move more deeply into our personal practice, I find these lines between roles blurs and moves. What is on the outside helps in many ways, but when we get down to it, the connection comes from within. Our heart and mind must be in accord, spirit connecting with body and inner world with outer. We must speak honestly: truth is key.

So as I speak those words in ritual, a tiny part of my mind is aware of those gods, watching and listening. I do my best for the people with me, but also for them, because even if their names aren’t spoken, I act for them. I represent my gods, my ancestors, my homeland…

And yet, when I need to pour out my soul at home, alone, my clothing offers no help whatsoever. Sometimes personal ritual is performed naked; sometimes (again), a shawl helps to put into the right frame of mind. But the masks must always complement, not hide… Because they will fail.

Those who stand up in public, in whatever role they take on, must do so truly. More people look, to see through the sham, the persona, the costume. We acknowledge why it is needed, but we want more. Those who want to be the Great High Ritualist must know how to be themselves for their congregations as well. We honour those who come to us for help by respecting them in turn, enough to share truths, to speak and listen.

I’m finding that by freeing my Self, by letting those accoutrements fall away, I’m able to connect more effectively; that is when I call, I receive an answer. There doesn’t necessarily need to be a great amount of cosmic ‘small talk’ – I can get straight to the point. And this works both ways. Sometimes, I’ll get a metaphysical ‘tap’ on the shoulder and I respond. I’ll probably figure out what’s going on in due course, but for now, just trust and do what’s needed.

As we move forward on our spiritual journey, those lines between the ‘magical’ and the ‘mundane’ really do fade. As we keep exploring, so we see more clearly what is needed and why. Then it’s up to us to have the strength and courage to respond accordingly. Even if we may look silly.

It is worth it.

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The Dark Paths

Quite a few readers have asked me when I’ll finally write a blog post that’s basically a rant. Because apparently that’s what you do on a blog.  😉

That’s not the purpose of what I’m doing here, and I wouldn’t really be interested myself to read such a thing. But while this may seem to be rant-y, I’m aiming for it to be (ultimately) constructive. Your patience is appreciated.

I’ve perceived in the past that folk appear to have an ideal image of a priest (of any denomination) or general faith-leader. They’re supposed to be endlessly forgiving, generous and loving, a virtual embodiment of God/dess on Earth, having attained Enlightenment and taken their vows to spread that joy. Or something.

I’ve also said that I don’t actually believe that ‘Enlightenment’ is either possible or something to realistically aspire to, not as it’s generally understood. My spiritual life is part of my everyday life. I really can’t see the point in removing yourself so completely from that in order to ‘ascend’ or somehow step outside the mundane, and yet expect to understand or influence it, even by example. To me, the Dalai Lama does the most good because he is human, and clearly fallible – and has a fantastic sense of humour.

Understanding is achieved by observing, listening, approaching life in a certain way, allowing your spiritual philosophy, ethics and so forth to affect your actions and thoughts. Through this, we learn. But by no means does this result in some sort of ‘perfect’ being. Rather better adjusted, perhaps, but life will, I firmly believe, always be a challenge (and otherwise, how dull would it be?).

Unfortunately, that’s quite a leap for some to make. I’ve said before that I’m privileged to have generally encountered only interested, curious and polite folk in the course of my work as Druid and Priest – I am aware that this is a blessing! I try to reflect my spirituality in myself as I live it, including skills and faults alike. I can’t really do otherwise without turning into some sort of walking caricature (which is both dishonourable, false and ludicrous).

This last month, however, has been a true time of challenge like no other. From basic rude actions, disrespect and outright threats, I’ve been faced with a wide spectrum of negative. I’m not sure what’s in the water to be causing it, but it has made me stop and pause.

When people don’t understand, they can kick out. My favourite analogy is taken from the (transvestite) comedian Eddie Izzard – as he walked down the street, when people shout “Man in a dress!” he replies “Yes?” Which results in complete confusion. The person shouting mockery or abuse has no frame of reference for the situation they’re in, and simply doesn’t know how to continue.

I’ve seen this often. It actually helps more than hinders – people see the woman in a robe and cloak, often with staff or drum, and stop dead. Thoughts visibly cross their mind: ‘No frame of reference! What do I say?!’ Which is when the daftest comments come out. That’s ok – I just smile and joke back, and we can resume normal conversation as they discover I’m actually a Real Human Being too…

Recently, however, I was actually flummoxed. It had to happen, sooner or later. Standing in circle, watching attendees gather, a small girl of around 12 walks up, looks at me, and simply says “What are you supposed to be, then?”

This in itself wouldn’t be so bad, if it weren’t for the look on her face and her tone – both those of a disgusted, disapproving old lady. The sense that she was being forced to undergo something so deeply stupid and beneath her was staggering (especially as other young folk were clearly interested and excited).

I saw her make similar statements throughout the day, and rather than being confused as to how to respond myself, began to see the sadness underneath. This girl, for some reason, was entirely closed off. Her reality was set, anything outside it wasn’t worth her time, and while the others were playing, dancing or laughing, she was sitting alone. Apparently entirely of her own volition, as she seemed to drive everyone else away.

My own confusion was due more to the fact that I would never have even thought to say such things to others, much less adults when I was a child. But some sort of cosmic floodgate was perhaps opened, as since then, there’s been a fair few comments that have actually made me stop with no frame of reference – because I can’t imagine making those statements, I cannot comprehend how best to reply.

Yes, I am standing up publicly as a Druid, and so will inevitably open myself up to slings and arrows. I’ve said this before, I’ve just been waiting. But lately I’ve been seeing the fear, sadness, anger and confusion boiling over, and it’s hard not to be affected. I’m not on some cosmic cloud, immune to pain. I don’t have infinite patience, and am certainly not made of stone.

Some days, part of me wonders whether to continue at all. This is a no-brainer – I get far more good responses than bad in my work, so it would make no sense to quit purely because of a couple of rotten apples.  But it’s difficult. I can’t even try to respond and help, because usually those doing the throwing aren’t interested in even starting a discussion. I’m wrong, or weird, or nuts, so that’s all there is to it. Their world is set.

Others use their negativity to fuel power games. I’ve seen this often in many communities, including the Pagan – no social group is exempt, it seems, even if they start out with best intentions. Uninformed gossip, ignorant opinion, Daily Mail-style rabble-rousing, all help to fuel a particular agenda, sucking others along with them. I’ve seen the pain and hurt that results, and choose to step out of such situations. I’d rather work quietly, letting others come to me. It’s never been about my ego, I’m not interested in ‘power over’. I will stand up for my friends and loved ones, absolutely, but that’s natural defence – the trick is not to get drawn in further.

But then this week, to be directly insulted and threatened as a result of my life choices… I’ve drawn back through necessity. Regrouping is needed, new plans are forming – I’m aiming to bring something good from the bad.

This is the time when my Druidry is called upon to sustain me. I’ve made my choices – and I stick by them. When questioned or challenged, I must respond appropriately, retaining my integrity and honour while trying to honestly convey my point of view. I do try to understand where the negative is coming from, but often in the moment that’s almost impossible. That’s the point where many kick back, seeing red or running away. Those responses I can understand, but neither is helpful.

We cannot make the nay-sayers go away through feeding them. We cannot lessen their power by giving them more. Laughter can puncture the pompous; a simple ‘No’ can bring abusive action to a screeching halt. Then comes the time to reflect – on what you are doing. Did the person’s words or actions have a basis in reality, or were they based on their own fears or issues? Do your own actions have to be moderated or changed? Or is it simply time to move away, defuse with quietness?

Those who go through life spoiling for a fight usually find one, after all. If nothing measures up to our standards, we miss so much of the joy around, but that’s our choice. If our walls are so high that yes, we’re protected, but we’re also blind and deaf, then what sort of life do we have? If we live as a caricature, as ‘expected’, do our ‘friends’ really know us, or are they just helping to sustain the illusion?

We have to look deeper, both at ourselves and others. We can’t fix the world, but we can explore our relationship with it, in the knowledge that we are held, supported. Our choices must be as true as we can make them, as we have to live with the consequences.

As I travel deeper into the darkest parts of the woods, I hold fast to what sustains me: loved ones, friends, ancestors, deities – and my own creativity. These things keep me going. If they don’t, they will fall by the wayside (and I’ve been noticing a fair bit of that happening lately as well).

So here I am. I’m not sure what’s ahead, but I will continue to walk forward. If (when) there’s monsters, I will face them. Darkness holds the most valuable lessons, after all – it’s just up to us to see them.

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