I have momentarily stalled in my 30 days’ devotion; partly because the issue of epithets is proving deeper and more complex than I feel I can do justice with a quick post, and partly because of everything else that is happening in the world. This is a response to the second problem; a response to the first – a jump ahead to some easier topics in the days of devotion series – will come next, and soon, I hope!
But first… there is a lot to say about defiance and despair.
Like many pagans who have written recently, I swing between the two extremes, sometimes with alarming swiftness. Nationally, we have a government which seems set on desecrating the land in pursuit of short-term profit, harming wildlife in implementing ill-advised populist policies, and condemning the most vulnerable people in its care to desperation and destitution in its lack of compassion towards those too ill to work. Internationally, we have a global humanitarian crisis which the media has, until very recently, refused to recognise as such.
What can we do?
Internationally – I feel almost guilty for admitting this – the story from Syria that finally moved me to tears was that of Khaled al-Asaad, tortured and ultimately beheaded by ISIS for refusing to disclose the whereabouts of Palmyra’s treasures. And in spite of his heroism, Palmyra is being destroyed. A place I read about obsessively when younger, a place I have always dreamed of visiting, is disappearing before our very eyes. To think that we could let this happen in our lifetimes.
It seems wrong to be more concerned with cultural heritage than with human lives, but there is no measure of “more” in this. How can we quantify despair? The destruction of Palmyra speaks to me because, in truth, I have taken on more of a vocation than I ever fully realised; it speaks to me because this is, conceptually, my back yard.
Protesters are often accused of NIMBY-ism, as if it were a bad thing. The truth is, our back yard, our small corner of the world, is the only part we can really protect. Short-sighted activism often has unintended repercussions. Only by knowing an area, understanding its many intricacies and foibles; only by loving it, can we make a real difference to the whole of which it is a part – at least, this is the understanding I have formed, through all these years of ricocheting from defiance to despair and back again.
The ‘back yard’ can be a conceptual place as much as a physical one: the law, for example, covers huge geographical areas, but requires its own depth of understanding for a difference to be made within it. We each find our own place. Mine, perhaps inevitably, is not geographical – not entirely, anyway. To me, Palmyra represents what we are capable of building, through cooperation, and what we are capable of preserving as a memory, to represent the best and understand the worst of who and what we are and where we fit into the world. Preserving memory, protecting heritage, is my role.
People speak of the exhaustion and disillusionment of signing petition after petition, attending demonstration after demonstration, lobbying uncaring and ineffectual politicians. I know it well, I feel it too. What more is to be done?
Perhaps the answer to that question is different for everyone. It is certainly different for my partner than it is for me – we seem to need each other’s balance in that way. While he works all the hours he can to provide water and shelter to the thousands of refugees arriving on the shores of Europe, I work to preserve a sense of beauty and meaning, because our ancestors gifted us with joy as much as they burdened us with strife.
Talking is important. It may seem futile, talking to each other about how we see the world, while so many awful things are happening right now – but we need to share that vision. It sustains us. Without it, we are even more isolated and demoralised; without it, we are defeated. Keep writing, keep sharing, keep reading and commenting. We are creating a better world, even if only in miniature, even if it only directly touches a miniscule number of lives. It creates ripples, small changes radiating out. We give each other strength to carry on. That matters.
Stories are important. People started to care a lot more about the Syrians risking everything to reach the safety of Europe when the media began to report individual stories. There are some great projects being planned at the moment in the world of archives, all focused on connecting people with the stories of their local area, strengthening a sense of relationship. Whether it will make a difference to how people then treat the land in which they live, only time will tell, but it has to at least be worth a try. There is a role for bards in all of this, however small it feels.
Devotion is important. We honour something greater than the rapacious system of global politics and finance which contributes to this horror – and the very act of honouring nourishes the wellspring of inspiration from which we draw our resilience and resistance.
As a concluding thought, I offer two of my favourite quotations which, between them, form the basis of my political beliefs:
“The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here […]. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.”
–Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities.
“Everything changes. We plant
trees for those born later
but what’s happened has happened,
and poisons poured into the seas
cannot be drained out again.
What’s happened has happened
poisons poured into the seas
cannot be drained out again, but
everything changes. We plant
trees for those born later.”
–Cicely Herbert, ‘Everything Changes’ after ‘Alles Wandelt Sich’ by Brecht.