30 Days of Practice: Orlando, the One Sheep, and Me

I was doing so well last week. I was so proud of myself for doing at least some of what I’ve committed to (the daily devotionals – I’ve had a total failure mode around podcasts, but a post on failure can wait for another day). I was telling myself that I was doing really well. Am I not such a balanced spiritual person? Am I not such a great activist? Am I not so good at being a disabled person in a disablist world? I thought that maybe the key was to keep telling myself that, keep thinking positive, keep ‘acting great’ to be great.

And then there was Orlando.

The day before yesterday, my friend messaged me to tell me about the vigil. I was desperate to go, but unlike many of the people who went (probably), I had to think very carefully about going. Every moment had to be planned – from getting there (can’t park in Soho – too scared to get buses at the moment), to being in the crowds (will I get scared and have a meltdown and be an embarrassment to myself and everyone with me?), to getting around Soho (terrible accessibility of streets and I don’t know if I have the energy for pushing myself around), to going home (will I be able to find a taxi?) A huge amount of spoons had to be measured out and used – see later in the post for what that means. Another wheelchair user passed me in the crowd at one point, said “I’m glad I’m not the only mad wheelie here”. I knew what she meant. I felt vulnerable and stressed out for the whole thing. That was helped immensely by my amazing friends who stood between me and the crowd, and helped me get around, and did lots to support me – I couldn’t have asked for more support. But there I was, thinking about myself. Fifty people had died and more had been injured… and I was worrying about my comfort.

Then, without giving myself a rest, yesterday I spent seven hours volunteering, and being in settings where my brain and body do not cope well. After the first five-hour meeting (hardly any breaks), I came home briefly and I so desperately wanted to go to bed. It was serious desperation – and the idea of being around people and having to behave like a neurotypical person in a meeting was terrifying. My body was screaming at me and my brain was already beginning to hit ‘shutdown’ territory (which happens to some neurodivergent people after a long time of fighting to appear neurotypical and wearing ourselves out). But I went out to the next two-hour plus meeting anyway, because I had said I would, and being true to my word is part of the virtue of Honour. But I had forgotten to take stock of quite how much things had affected me this week, including the attack and the vigil. I was seriously running low on spoons. And there I was, thinking about myself. Again.

Much better people than me have written about Orlando. People who are writing, and silenced, from within the Latinx LGBT community, like Vincent Cervantes, and people writing about being Muslim and queer at a time like this, like Amanullah De Sondy. People who have called for voices to be amplified that are not being heard, in the midst of the narrative-creating and the news biases and the many, many agendas. People like Mariella Mosthof and Ferdiad and Theo Wildcroft and Pat Mosley. I’m seeing many white LGBT people pondering intersectionality and privilege in the wake of this tragedy. It’s important stuff – lived social theory, social justice in writing.

It’s also not helping. To admit this is to demonstrate my horrendous privilege. I can actually sit in my comfortable house, with its decent security, and know that I’m probably not going to be attacked tomorrow (although the rate of disability hate crime is rising and I feel more unsafe every time I leave the house). I sit here as a white, rich person (and as a neurodivergent* person and a disabled person who seriously struggles with life, and doesn’t admit that enough). I am someone who will never worry about where my next meal is coming from (someone who has been told by doctors for ten years that I’m making up my illnesses, and recently found out I’ve been denied treatment for one condition for at least that long, as a result). I am someone who can afford to run my car and even the taxis I need to get around, to help me avoid the struggles that most disabled people face while out and about (someone who, on account of using a wheelchair, nonetheless has to plan life in exceptional detail, and who, on account of neurodiversity in an ableist world, doesn’t cope well with the execution of those plans). I am someone who lives in a country with an NHS and will never go hungry in order to pay medical bills (someone whose chronic illness regularly ruins my life and never, ever lets up – even when I ‘look’ OK). I am someone who can send my PA out into the world to do things, and thereby avoid some of the daily disablism and abuse, because I can afford a PA (someone who gets shouted at in the streets and often has to tell people to stop pushing my wheelchair without asking me because you might be about to break my fingers, not to mention taking away my agency and my right to attempt the hill on my own and also my right not to be grabbed by a bloody stranger).

I think my battles matter… to some extent. But I am struggling to balance my fear and exhaustion with my incredible privilege and my safety and my very comfortable life. It’s difficult. Those of us who have wide intersections in our lives between privilege and oppression sometimes struggle with this. It’s OK to admit it. But also, it isn’t.

I am not a queer Latinx. I am not a person of colour in the LGBT community. I am not living under US laws, with their bathroom segregation and removal of rights for trans people, or in US culture, with its violence towards my LGBT siblings (especially trans people). I am not a trans person on the American continent or in other countries, at high risk of being murdered, and at risk of having to survive via sex work in order to live and to pay for surgery (associated with even more risk of murder). I do not live in a country where it is illegal for me to be in a same-sex relationship. I do not live at a time when I could be sectioned or worse for being attracted to people of my sex or for being gender variant. There is so much I should be deeply grateful for.

But I am still writing a blog post about me, not about them, today. I am that person. I think that, today, I would rather admit it, than pretend to be better than I am.

It’s a fact I’m trying to take on board, that this tragedy has clearly affected us more than others (as an LGBTQI community) because it relates to us. It’s human to feel closer to our tribe than to the rest of humanity. It’s also deeply problematic.

Two metaphors: spoons and filters

Two metaphors are useful to talk about, at this point. ‘Spoons‘ are a metaphor widely used in the disability and chronic illness communities, to talk about measures of energy (or of coping skills, or similar). A lot of non-disabled people have at least enough spoons to get through the day. They may use one for a shower in the morning and one to make breakfast, but they still have two hundred left. In comparison, I may start the day with twenty. Then choices have to be made. Will I be able to make myself cups of tea today, or is it more important to be able to work? When I’m having a day with a few extra spoons, I may ‘look’ like I have as many as most people. But I’m still calculating in my head all the time. Do I have enough energy to buy the food that I’ve been asked to bring to the meeting, and still make it through the meeting? Do I have enough spoons to get myself lunch at the conference, or do I just have to sit here hungry so that I can get through the next talk without having to leave? Am I going to manage the whole of this event, or am I going to run out of spoons or the ability to act neurotypical, and have to run away (and be stared at as I leave oh gods please stop staring at me)?

The other useful metaphor is that of filters. I live my life filtering out my neurodiversity and its effects. I work hard every second of the day, using a lot of energy, thinking consciously about how to act in seminars and with supervisors and with friends and in meetings and in crowds and in pubs and in shops and on public transport. Imagine needing to think actively about every single thing you do, a mix of trying to get your brain to function in a world that you don’t fit into, and trying to act like it’s all unconscious and normal for you. Slowly, as I do more and more of this, and get more and more tired, my filters start to drop. You’ll begin to see more and more of the ‘real me’. You probably won’t like her – she’s irritating and unhelpful and gets a lot wrong.

Then the filters will fall away entirely. And then, collapse. Shutdown, or meltdown. A total giving up of brain (and body) that means nothing else is possible – literally – until I am out of ‘danger mode’ according to my neurological systems (which are far better at protecting me than I am).

Back to practice…

Last night, after the meetings were over, I did my daily devotional as planned. (I was too wired from ‘performing’ to sleep, anyway). I’ve been working with empty shrines, on the concept of stripping everything back, nothing left but myself and the Divine:

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Picture: my shrine to Beara, currently empty except for candle, taper and offering bowl.

After all the fear and struggles of the past few days, the emptiness hit me.

I just sat there, at Her empty shrine, and sobbed. The candles burned down. Darkness came. I sat. I loved. I longed. I hated myself. I was afraid. I wrote poetry in my head. I sat. I didn’t wake my spouse. This was about me, and my goddess, and the darkness, and the silence, and the empty altars – and me, empty. I sat.

Lighten our darkness… and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night.[1]
For the night is dark, and I am far from home.[2]

Soon I’ll start building up my shrines again. Starting with an ancestor shrine for the beloved dead of the Orlando shooting and of the many, many other terrorist attacks and state-sponsored violence going on around the world.

*                                        *                                        *                                      *                                         *

Here are two relevant stories that I’ve been pondering recently – told in my own words, so don’t trust their theological accuracy – they are very much my interpretations.

The One Found Sheep

A shepherd had a hundred sheep. He could always tell his own from the others in the fields — he knew their sound, their movement, their little ways. Every evening he took the measure of his sheep, and there they were, always a hundred of them. And then he could sleep as dusk came in, his shepherd’s crook curled around him, the sound of his sheep’s voices a constant in his dreams.

One evening he counted his sheep… and there were ninety-nine of them.

He panicked. Who is missing? Where are they? He searched the places that he could reach and still have his other sheep in sight, but the lost sheep was not there.

And so he left his fields, and left all the rest of his sheep, and went into the roads and out into the far edges of the country. And there he found it, lost in a ditch, unable to get itself unstuck.  

And he carried it home.

– From the Christian tradition

The Myth of Sophia

Sophia was the first creation of the God. She was his Wisdom.

Her daughter, Sophia the younger, was beautiful, but she was not satisfied with her existence, nor with her heavenly consort the Christ. She looked down into the mortal realms and saw a great Light. She longed to be with it. “Why,” she said to the God, “can I not bring the world light and life, and create as you do?”

The God sighed a great, defeated sigh. “You are the child of Wisdom,” he says. “If you think it is wise, go, and create as I do.”

And so, enchanted by the world of matter, Sophia fell. And she created. But her first creations were born of chaos and darkness and fear. Her first son looked at the world and wanted to possess it – and he could not see that anything existed above him. From darkness he ruled the world. He denied wisdom to Adam and Eve.

But Divine Wisdom stayed with them.

The earth-bound Sophia could see that humanity was lost. She sent them the Serpent to teach them that they could think for themselves – but though they began to, they were already corrupted by the darkness and weighed down by the struggles of a corrupted world.

But Divine Wisdom stayed with them.

Unwilling to leave humanity alone, Sophia called on her mother, Sophia the Elder, to send the Christ, if he was willing to leave heaven and come to join her, to help this world and its people.

“And the Logos was made flesh, and dwelt among us.”

And Divine Wisdom stayed with them.

– From the Gnostic tradition

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What if we are not always the sheep, but sometimes the shepherd?

What if we are sometimes Sophia, and sometimes the Christ?

What if we can only rescue ourselves?

And what if we don’t matter?

I have no conclusions. There is only silence, and the empty shrine.

Video: the Gay Men’s Chorus singing at the London vigil for Orlando. A wheelchair’s-eye view.

ETA: The list of the dead and injured in last weekend’s shooting. I’m sorry it took me so long to think to add this to my post. As the Wiccans say, what is remembered, lives.

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*Neurodivergent: a non-medical term used by the community of people affected by autism/ADHD/dypraxia/dyslexia and many other neurologically-affected different ways of being. Those of us who think differently from the ‘neurotypical’ people.  The world is full of neurodiversity. We are different, but not less.

[1] From the traditional night service of the Church of England.
[2] From the hymn ‘Lead Kindly Light’.

30 Days of Practice: The Concept, the Result

It’s the month of Ramadan. At the truly wonderful New Unity church (of which I am a new and enthusiastic member!), we’re learning from this with a ’30 days of a practice’ time. The service on Sunday was led by a Muslim member of the church, who talked about his experiences with Ramadan, how for him as a child, the fast was important but the feasting and family and celebration of life was more important. He, and other speakers, talked about the effect of practice on our faith and values. If you want to be more just, act justly. If you want to be more loving, act loving. “Act great,” as the Sufi Hafiz says, and you will be great.

We wrote intentions for practice on cards, shared them with the community, pinned them to a board and dedicated the next month to them. (So very Pagan!) I have dedicated these 30 days to my goddess – who, if you’re new to my blog, is Bui, the Hag of Beara (often syncretised with ‘the Cailleach’ archetype, although I know her as an individual tied to her land, a summer and harvest deity, a goddess of justice and chaos, Lady of the Mountain, of the liminal places and people). The specifics of what I’m doing for the 30 days isn’t the point – though, if you’re interested, I’m listening to fewer podcasts and doing more meditation and devotionals. It’s been three days so far, and my life is getting intense. But in a good (if very challenging) way.

I spend too much time talking, and not enough time doing. I have big ideas, but don’t do the little things needed to bring them into reality. I want to contribute to the wheel of justice that turns through the ages, to the great tree of Xartus with its flow from chaos towards creation – but I don’t actually do enough. Practice makes progress. Only doing makes change.

She is the owl in the night, unseen and ready to strike. Start from darkness and nothingness, she says. Strip back everything that is unnecessary. Out of dark chaos comes bright creation. Today I take down all my altars and start again from a single candle and the deep silence of beginnings. Then I start doing that in my life. What is my harvest?

Practice makes progress.

One day the Sikhs asked the Guru whether those who read the Gurus’ hymns without understanding them derived any spiritual advantage from it. The Guru gave no reply at the time, and next morning went hunting. En route, the Guru came across a broken pot which had held butter. The rays of the sun were melting the butter on the broken pot fragments. The Guru took one of these fragments in his hand and said, “Look my Sikhs, broken pot shards – when they are heated, the butter that adhered to them readily melts. As the grease adheres to the potshards, so to do the Gurus’ hymns to the hearts of his Sikhs. At the hour of death the Gurus’ instruction shall assuredly bear fruit. Whether understood or not, it has within it the seed of salvation. Perfume still clings to a broken vase.” The meaning of the parable is that whoseoever daily reads the Gurus shabads shall assuredly obtain peace. And even though he may not fully understand them, God will undoubtedly assist him.

Guru Har Rai and the pot; from SikhiWiki. From the Sikh tradition.

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

– Micah 6:3. From the Jewish tradition.

Colonialism, Pagan Spirituality, and Us

There’s been a discussion going on about colonialism, on a druid website I sometimes read and contribute to. I have newly developing but important thoughts on the subject, and I thought I should write about them here too – because colonialism and neocolonialism and druidry and Paganism are all mixed up together in complex ways that I believe we need to address.

Note: these are very challenging subjects and thoughts. When I first encountered them, my instinct was to dig in my heels and become defensive. Surely I’m not a coloniser or a racist. I’m a good person. But that kind of thinking is dangerous. We can be good people and be benefitting from colonialism, and even extending its power through our Pagan practice. We do these things unconsciously, because we are part of complex power structures. It’s so important that each of us challenges ourselves on these things… I’ll reflect a bit more on that at the end of the post.

As I’ve said before. I think everyone should read the work of Kavita Maya, who is researching racism and colonialism (and gender) in the Goddess movement in Glastonbury, although her conclusions relate to other Pagan movements too. Her academic work can be found here, and she recently wrote a short general summary of what she’s been doing, which can be found here. She is a colleague of mine and we have talked about this stuff a lot. She has really challenged me, in a way that I think all druids should be challenged, to think more about justice and oppression.

Colonialism is a tricky thing. It’s easy to ‘jump’ back to Roman times in our mind, and think, oh, ‘we’ lost ‘our’ traditions then. But it can be dangerous to identify solely with those pagans, who are not us and are not in our historical situation, when there is so much history in the middle that we need to know about and take responsibility for. As a result, we can too easily forget about things that we need to learn about and from – including Britain’s role in colonialism. We are colonisers, as much as we were colonised – we just did the colonising in other places, and received a huge amount of benefit back here. We continue to benefit from the oppression of other nations and peoples. That’s called neocolonialism.

We must be mindful of Paganism’s tendency to lean on concepts of nationalism that may be harmful to others. For example, are we using symbols and stories that Britain has used in domination of the rest of the world? This can be very harmful to people of colour, immigrants, and others who may want to join our movements. Pagans of colour are often excluded, told to find ‘their own’ traditions (as I wrote about before – an incredibly stupid and racist thing to say) and often do not feel welcome in our very white Pagan movement. But they should be welcome. And welcome is about a lot more than just being ‘friendly’.

In short, colonialism is not something we can just skip over and pretend didn’t happen. What ideologies are we using in our attempts to reclaim older traditions? Do these ideas and stories draw things that have been used to oppress other people? If so, I want nothing to do with them, as I am a druid focused on justice for all. This is difficult, challenging spiritual and emotional Work, rooting out our own relationship to colonialism and how we continue to benefit from it. I think it’s among the most important work we can do, in our work towards the healing of all people and our druidic concepts of healing the land.

I think that our relationship with the land is damaged when we oppress others, here and elsewhere. British colonialism, even though it mainly took place far from these shores, was incredibly harmful to the earth (and to communities of people) in other places. We have benefited and gained at a cost to others and their lands. That benefit on our part, and suffering on the part of others as a result, continues today. The land we live on knows, feels and remembers that, I believe. That’s a personal spiritual view… but one that I often ponder. What do we need to make right, that has gone wrong before? It’s easy to stand on the land and feel all spiritual and connected, and then go away and not act in a way that truly lives out our connection with all life. Is spirituality having any impact on our real life? If not, it’s worthless.

And this is not about feeling guilty for the actions of our ancestors, by the way. It’s about taking responsibility for how we benefit and continue colonialism today.

As a person of Irish origin, I find it difficult when British people try to overlook centuries of oppression of others, and forget it ever happened. Yet the Irish are also doing this today, as much as the British, and forgetting their own oppression as they oppress others. I have a mixed heritage, and I am both a child of colonisers and the colonised. My ancestry, body and life hold the results of both these things. We all do. We all have to live with these contradictions. We may not ‘feel’ like colonisers, but every time we lean on stories or ideas that oppress others, every time we benefit at a cost to other groups or nations, every time we encourage nationalism in any way, we are colonisers. It is possible to be both colonised and a coloniser.

Neocolonialism is alive and well right here and right now. We continue to oppress other, less powerful nations and gain benefit as a result of it. It affects how we behave towards others here in the UK too. Just look at the racism going on against immigrants and Muslims in this country today. It happens because of our inheritance of colonialist ideologies and what we have learned and believed from generations of thinking that ‘Britannia rules the waves’. I think the land holds all of this history, knowledge, experience and pain. My focus, as a druid, is on healing the land and contributing to the healing of all the people who live here, all the wonderful wealth of people who have been coming and going from these shores for countless generations. After all, we are an island nation, and we have never had one static ‘tradition’ or belief. No country has, but Britain has a particularly diverse history of influence of many groups and tribes and peoples. We need to celebrate that, rather than leaning on one interpretation of a history that is mostly made up by (white) Romantics and which is nostalgic for an era that may not even have existed.

I will be happier when I see a British druidry with many people of colour involved in it, and when I see real diversity in druidry, not just a sea of white faces (not to mention groves full of nothing but straight people and able-bodied people and binary-gendered people and neurotypical people and middle class people). Then I will feel less like I belong to a tradition that buys into ideologies related to colonialism and neocolonialism. I will feel like I am truly following the Virtues I identify with as part of my spiritual path(s): Hospitality, Integrity, Discernment, Justice.

This article, by Vibha Shetiya, gives another insight into the concept of what ‘our’ traditions are, and whether they can really be related to our ‘ancestry’, which is never from only one place. She says ‘I’m just me’. Britain is a complex, mixed place that holds many histories and much pain of many people. Can we not recognise that we have a very complex ancestry, and indeed that concepts of ancestry and ‘our’ traditions are extremely difficult things that come with a lot of baggage?

This is also giving me thoughts about ancestor work and colonialism and Paganism and history. I’ll share more of those in another post, I think.

As I said at the beginning of this post, this is very difficult stuff. It’s not easy to take it on board. But I believe it’s part of the Work of a modern druid, if we claim to be spiritual and aim to be awake and aware, to feel the pain of these realisations and confront them anyway. Let the darkness of colonialism and oppression in me be exposed and rooted out by the Light. Isn’t that the whole reason I’m a druid, working in a spiritual tradition of justice? I think it should be.

Reflections: the Elder in the City (Ruis)

I often start my telling of a rather ‘woo’ tale with a comment like “Everyone who knows me knows I’m not very woo” and then proceed to undermine that, with a tale of spirit work or a channelled poem or a story about the actual faeries that I actually believe in (for certain values of ‘faeries’). So I’m going to try not to do that. 

Even if I just did.

Elder tree amongst the weeds



I’m staying in a rather strange place.

About once a year, I lose the plot and can’t cope with the world and its neurodiversity-unfriendly setup anymore, fall off the high wire that I’m always precariously balanced on, and have to disappear. It used to happen far more often, and I was lucky enough to have access to proper medical respite care when it did. That’s harder to find now (I tried and failed this time), and the best I can usually do is staying in a cheap hotel. I know of a few that are quiet and convenient enough, while also being far enough away from home to make sense. There’s never enough money to be a hermit for long enough, but it’s something. As a result of a confluence of events and illness, then, I am currently holed up in a hotel in north London. It’s not all that quiet (there’s a wedding being set up for in the garden). But I’ve turned off my phone notifications, am not checking email, and am allowing myself a couple of days where I will contact no one and do no work unless it’s really necessary. (The email and phone non-contact will be carrying on over the weekend, even though I have to go home. Enforced solitude. Sometimes necessary.)

The Elder Mother speaks…

There’s a lovely garden here (even if it’s noisy – I’m an urban druid, after all: I’m working towards being able to do spiritual stuff with a plane taking off twenty metres away). It’s a bit over-cultivated for me, but there are corners. Wild spaces where life breaks in, resists, refuses the tight shapes that human hands would chain it into.

In one of those corners I met an Elder.

I had just ordered tea at the bar. While waiting for it, I went wandering. There she was, emerging from the weeds, down in the places no one would think to cultivate. I sat and meditated near her for a while. 

The Elder Mother is a fascinating story in folklore – she turns up in a lot of places. Sometimes as a mother spirit that offerings must be made to; sometimes as a fairy tree; sometimes as a witches’ tree; sometimes as a tool to punish witches, and sometimes as a way to punish women in general. Patriarchy has shaped the edges of her tales — but like the cultivated bushes, she breaks free. In a weedy patch between the clamped-shut windows of back rooms and a forgotten garden wall, in a liminal space where no one would notice us, we talked of resistance against pernicious ideas and ideologies, and how to be true to yourself. I told her about my growing desire to serve, but my unwillingness to shape myself into forms that do not fit me well. My sometimes-petulant resistance against one Pagan ‘course’ and group after another, from OBOD to ADF and through all the rest of the over-structured forms. My soul pulling me towards the edges, away from the mainstream, towards unfettered growth and freedom to be myself.

Be true to yourself, she said, and what you hope for will follow, though it may come in unexpected forms. Anything you do, do it with integrity. Speak out for freedom – the reward is in the resistance itself. That which you need, you will find. Those who need you will find you.

Returning to my table in the garden cafe, I took out my bag of divination stuff (currently very messy, full of stones and cards and Ogham sticks). Give me a bit of guidance, Elder Mother, I said. I pulled Ruis – the fid of the warrior in her battle-beserker rage, armed with all her fighting passions, sometimes associated with…  the elder tree.


And then my tea arrived, and I remembered I’d ordered Assam and elderflower. 


She’s witty, is the Elder Mother. I can’t ignore a triad. :P

Ironically, the universe has just challenged me to prove that statement about being an urban druid who can handle any amount of noise and chaos, and the wedding party has arrived in the hotel garden. It’s a Jewish wedding – they’re putting up a chuppah:


Gives me a smile of recognition – we had one at our wedding. Even though, being us, we forgot to actually stand in it for the ceremony. I do things… differently. And now I’m going to get out of the way of the happy community, and go and make elder trees with watercolours.

An hour in the life of a… priestess?

Blogging Priestess series: #1

Now playing:

Woke up this morning and the streets were full of cars
All bright and shiny like they’d just arrived from Mars.
And as I stumbled through last night’s drunken debris
The paperboy screamed out the headlines in the street:
Another war and now the pound is looking weak,
And tell me have you read about the latest freak?
We’re bingo numbers and our names are obsolete –
Why do I feel bitter when I should be feeling sweet?

Hello, hello – turn your radio on
Is there anybody out there? Help me sing my song
Life is a strange thing
Just when you think you learn how to use it’s gone…

Woke up this morning and my head was in a daze
A brave new world had dawned upon the human race,

But words are meaningless and everything’s surreal –
Going to have to reach my friends to find out how I feel.
And if I taste the honey is it really sweet?
And do I eat it with my hands or with my feet?
Does anybody really listen when I speak,
Or will I have to say it all again next week?

Hello, hello – turn your radio on
Is there anybody out there? Tell me what went wrong
Life is a strange thing
Just when you think you learn how to use it’s gone…

– Hello, Shakespears Sister*

The Morning

“We’re bingo numbers and our names are obsolete…”

This morning I woke up crying. (This isn’t a rarity for me, although the further we get into medical explorations of my sleep disorder, the more I’m very occasionally allowed a few sleeping pills, and that helps. I’ll sleep better tonight. Not so many of those pesky dreams.)

Then I went onto Facebook and twitter to check that none of my disabled friends are (more) suicidal (than usual) today from battling in the long war society is raging against us. I remember when I used to go onto Facebook and twitter to procrastinate from work. Now I can’t go near them a lot of the time, for fear of what I’ll read – ‘benefits’ measures get ‘stronger’, and we are pushed ever further towards the edge of the cliff. Falling off, one by one.

Next: remembering that I have no support worker this morning. (There’s only so much money for these things.) I pondered how (if) I was going to have a shower today. (I have so much more running/hot water privilege than almost everyone else on the planet. I must not let myself feel self-pitying about having to go some days without. But still.)

Then I remembered that I won’t get any help making breakfast and lunch today, what with absence of support worker, and considered my various lifehacks that resist a society that creates our vulnerability and refuses to support us through it. These are usually linked to my financial privilege, because it’s what I have that can help make this life work — I go to a cafe, park close to the door, struggle in, and let the low-paid exploited precariat compensate for a stripped-away welfare system (that our parents knew would last forever), and do my privileged, non-manual knowledge work. We oppress and are oppressed. It’s the way of this world and its systems… for now.

Then I finally get to thinking through the state of my body. It hasn’t been doing well recently. Over the past couple of weeks I have done a lot of driving to meet people, to help people, to be with people. I helped a friend whose father has died to clear out his house, just for a couple of days (I really wished I was up to staying longer). I wouldn’t change that, though, despite how much pain I’m now in. My friend is disabled herself. Most of her friends are disabled. We come, and we probably cause far more problems than we solve, but we give our bodies as an offering to the causes of friendship and resistance against oppression. And then an email from a family member who is going into hospital and who I want to help… and thoughts turn to other family members and friends I would like to support far better than I do, or just to offer more time and energy to sustain our friendship… There is a sense in which I do much of this bodily harm to myself, willingly and knowingly. (Oh how the DWP would love to hear that.) But only because I insist on maintaining my integrity and links to community in a world where systems of disability oppression are self-sustaining. Systems of oppression are embodied, not abstract. They break us, again and again. We carry on.

Then my partner sends me a message about a clarification on government policy on disability ‘benefits’ (they come across these things in their job), and I’m crying again. Because I may have to write that 40+ page application to renew my ‘benefits’ at exactly the same time I have to hand in my thesis. It’s a kind of strange irony – or is it the opposite? The famously appalling benefits process (that destroys lives and self-esteem and leads to suicide, that disability scholars and activists and many others have critiqued in much detail, to little effect) may catch up with me (again) just when I am trying to make my dent in these systems, my little attempt at critiquing oppression. That I will be most degraded by the state, for its own very conscious purposes, at a time when I will be on the last push to get out my biggest stab at resistance against this stuff. It’s… oddly fitting. And fits this government’s ideology perfectly.

The Moment

And now here I am in my shrine room (well, the shrine corner of my office). And because of all the chaos in my life at the moment, it currently looks like this.

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I was hoping to meditate. I don’t know how effective that will be.

On the other hand. I honour a deity of Chaos. And whenever I try to be tidy, to go with the mainstream, to stay in control, she swallows the ground beneath me and vomits up a new mountain. I die and am reborn every thousand years. I come from stone, and to stone I shall return. Either follow in the wake of my blast, or get out of the way.

And everything shifts into a bigger perspective.

The Concept

I am pondering the concept of ‘priestess’ at the moment – planning to start a new blog series here on it very soon. I am thinking about issues such as: is this a gender-essentialist concept? Is this a female-subjugating archetype? Can a Jungian archetypal approach to the Work ever be a useful one? What about the connection of ‘priest’ and its variants to hierarchy – does that have any relevance anymore, and does it continue to oppress the powerless? And, then, if any of these can be resolved in any meaningful way: what is the Work of a priestess?

And so I stand in front of an incredibly messy shine made with human hands to a distant deity who lives in a mountain and who often pays little attention to the fragile creations of people — but who also, right now, sees the mess of boxes all around it, and approves of them far more than the pretty trinkets. The boxes that are full of things that I am ebaying for the aforementioned friend who can’t deal with them herself. That speak of the Work of – whatever I am. When I claim the space of a priestess, I don’t call on the hierarchical associations of the term — I am an anarchist (of a sort) who walks in the shadows. Nor the female/gendered ones — I am non-binary, autigender, gender-binary-rejecting, and aim to be non-essentialist in all things gender. Maybe none of these oppressive associations can be extracted from the term now. But there’s something there that has always worked better than ‘witch’ (I’m not magical enough), than ‘druid’ (I’m not white-robed-respectability enough), or any of those identities that can be reclaimed for better things than they once intended. Its shadow side speaks of standing with and for communities and lone liminal people living on the margins, shouting at the forces we call gods for support in our cause, walking alongside those who have no one to walk with them, and calling down symbolic power that was always already within us. I want to know if this archetype can be radicalised, can be useful for liminal people. But ultimately, if it can’t, the term matters far less than the Work.

I take a breath, and start on the Work again.

When you’re standing by the roadside
And it’s a long way to go
Ah, to carry me
to carry me, friend

Together in this mad land
far from truest of hands
well I’ll carry you
if you’ll carry me, friend
Oh, carry me…

If we can take the time
we’ll build ourselves a road
from what we know
each take our part
and now’s the time to start

Carry Me, The Levellers

 

*Thanks to Cat Treadwell for reminding me about this song, which was on repeat for much of my teens. Oh look, it’s on repeat again.

Below the Avon

“At the height of the Bristol slave trade from 1700 to 1807, more than 2,000 slave ships carried a conservatively estimated 500,000 people from Africa to slavery in the Americas.” – Wikipedia article on the history of the city of Bristol, UK.

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Clifton Suspension Bridge, above the River Avon. Photo: Flickr CC Pablo Fernandez

Held tight between the Durotriges and the Dobunni
there is a paradox below the Avon.
Travel south (keep driving down the M4 scourge)
and go on further south,
towards the stones we battled over, till
abruptly, a dramatic scar across the land
(crossed by a leap in engineering) leads
down to a town a river goddess holds in her embrace.

Look closer – this is not an ancient paradise:
this slaver city, built by those not privileged
enough to see the wealth their broken backs
and subjugation built for us
to sit and drink our lattes in.
And this disputed territory,
where they once manufactured drudgery
and churned out countless factory-crushed lives,
now welcomes in the moneyed: hipsters, students, suits
…and me.
Where old tobacco wealth and modern diamond-blood collide –
This latest bondage no less slavery
Than that which came before, but more invisible
to us who live so far from those who serve us now.
We can pretend we do not know that in each step we take,
on every broken paving stone, we still
walk on five hundred thousand unmarked graves.

To this most unexpected place then comes
the Pilgrim, with the Thinker at his side,
to meet this tired, reluctant Advocate.
We three so different, but with souls that see each other
in our search for those few starry points
that blaze the light of the divine into the dark.
The pilgrim-radical, his spirit gentler than I thought
a warrior’s could be, told deep-enchanting stories, while
across a silent boundary,
five hundred thousand unseen, wide-eyed faces saw one of their own,
and so did I.
The Thinker, with his questions and his eyes
that rooted out the silence and the fury both.
And me – I’m not sure what I brought.
I was all Apple phones and car keys and despairing cynicism,
yet with something slowly breaking in,
wild flowers through untended stone,
once smooth hewn but now fractured with indifference and life.

And in the hipster cafes of this contradiction
(tea £3 a pot but pennies to the farmers),
we did not whisper when we called down fire from above
upon ourselves and those who have our pity and our grief.
We had three hours to raze states and empires to the ground
and I glimpsed just enough eternity to wish for more.

What are such encounters for, and what
are we who meet each other left with
when our ships return to other powers’ shores?
What are our wandering spirits seeking
when we call into an empty, night-tossed sea
and hear an echo of a voice replying,
hiraeth* returned?

We who long for freedom
are still indentured, still indenturing.
But we are also architects.
We build,
stone on stone,
hand in hand,
our fragile, shattered bodies the material
that shapes new ground.

And I will not forget his question,
“Do you still have hope?”
and how I wished I had the time to answer
(Time, the great Oppressor),
though I tried to stumble, word on word,
a tumbling of longings for the tyrannised.
And deep below the city stones,
five hundred thousand souls cried out an echo of this pain.

And you, seeking an ancient (subjugating) city, here
Where green and pleasant valleys fall
Toward the stones we battled over (though
I’ve never been quite sure who won the fight,
now that the white-robed men of power claim the land
that still the peasants do not have the right
to walk upon);
you may find yourself
caught between the Durotriges and the Dobunni
(keep struggling along the M4 road,
an English dirge to farms sustained by bureaucratic subsidies),
where once an erstwhile Avon claimed the land as all her own,
and still she cradles those who cry below.
We claim this city too, we radicals,
we idealistic, cynical and hopeful ones,
whose voices are not silenced by this age of chains and charred remains,
though we must strain to hear the halting song of those who went before.

© Léithin Cluan, 2016. For Rhyd Wildermuth and Jonathan Woolley.

Bristol Quay. Flickr CC Ubaían.

Bristol Quay. Photo: Flickr CC Ubaían

*Hiraeth: a Welsh word for which there is no translation, but which means something like a longing for home in the depth of the soul.

The Durotriges and the Dobunni were Iron Age tribes located in the area around the River Avon, not far from today’s Bristol.

The M4 motorway is a shining testament in concrete to heartless late modern capitalist infrastructure. :P

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On Doing Nothing, Pt 1: On Listening, Not Derailing

Let Pagans of Colour Speak

Let’s start with some stories told by Pagans of colour in the Pagan community, about their experiences there. All very much worth reading. Indeed, I don’t think you can properly participate in the current ‘controversy’ in the Pagan blogosphere if you haven’t read some writing by Pagans of colour on this subject.

The Invisibility Cloak: Race and the Pagan. A Pagan who goes by the username Black Witch talks at AfroPunk about how the Pagan community reacts when criticised by minorities within it, including people of colour, about how it treats them. It’s disturbingly similar to some of the reactions in the current ‘controversy’. “Let the minority open its mouth, even criticize Pagans and their shortcomings in the culture department and watch that cooing and sympathy drop quick. All of a sudden, it’s “We’re being attacked” and rationalizing ahoy… Mention words like “institutional racism”, “tokenization” and “privilege” and up come the defenses. I’ve dealt with a stunning variety of Pagan women or Pagan men who thought they don’t benefit at all from any form of institutional anything and definitely not privilege because they’re Pagan, bigotry only benefits you if you’re Christian….”

KW on Being Black and Pagan. “As a minority in a minority religion, the most frequently asked question I get is “How can you be a Pagan, you’re BLACK?!” This implies that my religion is defined by my race, an assumption that I hope no one really thinks is valid… The call of the Gods is just as strong in us as it is in say, someone of Anglo-Saxon descent. Another assumption made is that if I am Pagan, then I must practice Vodoun and/or be pledged to the Orishas. If I am neither, then I must not respect my ancestors. This argument more than any other frustrates me. It assumes that you can tell my racial makeup by the color of my skin, it assumes that I’m ashamed to be an African- American, and it assumes I have no honor whatsoever for the family that bore me. None of these is true.”

On a topic very closely related and intertwined with racism and neocolonialism in Paganism: Crystal Blanton writes over at Daughters of Eve about Avoiding Appropriation and the Perpetuation of Privilege. “It is quite disheartening that we still live in a time when People of Color’s voices are silenced by those of dominant cultures within our society. While we are moving through a time of such intensity around the needs, pain and brutality being experienced by People of Color, especially Black People, it is one of the most important times to be self aware and cognizant of the ways we participate in the reinforcing of white supremacist culture in this country. We collectively support systems of oppression and harm by ignoring the damage, continuing the damage, being complacent in the face of the damage, or by using the power created by the damage, to thrive. All of these things support and reinforce systems of disenfranchisement and racism in this country and around the world.”

More from Black Witch, this time on a disturbing example of crypto-fascism in Paganism – she answers a question on exclusion of people of colour based on ‘genetics/heritage’ in Paganism. “In the Pagan community I interact with (which is mostly white), conversations often revolve around trying to figure out which of the European ethnic groups a person descends from is the one he/she/ze feels the most connected to, or identifies the most with, in order to pick out which flavor of ethnic Paganism (Germanic/Irish/etc.) to practice. I pointed out that this was a part of white privilege, from not having been subjected to the ethnocide of slavery, and that African-Americans didn’t have the luxury of picking out which ethnic group they feel like the most. One responder said that all African-Americans had to do was take a genetic test to determine which ethnic group they’re descended from, and make a pagan religion based on that…”

And don’t forget Kavita Maya, who is researching racism and neocolonialism in the goddess movement. Her work is very accessible to non-academic readers. Try this article to start with.

Let Us Listen

Speaking is easy. Listening is hard.

Imagine you’re on an axis of privilege in the current conversation. For example, you are a white person talking to or about people of colour. What do you think the balance of speaking vs listening should be?

I consider that, if we find ourselves too busy talking about the situation to listen to the people facing oppression, then we are participating in the oppression. We need to stop talking and listen.

It’s very hard to listen to people of colour in Paganism. This is partly because there are so very few of them (because of some of what is described above). Often, another reason is that their stories can make us uncomfortable about our privilege and about our religious and political positions. Both of which make it all the more important that we listen.

We are doing something wrong in Paganism. We are excluding people. You can tell by the sea of white faces in the Pagan community. You can tell by the stories people of colour tell and the work coming out of research they are doing. It is time for us to listen, to ask people why this is happening, and to listen to the answers. To stop talking, from our position of privilege as white Pagans in a white-dominated, white-washed Pagan community, and simply to listen.

Derailing the Conversation: A Form of Not Listening

Photo: White hand covering black mouth. Text above reads: “Black people created #BlackLivesMatter and then white people created #AllLivesMatter. Pictoral representation.”

There is something in debating called derailing. It is about turning the conversation around, making it about something else (e.g. about you), so that you don’t have to address what the other person is saying. By derailing, you ensure you don’t have to face the darker sides of yourself or of a situation. It allows you to talk, endlessly – rather than ever having to listen.

The following examples illustrate typical derailing strategies. Some are lifted straight from real conversations I’ve had or seen.

  • “I know some disabled people are living in terrible poverty, but we need to sort out the rates of disability benefit fraud*, and surely you don’t disagree that that’s a bad thing?” This involves changing the terms of the conversation, refusing to debate the issue that the marginalised person wants to talk about, and instead redirecting toward something that isn’t relevant but seems to be. It’s a silencing technique.
  • “Don’t call me a cis person. I haven’t chosen that word. Now I want to talk about me and how you’ve offended me, rather than the way I’m treating you.” Or, worse, “The debate about whether trans people should be allowed to use bathrooms appropriate to their gender is about safety! I’m not trans-phobic! I certainly don’t believe my majority views are going to lead to an increase in violence against and murder of trans people! I mean, does that even happen?” In the second example, the derailing involves changing the terms of the conversation, and erasing oppression in the process – not allowing the other person to speak about their oppression. In the first example, the speaker is moving the focus away from the marginalised person, onto themselves. This way the speaker doesn’t need to examine their views in any detail and can stay in their comfort zone. “You’ve offended me!” is heard far too often in debates around oppression and marginalisation – when it’s not actually about you.
  • People of colour experience this kind of derailing all the time, especially in settings where they are very marginalised (such as the Pagan community). One horrendous example is the way “Black lives matter” was hijacked, white people demanding that “All lives matter” be said instead. This prioritises the hurt feelings of the majority white population, who rarely have to fear police violence and don’t deal with the constant threat that they will be killed on the street, over the experiences of the oppressed group. It also once again changes the terms of the conversation, making it all about us. (Follow Crystal Blanton on social media to see the scary levels of racism and violence being faced by people of colour in the US today, as terrifying examples. If you still want to talk about your hurt feelings after seeing all of that, I’ll be surprised.)

Derailing takes the focus off the marginalised people calling for change, and focuses it back on the majority. It draws attention away from changes we need to make in ourselves, and turns it onto to our fragile feelings. You’ve offended me by calling me a racist/calling out my disablism/drawing my attention to my privilege in this situation.

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Image: a man on a roof with a megaphone. Source: A. Carroll, flickr

Of course, it’s a different situation when it’s a person from the majority group criticising the behaviour of others from the majority group. In many contexts, white people talking about black people are taken more seriously and find themselves listened to more. (That’s why I talk about trying to ‘hand back the megaphone’ that I have, as a white person, to people of colour (though I fail at this all the time), and why I value non-disabled allies of disability rights a great deal.)

And sometimes, in speaking about oppression, the majority ally gets it wrong, distracted by their own privilege. That’s where it gets really complicated. If you speak on behalf of others or in support of others, you have to do a lot of work to ensure your voice doesn’t drown out theirs. You have to be careful not to steal their ideas and pass them off as your own. And you have to be particularly attentive to your privilege and its effects. One example might be calling out racism in groups you do not belong to while claiming that the groups you do belong to are immune to it. (I have done this.)

We all make mistakes based on our privilege. When people on the axis of oppression draw our attention to these mistakes, it’s our responsibility to deal with the effects of our privilege there.

But if that’s all that people are ever talking about, and the people talking about this are the privileged people rather than the oppressed people, this can be a form of derailing. It is not acceptable to say “Ha! You’re doing some of the oppression you’re complaining about!” as a derailing tactic to avoid looking at ourselves, our darker sides, and our own oppression of others.

As my next post will talk about, I find it a particularly  worrying sign when the derailing response is to call people to unity and peace, refusing dealing with the issues of privilege and oppression that have been raised, in the process. “Oh no, more controversy in the Pagan community! I hate controversies! Why can’t we just be spiritual?” That’s erasure, silencing a conversation about oppression, and it’s dangerous. Especially in such an important controversy as this. This is not an inter-tradition debate over who worships their gods in a more correct manner, or an argument about what words we use for our traditions, or any other relatively minor differences/issues like that. This is about the ways we are oppressing the Other and slowly sleepwalking towards a community, and a society, that aims to exterminate that Other (whether literally or metaphorically). Our spirituality and religion are political. Claiming that they are not, or that they should not be, is worrying to me. But I’ll get to that.

We need to stop worrying about our feelings and start listening to the victims of our oppression. We will always be able to find something to criticise in the delivery of the message. The message itself is far more important than that.

Are we listening?

Which leads me to Part 2 of this post, which is coming up very shortly and which I will link to here when it’s done…

Three things it is everyone’s duty to do: listen humbly, answer discreetly, and judge kindly.

– Irish triad.

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*Disability benefits fraud accounts is at a rate of 0.5%, according to the DWP’s own estimates, by the way. But that’s another story for another time.