(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.

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.