beyond fight or flight

“it is significant that during WW2 the amount of mental illness plummeted” – an acquaintance, in an email exchange yesterday.

We hadn’t been in touch for months – not for the whole duration of my horrible depression – but since we were debating welfare, I was open about how my recent experiences had challenged my perspective and made me more compassionate towards others. The observation about WWII was his response. It rankled.

Whether or not it was true (for a given value of “true” – how do we define mental illness now compared with how we defined it in the 1940s? How was it recorded then? How is it recorded now?), it plays to the idea that depression is a malaise of the privileged, that all we really need to do is pull our socks up, show some backbone, and imbibe a bit of the ‘Blitz spirit’.

Sure, in some ways, there is privilege involved in addressing mental health issues: when you have to struggle every day for physical subsistence, mental and emotional and spiritual needs are pushed back. Although the poorest and most vulnerable in our society suffer from mental illnesses, most of them have at least some basic provision for food and housing, creating time and space for them to tend to their other illnesses.

This does not, however, mean that we should ignore any problem that is not immediately life-threatening (and depression can be life-threatening). Nor does it mean that a state of war causes a reduction in mental illnesses (the acquaintance in question failed to provide any sources to back up the claim about WWII, but after a little digging I found that the assumption was questionable at best).

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Dig for Victory leaflet from the British Library

 

The ‘Blitz spirit’ might have helped – having a good support network or a sense of cameraderie and common purpose can help a great deal in preventing or recovering from depression. But what this really tells us is that we need more than just our physical needs to be met: we need community and connection, work which is meaningful to us and valued by others. And why should this be more readily available in wartime than in peace?

If more and more of us are struggling with poor mental health, it is not because we are growing a nation of ‘soft’ or ‘entitled’ people, unable to cope with the demands placed on previous generations; it is because we are privileged to live in a time when we actually have a chance to heal these chronic, life-destroying illnesses, instead of hiding them or pushing them aside to deal with natural and man-made disasters. If I owe my wartime ancestors anything, it is self-care, the self-care they were denied. And that self-care finds its fullest expression in creating a better world – the sustainable, cooperative communities and ecologies so derided by people who hark back to the ‘Blitz spirit’ as some golden age of Britishness, but which grow from the same seeds of camaraderie and common purpose.

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community corn outside the Todmorden police station – courtesy of Incredible Edible

 

So put that in your wartime pipe and smoke it.

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rituals of buying and selling

Sunday morning.
I unlock the door of the little apothecary, switch on the lights, and choose some music for the day. Then, when I’m ready, I light some incense and mist some ‘Prosperity‘ Findhorn flower essence blend around the space – a ritual to start the working day. Perhaps a little superstitious, but it works.
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‘The Restorers’ – Druid Animal Oracle, by Will Worthington and Phillip Carr Gomm

I wouldn’t pride myself on selling snow to the Inuit – not unless they needed snow, which seems alarmingly possible these days – because where is the pride in selling someone something they don’t need? But, in this little shop above the river, I pride myself on helping people find the things they do need, which brings a modest kind of financial prosperity to the apothecary, and a spiritual kind of prosperity, comfort and joy, to me.
The truth is, I am quite good at selling, for a sort-of-anti-capitalist. I value things which have been made with skill and love, and I am good at helping others to find appreciation of these things, where there is genuine appreciation to be found. I never push, but I am good at understanding what people need and want, and at helping them to find their way towards it; sometimes by buying something, sometimes by taking away samples, or by trying something new. A lot of people coming in for Echinacea pastilles recently have also left the store with my tried-and-tested sage gargle recipe for sore throats:
Put two heaped teaspoons of dried sage – the supermarket stuff is fine – in a mug. Cover the herb with boiling water, place a plate (or any kind of cover) on top to stop the volatile oils from evaporating, and leave to cool naturally with the plate still in place. Strain into another cup, removing all the sage, and gargle with this infusion for as long as you can manage.
This kills sore throats better than almost anything else I have encountered (tincture of sage works best, but this is more difficult to come by).
I love doing this. It is profoundly empowering to help people discover that they can treat their own coughs and sniffles at home with everyday kitchen herbs. It gives them a friendly, helpful introduction to the world of complementary therapies – which can sometimes seem like an intimidating barrage of quasi-religious mysticism from the perspective of a nervous or skeptical newcomer. Much like newcomers to paganism, people are often pleased to find that things are friendlier, more practical and more down-to-earth than might be expected. Skepticism is honoured, questions are welcomed.
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‘Bee’ – Druid Animal Oracle, by Will Worthington and Phillip Carr Gomm

 Little hints and tips like my sage gargle might cheat the store of a sale or two in the short term (though they are more likely to encourage people to come forward and buy something they might have felt shy about buying, before we struck up a rapport), but they establish a relationship. And any kind of exchange – financial or otherwise – is built on the foundations of relationship. So even in the world of retail, I manage to find sanctity in what I do: work as worship, work as love made visible.
And making a little bit of money from it, to keep me going in the short term, doesn’t hurt.

re-balancing

Vernal equinox: the sun rose at 6:22 am, entered Aries at 10:39 am, and sets tonight at 6:22 pm. And though the sun was hidden all morning by the rainclouds, the afternoon is beautiful.

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artwork by Thalia Took: http://www.thaliatook.com

I’m feeling strangely non-verbal today. March usually sees me tensing like a coil, ready to spring into action as the days get longer and the leaves unfurl. This year, things are definitely blossoming, but quietly; growing roots as well as shoots.

I’ve taken a step back from a full-time job that didn’t suit me. For now, I am a part-time assistant at our local apothecary, getting back in touch with herbal remedies – my first and abiding vocational love. It’s an incredible, unprecedented (terrifying, guilt-inducing) gift, to have the stability and security of a home with a low cost of living, allowing me the freedom of this choice. Appreciating this gift, and making the most of it, is my challenge for the season.

At this time of year I often get run down: the tell-tale sign is symmetrical red spots on my neck, above my glands. This lunchtime I checked my bank balance to see if I had enough for a bottle of tincture of cleavers, which is the best remedy I’ve found. I stopped myself – it’s spring, there is cleavers growing everywhere, and meanwhile I’m serving my notice at work with only one more paycheck left from my ‘proper’ salaried position.

So instead of picking up supermarket daffodils and pre-prepared remedies on my commute home, I will walk to the station through the woodland footpath. It means arriving home past 8pm, but it also means collecting my own wild remedies free of charge, to decorate my altar and to heal my body.* Precisely the kind of balance I am seeking.

Top of the season to you all /|\

*p.s. there is so much to say about the ethics of wild harvesting, but as I wrote above: I’m feeling strangely non-verbal today. I’m incubating so many ideas – ideas for writing about divination, foraging, healing, gardening and growing – but they are still only just beginning to bud, and I’m learning not to force them, and to trust that some of them will simply open up to be written when they’re ready. Another challenge for me, with my typical Arian impulse to do everything already!

p.p.s. found some!

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What Would Efnisien Do?

Efnisien isn’t nice. He is the kind of character who “would provoke conflict between two brothers, [even] while they were at their most amicable.”[Will Parker’s translation]. He bears grudges, mutilates horses, and kills men by crushing their skulls in the fingers of his massive hands. And yet, almost everything that happens in the Second Branch of the Mabinogi happens because of him, from the initial provocation of Math to the ultimate destruction of the cauldron, which brings the conflict to an end. Even his most shockingly barbaric action – throwing Branwen’s beloved son, Gwern, into the fire – may be more significant than it appears:

“It seems most likely that the significance of Gwern was more pronounced in this bardic tradition. The place of the alder (gwern) was prominent in Cad Goddeu (‘The Battle of the Trees’), and a later bardic riddle identified Bran by ‘the high sprigs of Alder’ in his hand’. This riddle, and the Battle of the Trees, lies close to the esoteric core of the Mabinogi as a whole” — Will Parker

My time on Anglesey brought me face to face with Efnisien. In fact, the title of this blog post is taken from a brilliant t-shirt worn by one of the priests of the ADO. At first it felt strange to spend so much time with a character who seemed less important, a mere half-sibling of the House of Llŷr, and so violent too, but with the guidance of the order I began to understand his significance. Even so, it has taken me years to find his voice.

Yesterday evening, walking home, a long trail of thoughts led me back to a Jacobean tragedy I read at school, ‘The Duchess of Malfi’. It’s famously gory (spoiler: everybody dies) and, in a way, it has its own Efnisien: Bosola, the malcontent. Bosola, as I remember him, comes from a poor background, but somehow finds his way to a priviledged education where he rubs shoulders with wealthy and influential peers. Once his time as a student is over, Bosola finds he has no place in their world, but cannot comfortably return to his own; he becomes an outsider in both, finding the problems in each and picking away at them until something happens.

Bosola has been on my mind recently. Politics has taken an ugly, populist turn, with everyone accusing one another of abandoning “the working class” and no-one doing anything to help them. Questions and analyses are attacked and disregarded as “elitist.” What would Bosola do, I wonder, with his working class roots and his elitist education?

It hit me as I walked home: what Bosola would do is what Efnisien would do. Efnisien speaks to me through Bosola, and this is how I hear him – because I am the malcontent, caught between my background and my educated peers, and I am not comfortable with either of these worlds. So I chafe, and provoke, and argue – but, until now, I have done it without understanding why.

The strength of the outsider is a lesson so clichéd that I never really bothered learning it. Though I have always felt caught between worlds – always too much of one thing and not enough of another, anywhere I go – I never saw it as a strength. I only wanted to belong. It strikes me as appropriate, as someone who has venerated the House of Llŷr since childhood, that the half-sibling on their periphery should be the one to teach me how to make the most of not belonging.

Efnisien is a dangerous influence but a powerful ally.

love and death

Last night I found myself revisiting the old tale of The Ugly Wife – Emma Restall Orr’s retelling, from which her book Kissing The Hag takes its title. “It’s a story that can be found in very many forms, in old myth and legend, in folklore and music…”

The form it brought to mind was a retelling of another old tale by another wise woman, Clarissa Pinkola Estes: Skeleton Woman. I had never connected the two tales before – the first so rooted in the British Arthurian tradition, the second from the faraway Arctic of the Inuit – yet they speak to the same fears, and the same needs. Put bluntly, they speak of love and death, attraction and revulsion, trust and fear. All are intertwined.

All love must one day meet death. Nothing lasts for ever. The promises I am preparing to make last for a lifetime, and cannot be made in good faith without appreciating just what that means. One of us may well end up burying the other – or, if not, both of us will have to let our life together come to an end, in order to begin anew, alone again. And along the way there are a hundred little deaths: the deaths of illusions, old habits, fleeting physicality (already, the first white hairs, the suggestion of crows’ feet at the eyes, the settling of weight in unfamiliar places). Love itself is constantly dying and can be constantly reborn, if we trust each other and ourselves enough to let it happen.

Between my overblown romantic tendencies (“when love beckons to you, follow him, though his ways are hard and steep”) and studying and celebrating the mysteries of our cycles of death and regeneration, I feel ready to meet this challenge with a steady gaze. Timor mortis (non) conturbat me.

But lurking underneath this tale of renewal are other questions, and my gaze is much less steady when I meet them.

Who is the hag? Who am I? Who are you?

Can you love me like this? Can I love you while I am like this?

Can I be the soft-skinned maiden, feeling myself to be the hag underneath? Can I be the warm-blooded lover as well as the sea-ravaged skeleton? Is one more real than the other? Do they co-exist?

And what if I am the soft-skinned maiden, not the hag, but need your kindness to break me free? What if you, the fisherman, don’t feel that compassion, don’t shed that tear – am I stuck forever as a skeleton beneath the waves?

If I can change, what’s to stop me changing back? What’s to stop me wanting to change back?
Could you weather all these changes?

For some reason I find these questions more difficult to face than the idea of death. They all ask the same thing: am I loveable? Could you love me, really, as I am? Everything I am? Are you worthy? Am I?

And the most difficult thing about these questions is that I have to face them for myself. Each question needs an answer from myself, first, before I pose it to my partner (though in reality he’s several steps ahead of me on these, just as I know I can happily answer all of his questions when he feels ready to ask them).

Fear, it seems, is the one thing I am not ready to let die for the sake of love. It’s such a cliché that it took an unexpected telling of an old, familiar tale to jolt me into recognition of its truth. So I am preparing to sit with my fear for a while, to understand it and to learn from it, until I feel ready to let it die, ready to promise a lifetime of love with my partner, in good faith.

~ another interlude: happiness ~

This post is inspired – and partly lifted from – an email I sent to the Scotsman, which I found while sifting through my inbox for electronic paperwork. I’m about to make some pretty major changes: the decisions have been made, and their consequences are waiting to become reality. If you read some of my forthcoming posts for Manawydan, you will find out that I am moving away from the Wirral, from the shores which have been such an inspiration to me these past few years; the estuary of the Dee with its tidal islands, the heaths with their red sandstone paths and rock carvings, the springs and the marshes. I will miss it all so much. But it is time to move on; these aerial roots need a loosening of the soil around them… a bit of a conundrum, because so much of my idea of happiness is centred on the hearth; on a grounded idea of ‘husbandry’; on living the good life.

Being mostly bed-bound this week has given me plenty of time for reflection. There’s a famous quotation, attributed to John Lennon: “When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy’. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.” Some psychological studies (which I read but misplaced – links to be added later!) have shown that people whose life goal is “to be happy” often, ironically, grow to be less happy than those who have more clearly defined goals – goals such as, I don’t know, becoming a train driver, or living on the Isle of Skye.

Of course, clear-cut achievements work well in this kind of society, where wealth and status still count for a lot, and work forms a large part of our social identity. It is hardly surprising that people who follow less clearly-defined or socially-sanctioned paths might find it harder to attain happiness. But I have started to wonder whether there might not be more to it than that… Happiness means something so different to each of us, and is experienced so differently. Perhaps the vague, ill-defined kind of happiness expressed by internet-meme John Lennon is an irresponsible kind – perhaps the more we define it, the more responsibility we take to create it. When effecting change in conformity with will (which is, after all, one standard definition of magic), intention is everything.

My ambition has always been to live a good life; happiness, to me, is a feeling and not a fixed state. But even the idea of a good life can be unhelpfully ill-undefined. Over the years, I have fallen into the habit of following the path of least resistance; sometimes good, in that it kept me open to opportunities I might have overlooked; but also bad, in that I had no overall sense of where I wanted to be, except that I wasn’t there yet. Things came to a head this summer, not so much because of my depression, but because of the physical/psychological hangover it left. I had done all the groundwork – facing the shadow, embracing the darkness, uprooting the depression – but still didn’t find it any easier to cope with everyday life. So I started thinking about what I had to cope with, and why, and whether I could (or should) start to change all of that.

Starting with work…

I often joke that my life is one long experiment in determining the exact extent to which it is better to be poor but happy. This is not strictly true, because a proper experiment would require a period of outrageously high earnings for a full comparison… But one thing I have learned is that budgeting – for me, at least – is not just linear and rational; it’s elastic and emotional. The happier I am, the less I need. There is a fine art to striking that balance, but I am finally in a place where I feel ready to tinker with it, to get it better than it has been. For the lack of happiness in my present situation, I really need much more money than I currently earn – money to call abroad, to buy train tickets for visits to friends, to buy treats that make the long hours in the office-like environment feel worthwhile. No more money is forthcoming, so the only part of that equation I can change is the happiness.

From that perspective, the only way to change my life is to find more ways to do the things I love.

So I applied, speculatively, for a job that involved doing everything that had made me want to become an archivist in the first place. I didn’t expect to be successful, because the employer was notoriously picky, and anyway the wages were so low that I went to the interview with the attitude that I probably wouldn’t accept the job if offered. But the interview was an eye-opener. People are willing to give up so much, and travel so far, just for a chance of doing something they love. And I was lucky enough to be there with relatively little sacrifice. Needless to say, I fell in love with the place and its collections, and remembered my deeply-buried ambition to work in curating (“you’ll never do that, it’s too competitive, it pays too little…” etc – part of the reason I went for archive work is because nobody understood it well enough to tell me it was hopeless). The job that I was offered, and accepted, is curatorial.

I would say I had accidentally stumbled into fulfilling a dream, but I don’t think it was an accident; it just took a bit more work to clarify my intention, because I had forgotten how to describe what I wanted, after giving up hope of ever getting it.

On a more mystical note, this time of year is always particularly good for me, in terms of taking stock and checking whether my efforts are tending in the right direction; not so much because of the symbolism of the harvest, but because the rowan berries are ripe. They sing. I can hear their note, and I can feel whether or not it’s in harmony with my own; if it is, I’m heading in the right direction, if it’s not, I know I need to make adjustments. And each adjustment has its own pitch, so I can listen for its harmony or discord with the rowan berries as I consider it. This is something I’ve been doing since before I consciously identified as druid, and I’ve never been open about it before; I suppose it’s a very specific, very personal form of divination. It’s one of the reasons why autumn is my favourite time of year.

Hail to the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness /|\

n.b. What makes you happy? Comment below if you like – it’s something I find interesting to read, and figure others might enjoy as well :)

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.