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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spring: sap rising

Hello!

My goodness, it has been a while…

Since the last post on this blog, I have married (with an oaken ring!) and moved to the incredible town where our interfaith marriage was celebrated. I have also plunged into another horrible, wordless depression, and emerged on the other side with some radically changed ideas about what I am doing and why. And now spring is here! I can really feel the sap rising.

Over the next few weeks I will make some changes to this blog, to harness and channel the renewed enthusiasm that always comes with spring. This time I plan to keep up the momentum.

Right now, I am fulfilling a decade-long ambition by (finally!) studying the tarot. The course I am following is provided by the wonderfully grounded and inspirational Beth Maiden at Little Red Tarot. At two weeks in, it has already taken me to some deep and unexpected places, which has inspired copious amounts of notes in my journal. I plan to share the journey in a dedicated section on this blog – please drop in and join the conversation!

My posts on deity will have their own area, where I can indulge all the mysticism and reverence in which my soul delights, leaving the core of this blog free for more topical posts about forthcoming events and conversations in druidic cyberspace. Speaking of which… in the next few months I will produce a video talk or two for the ADO exploring our Taliesin-inspired approach to druidry. My first planned talk will focus on Caer Siddi, the seat of illusion, where Gweir sings woefully before the spoils of Annwn. What is the nature of the chains that hold us back from reaching the spoils of Annwfn, the wisdom and inspiration of the deep? I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences on this topic.

The last, tentative, change will be to introduce an area for exploring flower remedies. I plan to train as a Bach practitioner this year, in the hope of helping others, after receiving so much help myself. This blog embraces magic and intention-setting, with a strong emphasis on healing relationships with the natural world: this is what I feel flower remedies have to offer. They are empowering. Having said that, over the past few weeks I have found myself frustrated by the lack of depth in what I read about these remedies online – most sites seem to parrot the brief descriptions given by Dr. Bach without exploring what they mean in a modern context, in a culture with a radically different understanding of emotional and spiritual wellbeing from 1930s Britain. At the moment all I have to offer is personal experience, but that is a start, and I hope to write more as I progress.

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hornbeam

How is everything on the other side of the screen?

/|\ Cadno

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.

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.