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.

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.

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31 Days of Offerings – Day 23-26: Shying Away from The Great Offering

31 Days of Offerings(1)

I have the gall to whine at a goddess about my difficulties resolving concepts of ‘Pagan’ and concerns about many, many of the practices of that community, and to wonder whether my strategy from here on in should be silence.

And my Lady, who has called me to tell her stories and speak her name, came to me as a mighty giantess walking along the shore of Oileán Baoi in the early dawn, the hills of her island rising dark and strange behind her, the cold and death and rebirth of a coming November blowing the first winds of a storm across the dark water.

The shores of Oileán Baoi, island of the goddess now known as Cailleach Bhearra

The shores of Oileán Baoi, island associated with the goddess now known as Cailleach Bhearra

And she said…

Do you think you are a daughter of a queen? Are you from the tribe of great, remembered gods, their stories preserved by monks and monarchs? Do you speak of the chiefs and kings in your lineage, the castles your family lived in, the great wars they fought in, the great deeds they did?

No. You run with the wild spirits of the most isolated, sidelined, liminal land in Ireland, with its poorest, most marginalized of people. You do not boast of ancestors with kingly lineage. You speak of the horrific suffering of your people: the good, very ordinary farmers, victims of famine and war and oppression, those whose backs were broken as the great, remembered men of Ireland climbed over them to reach their powerful place, and ate their food, and whose names they did not remember. Of the soldiers who fought the great wars the great myths tell tale of, whose deeds are ascribed to other, greater men, and whose names are not remembered. Of the women who watched their many, many children die, in famine and pestilence and at the brutal hands of English landlords, and carried on, whose names are not remembered. Of the road through the mountains that you love, that was built to carry food in one direction and bring coffins back, carrying the bodies of those whose names are not remembered.

And even their stories are forgotten.

The memorial to famine victims at the top of the Healy Pass, the road through the mountains between Cork and Kerry. Once called the Kerry Pass, re-named for the first president of the Irish Free State. Photo: Sludge G (CC).

Memorial to famine victims at the top of the Healy Pass, the road through the mountains between Cork and Kerry. Once called the Kerry Pass, re-named for first president of Irish Free State. Photo: Sludge G. (CC).

And this is the way you chose to walk.

Then how dare you be embarrassed of the name you choose call yourself or the community you choose to draw around you?

And how dare you be ashamed of a goddess whose stories are so deeply buried in the landscape that few remember her name? When few know of her sacred sites, or the stories of her cow and her lobster and her harvest, or have heard the songs the mountains sing in whispers about her? When many roll her lazily into the stories of her more renowned sisters, and forget the name of the One she is married to, and forget her island, and her mountainous country, and her dark shores? When so many do not remember her name?

You are here to tell the unheard tales. The tales of the oppressed, those whom society crushes beneath their endless, vicious race to the top. The stories of the desperate, the despairing, the dying, the lost. The many who serve the few. Whose names are not remembered.

Then open your mouth and speak.

The long dark is coming, and my picture of a dark figure plunging a staff into the ground needs to move into the living room. It is not a picture of Her. And yet it is.

And her name will be remembered, by those who choose to listen for it.

Language, transphobia and hurting others (even if unintentionally)

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EDIT (22/3/15): The producers of the podcast in question have said that they will edit it to remove the slurs (see latest comment on this post). I know that a lot of trans people and their allies will appreciate this. Thanks to Damh for this.

A podcast I admire has engaged in language that has hurt some of its trans listeners. Language that the producers could have edited, but chose not to.

At the same time, I’ve discovered that a polytheist group I used to think very highly of has been expressing violently transphobic sentiments about camps/conferences and women-only spaces. (I’m not linking to the places where, as I haven’t talked to members of this group since it happened so I don’t want to highlight them without right of reply – but the evidence is out there for everyone to see anyway.)

You’ll probably remember the trans-phobic incidents that took place at Pantheacon a few years ago.

All these things are connected, even though the latter two are obviously much more serious than the first. Language hurts, excludes and marginalizes, and it can create environments where certain types of behaviour become considered acceptable or unacceptable.

The comments here are relevant, especially Quill’s comment (about half way down the page) and the following ones. Quill and others talk here about the complex history of certain trans-phobic words, and why they are received as trans-phobic, even if the intention is not to harm. You can deeply hurt people without meaning to. The question then becomes, what are we going to do next? Are we going to acknowledge we all make mistakes, apologise and try to rectify the situation? Or are we going to dig in our heels and say “I didn’t mean it like that?” That can heap pain onto pain, and we can become a major part of the problem. And I, personally, don’t want to be part of the problem.

Everyone reading this probably knows that my partner is non-binary gendered – meaning they consider themselves neither a woman nor a man. It’s been a long road for me to get to some understanding of that, and I have failed a *lot* along the way. I’m working hard on doing better, not least because when I got ill (three months into my relationship with SJ), they didn’t even consider leaving me, though lots of people around them said that leaving was a good idea. They’ve gone WAY above and beyond the call of duty with me. That’s part of why I feel the need to do the same for them. And when they come home, and have been mis-gendered all day (i.e. called ‘she’, by people who know better), or has been verbally attacked in response to their gender presentation, and they’re in floods of tears, and I can’t help… I feel so helpless, and so angry. And I want to change the world. And I can’t. It would be so easy for me, as a non-trans person (a cisgendered* person), to ignore and overlook this stuff – but I need to NOT ignore it, or its effect on people.

I am very frustrated by injustices in the Pagan community at the moment. It’s something I’m really, really struggling with. Some of it is making me afraid to attend in-person Pagan gatherings, or to engage with other Pagans in certain online space. Because I don’t actually want to walk into spaces where I’m supposed to be sharing ritual or discussion with people, and end up feeling marginalized and hurt, or see others being marginalized and hurt.

I am one person and I can’t solve all the problems. I wish I had more people around me who wanted to help. I wish there were, for example, more disabled people and allies campaigning for radical change of attitudes and inclusivity towards disabled people in our communities. I get sad, being reminded of how much more we need to work towards all kinds of equality in the Pagan and druid communities. Surely we, who know how all life is interconnected, and therefore how much we can do harm to each other, can do better.

I want to see clearer equality policies in Druid and/or Pagan groups, that really, practically address things like exclusion of disabled people, transgendered people, black and ethnic minority people, and many others. I want to see the people responsible for those policies consulting with those groups, to avoid mistakes. (OBOD’s ban on people with certain mental health problems doing their grades is a major issue in point.) I am running all over the place, exhausting myself, trying to offer myself as a resource for this. But there are only so many doors I can bang on, before I realise that they’re not going to open to me.

And then… what?

And as I write this, I feel this great love** for this wonderful, flawed community of beautiful humans, the modern druid community, that has embraced someone as weird as me. And I know there’s always, always hope. Somewhere.

In other news, I miss my raggle-taggle bunch of druid-y friends up north today.

Love, as always, from your sensitive, thoughtful urban druid. (For whom sensitivity sometimes becomes a curse. But it’s one I’d never ask to have lifted. Not on this turn around the Wheel.)

Resources
Galop, which does a lot of work around LGBT hate crime, and their page on transphobia
Polytheists Against the Gender Binary and Gender Normativity, especially the ‘how to help’ section
A free, interesting book on the subject: Gender and Transgender in Modern Paganism

*That simply means someone whose gender identity is the same as their biological sex.

**Apologies for soppiness. My usual crunchy shell of cynicism doesn’t seem to be working today. Would someone please turn it on and off again for me? Thank you.

So Why Do I Keep Talking?/Othering

Pt 1: Communication

I spend a lot of time bemoaning my ability to get communication wrong. People usually respond with, “Oh, I understand you perfectly.” But often they just think they do, and I’m still left going “Hey… come back… you don’t understand yet…” while they wander off with the wrong idea.

And sometimes, my inability to communicate properly explodes in ways that remind me that I really don’t make any sense. Continue reading