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 try to recover from any illnesses they have.

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).


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.

IET police station crops

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


So put that in your wartime pipe and smoke it.


aerial roots

This time last week, my life was thrown into joyful disarray, again.  With 24hrs’ notice, my partner – supposed to be working in one of the remotest regions of the world for the next 6 months – reappeared at home for a few precious days before heading out to a new project in a country where we can actually communicate by phone and email.  A real Beltane blessing.

This partnership is a steady flame at the centre of my chaotic hearth.  From the very beginning, freedom has been a vital element, the oxygen that keeps the flame burning.  We are both ever so slightly nomadic, rarely staying in one place for long; we share a sense of adventure – yet we also listen closely to our immediate surroundings. He sends me descriptions of the birds and trees he encounters in faraway lands; I learn the old stories of the cities where we end up living (one of the beauties of the druid path is that it can be a practice, as much as a body of tradition; a way of interacting with the spirits of the land wherever you happen to be, whether urban England or rural South Sudan).

Freedom, however, is a double-edged sword; it takes time to learn to wield it well.  The past cycle of the moon provided a timely opportunity to reflect on what this kind of freedom both offers and demands, exploring the dynamic dance between the need to be held securely and the need to transcend all limitations.  These are deep lessons I am still in the middle of learning, but one thing I already know: part of the price of this freedom is an absence of roots in the earth.

Roots are an important part of modern pagan imagery, encompassing a sense of being connected to – and having grown out of – something much deeper and older; a tangible link to the earth and the ecosystems around us, to the cycles of the seasons, death and regeneration.  In Eastham village, across the river from where we live, there is a yew tree which pre-dates the city of Liverpool.  Countless generations have been touched by its presence.  Such trees are profound and inspiring teachers.  But, however hard I try, I will never be like them: rooted in one landscape, a steadfast part of the local community.

Every time I commit to regular rituals and moots, to becoming a more stable part of the pagan community wherever I am, something happens to throw my plans and best intentions into disarray.  Not always my long-distance relationship writ large; sometimes my family implodes (as it still does, intermittently) or a longstanding, long-distance friendship needs attention.  There is always something.  And at last I am working on not feeling these somethings as failures; instead, I am learning to recognise this scattered network of relationships as a root system of a different kind.   The perpetual (and, these days, wonderful) chaos of my life is teaching me to find a different kind of nourishment, one which is not predicated on stability.

This week, as I coaxed the moth orchids on our kitchen windowsill to flower, I learned a bit more about roots.  These plants of the tropical forest need air to grow; if their roots become too encumbered by the earth, they start to rot.  They need just the right measure of freedom, used and given wisely, to thrive – and as they thrive, they grow aerial roots, taking in nourishment from the surrounding environment wherever they happen to be.  I have always admired the tap-rooted plants that thrive in the British wilderness, building up slow, rich reserves year after year, but it is clear which root system works best for me.  After years spent trying to be the kind of tap-rooted druid I feel I ought to be, it is time to admit I am a druid of aerial roots.  I am not quite sure yet what this means – I know all too well how disruptive it can be when someone dips in and out of your life or your community; but I also know the felicity and lasting inspiration of those fleeting visits when they work.  For now, for the sake of honesty and honour, I will simply stop forcing myself to make commitments I struggle to keep.  Once the earth around my roots loosens a little, I will see which way I grow, and what more I can offer.

moth orchid

windowsill flora, with one of my moth orchids (phalaenopsis) in the background