Celebrating My Disabled Pagan Life: Photoblog

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

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

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

Well, bollocks to all that.

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

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

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

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

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

[Image: packets of pills.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(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.

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…

 

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.

I Stand with ‘Gods and Radicals’

The reactions to Rhyd Wildermuth’s post on Paganism and the New Right have been incredible and disturbing.

Essentially, Rhyd wrote about the influences of racist and ethnocentric ideologies on various traditions of Paganism. It was brave and it was necessary. Extremely important stuff. And Paganism/polytheism have exploded at him and his allies.

And not just that, but Rhyd is saying some things that I consider to be *very clearly* a problem in Paganism, and that I have believed for quite some time. So I had no idea people would react quite so negatively. I suppose I should have realised that not everyone in Paganism shares these radical views. But it’s so easy to create Paganism in your own image. To believe that it’s what you want it to be. Only, it’s not. The reactions to Rhyd’s post, and his co-founder Alley Valkyrie’s support of it, make that clear.

I think I am most upset by the idea, shared in response to the post, that the *gods* demand new right and racist ideologies. And that without these ideologies we cannot be devotional polytheists. What a way to wheedle out of responsibility for your own behaviour. “The gods told me to.” Only following orders?

I am a devotional polytheist. I am a social and political radical. My gods and my radicalism are so closely intertwined that they are inseparable. You cannot divide the threads without pulling apart the tapestry. It is not possible to be neutral, to be apolitical. It is only possible to pretend that you are not political. And the less you understand the ways in which you are political, the ways in which ideology controls your behaviour, the more your hidden politicism can be used against you. Your life, too, is inseparable from your politics and ideologies. Including your ideas about race, ancestry, genetics, culture, the land, the country, empires, colonialism. Maybe you just can’t see where the threads of these things are determining your behaviour towards others. But they always do. There is no such thing as neutral. Decide where you stand.

I have stood in all-white Pagan gatherings and despaired that no one else seems to notice the lack of representation of people of colour, nor seems to care that their nativist ideologies are keeping away Pagans of colour. I have sighed as the Pagan message board where I post has been inundated with people saying that they believe they can only worship the ‘Celtic’ gods because their ancestors were ‘mostly Irish and Welsh’ a very long time ago. I have screamed internally as people said ‘Africans’ should worship ‘their own gods’ and should not come to druid gatherings. I have walked out of meetings where a speaker talks about ‘Celtic values’ like being physically perfect (and probably white) and the importance of this to ‘the gods’.

But I have not spoken out enough. It’s time for me to stop being so quiet about these things. Silence is complicity.

Don’t you dare tell ‘Gods & Radicals’ that it should lose the moniker ‘gods’ because it’s ‘not polytheist enough’. Our polytheism is inseparable from our politics. Mine is inseparable from my radicalism. I cannot have one without the other. I essentially left Christianity because its god did not demand enough radicalism from me. I refuse to listen to another group of people telling me what my gods should or should not ask for me. Didn’t a lot of us already leave a religion that told us what to do, and what values to hold, because we disagreed with those actions and values? Can we really drift into another religion or tradition that does the same?

My Lady Bhearra asks for my total commitment to social justice, to the light that flickers in the chaos of human society. That is my reason for writing on a site that is aptly named ‘Gods and Radicals’. My radicalism is polytheist. Let ‘Pagandom’ dare to tell me otherwise. I would never again follow a deity who asked any less than that. Who asked me to compromise my own values and principles. Who asked me to put myself before others. Who asked me to be silent in the face of racism, neocolonialism and right-wing politics.

I remain a member of ADF (my membership has accidentally lapsed, actually), though I am giving this some thought. My first thought on being confronted face-to-face with ideologies ADF is influenced by, was not to be offended, but to start thinking. I can’t even claim I never realised this stuff before. I’ve just never confronted it so directly. I need to consider whether I can continue to stand with ADF and with reconstructionist polytheism more widely. This will probably involve shadow work, deep work with my goddess, and real, practical thought about social justice. I left OBOD, rather publicly, because I considered its policies disablist. That was something that directly affected me, and was easy to stand against, as a result. What about ideologies where I have the privilege and others do not? Am I truly committed to social justice if I remain silent on these things? Maybe there are no groups I can be a member of anymore. Maybe that’s OK. Right now I feel like am always likely to be a polytheist with reconstructionist tendencies. But maybe I should allow my goddess of Chaos to tear even that down and make me start again. Any ideology I hold should be held onto lightly, whether it is religious, political or something else.

I stand alone on the seashore, between land, sea and sky, and the gods call me to be better than my ancestors. Am I strong enough to answer this call? I don’t know. But I can try.

I stand with Gods and Radicals. I stand with Rhyd Wildermuth and Alley Valkyrie. I am a polytheist. I am a radical. I am a social justice druid. Go on, tell me I’m not allowed to do or be any one of these things. Great gods of justice stand with me. And Truth will out.

Social Justice Druid t-shirts. I need dis.

Other things worth reading that are not-unrelated:

Daughters of Eve – a blog by Pagans of colour, as well as many of the people Crystal Blanton mentions in this post (and everything Crystal writes)

Truth and Joy: Confronting Racism in Religion by T. Thorn Coyle

Yvonne Aburrow on getting out of the bubble of complacency

And everyone should read Kavita Maya‘s research on racism in Paganism, specifically the Goddess movement. She is a great thinker who is much needed by modern Paganism.

31 Days of Offerings – Days 12-14: Reflections On Daily Religion and Being Too Many Priests

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While giving offerings over the past week, I’ve been having more thoughts on the touchstone of daily religion, brief practical offerings, and the giving back of everything I do. A lot of Pagans are trying to live in a mostly-Christianity-inspired devotional world of personal deity relationships and mysticism. But actually, most ancient pagans were nothing like we are, and would have been far more focused on the day-to-day than the mystical.

We are all trying to be priests. Where is the role for faithful laity, and why do we discourage practical, daily religion? And what about the difference between the way we relate to different gods, as well as to the spirits and the ancestors?

Which is not unrelated to the place my thinking went next:

Why is ‘having too many shrines’, and by extension ‘having too many gods’, sometimes a taboo in the Pagan and/or polytheist world?

These are most of my shrines (at the moment):

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Above – top left: shrine to Cailleach Bhearra and Duibhne – centre: seasonal shrine currently dedicated to Latiaran and the harvest cycle goddess of Munster – top right: hearth shrine including an area for Brigantia – bottom left: three out of four levels of my shrine cabinet, with the hearth shrine at the bottom, the ancestor shrine in the middle, and a shelf for Manannan mac Lir, Macha and the Morrigan above that – bottom right: the shelf above that, dedicated to the avatars of Sophia (who are a mix of gods and spiritual ancestors), including Arianrhod, Jadis, Mary Star of the Sea, and St Catherine. And that’s not including my little corners dedicated to the house spirits and land spirits, or the basic candle and offering bowl in the kitchen…

When I hear people complaining that another Pagan has too many gods, or worse, hear someone saying it disparagingly about themselves, I have to wonder where we get that idea from. It seems to go back to that idea that we all have to be mystics, saints, oracles, prophets and priests – with ALL the gods we engage with.

One goddess, I believe, chose me to go a bit deeper with her. But I have far more simple purposes with every other god I honour – and there are a lot. I honour them to keep their stories alive, as with Latiaran on her tiny shrine with her bee candle. I honour them to keep my home re-enchanted, buzzing with the reality of the Otherworld. I honour them to keep me connected. I honour them because they are there, and they are the gods.

My gods are everywhere — immanent in every tree and hill I pass, in every interaction I have with my fellow human beings, in the tarmac on the roads and the bricks and mortar of my home. So I tell their stories in their many shrines, from the candle on the kitchen windowsill and the little box in corner of the bookshelf, to the ornate table at the entrance to my study.

May my home always be filled with the stories of the Shining Ones.

Summer Harvests

It was Lammas at Druid Camp.

Alone, I would usually choose to celebrate Lughnasadh – the festival of Tailtu who created agriculture, of Lugh who prevents the death of the crops and brings the harvest. Summer games and competition and high-energy feats of challenge and pride, in honour of a proud, accomplished god.

But we were together, and it was Lammas.

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The wheat of the Lammas harvest that we were surrounded by at Druid Camp. Photo by Pawl Rouselle.

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Community-witnessed handfasting at Druid Camp. Photo by Pawl Rouselle.

Druidry is very much a community-based tradition. If alone I am a Gaelic polytheist with Brythonic leanings, together with these friends I am a Druid in a community of Druids. And only communities can reap a good harvest.

And I thought back to two weeks before, in Ireland with my mother and grandmother, spending most of our time with cousins and other family. I didn’t get much time with the land, with Beara. I did more important things. My harvest was community.

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The view across the hills and down to the sea from the vantage point of my family farmhouse, dating back to my great-grandparents and still at the centre of a small farm worked by my cousins. Beara Peninsula.

I return to posts from American Pagans about rejecting Lughnasadh (by which, in this case, the writer actually means Lammas) because “most Pagans live in the US” (EXCUSE ME?!), the assertion from some corners that modern polytheism is better than modern Paganism, and other culturally imperialist rubbish that starts to bring me down. British Paganism and British Druidry are a minority voice online. Most Americans don’t know about the beautifully non-hierarchical, deeply rooted-in-our-land, strongly community-focused practice that draws from many streams of modern Paganism and other spiritualities that is modern British druidry. The loud voices shouting about their recent conferences, and whose hotel was better, know nothing about the week we spent in a field, overlooking the river of Sabrina and the ancient barrows across the hill, surrounded by sheep, having to build our own community from the ground up (and make it accessible to as many people as possible!), where the success is all the sweeter for how every person contributes in their own way. They don’t know about the talent (that Eisteddfod!), the strength, the love, the mutual acceptance and help and support, the critical thought, and the plain hard work that can bring 200+ very diverse druids together in a field and have them, by the end, become a coherent spiritual community complete with regular dramatic rituals and dances and fires and drinking of mead and telling of stories. So many stories.

Flaming labyrinth at Druid Camp. Photo by Pawl Rouselle.

Flaming labyrinth at Druid Camp. Photo by Pawl Rouselle.

And that started me thinking about stories, and how the One Reality we all inhabit can be so very different from so many different perspectives. “We don’t need Lughnasadh,” announces someone who sees one side of the story. On the other side of the world, Lammas is the theme for 200 druids in a field surrounded by wheat. The sun at its height but showing the first signs of waning towards its long sleep. Our carefree summers making their way, like a slowly-winding labyrinth, towards Samhain and darkness and change. At the height of summer there is the seed of winter. At the height of life there is the seed of death. That’s what our harvest, here on this insignificant island where modern Paganism was birthed, is all about.

And that’s what our very different stories are all about, too. “I was right, you know, and he was wrong.” Except that right and wrong are forever relative. As a friend of mine said today: “We are all scumbags. We are all saints.” We may want to play the innocent hurt victim or the evil villain – depending on where our self-esteem might be today – but these are stereotypes, archetypes that aren’t useful beyond a certain point. I don’t worship the Maiden, the Mother and the Crone, because these are useful illustrative archetypes, but not necessarily the stories by which I want to live my life. I am neither the villain nor the victim. I am neither the Druid nor the Christian. I am neither the daughter nor the wife. I am neither the sociologist nor the poet nor the seer nor the Gaelic polytheist nor the Pagan nor the wheelchair user nor the stranger nor the friend. I am all these things and more. Truth is bigger than we can imagine.

I am the universe emerging into consciousness, beginning to understand itself. (To slightly misquote Babylon 5.) And how much more am I than stereotypes and archetypes, as a result? I won’t reduce myself or others to one-dimensional pictures. I am stardust, as complex as the winds and as simple as the rain, the sacred legacy of my ancestors, the sacred ancestor of those who come after me.

This is the harvest that I reap.

Happy Lughnasadh. Happy Lammas. May summer and harvest festivals be celebrated forever, the wisdom of our forebears integrated into our new stories. We need the old and we need the new. We need all the sides of the story.

Hail, Lugh! Hail, ancestors!