Happy Samhain. Happy ‘Year of Less’.

The sun’s down – so blessed Oíche Shamhna to you. :)

This afternoon, rushing home (with a bag full of apples) in a tightly-timed attempt to ensure I was indoors before dark, I started pondering how I’ve developed this strange mix of Samhain customs over the past six or seven years. In my attempt at developing my own style of Gaelic polytheism, little things start to resonate, inspired by community or folklore (or other places entirely). They become part of the mix. Things like not setting foot outside the bounds of my land from sundown to sun-up on Samhain Eve; burning a candle in the window all night; replacing my Brighid’s cross with a rowan cross for protection through the winter; a sacred fire…

This is a time of the ancestors, but it’s also a time of many other things. The final harvest is brought in; the Good Folk are abroad; Cailleach Bhearra is reborn from stone onto sand; the Nightmare Queen stands with one foot on land and one in water, waiting for the Good God.

Around these central mythic moments turn my Samhain/Lá Samhna customs.

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Hag Stone, Beara Peninsula, Ireland – associated with Cailleach Bhearra

Now comes November.
my birth time, and white ribs of tide
uproot the silence of the bay.

Today I break from stone onto sand,
motherless, my mother a stone
bedding the earth and dreaming my image.

– ‘Birth’, Leanne O’Sullivan

She is reborn. Everything changes.

October is about cleansing, changing, reforming, making ready for Oíche Shamhna (Samhain Eve). Spaces: altars have been redesigned and redecorated. Spirit: Work has been done on lots of things, mostly to do with casting off the old and getting ready to let in the new. Self: I’ve been doing a lot of work to sort out a myriad of health problems this month, have managed to get pretty deep into my thesis draft, and feel like I’m at least plodding on through the swamp, even if it’s all rather a struggle still.

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Oiche Shamhna ritual setup. Will attempt to keep a candle burning all night. It is at least *near* a window!

The Samhain wreath on my door is synthetic – and beautiful, and made by someone else. (I support local and small-scale artists wherever possible.) I’d love it if I had the time (and fine motor control) to make my own. But my hands don’t work well, and I’m spending pretty much every minute I’m awake drafting my PhD (100,000 words due by February). So, purely symbolic it has to be. #MyDisabledPolytheism

I managed to completely fail to collect any rowan today, too, rushed as I was doing other prep. That can be tomorrow, I reckon.

On Oíche Shamhna itself, the most consistent thing I do is putting a candle in the window, to signal to the dead that they may come in and rest. My religious path is offerings-focused, so offerings to the gods, the spirits, the ancestors and the Good Folk are important. So is having a fire, if I can, but I can’t always. (I can try this year.) Everything else will probably be suggested by those whose time of year it is – Morrigan, Dagda, Beara – or it won’t. It can be a good night for divination for the coming year, or sometimes that works better at Midwinter. (I’d love to hear what other Gaelic polytheists do on the night itself, if any are reading…)

I always have a serious time of chaos around this time of year – She is about to be reborn, and so things fall apart before they can come back together in new, more coherent, better ways. Earthquake and fire and blood, before the new landscape emerges. Then, between Oíche Shamhna and Midwinter, things tend to get pleasantly quiet. This year I’m looking forward to that. My poor little mind has been broken for a few months now (hence my absence from online discussion, which is probably going to continue). It wants a rest. (I just got a new medication for anxiety that I’m somewhat hopeful about. I’m asking some relevant saints of health for help with that. We shall see.)

And Happy New Year to those who celebrate Samhain as such. I do, but sort of by accident – since it coincides with the beginning of a new academic year. This is going to be my Year of Less. A year to nurture my barely-flickering little Dark Flame. This is the year where I say No a lot more. This is the year when I say No to being being involved with things where I’m marginalised, or able-splained at constantly, or which cause me anxiety… say No to trying to be something I’m not (yes, I can do this polytheism/Paganism thing entirely my own way)… say Yes to speaking only my truth… and say Yes to creating only things that are honourable and beautiful. I want more time for things I want to do: go to gigs, and take my scooter around the wilder, weirder parts of London, and maybe see people I want to see (but let myself be alone as much as I want to be, without judging my little anti-social self too much). I want to read tarot and Ogham, and play a bit. I want to have my fifth or six attempt at learning Hebrew (you can’t give up till you’re at, like, 20 failures – that is Official). Most of all, I want to write my thesis, and I want to tell people that, No, I don’t have to do things they want me to do that will give me less time for that thesis…

At least, that’s the plan. :P

Oíche Shamhna Shona Daoibh. Blessings of Samhain to you and yours. Blessings on your ancestors. Blessings on your year to come.

Celebrating My Disabled Pagan Life: Photoblog

Every time a Pagan or polytheist tries to tell others that they should only take natural remedies or dictates what health should look like, I get twitchy.

I’m currently deep into drafting my thesis about disability and a particular religion (which will eventually be 100,000 words long, so it’s keeping me fairly busy). I’m exploring big themes. And the more I read and write about certain religions (you know, the ones that Pagans are often so quick to judge), the more nervous I get about how Pagans can be very similar in our attitudes towards bodies and minds. We, too, dismiss disabled and chronically ill people for being different. We may do it much more subtly. But we do it.

For example, I’m looking in my research at how some religious and spiritual communities keep out people who are different, telling them they just need to pray more and have more faith, and then they’ll get better. That has varying effects on people, usually negative ones. For Pagans, the equivalent could be: you just need to take more natural, herbal remedies and ‘think positive’ and you’ll be all better soon, and then you can come and join us. Or it could be: sickness is full of miasma and bad energy, and you need to be cleansed before you can be a member of our group/do magic/be good enough.

Well, bollocks to all that.

I want to allow my body to be me. It’s different, and it’s beautiful. We are all different. This is not a bad thing.

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See how beautiful! This is how great I am looking after nine hours working on my thesis. I think the threadbare second-hand hoodie is particularly glamorous. And the birds-nest hair.

[Image: Me in chair. With slightly worrying grin.]

I celebrate my reliance on ‘big pharma’. It has allowed me to do a PhD in which I am blessed to be allowed to share the stories of disempowered people. How does it do that? By providing me with medication that treats my appalling levels of pain. Without medication, I’d be unable to move from bed most of the time. It also treats my heart problems and blood vessel issues, extreme fatigue, anxiety that stops me from having the life I want, my three separate sleep disorders, and a few other things. And what a blessing to live in a country with a National Health Service that offers me all that medication at a price that I can afford (and that’s even giving me free acupuncture at the moment). Blessings of Brighid on the doctors and nurses and physios and pain clinicians and sleep technicians that are a part of my daily life (yes, I do mean daily – I have medical appointments most days at the moment).

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Just three of the many gifts that great human minds learning from the wisdom of nature have given to me. I will have to take these meds for the rest of my life – and I will have a rest of my life. How cool is that?

[Image: packets of pills.]

I celebrate my reliance on modern medical technology. It means I don’t have to risk dying in my sleep. That’s a very real risk that people with sleep apnoea live with. Mine is comparatively mild (although I still stop breathing 50+ times an hour in deep sleep), so the risk of that is low, but it exists. More likely, though, is that my ten years of untreated sleep apnoea has led to degenerations in my brain. That may be the root cause of why I’m so anxious, forgetful and brain-foggy. Herbs won’t help that (not least because I’m allergic to most of the ones that traditionally help with sleep). Right now I am struggling very hard to get to used to this dread machine. (I, ahem, may have screamed at it and then thrown it out of my bedroom door at 2am one night earlier this week.) But I persist. It’s been four difficult months trialling it. And I am still deeply, profoundly grateful for this stupid fucking machine with its enormous sleep mask that means I wake up uncomfortably every half hour. Slowly, crawling along month by month, I’m getting used to it enough that it’s actually having the chance of treating my daily and long-term effects of this. (Sleep apnoea, by the way, is a common side effect of my genetic condition. I don’t have enough collagen in my connective tissue, so everything is very very floppy. So my airway collapses a lot. Fascinating, huh? I love the amazing diversity of the human body.)

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My APAP machine to treat sleep apneoa. It runs on the will of the evil beast of Electric Power. (It’s alive! It’s alive!) [Image: black machine with clear face-mask sitting on top.]

These negative attitudes I see in Pagans towards medical treatment – they all reflect the insidiousness of ‘normalcy’, which is a way that our culture regulates our bodies. “Be normal,” says our culture. So we try to pretend we are. And that is very, very limiting of us. And it’s bad for us. It stops us from loving our human diversity. It stops us from understanding our complex, remarkable bodies and minds. It teaches us to judge each other. The very fact that I’m writing about this will be frowned upon, and mostly ignored, since these aren’t topics to be discussed in polite company. (Yes, physical conditions are stigmatised in our society too, even though I hear some people with mental health problems claiming otherwise.)

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That little display says I got nine and a half hours sleep last night. IT LIES. [Image: Close-up on APAP machine.]

But I, like Whitman, sing myself and celebrate myself. (Please excuse the hubris of comparing myself to great poet.) This is my Druidry. This is my polytheism. This is my daily practice.

The siren song of the normal is seductive. But we know better – we liminal ones who live in the ever-moving spaces between pain and relief, between difference and normalcy, between this world and the Otherworld. And if we force others to look at the shadowy spectre who walks with them daily, that they have forgotten how to see? Then we have done the sacred work of the Lords and Ladies of Life and Death. That sounds a lot more adventurous than doing the normal thing.

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Disability does not make me ‘impure’. That’s why the gods don’t mind me giving them an offering from my scooter. Like here, in which I sit on another beast of the Demon Electricity! This one is made of Iron! [Image: Me on my scooter holding a piece of paper and a cup. I was at a Pagan Federation event in which I called on many deities.]

My polytheism/Paganism celebrates my entire human experience. Does yours?

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It’s coming to eat me. I don’t know why I appear to be finding this amusing. [Image: Me wearing APAP face mask.]

On Speaking and Not Speaking

Recently I’ve been thinking about what I make public and what I keep private. In the past I’ve scoffed, a bit, at the ‘keep silent’ answer of the Sphinx, that fourth bit of wisdom that Thelemics, Wiccans and others hold dear. I don’t hold with the late modern idea that religion should be kept out of the public sphere. Religion is culture. Religion is life. Many paganisms, and perhaps especially Gaelic polytheism, are woven into every aspect of life, both private and public. Singing prayers as you light fires in the morning; walking the bounds of your land to claim it as your own; Bealtaine fires to cleanse cattle and (today) ourselves.

But there are aspects of some paganisms that it may be better to keep silent about. I refuse to talk about magic, for example, except with people who are close to me (and then I’m careful). And sometimes, saying or doing anything puts you in the path of what the Irish called the Evil Eye – e.g. from people who don’t like it when others gain any kind of attention, and who might do things in response to that.

And then, some things need to be somewhat public. When you pray to St Expedite, it’s important that you share his name and spread his fame. People used to put his name in the paper. I pondered what the modern equivalent of that was, and came up with twitter and blogs – so here’s my acknowledgement of the generosity of St Expeditus (I hear that you never say his name the same way twice). He also likes flowers and pound cake – I had to substitute what we call Madeira Cake, as we don’t have that – but he seemed OK with the exchange. He came through for me. Blessings on you, St Expedite, who gets things done in a hurry.

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Image: improvised temporary shrine to St Expeditus, with his picture, flowers and sponge cake.

I’ve been doing some Work that’s definitely for my eyes only, recently. And pondering the paradox of how to write about that in places where it’s helpful to talk about what I’m doing, but where I know it will be seen, probably by those who don’t need to know what I’m doing… See, this is tricky :P I also got into some trouble not too long ago with some people who didn’t have the best of intentions, who (among other things) linked my public, academic profile with my personal, Pagan one. Their intention was to do me harm across all the spheres of my life. I don’t hide who I am – at the moment, it’s not difficult to get from here to my public persona. I’ve had to ponder how to address that. Password protected posts? Writing more in places where posts can be locked to a small audience? Neither of those sits very well with me, given the purposes of this blog.

No, I think the answer may be more related to the concept of ‘hiding in plain sight’. Which is again one that some Wiccans love, and that I’ve scoffed at a bit. But when I had important people over to the house recently, and had to look at what I was hiding in plain sight – Brighid’s cross above the door, altars that look like trinkets and pictures, my door sign a clear boundary between my place of Work and the rest of the house, and so on – it occurred to me that this, too, is Gaelic polytheist practice. The ordinary fire blessed in the quiet of dawn. The rowan cross that looks like decoration. The bit of butter left behind the house for the Good Folk. The whispered prayer as you craft an amulet that looks like a piece of thread.

It’s all important – especially for those who live in the liminal places.

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Image: door sign – “Away with the fairies”

(Pt 2:) My Polytheism

There’s a beautiful trend happening. People are writing about their polytheisms, people whose polytheistic practices are diverse, varied, multiple, weird, different from what we’re told (recently) that polytheism ‘should’ be. (See Jack’s post here, and Kiya’s post here, and the wonderful My Polytheism blog which is collecting a lot of this writing – and I hear that Jolene Poseidonae wants more people to contribute to it!)

Like a lot of these brilliant writers, I have been really concerned by the gatekeeping and crypto-fascist stuff coming out of those who would paint themselves as ‘leaders’ of polytheism. As though it were a cult and they were the gurus. As though it were a singular religion, with rules that we all share, and which they can write.

For me, part of this mess has been positive. My Lady is pointing me at the roots of modern cultural polytheisms – roots which are mostly nationalistic and fascist, if we are completely honest – and asking me if that’s what I want to be part of, even as it moves beyond that. For that history will always be with it. I’m thinking about that, and it may take some time. These things can be transformed, She says – but is that the Work you want to do?

Because you see, my gods are not particularly bothered how I worship them and what I call myself. And my ancestors definitely aren’t. It’s for you, they whisper, and I, barely hearing them, shake my head like I were brushing off flies, and pour out my offerings on shrines that Irish gods never had, and that they certainly don’t have now. And what paltry offerings they are – whiskey and mead and scraps of food.

And they don’t mind – it’s what I need. And I believe they appreciate those little offerings, paltry as they are. But there’s a sense that, when I’m ready, there are far bigger things waiting for me outside the four walls of the room that houses my shrines to the beings of Light that dwell in the secret places of the land. And far, far bigger things waiting for me beyond the four walls of my current ways of thinking and doing and worshipping.

My gods do not live in any shrine inspired by modern polytheism. No offering of whiskey is enough for them, and no trinkets that remind me of them could ever fill the deep, dark spaces they have made in my heart.

Then what do you want? I ask, perturbed, frustrated.

You, whispers Beara, my dark Lady, whom I had the gall to name myself, whose tales I have twisted as she has led me to, in whom I have found a depth of chaos and justice that no constructs of ‘ancient lore’ can describe. For it can only be found in the places she dwells – in the wind in the trees, at the seashore in a storm, on a wild island, on the mountain. And in the deepest pool of chaos, beneath the Tree.

Anything (and everything) you want, says Dovinia, ancestress-goddess who crosses divides between land and people, and finds me lost, somewhere in the depths between.

The Adventure, winks Manannan mac Lir, who does not care if I put the accents on the right places in his name, for all names and stories could only ever be an echo of the sound of the sea on the rocks in a mighty storm – and a wry, friendly fisherman watching from the shore in a bright yellow hat, so easy to miss in the heavy rain. He offered me a box once and asked if I wanted to open it. I’m not sure I’ve even cracked the lid yet.

They ask me to challenge the deepest parts of myself that do not want to offer hospitality to the stranger (or wants to fetishise them* until my hospitality is far more about me than about them). The parts of me that withdraw into tribal instincts – where what is mine must stay pure and unsullied by others, and what is yours must be mine if I think it is good, and condemned as alien and wrong if I do not. The parts of me that are racist, colonialist, internally and externally disablist, internally and externally homophobic, transphobic, classist, elitist… the list goes on. The parts of me that secretly like that most of my gods are Irish and that I rarely venture out to meet others. That I rarely look beyond my little boxes. That I call myself a thing and ignore how it oppresses others. Because to look at that oppression is difficult, and may involve Work that I’m just too tired to do. (The parts of myself that use ‘I’m too tired’ as an excuse far, far too often.) They call me to challenge all these things in me, for only then can I even begin to challenge them in others.

This is my offering.

They ask me to give all of myself to a cause without end, from the depths of my frustration and pain, in disability campaigning that alienates me from my community – and leaves me deeply hurt, unsure if I should go on with such work that makes people stand against me, vocally, if very boringly. But I will, because order needs chaos, rising up from the dark pool beneath the Tree, or nothing ever changes. And Beara nods, and approves – but only long enough to ask for more.

This is my offering.

And they ask me to do the most simple things, that are the most difficult. Continuing to show up, even in the too-bright, scorching days of a summer ruled by Balor, where my world and my mind feels like it is falling apart. Keeping going, when the doctors are unkind and unhelpful, when the university administration is neglectful to the point of my desperation, when the mountain of work is terrifying to look up at. To keep pulling out that next transcript to analyse, Cuchullain-like (but with no super-strength to help). To accept the many gifts that They give me. To believe my spouse loves me. To keep lighting the candle on the shrine – because that is what I need, and my need is great.

This is my offering.

My polytheism is social justice. My polytheism is critical theory. My polytheism is Hannah Arendt and bell hooks and Sara Ahmed and Robert McRuer and Rosemarie Garland-Thompson and Sharon Betcher and Nancy Eiesland. My polytheism is stories – sharing the stories of those who are not heard, because my privilege means my voice is louder, and this is what I can do. My polytheism is research into disability and Christianity, that I have never walked away from in six long years, through circumstances having forced me to attend three universities, all of which have made it very hard to work as a disabled student – because I made a commitment, and because the stories of my participants need to be told. My polytheism is hospitality, keeping my vows, showing up, and really trying hard not to raid the cattle of others.My polytheism is the modern stories that inspire me that I am afraid others will laugh at, and so I relegate my feelings about those to other places, and pretend I am not inspired by Buffy and Angel and X-Men and Night Vale and a reimagined Narnia where a queen calls to me. My polytheism is not even sure it’s all that different from monotheism, some days, when the voice of the One whispers through and in the voices of the Many. My polytheism simply is, a belief in many gods, because many gods made themselves known to me. And oh, how they made themselves known!

My polytheism is nothing like yours. And that’s OK. It’s good. It’s beautiful.

Now please – tell me about yours?

(Don’t worry – part 3, on disability, miasma and polytheism, is still on the way… :) )

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Image: ‘Bright Flame’ shrine. Images of Brighid and Our Lady Breaker of Chains, with flowers (from my garden) and candles, plus memorial and inspirational items.

*Currently reading Sara Ahmed on the fetishisation of the stranger. I recommend it.

Cultural Goats

Inspired by Kiya’s post on a reflection she gave at her UU church today, here’s what I did at my Unitarian church today…

The theme at New Unity this month has been ‘culture’. Instead of delivering a reflection on the subject, this week the minister asked if the congregation would be willing to share things from their own cultures and those that have influenced them. And how we shared: stories, poetry, reflections, songs. From poems that gazed into the death-stare of Kali, through traditional Irish folk songs, via reflections by Egyptian feminists, past freestyling on Greek-British culture, and onto a gorgeous rendition of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’, culture was brought home as something many-varied, colourful, and deeply embedded in us. Afterwards, friends and I fell into talking about queer culture over coffee. So many cultures. So much richness of belonging.

This is what I read in the service. If anyone hasn’t overheard me and Shai talking about the ‘goats’, you will at some point. Three months after I met Shai, I became suddenly, surprisingly and distressingly ill. Sometime around then, Shai told me this story, a Jewish Eastern European one. It has been constantly referred to in our home ever since. This is my interpretation of the story.

A man lived in a small, very crowded house with his wife, his in-laws, six children and a dog.

One day he couldn’t take it anymore. The noise, mess and stress were too much for him. In desperation, he went to see his Rabbi, who was known to be a very wise man.

“Rabbi,” the man said, “You have GOT to help me. There are so many of us in our little house. I can’t cope with the crowdedness and the noise and the mess and the stress anymore. What do I do about this situation?”


The wise Rabbi pondered this for a moment. Then he said to the man, “Do you have a goat?”

Confused, the man replied, “Yes, Rabbi. We have quite a busy farm and I have two goats.”
 
“Then take the goats,” said the Rabbi, “and bring them into the house with you.”
 
“Bring them… into the house? With my wife, and my in-laws, and my six children and the dog?”
 
“That’s right,” said the Rabbi. “And then come back to me in a week.”
 
The man duly went home, got his goats, and brought them into the house. And then he went back to the Rabbi a week later.
 
“How’s it going?” asked the Rabbi.
 
“Rabbi!” said the man, “it’s terrible! We have even less space than before, and the goat is breaking everything, and there’s goat mess on the floor, and the children are very unhappy. How is this meant to have helped?”
 
The Rabbi thought for a moment. “Do you have a cow?”
 
“Well… yes,” said the man. “I have a cow.”
 
“OK,” said the Rabbi. “Bring the cow into the house with you.”
 
“Bring the cow… into the house? With my wife, and my in-laws, and my six children and the dog, and the goats?”
 
“That’s right,” said the Rabbi. “And then come back to me in a week.”
 
The man obediently went home, got his cow, and brought it into the house. And then he went back to the Rabbi a week later.
 
“How’s it going?” asked the Rabbi.
 
“Rabbi!” he said. “This is horrific! The goats and the cow are taking up so much space that we barely have anywhere to sleep anymore! They are fighting and they’re in the way and their mess is all over everything.”
 
“Tell me,” said the Rabbi, “do you have any chickens?”
 
“Yes, Rabbi,” said the man resignedly, “I have chickens.”
 
“Then take the chickens,” said the Rabbi, “and bring them into the house with you.”
 
“Bring them… into the house. With my wife, and my in-laws, and my six children and the dog, and the goats and the cow?”
 
“That’s right,” said the Rabbi. “And then come back to me in a week.”
 
A week later the man returned. He looked exhausted.
 
“How’s it going?” asked the Rabbi.
 
“Rabbi,” he said, “I officially cannot cope anymore. The goats and cow are trying to kill each other. The chickens are flapping around making noise all day and all night. We have nowhere to sleep, nowhere to eat, we’re now having to do most things outside, and their mess is everywhere. What are you doing to me?”
 
“Excellent,” said the Rabbi. “Now. Take the chickens, and the cow, and the goats, and put them back outside. And come back to me in a week.”
 
A week later, the man came back. He looked rested and happy. “Rabbi,” he said, “you have no idea how much better it is now. There is space again. It is quiet again. It is clean again! What a relief.
 
The Rabbi smiled. “Then go home,” he said, “and enjoy the wonderful life you have with your family. And remember, if it ever gets too much – there could always be a goat living with you.”

 

There were a few goats in my house as I walked around Camden after church, getting some meanness about my scooter from fellow Camdonians, and thinking about the very hard week I’ve had of defending my stance on disability and access. But then there was tea and trees and work in Regents’ Park, and the goats were out of the house. For a little while. Everything can always wait until tomorrow.

 

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Regents Canal, where it meets the bridge at Regents Park, Camden, London

A Gaelic polytheist reacts to ‘Miasma’ (Pt 1) – The Song of Amergin

This is a poem about the source of my gods’ power – and mine.

I am the wind on the sea.
I am the ocean wave.
I am the sound of the billows.
I am the seven-horned stag.
I am the eagle on the rock.
I am the flash from the sun.
I am the fairest of flowers.
I am the raging boar.
I am the salmon in the pool.
I am the lake on the plain.
I am the word of knowledge.
I am the point of the spear.
I am the god that makes fire in the head.
Who levels the mountain?
Who speaks the age of the moon?
Who has been where the sun sleeps?
Who, if not I?
– Song of Amergin (mythical Irish invocation – taken from several translations)

To my gods, the earth is not foreign, or hostile, or unclean. They were here first. Longer ago than I can imagine, they dwelt in every atom of the earth. They infused it, welcomed it, loved it, with all its dirt and all its mess and all its blood and all its sex and all its death. Long before we started trying to reject our humanity (in the vain hope that that would somehow make us more spiritual), my gods moved deep within the playground of primordial pre-human muck. Dancing in the dirt, living in the trees, shagging under proto-mountains, feeling their way through the darkness, experiencing embodied reality.

Read the Song of Amergin again, if you are willing. Who is ‘I’? I have no idea. I don’t know if Amergin is channelling a particular god here. Yet the Song drips with divine influence. And isn’t that the point? Arriving in Ireland, the human Amergin accesses the same power as the gods. He does that so well that he defeats them. As he describes it, it is the power of the earth that he invokes – deep, dark, messy, mucky, embodied earth. Brought forth from primordial chaos, and one day to return to it.

The Three Realms are connected. Land, Sea and Sky – we belong in all of them, and so do the gods.

My gods dwell in the rivers, the sea, the mountains, and even in the swirling chaos of urban life. To come close to them, I need to come to closer to the earth – not wash the earth off me in some misguided attempt to ‘purify’ myself. My spirituality, like the power of the gods, arises from what is earthy in me. My deep, earthy, spiritual matter. To some polytheists and pagans – and especially, I think, to Gaelic polytheists – the earth is not something that we need to ‘rise above’. Humanity is not something we have to put aside in order to honour the gods.

Miasma?

There has been a conversation, in response to Many Gods West, about ‘miasma’, and about how we all need to use and work with this concept/practice. This is a Greek concept that I do not understand very well in terms of actual practice (because I am not a Hellenic polytheist). It’s to do with purifying yourself. As the concept has been explained to me, it’s about removing from yourself the things that the gods do not like, because they are holy and we are human.

But that’s a concept from an entirely different religion from mine. I think that, in the joy of finding a polytheist community out there, we can sometimes forget that we are not all one community. We are all working from within very different spiritual systems. Gaelic polytheists are not on the same religious/spiritual path as Hellenic polytheists, nor as Heathens, nor as Kemetic polytheists…

And in that forgetting, we forget some of the most important things about honouring our gods. I do not serve ‘all the gods’. I serve my gods – the ones who I believe reached out to me. Not for any reason of socially constructed Romantic concepts of ancestry, or ‘cultural purity’ (*vomit*). I serve those particular gods because (I believe that) I chose them and they chose me. No other gods have called me but they. There is no grand command sent down from on high that I need to honour a Power that I don’t relate to, in a way that I can’t understand. If I wanted to, I could – it would probably involve me going through something akin to a conversion process, since the way (for example) a Hellenic polytheist thinks about their gods is not the way I think about my gods. But I don’t have to.

And that means no one gets to impose their way of thinking about the gods onto me.

In fact, I have sacred taboos against honouring entire pantheons of gods. And that, at least in part, is because of what I would have to do to honour them. Things which could violate some of my most sacred virtues and vows – like hospitality, honouring the earth, or my own concepts of justice.

Throwing Off What I Don’t Need

I am already pure enough, just by being part of the earth. I don’t believe I have to cleanse myself of human or earthly things.

But there are things I need to do, if I want to become more fully human.

I need to throw off anything I do not need, anything that does not serve me, or that does not serve the gods. That is how I can move in better harmony with the pathways of the Xartus, the great tree of life. I need to seek justice, not injustice. I need to offer hospitality, probably my highest form of spiritual and community practice, which I fail at all the time, but which I can only hope to get better at.

I also need to do some things that are useful to me, based on my own experience. For me, protection and connection are important. Being around my gods every day, if only briefly, and making offerings to them regularly. Having a hearth shrine where I light a fire (a tiny candle-shaped one in my case!) that is the centre of my home. My Brighid’s cross above the entrance to my home. The ritual of hospitality (there it is again) that I need to try to offer to those who come through my doors. Other rituals that I do as the year turns. The prayers I say daily that build up a connection between me and the Sacred Three. The fires I burn at key times (and sometimes burning certain things, like juniper). And, most important of all, without which none of these things would matter: seeking justice in all things, in all my actions, in all my work, in all my interactions with my community. These are all small things, and probably look very insignificant to a lot of people. But they are important for me, for connection and for protection.

And all of these are about reminding me that I am human, and connected, and embodied. That I am living on and with the earth, and that I only exist as part of my community. They’re not about forgetting my humanity.

If I need to lose anything, I need to lose the things that are un-human about me. My tendency to get really selfish, to forget about hospitality and the importance of community. My ability to get wrapped up in myself and what I need, and ignoring what others need. My ability to ignore what I already know about who needs justice and how I can act more justly, and (worst of all) to pretend I’m a warrior for justice when I can be a terrible coward who avoids the hard work it requires.

There are monsters within me, fomori of the heart. I need to throw off what I don’t need, that keeps me mired in the monstrous, and keeps me from the gods and the community.

But, again. Nothing to do with miasma.

Many Religious Paths

I was having a conversation about why people need gods, with modern druids, recently. Modern druidry is incredibly diverse on the issue of (poly)theism – it’s an orthopraxic religion, not an orthodoxic one – we are druids because of what we do, not because of what we believe. (Which is how I can be both a Gaelic polytheist and a modern druid at the same time. There aren’t conflicting belief systems there.) Someone was talking about not believing in gods, in part because they aren’t keen on the ‘lists of associations with gods’ that you can find on every other cheaply-made witchy website on the internet. (That’s got nothing to do with my gods, I said, though I don’t know if anyone heard…) But I have no need to change their minds about deities. Their spiritual/religious ways are their ways. My ways of relating to the gods are mine.

And you know what’s really nice about modern druidry, with its orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy? No one tried to change my mind, and I didn’t try to change theirs. No one said “Oh but you must think about the gods this way.” And that’s how I know where I want to find my community.

And this was an interaction with someone who is agnostic on the subject of deities. This ‘miasma’ stuff – this is coming from polytheists. People who claim to value the gods – but who know nothing of my gods, and have no right to speak on their behalf. Nor to try to convert me to their way of thinking.

You are the Mountain.
You are the Wilderness.
You are the Wild One.
You were the there when the sea first drew breath
and the land rose up from its depths
and the sky settled on the horizon
You will be here until the land drowns,
Until the sea rises up and swallows her whole,
Until the sky falls and the world burns…

– My own invocation, of Cailleach Bhearra of the Beara peninsula – part of my dedication oath

Stay tuned for a follow-up post to come, about the problems of the concept of ‘miasma’ for people who are disabled, or ill, or stigmatised by society…

 

The River of Justice

I’m in a bad place.

I’ve had two months of attempting to get my university to allow me an interruption to recover from some serious health problems I’ve had over the past year. I don’t know whether I should be resting, or working my arse off in an attempt to meet my deadlines.

I’m having a (not unrelated) mental health crisis and am trying to find the money to see a specialist autism psychiatrist. There are few of those on the NHS, and none in my area. This will be difficult to raise the money for. Then I have to go to the pain clinic next week, knowing that pain clinics can be dreadful experiences for disabled women in particular. I’m trying to deal with some awful experiences with my GPs too. My poor spouse is attempting to support me through all this, which causes other problems. Around me, the dominos fall one by one.

I haven’t done any ordered spiritual practice in maybe six months, except for (rare) incredibly loose meditation and off-the-cuff brief rituals. As someone who finds great order and joy in ritual, not being able to do it for so long is terrible.

I feel deeply mired in a vicious cycle that I can see no end to.

My Ogam fid right now is Ur. Shroud of a lifeless one; in cold dwellings. I am buried deep in the dark earth, and I don’t know how to claw my way out.

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Image: Ogam fid Ur

In a Field

So you can imagine that I was looking forward to my little break at the camp I’ve attended for (I think) three years now. Not a long time, really – but this is a community you can fall in love with very fast.

Without going into some details that I’m not ready to broach yet, this was a hard week for me at the camp. I was doing a thousand things all week, rushing between events that I was facilitating and Ogam reading sessions I was doing and supporting other disabled people. That was the good stuff. Then there was the less good. I was excluded from things that I should have been included in – maybe unwittingly, but who knows. I was made fun of when I raised certain accessibility-and-inclusion issues. I was ignored when I raised others. In common with other years, a feature of opening ritual was a fabulous spiral dance that no one had warned me about, so I sat there being stared at and feeling like a lemon. For a talk I was running on accessibility, I was put in a venue that was inaccessible to me. I was allowed to be ambushed by someone I did not need to be left to deal with, allowed to be put in a situation that made me vulnerable as an autistic person. There were times when I was too overwhelmed to go into venues because I was couldn’t deal with the sensory and people overload from poorly-designed environments. I ended up in my wheelchair on the last day, entirely dependent on my spouse for getting around between venues while working, because my scooter batteries only last three of the four days of camp. I had several emotional breakdowns – quietly, in my tent, attempting not to ruin anyone’s camp experience.*

These are all issues that are very easy to individualise. You could say that I found it difficult to deal with people because I am vulnerable. But vulnerability is social – it is something we do to people, as a society, when we put them into unsafe positions. You could say it’s my own fault if I can’t be in loud spaces or can’t get around packed cafes. But someone chose the design of the camp and of the venues, and repeats that design from scratch every year. You could say, as people have been telling me for a while now, that this is a camp in a field, and nothing can be done about that when it comes to accessibility. And yet we have hot showers, and huge tents with beds for hire, and enough electricity to host exciting bands. We are not living as close to the land as we think we are, in this back-t0-nature camp. There’s nothing natural about disablism and exclusion. We create it.

At one point, I stood in the centre of the field, wondering why we still have no lit paths back to the accessible camping area, why we still have no electric mobility aid charging points, why people’s mental health difficulties or triggers or physical needs still aren’t taken into account when we design rituals, why we don’t have a hearing aid loop for deaf people, why the showers are still a death trap for people with mobility difficulties (though slightly less so than in previous years… so that’s something… I suppose?) I know that there are other camps I could have gone to this summer, also in a field, that have all the facilities I mention here. I wondered, and continue to wonder, whether there was any point me being there, when my arguments for these things have been making no inroads towards change. And while I continue to push for these things alone, at a cost to myself.

From one perspective, much of this was because it was a stressful year for everyone at the camp, and things were very difficult, and things get overlooked as a result.

But as my friend said yesterday, what and who is it that suffers when things get tough, in this and many other institutions? It’s the oppressed people and the vulnerable people. The ones who are included as an afterthought, not as a central value and joy of the community. And that is an important lesson.

Because it is absolutely not just about me. I am not the only person whose vulnerabilities were exploited and whose needs we did not have enough resources for, this camp.

Creating Channels for the River of Life

Water flows down channels. The digging of new channels to bring in other streams – outsiders and excluded people – is difficult. That’s ‘inclusion’. Beginning with channels that bring all the streams into the flow at the start – that’s justice. That’s not easy either, but once it starts, the great river of true, diverse, and deeply honourable community can be the long-term result. And what a river it is.

Communities create thoughtforms. We choose what we value, what we honour, what we want to be part of, and what we want to be part of us. The result will always reveal the architecture of the thoughtform – of the tribe, and of the institution that surrounds it.

These are the flows of the Xartus – the great tree of life, of the pattern of the universe, whose pathways of justice we can either move along, or resist. Or, to put it in theoretical terms: political philosopher Paulo Freire says that, in the long view of our evolution, humanity tends towards humanising each other, rather than dehumanising. I suspect that he is almost right. I think we co-create the universe around ourselves and our communities. That if we choose to tend towards justice, we will tend towards justice. But if we choose to tend towards oppression, then we create a world of oppression.**

For We Are Not Yet Free

I’m not unaware that this post could cause controversy. But you have to start from the place where you are called to stand.

There was much I loved about this camp, this year. I loved the people – the wonderful tribe that grows up around the camp. It takes me multiple years to make friends and to know who I can trust, and this year I was particularly honoured to get to know some old friends much better and to meet some fantastic new ones. I loved reading Ogam for the most wonderful people who were willing to put up with me. (Am I the world’s only dyslexic Ogam reader who has to sit and count the strokes? I do hope not.) I was honoured to be asked to do things to help the camp – not least to be asked to embody the Goddess of Life in a ritual. (A disabled Goddess of Life? I may have got a bit teary-eyed at being given the opportunity to be so visible in my unavoidably embodied, reminder-of-death self.) I was delighted to be so busy that I am now more tired than many non-disabled people will be able to imagine, and it’s totally worth it. I was honoured to be given a bottle of mead in exchange for a reading; to be thanked for making camp a more accessible and inclusive place; to be part of a growing, wonderful queer community that now makes up part of the life of the camp; to benefit from the very hard work of the people who create the camp.

But I stood in the tension, in the liminal spaces, where I live. In the indescribable joy of hearing a queer-celebratory poem that reinterpreted myths of old gods, I also heard its sad undertone of the divine queer lovers’ inevitable return to the goddess. For we are not yet free. In the shock and anger and fear of hearing my daily reality laughed at and my very ground of being rejected, I knew that while things have improved, they will never improve enough. For we are not yet free. In the paradox of loneliness of my retreat from an environment I could not cope with, I had no choice but to cut myself off from friends and support. For we are not yet free.

Without wanting to sound too ‘up myself’, I think maybe I’ve had a small effect on the camp, by standing in my space and my truth. I suspect I was one of the first people at the camp to turn down hugs, particularly in the closing ritual, where there is a cost involved in saying “I can’t hug you – I can become overwhelmed by touch from those I don’t know.” I saw people’s conflicted faces when I first did that, three or four years ago. This year I experienced people asking me, and others, whether they could hug us. That is huge. It’s not just my doing, of course – but if I have helped to contribute to a growth of consent culture at the camp in any way, maybe my work has been worth it. I have talked to a number of people about how things have changed in terms of accessibility while I’ve been involved with disability work there, and that’s good to know. As much as change is not coming as fast as I want, this is becoming an issue that’s important to at least a few people. My accessibility workshop was small, but held space for some great conversations and creative ideas. Maybe things in our wider Pagan community will continue to change, very slowly, as we build new channels for the course of the river of life.

But there must always be a balance between what things cost and what they are worth. And I always have to ask, to quote my wonderful teacher Cat: What am I doing? And why am I doing it? I have boundary issues. I am too quick to say ‘yes’ to requests – I forget to be sure I can cope with the fallout for my body and mind. Partly, I take on so much because I am so excluded from so many things, and I want to fight my way in. I don’t want to be kept away from camps because of poor access. I don’t want to have to leave druid orders when they don’t want people with mental health problems involved. I want to go to moots and community events even when most of them are upstairs. But the exclusion is about them, not me. It is not always my job to fix it.

And there is a question that comes up time and again. The question of whether I want to be part of any community – however wonderful in many ways – that so persistently cannot make space for me and my people. Because we are not their priority. And that’s a much more terrible thing than it may first seem. What am I saying about myself and my value if I consistently demonstrate that I agree with them?

However much I love the tribe, however much I love the camp, I don’t know if I can continue to let that love and celebration be at a cost to me and mine.

“Well the Mississippi’s mighty
But it starts at Minnesota
At a place that you could walk across with five steps down
And I guess that’s how you started
Like a pinprick to my heart
But at this point you rush right through me and I start to drown…”
– ‘Ghost’, Indigo Girls

*I am ironically ruining that by talking about it now. But silence is rarely the solution to anything. It just took me too long to work that out.

**Oppression is never accidental – it’s always chosen, but sometimes we don’t notice the tiny choices we make every moment that create it.