patriotism, celebration and the sacred landscape

Yesterday was St George’s day, and although our household generally disapproves of killing dragons, I like to take a little time on 23rd April to reflect on the many good things about the land where I have made my home.

Coincidentally, this week also saw the announcement of the BBC folk awards, which – though hosted in Cardiff, with the wonderful 9Bach winning album of the year – gave us plenty to celebrate about Englishness. But the folk scene still makes mainstream media uneasy. The guardian, in the past, has described this music as “arthritically white,” linking it to Nick Griffin’s toxic brand of nationalism. Political ideologies of the far-right have always been prone to poisoning the wellspring of national celebration, and there is always work to be done to filter out the toxic elements. But far from being divisive, the English folk tradition shows us (in Eliza Carthy’s words) “how to celebrate the ancient culture of where you are from without pushing anyone away.” Celebration is key: without honouring what you have to offer, you cannot invite anyone to share in it.

Folk traditions are rooted in the land, the cycles of the seasons, and the common human experiences of birth, love, loss and death. English folk songs, in particular, sing of market towns, native birds, seaports and wars; they are all indisputably English, and they all articulate something that is common to human experience the whole world over. Love of the land is, I think, the purest form of patriotism, and it comes easily to pagans. The places I hold sacred in my local landscape are part of the nation which we now know as England, and have given rise to some of the cultural and historical flavour of that nation; this is something I honour, in my celebration of them. I have my own struggles with national and cultural identity; in many ways, I find it easier to be Welsh outside Wales. But being (relatively) secure in my identity as a Welsh person makes it easier for me to celebrate the things I love about England. When I celebrate, as a non-English person resident in England, it is clear that I am sharing in something joyful, not participating in something divisive.

Questions about how and why and where we celebrate are never too far away in druidry, especially where rituals are conducted out in the land, “in the eye of the sun.” After observing the ADO ritual for Alban Arthan at Bryn Celli Ddu, Rhys Mwyn (Wales’ very own punk antiquarian) wrote a thoughtful blog post questioning the suitability of ancient monuments such as Bryn Celli Ddu – which were almost certainly not created by whatever we understand to be “the ancient druids” – for use as sacred sites in neo-pagan ritual. This is something I have often pondered, being more inclined to celebrate special places in my own landscape than traipse across Britain to a monument created for an unknown purpose.

(In the unlikely event that Rhys is reading, the answer I have come up with for myself is that sites like these give a focus for communities to gather. It’s not about belief; it’s about shared celebration.)

Reflecting on the ritual, he asks: “are these people creating false histories, and does that matter?” The unspoken assumption is that, for druids to legitimately use these sites as the focus for a celebration, they should have been created by historical druids specifically for the purpose of this kind of celebration. This point of view – which is not necessarily wrong, and not unknown within neo-paganism either – does not recognise the wider sense of reconnection, in which numinous places can be used as the focus of a celebration centred on a sense of what is sacred about the landscape, whether that be geological features or continuous habitation stretching back across millennia.

A lunchtime chat about morris dancing on St George’s day raised a similar argument about origin and authenticity: it (probably) isn’t really English, in the sense of having originated entirely in England without any outside influence.  So should we really be using it to celebrate a sense of Englishness?  My answer would be yes: no culture exists in isolation, and there is no such thing as a culture without any outside influence, but morris dancing as we know it today – complete with beards, wonderfully-bedecked hats and pints of real ale or scrumpy cider – is now an English tradition. Whether or not you feel it should be used to celebrate Englishness, its “authenticity” is not the issue.

So what should we celebrate, and how, where, and why?

Those questions seem to be at the centre of a quiet national identity crisis in this country – and for good reason: celebrations create and reinforce our values, and from those values our sense of identity is formed. Consciously or not, the choices we make about what we celebrate as druids are part of a much wider picture of what it means to live in our respective nations, wherever those nations happen to be.  Something to think about.

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signs and wonders

The ousel singing in the woods of Cilgwri,
Tirelessly as a stream over the mossed stones,
Is not so old as the toad of Cors Fochno
Who feels the cold skin sagging round his bones.

                       –from R.S. Thomas: ‘The Ancients of the World’

It could only ever be an inward map, impressionistic, unique – we might agree on its outward symbols, but what it maps for each of us is different. It maps the way in; from there, all paths diverge.

It is so much easier to say that than to feel it, sometimes.

Some people venture further than others, or travel more quickly to different points, and what they bring back is enchanting, it sings with the wild soul of the world – which sings within us, also; we are part of it and it is part of us. These are exciting times to be a druid. I want to play my part.

So what am I doing? Why am I still here – why aren’t I there yet?

And if I ask myself openly, the answer comes: because you chose to be here, now. All the choices you have made have led you here. Why should you not be? What you are doing is what you have chosen to do. You are walking your own path.

And if I calm my thoughts, the answer guides me. But on dark days my thoughts are never calm, and I cannot see the map, cannot understand that the map is always within me, the map is everything I am, and cannot be lost (though sometimes I lose it).

This is a dark day, and I am standing surrounded by the rubble of myself, struggling to recognise it for the rich and beautiful tapestry it is: struggling to see the map. This is where I need to thank my friends and fellow travellers for pointing me to signs. Yesterday, a hard nut fell into the palm of a visionary friend; a problem. It took a crow’s cunning, and adaptability, to crack it. Today, I remembered something I had long forgotten: a nut-sized nugget of iron that was once a smith’s anvil, worn down over ages by the ousel of Cilgwri. Cilgwri, the place that has become my home. The ousel, the bird that once sang words of pure inspiration to me by the well; words that led me inwards and began this journey. Iron, the smith’s anvil, where I rekindled my spirit and learned the craft of my ancestors.  And the nut, which is both nourishment and a seed seeking to root itself.

I am here because I choose to be here, now.

druidry and depression: facing the illusion

As I write this, I can tell I am heading for a small meltdown. Work has been intense and exhausting this week. I am pushing myself far too hard to compensate for someone’s absence and am still not very good at asking for help (or admitting that I need it). Tomorrow is a holiday; it is also my birthday, a date which I often find difficult. All in all, a cocktail of little things that could lead to me imploding a bit, and wishing my poor partner was not around to deal with it or witness it at all. But I also know that I am well, more or less, and that even if I do burn out this weekend, I can bounce back from it with a little rest and care.

A few people, who I have never met in person but still care about very much, have written about their problems openly and eloquently on their blogs. I have always been intensely private about mine, mentioning them only obliquely if at all, even to people I know pretty well. But reading people who talk about their own experiences so honestly has been a massive help to me at the most difficult of times; I have no idea if writing about my own will help anybody else, but in the spirit of openness and sharing, I want to try.

Last year I managed to haul myself out of a deep depression, the worst I had experienced in about 6 years. Maybe worse. Last time around I was living in Spain, and frequently found myself unable to do anything more than just sit on the floor staring out to sea, sometimes crying, for days on end. This time, I was (mostly) able to leave the house and get myself to work – I factored in extra time for anxiety attacks in my morning routine – and, provided everything went smoothly, once I had managed that much I was mostly able to let myself get carried along by the momentum of my workplace. But at the lowest point, which lasted a month or more, I spent my days privately wrestling with the idea that I was taking up space in the world which could be better used by other people; that I was a strain on the earth, using up resources even without meaning to, creating more problems than my presence here could ever solve. The problem is, my logic was impeccable: it led me down a terrifying cul-de-sac from which there seemed to be no escape. It took a long time for me to accept the idea that my existence was not the problem – that I had as much right to exist, to simply be, as the river, or the trees.

I talk about “hauling myself out”; I am emphatically not suggesting a pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps approach to dealing with depression. Everyone is different. I am proud and independent, and this ended up being the best way for me to get better, this time around. But I hid it too well, and I am still struggling with the repercussions of that. I knew, even in the doldrums of that deep depression, that spending my evenings and weekends sitting on the floor, crying because I lacked the energy to do anything else, meant that everything was not ok. What I struggled with, and still do struggle with at times, was understanding that the problem wasn’t me. The problem was what I had, not what I was.

Druidry was both a foundational support and a bit of a burden at the time. I have spoken elsewhere about how my idea of what a “good” druid ought to be just became another way to give myself a hard time about failing. I stepped away from a lot of the definitions I had built up around my path over the years; at one point, I even stepped away from considering myself a druid at all. But my underlying reasons for being drawn to this path were still there, at the root of it all, and pagan druidry gives a unique perspective on mental health problems. Depression and anxiety are often only talked about in very mainstream cultural terms; we need to understand how it affects the less mainstream but no less important parts of our lives as well, like our spirituality, and how our less-mainstream spiritual path can help. Cat Treadwell’s tremendous book, Facing the Darkness, was a huge inspiration here; her words reminded me that it was ok to seek solace in nature without feeling I had to earn it by being a “good enough” druid.

At my lowest points, intuition became incredibly difficult for me, and I still struggle with it. My brain chemistry was telling me terrible things, and I had to re-learn how to listen to the deeper wisdom underneath it, because my instincts were all awry. The idea of not being able to trust my instincts went against the grain of a lot of ideas I had built up around my pagan practice. Divination really helped. A wonderful friend had gifted me with the Druidcraft Tarot a while back, and I got into the habit of drawing three cards each time I recognised the need. Reflecting on them gave me the space between myself and my feelings to figure out the distinction between what my brain was telling me to feel and what was really going on around me.

Water also became incredibly important to me, and is still the focus of my spiritual path. In modern pagan traditions, water is commonly associated with the realm of emotion, though I associate plenty of emotional states with fire, and even earth and air as well. But importantly, for me, water is also the realm of illusion. Illusion can be protective – my high-functioning veneer of “being ok” in public, while not always helpful to me, did get me through.  It can also be terrifying. The idea that I can’t trust my brain, or my instincts, still scares me. That, more than anything, is what water is teaching me to weather: not so much the emotion (the fear, or… well… I don’t think it’s right to describe depression as an emotion, but perhaps the intense, exhausting weltschmertz that accompanies it for me), but the trick that my brain chemistry is playing on my perceptions; the illusion.

I honour my illusion, but it has no power over me.

Manannan is often described as a master of tricks and illusions, conjuring visions of a huge naval fleet from pea-shells and sedge to repel invaders; concealing his sacred isle beneath a cloak of mist. Manawydan overcame the spell cast by Llwyd ap Cil Coed by staying true to his code of honour, in spite of the illusion. To overcome illusion, first we must honour it: acknowledge its presence, understand its nature. And as soon as we see the nature of the illusion, it no longer has any power to deceive us. At least, for now…

I am also trying to learn when to embrace illusion, and when clarity is better, for Manannan is a god of blurred edges and I cannot always be fully in his world. And I am learning to embrace the ebb and flow of my emotions. There will always be low points, moments devoid of inspiration – but the inspiration returns. I got better.   I will probably get ill again, but I know I can come back, and now I have the beginnings of a map to guide me.

Community and Tribe

Before I begin talking about what might be a difficult topic for me, I hope it goes without saying that this post is not in any way intended as an attack on others’ ideas; it is more an analysis of why I disagree with them, and what thoughts they have inspired as a result.

Oh – and it is long

With that established… I have a confession to make: I really dislike the word “tribe.”  It makes me wince each time I read it.  And I read it a lot in pagan circles.

Tribalism is founded on “othering,” on an opposition of “us” and “them.”  While I have no doubt that the notion of the tribe in modern paganism is mostly focused on the “us” – on the desire to belong to a group of like-minded people – there is always a corollary.

Most of us will have experienced the sharp end of othering: we live in a society where our religious or spiritual beliefs are generally ignored, often ridiculed and sometimes vilified.  And the desire to reach out and connect with like-minded people is a very natural and healthy thing – that is part of the point of keeping this blog, after all.  Ideas are best developed in discussion with people who understand their context, and sometimes we all need a little reassurance that we are not the only ones of our kind out there in the big, wide world.  But when I read people talking about “finding their tribe” in paganism, it is often accompanied by the kind of othering that sets off my warning bells.

This othering, in my experience, has sometimes taken the form of an imagined projection of the “other” by whom the writer or speaker feels, implicitly, rejected; the fact that this “other” is imagined means that no dialogue can ever be established.  And then there is the use of dismissive terms, playful or otherwise, for “others” – muggles, playgans, mundanes.  People who are not like us.  People who are less serious than us, less valid, less important.* People who wouldn’t understand.  Who are these people?  I would hazard a guess that they are, in most cases, our neighbours, our colleagues, our fellow students; our peers.  In other words, our community.  The people we encounter every day who may or may not agree with our world view (because, let’s face it, how many of us have actually asked them?).

What kind of tribe would we be building, if the main criterion was for all of its members to be just like us?

Between the ages of 6 and 14, I was physically attacked by the kids at school and in my neighbourhood, on an almost daily basis, purely because of a perceived difference.  This experience is probably at the root of my mistrust of tribalism: far from making me wish for a community of people who were just like me, it convinced me of the vital need for us to learn to tolerate difference in others.  I am a strong believer in the fact that you don’t have to agree with someone to get along with them, and that we have as much to learn from people who see the world differently from us as we do from people who share our ideas.  It is not easy to sustain an honourable dialogue with someone whose views are diametrically opposed to your own, but… well, I am a druid; to me, engaging in honourable dialogue is part of what that means.

People are always a little suspicious of difference, at first.  It’s an entirely natural response.  It’s also entirely natural for curiosity and trust to allow the barriers of suspicion to be broken down, with a little interaction: we are social animals, even flighty misanthropes like me.  In my experience, pagans often talk of seeing themselves as different, with an implicit assumption that the less-different-than-them others should assume responsibility for accepting them as they are.  But it works both ways.  If you see yourself as different from someone, then you see that someone as different from you.  You also need to accept them as they are.

I know I am lucky: I live in a notoriously friendly part of the world, where it is easy enough to get on with my neighbours (though I do wish the guy downstairs would smoke something a bit less pungent…), and my colleagues are pretty decent.  About a year ago, I had something of an epiphany: these people already think I am a bit strange, and they like me anyway.  I don’t need to be afraid of expressing my strangeness, because the relationships I have established within my community allow for it.  I censor myself because I have internalised some kind of idea that it is not ok to be who I am – but that is emphatically not the fault of any of my differently-minded peers, who don’t particularly mind how different I am, just so long as I am able to share a cup of tea and a chat with them (naturally, that chat will probably not be about the role of the bard in inspiring connection with the sacred landscape, but there is a time and a place for everything).

Of course, some people will never accept difference – in which case, I think it is fair enough to decide not to waste any more time and effort on establishing a relationship with them.  But on a purely human-to-human level, I have been consistently and pleasantly surprised, since overcoming those harrowing early experiences from my schooldays.  I have learned as much about my local landscape – its old stories, hidden natural springs and secrets – from my atheist/agnostic/Catholic/Unitarian/Quaker/Islamic neighbours as I have from my local pagan group.  I would never expect these neighbours to take part in the rituals honouring the landscape which they (unwittingly?) inspire, but I am grateful to them all the same, and the fact that we can all share this love for our local landscape in our own different ways is a wonderful thing.

This is why, instead of searching for a tribe to which I can belong, I try to focus on community.  Not everyone in the community can be – or wants to be – a druid, but if we are prepared to work on establishing relationships with them, I bet there are plenty of communities who would welcome a druid in their midst.

p.s. the rise of virtual communities and online interactions adds a whole other dimension to this problem, which I have barely touched, but this post is long enough already and I have some cakes to bake…

*(I get equally frustrated with the use of the word “sheeple” in political discourse.  It roughly translates as: people who have opinions which I consider to be more mainstream, and therefore less valid, than mine.)