Paganism and Politics Conference

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Last week I attended my first international conference. The conference was called ‘Paganism and Politics- Neo Pagan and Native Faith Movements in Central and Eastern Europe’ and was held at Masaryk University in Brno in the Czech Republic from 3rd-4th June. It was the latest in a lecture series dealing with Pagan Studies in Central and Eastern Europe. The conference was ably organised by Matouš Vencálek, Mgr. of Masaryk University. I was delighted and honoured to be invited to give a paper at the conference but also a little nervous. Despite having reached the grand (and not quite so venerable as all that) age of 47, I have to make the shameful confession that I have never actually travelled outside the country on my own before. No, really! This involved not only flying (not my favourite activity at the best of times!) unaccompanied to Prague, into a country where I cannot even make an educated guess about the language, but also getting myself, by public transport, all the way across the country from Prague to Brno. Thankfully, due to the excellent ‘useful information’ provided by the conference team, this proved to be a great deal less difficult and stressful than I had feared and I was soon safely ensconced in the (highly recommended) Hotel Continental.

The next morning, I equalled my outstanding achievements of the previous day by navigating the 15 minute walk across Brno to the conference venue, the beautiful Open Gardens’ armed only with a map (trust me, this IS a big deal!) The venue that had been chosen was a light, airy conference room set in beautiful gardens extending up the hill behind the building and into woodland. There were sculptures, bee hives, insect hotels and  beautifully tended herb gardens all of which provided a wonderful backdrop to coffee and lunch breaks. The temperatures were in the high 20s for most of the conference and with the exception of one or two heavy showers it was bright and sunny throughout.

The conference itself was both lively, good-natured and interesting with many fascinating and engaging papers. The first key note speaker was Michael Strmiska of SUNY-Orange, New York State. His lecture was entitled ‘Pagan Politics in the 21st Century: ‘Peace and Love’ or ‘Blood and Soil’. He spoke about two distinctive trends in European Paganism, one typified by an open, universalist and eclectic outlook, most typical of Western Europe and the other defined by a concern with the reconstruction or continuation of local or ethnic religion that tends to be quite conservative and traditionalist. This is more typical of Central and eastern Europe, although of course, both ‘types’ are to be found all over Europe and the distinctions between them are often fluid. His paper discussed the extent to which the second ‘type’ could be classified as ‘racist’, giving arguments on both sides and concluding, predictably, that the situation is too complex to be so neatly explained. He saw in the two Pagan ‘streams’ a parallel with the current struggle throughout Europe between left and right wing politics, and raised the question of whether ‘Nationalist’ forms of Paganism might ally themselves with a right wind agenda. Evidence suggests that the case is not so straightforward as it might appear, however, as many groups that are keen to preserve ‘folkish’ traditions and practices are quite liberal in other respects and, as Right Wing politicians have tended to court the support of traditionalist Christian groups the opportunities for Pagans to openly associate with them are limited. From my personal point of view, as fascinating component of the lecture was the reference made to data gathered from a survey undertaken in Lithuania, Denmark and the Czech Republic among Pagans about their afterlife beliefs, and specifically about belief in a ‘community of Ancestors’ that they would join after death The majority of respondents n all countries acknowledged this belief or were unsure about it. Significantly the majority of respondents thought that language and ethnicity were not dividing factors among this Ancestral Community but that either everyone would be together regardless of race and language or that people would be together with whoever they chose regardless of these factors. This led to the conclusion that ‘racism’ was not a significant issue…at least after death!

The second keynote speaker, the following day, was Agita Misãne of the University of Latvia. She continued with many of the same themes but emphasised the importance of ‘nominal Paganism’ in European society with Paganism behaving in the same way as other religions with people embracing the values and ideas of Paganism without being and active participant in ritual or Pagan gatherings. Particular attention was drawn to the newly elected President of Latvia who identifies as a Pagan and particularly with a ‘Green’ agenda although he is not active within the Pagan communities. Misãne argued that the possibility of people who are openly Pagan holding high public office means that the ‘religion’ is no longer invisible but is becoming visible, often in public space, and therefore institutionalised and commercialised leading to the rise in what she calls ‘nominal Paganism’. The image of politics as materialistic and corrupt does not sit easily with the ethics of many Pagans leading them to isolate themselves from political agendas. This means that while Paganism might have a significant influence on culture, literature and the arts it is not an easy bedfellow with party politics for most. Having said this, after decades of increasing ‘secularisation’ religion of all kinds is now entering public life and discourse in a much more visible way. Religion, including Pagan religions, do not exist in isolation but rather reflect the wider political and social discourse in the societies that surround them. Western Europeans in general, tend to be vocal on issues of social justice, human rights and environmentalism, while their Eastern counterparts are often most outspoken on public morality, reproductive health and education. Since Pagans of all affiliations, tend, on average, to hold more liberal views that the wider population, for example on the question of gender equality, Misãne argues that they may offer a more balanced voice on such issues than more traditionalist fundamentalist Christian and Muslim voices.

There were many other excellent and thought provoking talks over the course of the conference Of particular interest to me, particularly wereMatouš Vencálek’s talk presenting rare survey data on political, social and spiritual beliefs among Pagans in the Czech Republic; and Adam Anczyk’s (of Jagiellonian University) excellent paper on Margaret Murray which raised the question of the impact that academic research has on the development and growth of Pagan traditions. These two were of particular relevance to my own research interests but every paper was engaging and well presented.

I was delighted to discover that my own paper had been relocated from 4pm to 12 on the first day, meaning that I could relax and enjoy the rest of the conference. I was also very pleased to follow the paper given by Giuseppe Maiello of Palacky University. He spoke about an attempt in 2012 of the Native Faith movement in the Czech Republic to bring together Pagans of all kinds to form something like a Pagan ‘Burial Society’ to facilitate the possibility of a ‘Pagan funeral’. The attempt failed due to internal pressures and some advice from a former Pagan in the funeral industry that was not as helpful as it might have been, however, Maiello explained why the growth of the environmental movement and, in particular, the establishment of the first ‘natural burial ground’ near Prague meant that there was less need to try the experiment again. He also commented on the comparative freedom and choice that exists around funeral practice in the UK as opposed to the Czech Republic.

This set the scene beautifully for my own paper which looked at the relationship between Druidic funerary practises and new developments in wider funerary practices in the UK. Specifically I looked at the Natural Burial Movement, the campaign to legalise open air cremation pyres and the emergence of reconstructed ‘Neolithic’ passage and chamber tombs to hold cremated remains such as that at All Cannings. I also argued that the two founding ideologies of the ‘Neo-Pagan’ movement in general and Druidry in particular,are central to the emergent funerary tradition within Druidry. The first of these is  the idea of the natural world as a source of wisdom and enlightenment and with ‘whom’ we have a reciprocal relationship. This idea, most visibly and memorably expressed in the Romantic Poets of the late 18th and early 19th century helped to set the mood in which Paganism began to develop as a modern religion. Secondly was the ‘Celtic Revival’ movement of a similar period, which sought to link the sense of personal identity with a re-imaginged past. This also continues to be visible in the popularity of All Cannings, the wish of many Pagans to have their ashes scattered around ancient monuments and the popularity of the idea of cremation on an open air pyre. The paper seemed to be well received and Giuseppe and I took questions together leading to some lively discussion.

The first day of the conference concluded with a barbecue dinner in the beautiful gardens followed by a concert by the Pagan band ‘Barbar Punk’ in a small club that was being reconstructed around us. It was a very unusual and highly enjoyable evening, although for some reason people kept apologising to me that the venue was not ready as they had expected. Possibly this was due to ‘British Middle Aged Woman Syndrome’ but, as I assured them all I was having a wonderful, surreal evening and even got to meet a ‘wolf dog’ who was very friendly and went to sleep on my feet. The second evening was marked by a visit to Brno’s conveniently timed wine festival It was a lovely event, although touched by sadness as people began to drift off to head home.

The following day I had arranged some free time in Brno to go and investigate the ossuary of St Joseph’s church and the crypt of the Friary. (yes, I know, morbid as ever!) The ossuary was fascinating, not least because of the questions it raised about the status of human remains as object and subject. Mention of ‘respect for the dead’ was made and the space was certainly respectful. The remains had been arranged during the last decade into columns of bones with skulls placed artistically at intervals or piles of skulls receding into a curved chamber. These were interspersed wth modern sculptures on religious themes and all the time music, especially composed for the venue, and definitely ‘spooky’ in nature was playing in the background All of this, along with the dim lighting and strategic placement of exhibits gave the place the feel of an art installation. This was compounded by the availability of plaster skulls with ‘Brno’ written across the forehead as souvenirs. Overall the feeling was very much of being in an exhibit rather than a burial place. The crypt however, had a very different feel. The lighting was not dimmed and a sign as you enter reminded you that you were not entering a museum but a burial ground. The unique geology of the crypt combined with the free flow of air through it led to the mummification of many who were interred there during the 17th and 18th centuries. The first room contained the remains of a famous veteran of the Austrian War of Succession, whose portrait also hangs on the wall. It is unusual with such remains to know who the person was, let alone be able to see a picture of them in life. This made the experience a very strange and thought provoking one, very much in contrast with the anonymised dead of the church ossuary. Also in this chamber is the wax covered and finely dressed skeleton of St Clementine. Whilst I have read many books on relics such as this, this was the first time I had seen one and it was a very moving experience. Another chamber in the crypt held the remains of some of the ‘great and the good’ of Brno society who had been benefactors of the friars in the 18th century. Filling most of the wall was a marble sculpture of an angel pointing to the inscription ‘Sic Transit Gloria Mundi’. You can imagine the friars having a wry smile at the nobles’ expense. Finally I came to the chapel where 41 of the friars still lie, laid out onto the ground with their heads supported on bricks. I found this a particularly moving and, I have to say, lovely sight. The monk were laid out next to each other as they would be in the choir and while they were clearly ‘creeping out’ the other visitors (some things are understandable in any language!) I did not have this impression at all. I am glad that there were not very many others in the crypt at the same time and that I was able to spend some time alone with the brothers, keeping their vigil with eternity. When I left, I bowed my respect to them as I would with the deceased in our own chapel of rest. When I left the crypt I made a brief visit to a model of a 19th century Moravian village that was housed next door. It was made to demonstrate traditional crafts and featured many moving figures and ‘clucking’ chickens!

After this I caught the bus back to Prague (once again demonstrating my ‘adulating’ skills) and spent the night there before having a brief look around the Old Town Square and heading home again. Attending this conference has been an extremely valuable experience. Not only was it a huge boost to my self confidence (on several levels, being invited to present a paper, actually getting there, and delivering the paper successfully) but it was also a chance to meet some excellent people. The conference originally attracted my attention as a way to see my own field of study (or at least one of them) from a wider European perspective. It sometimes feels as if there is a wall around the UK and anything going on elsewhere is an unknown. Its possible that this is my own perspective, although the fact that I was totally unaware of a book on contemporary Druidry written by one of the delegates leads me to suspect not! This was a wonderful opportunity to see Pagan Studies in a wider European perspective and to meet and network with some excellent people. I thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience and very much hope to be able to attend later conferences in this series.

 

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BOOK REVIEW: PAGAN PLANET

I have an article in this book. Despite this its very good and highly recommended!! Published soon.

contemplativeinquiry

jhp55ddc04c930d1“For this reason I am doing what I do, working towards …. the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible”. Simon Wakefield is a biologist, Druid and contributor to Pagan Planet: Being, Believing and Belonging in the 21st Century. He talks about the “most profound experience of my life” when observing a nesting sea turtle on a starlit Greek beach. “Putting aside all the requirements to measure and monitor I decided just to be present, and I opened up to an experience of deep time and an ancient longing by another creature simply to be, to express its uniqueness, which has never left me”.

For me, Simon has expressed a point of unity in this diverse collection of essays edited by Nimue Brown and published by Moon Books. The authors come from a variety of Pagan traditions, though with a tilt towards Druidry. Many stand witness to a…

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Do You Know About Action T4? The Erasure Of Disabled People From The Holocaust Narrative, And Why It Matters Today

While outrage spread about a Labour activist invoking the gas chambers, nobody reported the true story of disability under the Third Reich. By forgetting the dead, we risk repeating history.

Source: Do You Know About Action T4? The Erasure Of Disabled People From The Holocaust Narrative, And Why It Matters Today

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Can we stop, with the idea you can’t stop.

This!!! Oh yes.

melinda salisbury

I have just had to put down a book I was reading and it has made me immeasurably sad, and incredibly angry. I was excited to begin this book, I’d read others by the author and enjoyed them; I liked the themes of the book; I’d heard good things about this one. I was set on enjoying it, but now I know I’m not going to finish it. I’m not going to name it, or the author, as my problem isn’t with either of these in any particular sense.

My problem is with the idea that sexual aggression is sexy. That being unable to control your temper is desirable. That manipulation is normal. That coercion is healthy. That instances of this are indicative of a woman’s attractiveness and perfectly ok, even aspirational.

Let me tell you straight up that in a healthy relationship where there is respect and caring, that…

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Praise and Procrastination

I have a serious problem with procrastination. Its something we often joke about but sometimes it becomes a really big issue. It stops me from achieving my potential, effects my productivity and generally makes me anxious and miserable. I am involved in two businesses and studying for a PhD, I am really not in a position where I can afford to have something messing with my productivity!

Fortunately I am quite good at the whole ‘metacognition’ thing, and I generally understand more than most about what is going on in the chaos that passes for my mind. This is no exception. Once I get started on a task I generally enjoy doing it and always (so far) produce work of an acceptable standard and yet I will put a job off again and again until the workload has piled up and I don’t know where to start. Why? because I am worried that I actually cannot do it; that what I produce will not be good enough and that people will therefore realise that I have been pulling off an elaborate confidence trick and do not actually have a clue what I am doing. All evidence to date suggests that this is not, in fact, the case – and yet I cannot shake the demon. While I am aware that it is this fear of failure that is the root cause of the problem, I have never really understood where that fear came from. I think I may be getting an inkling.

As part of my PhD, I work as a TA for an undergraduate course and so have recently found myself marking undergraduate essays for the first time. This was a very interesting experience which I thoroughly enjoyed (once I got over the ‘they’re letting me mark undergrad essays! Are they mad?’ related panic). Reading the essays got me wondering about how closely they related to what I was producing at that stage in my career. Now I do have slightly obsessive tendencies, meaning that I actually still have all the notes, files and essays relating to my undergraduate career around 23 years ago. (My partner, having glanced at the pages and pages of neat, uniform hand writing has declared them to be ‘the product of of a diseased mind’). So, one evening last week, I went and got my first year folder and had a look at some of my earliest offerings.

I am not going to make any comment on the essays I marked (which would be unprofessional) or on the essays I wrote (which would be indulgent) but I do want to make a comment on the feedback in both cases. The first essay of mine that I looked at was about 5,000 words long (I have always had a tendency to go on a bit) and all handwritten with virtually no crossings out. I imagine I worked on it for days and viewed it not only as an academic offering but as a thing of aesthetic beauty in and of itself. There was a lot of emotional investment as well as the time taken and quite a lot of ‘myself’ went into the work. A few things about it made me smile, a few ‘facts’ have since been superseded (I confidently asserted, for example, that Tut-Ankh-Amun had been murdered) but it was certainly not as cringe-worthy as I had expected. The feedback I received consisted of two sentences, mostly about my spelling (still not brilliant but thankfully less of an issue in the Age of Word-Processing) and all highly critical. The same pattern was repeated on most of the essays I looked at. Not a single positive comment could I find. All of the criticism was constructive and no-doubt helpful, but all of it negative.

Now, I eventually left university with a 2-1 so I know it was not disastrous. When I stopped and thought about it, there was, of course, an unspoken assumption of a certain, underlying standard since I had been accepted into one of the top universities for my subject in the first place, but, and this is the crucial thing, that assumption remained unspoken. Following a hunch I went back and looked ay my A level work (yes, I know). Once again, the majority of feedback was brief and critical (if a little more witty in the case of my RE teacher- “Your spelling of Juddah makes me shudder…be shrewder, spell it Judah”. In fairness, Judah is a word I now consistently spell correctly when I need to write it…which is very rarely!) It occurred to me in a flash of brilliance (sort of) that despite some of the jobs I have, as a senior examiner writing GCSE papers, as a task force member and delegate on the Religious Education Council and as an AHRC funded PhD candidate, all of which lead me to believe that others think I am in fact half way competent, no authority figure had ever said anything like “Eh-up…you’re pretty damn good at this!”

Does this matter? Yes I think it does. Shouldn’t I have known this already?-no, I don’t think I should. The message I had, from very early on, was about how much better I could do and this, I think, has been problematic for me. Something, buried quite deep in my head, just doesn’t think I’m very good and tries to save me the embarrassment of proving it. Does this mean we shouldn’t give constructive feedback? Of course not! When I went to look at the feedback I had had on my MA essays (submitted some 15 years later) it was a very different story. There was a full page of feedback on each one, most of which was positive with some suggestions for improvement. the whole feel was completely different. This pattern was repeated in the forms I had to attach to the essays I marked. Specific, targeted feedback, a significant amount of space for comments and an expectation that I would comment on the good as well as the ‘improvable’. While I am by no means a fan of the idea that all changes in education over the last 20 years have been good, this is one area where I think we have got it spectacularly right. The feel of the feedback is supportive and does not leave all of the good features as ‘understood’. Hopefully this means that the new generation of students will have a realistic idea of their abilities, will be able to take pride in their achievements and will not be terrified to pick up a pen (or turn on a computer) in case whatever they produce falls short of the ‘spectacular perfection’ that I expect of myself.

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Economics is more philosophy than maths

Still not decided about party politics and, specifically, the election…but I certainly agree with everything said here. We need a fundamental re-think about what is important!

Druid Life

There’s a bold assertion to start a Monday morning with. It comes out of the difficulty of discussing alternative economic approaches with people who aren’t green. The argument always, always goes ‘but where does the money come from? It doesn’t add up? You can hardly run a country if you can’t do basic maths’.

The current economic models defining how our financial world works can all be traced back to people. John Stuart Mill and John Keynes have always been the poster boys, but there are plenty of other people with ideas in the mix. From the outset there have been countering voices, speaking against our current economic models. This is theory, not science.

The mistake we are encouraged to make, is to believe that our current economic system isn’t theory, but truth. That it is a science based on numbers, and therefore beyond question, is an understanding that serves…

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Sacred Selves, Sacred Settings by Douglas J. Davies

Durham University Department of Theology and Religion has just launched a blog. Very excited! This is one of the first blogs…looks like I’m off to the bookshop again!

Durham Abbey House

Hans Mol, Durham, Douglas J. Davies, Centre for Death and Life Studies Prof. Hans Mol

Sacred Selves, Sacred Settings (Ashgate 2015)- is an edited collection, subtitled ‘Reflecting Hans Mol’, exploring his important work on identity and the sacred. Having survived Nazi imprisonment Mol spent a lifetime engaging in sociology and pastoral forms of ministry as an active Presbyterian. His notion of the sacralization of identity is probably more germane in today’s world of competing ‘sacred selves’ that easily offend or are offended than when he first saw the import of human survival through religiously intensified identities decades ago. There is much here on religion in Canada and Australia and New Zealand that takes issues of ‘secularization’ and many other social factors beyond their usual contexts of western-Europe and the USA.

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A Place to Be

Bangalore_Shiva

I have been hanging around the edges of the Pagan community since around 1992 and have been a member of the Pagan Federation for much of that time. I have tended to feel comfortable around Pagans and it was in this group that I was most likely to find the discussions and ideas that ‘made me tick’. It is only in the last three months or so, however, that I have felt entirely comfortable calling myself a Pagan.

There are a number of reasons for this. One (and it was an important one) was that there was no one system of Pagan thought that was a clear match for me. I am not a Wiccan, or a witch of any description. I am a member of OBOD but am still exploring my affinity with Druidry. I like the idea of the link to my own land and my own ancestry but there are things that do not sit quite right with me as well. I am not a Heathen, although I have a friend (you know who you are) to tends to assume I am because of my background in historical re-enactment. In fact, my entire life life has been a very slow journey of spiritual self discovery, I suppose. I cannot remember a time when I was not interested in religion and mythology in some form or another and I first started reading Robert Graves’ The Greek Myths when I was nine. Weather or not this fact in itself could be seen as some sort of evidence for reincarnation is something that I have yet to reach a conclusion on after around 30 years of pondering. I was raised in an agnostic but intellectually stimulating household and went to a very Christian school where I was duly ‘born again’ and did the ‘Evangelical Christianity Thing’. Emotionally this was very good…it gave me somewhere to belong, a ‘tribe’ I suppose. Unfortunately I am also a rationalist and something of a skeptic and by the time I was eighteen I was in serious trouble. I desperately wanted to believe…but I couldn’t.

I read Theology at university, much to the bewilderment of my parents, I think, partially because it was what I was most interested in and partially because I was hoping it would restore my spiritual sense of direction. From the latter viewpoint it was a disaster. I experimented with increasingly ‘fuzzy’ versions of Christianity which, by the time I had been teaching Religious Education and Philosophy for about 20 years left me a very unwilling and depressed atheist. In the meantime, due to a moment of boredom and a Key Stage 3 text book (it was possible for teachers very occasionally to be bored when I first started teaching) I had developed an interest in Hinduism which eventually led to my becoming a senior examiner in Eastern Religion for a major awarding body. This was a whole new way of looking at God, the Universe and Everything and I was hooked. In particular, the more I read about Shiva the more hooked I became. This eventually, and by a highly unlikely route, led to my taking a Master’s Degree in World Religion which gave me a chance to have a good long look at Eastern Religions and various approaches to Death and the Afterlife…my other major concern. This may well have saved my life. It certainly opened all sorts of doors, including the possibility of a spirituality that made sense to me. I also gave up teaching and went into business with my (new) partner running a new sort of funeral business based on compassion, transparency and honour. Values that are in no way inconsistent with Paganism. So how would I describe myself at this moment? The closest I have found to what I believe is an obscure sort of Hinduism called Kashmiri Shaivism which derives from the Samnkhya philosophy. I would not describe myself as Hindu because I am not culturally a Hindu and Hindusim is far more than a set of religious beliefs. Furthermore, the sort of Hinduism I relate to is fairly obscure and little known even among Hindus. However, the beliefs I hold have enough in common with many Pagan values to make me feel most at home within the Pagan ‘tribe’.

The other reason I have hesitated to place myself firmly within a Pagan context is, perhaps, more important. I am, fundamentally, an academic. That’s what I do. My first approach to something new is to read about it. What I am not good at is ‘experiencing’. Taking part in rituals has little effect on me and its not something I do in private (except for twice, both of which immediately preceded life changing events of epic proportions. As a friend of mine says, I don’t have religious experiences, except when I do). I have tried meditation, shamanic ‘journeying’ and the like over a large number of years with pretty much no effect. It just doesn’t work for me. This has led me to feel a bit like an outsider who is ‘play acting’ rather than someone with a bonafide right to call themselves a Pagan. In short, I felt like a fraud with nothing to contribute.

Since Christmas two things have happened which have caused me to re-think this position. Firstly, I have read two blog posts by Nimue Brown, to whom much thanks, on the subject of chakras and shamanism. It turns out that I am not so much of a freak as I have assumed. On reflection, it occurred to me that the original shamans, in most indigenous cultures, are few and far between. It is not something to which all, or indeed many, are called and the shaman tends to operate, often at great personal cost, for the benefit of the community to which they belong and not for their own personal or spiritual development. If I found that I was not a shaman, it was not that big a deal. Most people are not. ‘Religious Experience’ is, by and large, something that happens to other people; I don’t ‘do’ it. What I do do is think, remember and connect.

The other thing I did, again on a tip off from Nimue Brown’s fantastic Druidry and the Ancestors, was to read Brendan Myers’ The Earth, The Gods and the Soul: A History of Pagan Philosophy from the Iron Age to the 21st Century. As a teacher of Ethics and Philosophy much of the contents and methodology of this book were familiar to me, but it was a bit like looking at a familiar landscape from an unfamiliar angle. I enjoyed it immensely, but it also reminded me that at one time and in one Pagan culture at least, philosophy was seen as a spiritual practice in its own right and philosophers as well as mystics had a valued place in society. It is hard for me to overestimate the effect that this had on me. I had found a ‘place to be’. Paganism needs both its mystics and its philosophers and thinkers. Both are valid and legitimate and I don’t feel like I am ‘play acting’ anymore, at last I have something to give. Neither do I feel I need to force things that just do not come naturally to me. What I am is what I am and it has a value. So finally, after about twenty years, I feel comfortable saying “I am a Pagan’. Its a bit like coming home.

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The Philosophy of Birthdays

Last week I reached the staggering, and quite frankly bewildering age of 44.

Although in theory I was expecting this (although my mother, who started telling people I was 40 sometime around my 37th birthday probably wasn’t. I imagine she thinks I’m 50ish by now…its not good for my nerves!) there were a number of ways in which I am finding it a little difficult to get my head around. For one thing, I feel exactly the same as I did when I was 24, or, for that matter, 4. It comes as something as a shock, therefore to discover that I am a card carrying ‘responsible adult’. Part of me is quite convinced that I am not old enough to drive or own a house. Most of me is quite convinced that I am not grown up enough to be trusted with most of the work I do, much of which could have quite far-reaching consequences if I mess it up!

The biggest thing that I am trying, in my own odd little way, to work through in my mind is that I don’t seem to have ended up anywhere near where I expected to be by this age. By the time you get to my age, you are supposed to have a sucessful career, at least two and a half children and the greater part of your mortgage behind you. I have to say that judged against these criteria my life has been an abject failure.

A mere six years ago (it still amazes me to think that it is so recently) I knew beyond doubt exactly what the rest of my life was going to look like. Boring, but safe and by the usual way inwhich such things are measured, successful.  I had been married for nearly 15 years and saw no reason to think that would change. While the marriage (especially in retrospect) wasn’t brilliant, it wasn’t bad either. It was comfortable and easy. I was Head of Department in a very nice secondary school that was slowly but surely draining all the life out of me, but it was safe. I knew exactly who I was and what was expected of me. I was very comfortably off and I knew what to expect of the next few decades. I was also (I am now able to see) quite seriously depressed.

Just over five years ago things started to fall apart quite drastically. For someone who has made quite an extensive study of religious experience I have always found it quite amusing that nothing of that type ever happens to me (except, as a friend of mine once said, when it does.) This, however, was one of the more notable exceptions. In a fit of desperation I ‘asked’ for my marriage to be ‘sorted out’ in some form or another. Anyone who knows me will know that I am not religious in anything that can be described as a conventional way and I couldn’t even tell you exactly who I was asking. The Universe in general, I suppose; or maybe it was just a very strong ‘wish’. What I do remember is a very strong impression of a reply. I want to be absolutely clear on this, I didn’t hear anything at all I just had what I can only describe as a very strong impression in my head, and what it said was this, “Are you sure?” There was something very sinister about that voice.

What followed was three years of chaos. The breakdown of not only my marriage, but also of several things I had come to regard as axiomatic; a new relationship out of the blue far sooner than I thought I was ready to think about such things, and with it a complete change of direction. I had no choice about my marriage but about three years ago I made the conscious decision to give up my extremely well paid and safe career. It was, as you can imagine, not a decision I took lightly and I can remember actually crying with something approaching panic as I put my resignation letter into the post box. For many years I had combined teaching with working as a senior examiner but a dispute with my management left me painted into a corner. I could carry on teaching, or I could continue to do something I found deeply rewarding and which, I believed, meant that I could make a real difference to a subject I loved passionately on a national level, but I could not do both. For a long time I hung on desperately to what felt like the edge of a cliff, and then I let go. Without a doubt it was the single most terrifying thing that has ever happened to me, and yet, three years on, here I am, still alive and kicking and most importantly I have got my ‘self’ back. I am, once again, a person that I recognise from my university days rather than the shadow I was undoubtedly turning into.

It is true that I have a great deal less income than I had and that money is a constant worry in a way that it had just stopped being when I quit work. It is also true that the job that gave me the financial security I thought I could not do without also took away all the fun and colour from my life and was beginning to turn me into someone that even I didn’t much enjoy spending time with. I am still frightened, mostly because I no longer have the slightest idea what the rest of my life is going to be like. (As well as my examining and consultancy I now also help my partner to run a funeral home….and if you had asked me for a list of the jobs I was least likely to end up doing that would have been near the top.) I am also having more fun than at any time since I was in my twenties and I wake up each morening genuinely excited about what the day is going to bring.

So I think what I am tring to say is that there is something fundamentally wrong with how we measure ‘success’. I don’t have the ‘trappings’ that I sometimes feel I should have at my age…financial security in particular, but I am doing a number of things that I love and I am making a difference to the world if only in a small way. I have freedom that I could once only dream of, people around me that I love and respect and the rare opportunity at my advanced age to ‘start again’. I’d say that’s not a bad achievement to celebrate on your birthday!

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New Year’s Resolutions

Its that time of year again when traditionally we all beat ourselves up for the many things that we failed to achieve last year and we promise ourselves that we will do better this time.

I have a habbit on New Year’s Eve. While I am transfering all of the ‘important information’ from the old diary to the new one I make a note of five things from the ‘outgoing” year that I really enjoyed, or want to remember or that I am proud of. This is a very helpful excercise as it is very easy to remember all the ‘bad stuff’ and the worry and to completely forget all the things that made the year unique and wonderful. Once you start to think about it, its amazing how many things come to mind. For example, this time last year we had a very new business and no idea how well it was going  to do. This year we have achieved wonderful things well beyond our wildest dreams for the first full year and that is something to remember and celebrate.

Also last year, I finally felt that I had time and leisure (and indeed, mental energy) to start thinking seiously again about my own spiritual journey. This is something that has been an intrinsic part of my life for quite literally as long as I can remember and it has taken me to some amazing and, sometimes, challenging places. Recently, however, it had been in stasis. The normal worries of life and getting over the stresses of the last four years (divorce, new partner, giving up teaching, starting a new career, finishing a Master’s Degree; just the normal stuff!) had got in the way and I didn’t have much time for contemplation. Last year that started to ease off just a little and I spent some time reading some excellent books and thinking about who I was, where I had come from and where I was going. Some of the conclusions were quite interesting (I needed a continuation sheet for the ‘religion’ section of the census!) I also finally got round to starting the OBOD course. The jury is still out on that one. Much of it is not new but that may be because I had had many of the same thoughts and worked through many of the concepts a long time ago. It certainly ticks a lot of the boxes for me. I think Druidry might be some of ‘my answer’ but probably not all of it. More of this later, perhaps, but certainly something worth celebrating!

Another thing worth celebrating is my health. In October 2011 I was dignosed with diabetes which, perhaps not unsurprisingly, came as a bit of a shock. Initially it was terrifying and I was convinced that it was a slow-burn death sentence. Now, well over a year later it seems to be under control with my last set of test results described by the nurse as ‘perfect’.

All of these things would be easy to forget about and it is important to take the time to consider them, to be thanksful for them and to allow myself to feel some pride in accomplishing them. Not something that comes easily to me.

I also write into my diary five things that I want to achieve in the coming year. The downside of this is that I look at the five I wrote last year and realise how little of it I actually managed. ‘Loose weight’ has been a firm favourite for many years, as has ‘do more work’, ‘start writing’ and ‘finish everything on your to-do list’. It makes prety depressing reading to be honest. This year I have decided to do things a little bit differently. It has occured to me that if I consistently set myself unachievable targets its no surprise when I fail to achieve them! Also, by implication, most of these resolutions are, in fact, cunningly disguised rods to beat myself with. ‘Loose weight’ is all very well, but what it really means is ‘You’re too fat and you can’t do anything about it…you’re useless!’ Not a good starting point!

One of my less good habits is that I tend to spend a long time procrastinating about a task I have to do and then, at the last minute, completeing it in a ridiculously short time. (It took me three days to write up my MA dissertation, spending around 15 hours each day). This is not something I enjoy and every year I promise myself that I am not going to do it anymore, and yet, every year it happens again. It has taken me a while to work out what the underlying problem is. The full enormity of the situation dawned on me in the days after Christmas when I finally had a little bit of time to experiment with a new hoby: polymer clay. I have been working up to this since last Spring when I had a burning desire to do something with my hands rather than with my mind for a change. I had an idea for some Green Man inspired plaques but had been putting it off because I was afraid they wouldn’t be good enough. I had spent money I can ill afford on clay and tools and people had bought me books and accessories in good faith. What if it was all a waste? What could I tell them? It was my partner who brought it home, as he sat at the table while I worked doing the accounts…’Its supposed to be fun!’

And there it was…the meaning of life in a nutshell, ‘Its supposed to be fun.’ If it doesn’t work, what does it matter? I’m only just starting, it will be better next time; and if its not, who cares? What matters, all that matters is ‘Am I enjoying it’? Once I saw this a lot of things started to fall into place. I am terrified that what I do will not be good enough, or, to be absolutely honest, that it will not be perfect. A blank page may not achieve anything, but at least it does not contain any mistakes. I am fascinated by religion. I enjoy my work, my studies, writing. Yet I consistently deny myself the enjoyment of these things because what I have to offer might not be ‘good enough’.

So this year I have only one resolution written into my diary. To go easy on myself; enjoy what I am doing because this moment, this task, this opportunity will never come again and to remember that not every tiny little thing that I do has to be perfect! This post is the first step towards it. I meant to blog a lot last year and finally managed two posts because the page doesn’t look perfect, there are things I haven’t figured out how to do yet and what I have to say might not be very interesting. All of those things are still true, but I’m going to do it anyway, because its fun. There may be spelling mistakes, I may say some daft things, you might all have a good laugh at me, but can fix things as I go along (a revolutionary idea for me!) and I’ll be laughing too!

Happy New Year!

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