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.
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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 – at least, 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 discover that we can treat our own coughs and sniffles at home with everyday kitchen herbs. Sharing this information gives people 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.

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 sight of 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

15/02/2018: I’m updating this post with a content warning. If you’re suffering from poor mental health, sometimes reading the experiences of others can send you into a tailspin. Please take care when reading this.

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.