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’.

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.

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.