New Blog: on Stories

wood-between-worlds-victoria-thorndaleI’m exploring the Sacred Story a lot in my spirituality at the moment. The power of stories and myths, both ancient and modern. Including the Christian Story. Since I suspect a lot of readers won’t want to be bothered with spirituality of that particular kind, I’m going to be talking about these things on a new blog. It’s called Lampposts and Other Light. Do feel free to follow me over there.

Druidry stuff will still go here – I’m not going away! :)

Wishing you peace and a good day, my friends.

Books To Read: A Druid’s Primer

druid's primer bookLuke Eastwood, ‘A Druid’s Primer’. Moon Books, 2012. ISBN 1846947642.

Eastwood has created a really interesting approach to modern druidry here. He’s done a lot of good research into histories of pagan practices, both ancient and modern. He then merges everything he’s learnt into a mix of existing and new philosophies and practices. This is a good book for anyone fairly new to druidry who wants to be better informed about some of the sources we draw on, as well as for more established druids who want to try a new approach to mixing the old and the new. It’s a very Irish-focused book, which won’t be everyone’s cup of tea (though you won’t be surprised to hear that that worked well for me), but he does draw on British and other myths and folklore too.

But the problem with separating books into ‘recommended’ and ‘not recommended’ categories is that most Pagan books have parts that I like and parts that I… don’t. This book is no exception. Overall, I really enjoyed it. But let’s get into the things that I didn’t enjoy.

I’m getting really tired of books that repeat myths that we know are simply not true.

First myth: Let’s address this once and for all, shall we? The snakes that St Patrick drove out of Ireland were NOT THE PAGANS. There is absolutely no evidence that anyone thought they were, until very recently. The first reference that I can find to this idea is in Marion Zimmer Bradley – from the 1980s. It’s a modern Pagan idea. And I really wish this particular myth would burn and die. Eastwood doesn’t endear himself to me by repeating it.

Second myth, more problematic as it runs through the whole book: Modern Druidry is not ancient. Eastwood has a good grasp on the history of modern druidry, and that of ancient druidry (as far as we know anything about it). His problem is mixing the two up, believing the commonly-held view that modern Druids are the direct inheritors of the wisdom and knowledge of ancient druidry.

And that’s not entirely his fault. This myth is everywhere, after all. OBOD has its own version, as do other druid orders. But it really is a myth. Modern druidry has very little to do with ancient druidry, other than basic inspiration – and everything to do with being a beautiful modern spirituality rooted in the old sacred earth that we could do worse than embracing as, well, modern.

So now that I’ve started with the things I disliked about the book, let’s get into the good stuff – and there was quite a lot of it.

For example, he has some great chapters that merge ancient myth with modern druid ideas, such as the light body exercise. He relates the modern sun and moon cycles celebrated by most modern druids, to ancient myths that contain echoes of cosmological and solar folklore – including the myth of the Dagda and Aengus at Bru na Boinne, and the story of the Mabon. The chapter on elements is largely based on the Western magical tradition, but mixes some Irish mythology in. His chapter on healing, with botanical information on herbs/plants and their mythical and folkloric uses, is a lovely addition that I didn’t expect to see, but enjoyed.

My favourite chapter was on Ogham. This was a surprise, as I’ve done a lot of work with Ogham, using both new and old ideas on it, and I find that a lot of what’s written on it can be fairly terrible. But Eastwood’s extensive research really comes into its own here. He combines medieval and neo-Pagan sources on Ogham into a really lovely set of interpretations on each of the feda. He could have written a whole book on Ogham – as he says, he’s only had time here to skim the surface of all the sources, myths and ideas relating to it. If he does write more on the subject, I’ll read it!

As long as you’re aware of the limitations, this is a really good book with some refreshing approaches to the modern druid way of drawing on the old while being rooted in the new. I’ll be using a lot of this book in my own practice.

My rating: 7/10.

Books To Read and Books To Avoid

So, I read a lot of books. Most, I do NOT read from cover to cover. I do a whole lot of ‘dipping in’. And while that’s great for a lot of books, it does mean that I sometimes miss out.

When I do read a book cover to cover, it tends to be either a book I really enjoy, or really dislike. The latter, because I usually want to see if it can be redeemed by the end, and I want to give it a chance. The former, because there *are* some really good Pagan books out there, even though you often have to sort through the dross to get to them.

I’m going to do a series on Books To Read and Books To Avoid. Hopefully, this will help me to read more books cover-to-cover and give me a reason to talk about them (and I love talking about books). You will probably not agree with everything I say about these books. You might think some books I put in one category should be in the other. Go for it – tell me in the comments about why you love a book I hate, or why you hate a book I love. Let’s debate it, and together maybe we can put together some crowdsourced thoughts about Pagan books that readers would find useful.

I suspect some of my choices will be very controversial. I often hate books that others love, and sometimes vice versa. But there are plenty of other reviews out there to read besides mine. If I un-recommend a book, read some other reviews and see whether you think you’d like it, on balance. But I don’t like tiptoeing around what I really think, in my reviews. So I’m going to get bolder about what I think.

I’ll be writing a review of Luke Eastwood’s ‘A Druid’s Primer’ later today. Stop back here later to find out what category I put it in. Cliffhanger…!

Some more about Asperger’s and how it affects me

It’s very hard to have Asperger’s when you’re a highly-intelligent person who is able to mask it (though only through incredible, exhausting, constant effort). Especially when the mask falls, when you’re unable to keep it up anymore, and people get a glimpse of your reality and don’t know what to do about it.

I write about Asperger’s a lot. But there are still some things I don’t explain about it, and I think I should. Here is some more stuff about how Asperger’s affects me. (Note: this is not a comprehensive list. I could have written three times as much. But it would have got very boring.)

Please note: Do not tell me you understand, unless you have Asperger’s or autism too. The likelihood is that you may think you do, but you really don’t. Instead, please listen and learn. In return, I will listen and learn about your life, about the things that are relevant to you. I have a hard time when people say “I do that too, and it’s normal.” Usually that means they have not understood the extent of how difficult I find these things. Instead of ‘I understand’, consider saying ‘I hear you’ or ‘I’m listening’. Thanks.

– I get very tired from ‘pretending to be normal’. 

Trying to act like a neurotypical person is exceptionally hard work. I have to think about every single word I say, every gesture, every action, every aspect of social interaction, and more. I have to calculate things like when to speak in a conversation (every time, which in even a five-minute chat can be exhausting). I have to manage my emotions to a very careful degree – they make me do things that people respond negatively to, but I don’t know what those things are or how to avoid doing them, so I spend a lot of time sitting quietly and trying to work out if I’m showing any sign of emotion or response and whether it will upset people. I often go too far the other way and talk and talk and talk, sometimes inappropriately for the situation I’m in. I don’t understand sarcasm, although I have learnt about it by rote and through a lot of negative encounters with it, so now I can sometimes recognise it – but it’s always painful. I don’t understand most metaphors or analogies, and I have to pretend that I do, even when I’m deeply confused by something that someone has said (which could be something as simple as ‘I’m so tired that I’m about to drop’ – does the person mean it literally? – figuring this stuff out can take up all my mental and emotional resources in a conversation). My tone may be inappropriate, because I don’t understand about tone and what’s wrong with the words I’ve said, or what they may communicate in the mysterious word of the non-verbal. (If you think I’m being aggressive, please ask me what I mean, rather than assuming. I probably don’t intend to be!)

– I can’t easily follow (or understand) social rules and conventions.

One of the worst things here is when someone asks ‘How are you?’ First of all, I’ll tell them, whether they really want to know or not. Secondly, I always, always forget to ask about them. Social niceties are not easy for me. It’s not that I’m not interested. I’ll ask all sorts of things about the other person when it’s relevant to what we’re really talking about. I just can’t remember the rules. I won’t ask about your day or inquire about your children’s health. Remember: it doesn’t mean I don’t care. Tell me something real about you, and I’ll be fascinated and want to know more. I just really, really have trouble with small talk. Get to the point!

Earlier this week I had a great chat with an autistic person who is doing research that overlaps a bit with mine. We didn’t start with social niceties. We dove right into the details of our work, our lives, our research. Half way through the conversation I realised I hadn’t asked the other person anything about her life, so I asked a thing. But a thing that was relevant. I still don’t know anything small-talk-ish about her – where she lives, whether she has a family, what else she does other than her research. I know the important things, the things we were there to talk about. The rest I’ll pick up at some point, if I ever need to know. (Does it really matter anyway? If it’s important enough to her, she’ll tell me. If not, we’ll keep focusing on the big stuff.)

Relatedly, you may find I don’t make sense during a conversation. This is usually because I start talking about something that I think is relevant, but other people don’t understand my thought processes. Similarly, I very regularly misunderstand the meaning of others’ speech. Again, I spend a lot of my time trying to pretend I’ve understood. Like a deaf person pretending they’ve heard so that they don’t ruin the conversation, I may just nod and smile a lot, but not have a clue what you mean. I’m trying to learn to say “Could you please rephrase that?” – but it’s hard, especially when people get frustrated with me for not understanding.

– I have cognitive difficulties.

It can be very hard for me to get people to believe this one. I don’t *seem* cognitively impaired. But I am. I have some serious memory problems (please don’t be offended if I forget your name or something you’ve told me about yourself). I also find it very hard to recognise faces, which means that if I meet you for the second time, I may forget that we’ve met before. Please excuse my constant “Have we met before?” type questions. (I’ll soon remember, when we start talking.) I also have some theory of mind difficulties, which means I spend most of my time trying to work out other people’s intentions and getting it wrong. (It is exhausting.)

– I have overloads and meltdowns.

This is one of the most difficult things about Asperger’s. Out of nowhere I can get sensory overload or emotional overload that can lead to a meltdown. (For more info about what sensory overload is, see here and here.) At which point I start looking and sounding like a child having a tantrum. I find this so embarassing, as a professional and an adult and so on, that I usually do my best to disappear and have these on my own. I never want anyone to see – it will affect my self-image and your view of me. But at the same time, I often secretly wish someone would help… :(

– Wishing I wasn’t like this affects my mental health.

I experience obsessive thoughts, especially over ‘getting things wrong’ socially or otherwise. (Spending 24 or 48 hours being able to think about only one thing, literally, is not fun. It happens a lot.) I have high anxiety, which often comes out in more obsession – I may only be able to talk about one thing for a few days, and that can seriously piss others off. (SJ knows this one well.) It can look like I’m only thinking about myself, when in fact, I just want to put my mind at rest about a thing that’s worrying me (which can be anything from that cable on the floor that someone may trip over, to a thing I need to fix but can’t yet, to the health of another person and whether they might die…) I experience a lot of depression. I sometimes self-injure. I sometimes wish I were dead.

–                                                     –                                                  –                                                  –

I share these things on my blog, not because I want attention (in fact I spend my life trying to avoid drawing attention to myself and trying to avoid people noticing I’m different), but to avoid misunderstandings. It’s the worst thing in the world when I get it wrong – when I get anything wrong – and offend, upset, frighten, confuse, irritate or frustrate someone. I don’t want to do any of things.

But at the same time, I wouldn’t want to be ‘normal’ either. I am different, and that’s good. The problem isn’t with me. It’s with the society that expects me to behave in a certain way, to fit in, and demands things from me that I can’t give – not without exhausting myself and spending my life pretending to normal. As you can imagine, the result is often intense anxiety, depression, and worse. But it shouldn’t be. I shouldn’t have learnt to hate myself for being different. I should be able to love and appreciate the beautiful variety that I contribute to in the world.

Cross-posted to my disability blog.

Honour in Speech: Speaking about Other Religions

It’s that time of year again. The time of year for ‘zombie Jesus’ jokes, entirely inaccurate memes about Ishtar, and dismissive comments about Christian cultural dominance. Even the relatively inoffensive Facebook posts that speak about Christianity and other Abrahamic religions in ‘we’re better than them’ terms, always seem to turn up annually during this season.

This year, it is an atheist who is teaching me most about honourable speech about other religions. SJ, my long-suffering, spiritually-curious atheist spouse, is shifting religious festivals so quickly that they’re practically becoming a chaos magician. And every single word out of their mouth about every one of these religions, including ones they’re not observing this year (like my own), is deeply honourable. I hear a lot of complaints about how atheists talk about our religious traditions – but I’ve not heard nearly so much respectful, honourable speech towards other religions from Pagans. I haven’t heard it from myself.

I understand why some Pagans react negatively to Christianity, and need to blow off steam. Gods know, I know what it’s like to grow up in an environment where your religion condemns you, constrains you, and even directs spiritual and emotional abuse at you. Yet, none of that gives me the right to condemn a whole religion. The only people responsible for that were the specific people in the specific churches I grew up in.

It helps that I also had wonderful, deeply spiritual experiences in Christian contexts, later on in my spiritual journey – to the extent that I haven’t *entirely* moved on from Christianity, and will probably always have some associations with it. (You could call that karma, if you like. I call it holding myself to my confirmation promises.) I’m aware that not everyone has had those experiences, and not everyone will be understand why I continue to find Christianity such a foundational, beautiful spiritual path, despite all its potential and actual issues. That’s OK… as long as others respect that I have a different perspective from them.

But whether we have good or bad experiences of religions, and whether we have any experiences of them at all, I personally feel that honour in speaking of them is important. I’m not convinced by the argument that they treated us badly first. If a few outliers did, they don’t speak for the whole religion. And even if every member of a religion you’ve ever encountered has treated us badly, does it mean we should retaliate with the same?

But I mostly think how tragic it is when we fail to learn from the great spiritual wealth that other religions have to offer us. SJ and I had a big argument recently about whether the major religions of the world have more in common, or more differences. But in the end, that debate doesn’t matter. What we can learn from each other, through both our similarities and differences – that’s what excites me. That’s why I still go to Christian events (under certain circumstances), even when my Pagan friends make cracks about how I’m going to be seen as a Christian again. It’s why I do interfaith work, even when my fellow interfaith activists and I confuse each other. And it’s why I stand up and demand that others respect Paganism – including colleagues and friends who clearly don’t understand where I’m coming from – and who don’t have to, but who I do expect to respect my position anyway. (I wear a pentacle at university sometimes – even though that is not my own symbol – in order to stand in solidarity with other Pagans.)

We all deserve to have our sacred truths spoken of respectfully. Every single one of us. Christians, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Jains, Mormons, those who are ‘spiritual but not religious’, those who follow New Age traditions, Pagans, reconstructionist polytheists… All of us.

That doesn’t mean that those traditions are beyond criticism. I have no problem with satire, and I don’t personally believe we have any need for blasphemy laws. (Though I have Opinions on the failure of the European Court of Human Rights to protect people’s rights to manifest their religions. A secular society doesn’t need be a repressive society. Though that’s a bigger debate for another time.)

But it does mean, to me, that I am personally responsible for being mindful of what I say about other religions, how I say it, and what effect I can have on others in the process. I want to be known for honourable speech about the faiths of others. I’d like it if Paganism could be known for that… but I’m only responsible for myself. And I can only do my best.

SJ’s latest post, on Pesach/Passover, talks a bit about the magic behind some of its rituals. You might like it.