Primroses: lore and life

Two primrose plants in full bloom, growing in a mossy bank.

Every year, the progression of flowers marks the coming of spring: the first tentative growth of light brings up the snowdrops, then the celandine and daffodils and coltsfoot. But the flowers which truly mean spring to me are primroses.

Primrose lore

The place of the primrose (Primula vulgaris) in British folklore is small, and some might say insignificant. In some parts of England, it was considered bad luck to bring primroses into the house except in groups of thirteen blossoms, while in the Victorian era, it was thought that primrose flowers scattered across the threshold of your home had the power to prevent fairies from entering.

In the language of flowers, primroses had a wide range of meanings, including bashfulness, inconstancy in love, one's merits being overlooked, young love, or the message that "I can't live without you," (which strikes me as a melodramatic statement for such a demure flower!).

Primrose is very important to me personally, through its association with Blodeuwedd.

Who is Blodeuwedd?

The story of Blodeuwedd appears in the fourth branch of the Mabinogion, a Medieval collection of Welsh lore and mythology, with its roots much further back in pre-Christian Welsh history.

The baby Lleu Llaw Gyffes is cursed by his mother, Arianrhod, to be without name, without weapon and without wife. His wily uncle, Gwydion, tricks Arianrhod into giving Lleu a name and a weapon, but he cannot trick her into giving him a wife. Thus, with the aid of the powerful magician and king Math ap Mathonwy, Gwydion creates a wife for Lleu out of flowers, called Blodeuwedd (which means 'flower face').

In the Mabinogion as we now have it, only three flowers are named: meadowsweet, oak and broom. But according to Robert Graves, in the White Book of Rhydderch and the Red Book of Hergest, from which the Mabinogion is drawn, there is the suggestion of six more flowers woven into Blodeuwedd's creation:

Hanes Blodeuwedd

(Translated and reconstructed from The White Book of Rhydderch and the Red Book of Hergest by Robert Graves.)
Not of father nor of mother 
Was my blood, was my body.
I was spellbound by Gwydion, 
Prime enchanter of the Britons, 
When he formed me from nine blossoms, 
Nine buds of various kind; 
From primrose of the mountain, 
Broom, meadow-sweet and cockle, 
Together intertwined, 
From the bean in its shade bearing 
A white spectral army 
Of earth, of earthly kind, 
From blossoms of the nettle, 
Oak, thorn and bashful chestnut - 
Nine powers of nine flowers, 
Nine powers in me combined, 
Nine buds of plant and tree.
Long and white are my fingers 
As the ninth wave of the sea.

As the story progresses, Blodeuwedd develops from an automaton into an autonomous person, with her own feelings and desires. Eventually, she falls in love with another man, Gronw, and helps him to kill Lleu, so that she can be free to follow her heart. However, Gronw fails, and Gwydion turns Blodeuwedd into an owl as punishment.

Why primrose?

Many regard the story of Lleu, Blodeuwedd and Gronw as symbolic of the cycle of the seasons, with Lleu representing the sun of summer, Gronw the dark and cold of winter which almost 'kills' the sun, and Blodeuwedd the earth itself, flowering for Lleu in summer, but turning to the night time chase of predator and prey in winter.

Thus the flowers named for Blodeuwedd cover the entire span of full spring and summer, from primroses in April to meadowsweet which continues to flower throughout August.

When the primroses emerge, I always think of Bloduewedd, coming forth in her flowery innocence.

Practical uses

Primrose is not only very pretty, and a sign of the full coming of spring; it also has many practical uses.

N.B. Please do not harvest wild primrose, as it is under threat. It is easily grown in your garden or in a window box.

Culinary

All parts of the primrose are safe for humans to eat (although not for pets!). Old recipes for primrose include pottage (a thick soup), and desserts made with almonds, honey and saffron. The flowers look lovely in salads, and can also be crystallised for decorating cakes.

Medicinal

Mrs Grieve lists primrose's primary effects as antispasmodic, vermifuge (getting rid of worms), emetic (encourages vomiting), astringent (drying), sedative, and expectorant (bringing out mucus from the lungs). She recommends an infusion of the root of the primrose to alleviate stress-related headaches.

Culpeper, in the 17th century, has a lot less to say about primrose, mentioning it only as the source of 'an excellent salve to heal green wounds,' made from the leaves.

Gerard, however, has a great deal to say about primrose's medicinal uses. He talks of using different parts of primrose, prepared in different ways, as:

  • a treatment for some form of spring fever or mania;
  • a balm for rheumatic and arthritic pains;
  • a treatment for gout and palsy;
  • relief for convulsions and cramps;
  • a treatment for migraines;
  • alleviation of burns.

Magical

Primrose is ruled, as one might expect, by Venus, and is associated with the element of Earth. Combined with the kinds of medicinal effects it has, this suggests that primrose would lend itself to magic for:

  • releasing tension associated with new beginnings;
  • blessings for new love or newly weds;
  • gentle fertility magic;
  • grounding of frazzled or frenzied energy.

Trying it out

I had some primrose blossoming outside, so I thought I would try some primrose tea. I cut and dried flowers and leaves, then chopped them up and dried them some more, finally infusing them in boiling water for about 10 minutes.

Here is what it looked like:

The dried flowers and leaves together smelt like slightly floral, freshly bought green tea. The infusion's colour ended up a pale, straw-like yellow.

It had a delicate flavour, very similar to its scent. I found the effects to be relaxing, mildly digestive, and soporific.


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Smut Slam!

This week, I'm storytelling in a very different environment than my usual.

Lavender Menace is bringing Cameryn Moore's highly successful Smut Slam to Dumfries's Big Burns Supper... and I'll be one of the storytellers, sharing a true story of real life sex.

Eep!

It's a ticket only, safer space event, but I'll be recording an mp3 of my story and sharing it here for patrons' ears only. You can listen in by becoming a patron yourself! Just click the link below.

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Man Maid

What is a woman?

OMG OMG OMG OMG OMG OMG OMG OMG OMG!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

A thought, an idea, a phenomenon I have been obsessed with for a quarter of a century is on its first step to possibly becoming a real world project. 

Eve. Galatea. Blodeuwedd. Coppelia.

Four women, made each in her own way from, for, or by men.

Irigaray's genius thought of 'the other woman', the self-constructed woman, the woman who is unknown and unknowable under patriarchy.

Journeying into these stories as a collective of many genders, to question, discover, learn, and grow.

Creating space for these women's (wimmin's? womxn's?) voices, giving performance of their own tellings of their own stories. Raw, wry, and multiple.

Asking: what, then, is 'woman'? what even is gender? where are the struggles and injustices of gender in our own lives, and what can we do about them, together?

I AM SO EXCITED.

And I'll keep you updated as things progress. If you have any energy or good vibes, prayers or magics to send my way for excellent partners and superlative funding for this project, please do so!


Image credit:  Photo by Benjamin Balázs on Unsplash


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When water is cut off

from Cochabamba to Standing Rock, by way of my bathroom

Today, as autumn's rains kick in again, I'm thinking about water.

I can’t help but be conscious of water, living where I do. Not only is this valley we live in, according to meteorological records, the wettest place in Scotland, but our house is in an isolated spot, a mile as the crow flies from the nearest mains water. Our water comes from a spring on the hill behind us. We put it through five physical filters (down to 1 micron) and a UV microbe killer before it comes out of our taps. We get it checked every year or so to ensure it exceeds drinking water standards. It’s a precious resource.

When we moved back into our house, in June 2014, after it was rebuilt, we had repeated issues with water flow. At first, we thought it was just the spring struggling with the dry spell we’d been having. But a check of the flow rate at the spring itself assured us that was not the case.

After much checking and experimentation (including two condoms placed over the outlet pipe from the spring water holding tank further down the hill!) we ascertained the problem: a leak somewhere in the 200 metres of 70+ year old steel pipe running from the holding tank to the house.

We were lucky enough, at the time, to have the funds to replace the pipe. And we are, in general very lucky in our access to water here: we have the luxury of choice.

Spring water, borehole, stream collection, rainwater collection, or mains connection? Luckily for us, the best, most resource and cost-effective option was to stay with our spring water. While it is not a resource we solely control — it lies on land belonging to the neighbouring farm — we can see from our kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom windows what happens on and near the spring, its catch box and its holding tank.

Water, power and control

Most people don’t have that level of power and control in regard to their own water supply. An illustrative example is that of Cochabamba.

In the mid-1990s, the water services of Cochabamba, a town in Bolivia, were taken over by the subsidiary of a trans-national corporation, Bechdel. Water bills rose at an astounding rate, and people were charged even for collecting rainwater from their own roofs.

The people revolted.

Despite pressure from both private and public security services, the people of Cochabamba won through in 1995, and made a declaration — reiterating, in more earth-centred language, the UN’s declaration of access to clean water as a human right:

1)    Water belongs to the earth and all species and is sacred to life, therefore, the world’s water must be conserved, reclaimed and protected for all future generations and its natural patterns respected.

2)    Water is a fundamental human right and a public trust to be guarded by all levels of government, therefore, it should not be commodified, privatized or traded for commercial purposes. These rights must be enshrined at all levels of government. In particular, an international treaty must ensure these principles are non-controvertible.

3)    Water is best protected by local communities and citizens who must be respected as equal partners with governments in the protection and regulation of water. Peoples of the earth are the only vehicle to promote earth democracy and save water.

Sadly, those who do have power and control rarely, if ever, respect the sentiments of either the Cochabamba declaration, or the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Fighting for the right to clean water

In  the same year that we were having our tiny water issues, communities around the world were fighting for their right to clean water.

In 2014, West Virginia, Freedom Industries leaked poisonous chemical waste into Elk River without, apparently, any consequences — except for the 300,000 West Virginians whose drinking water was affected.

In 2014, in Gaza, refugee camps and hospitals struggled to access sufficient clean water, as the area’s water infrastructure continues to be affected by Israeli bombardment, leaving hundreds of thousands of Gazans without water. And still today, polluted water is the main cause of death in Gaza.

In 2014, Detroit City administration went bankrupt, and handed over the control of making good debts to an unelected person/committee. This person/committee decided it would be a good idea to go after some 150,000-300,000 of Detroit City’s poorest citizens who were behind on their water bills by as little as a few hundred dollars, and cut off their water supply if they didn’t pay. Rather than, say, go after the corporate water debtors to the city, who collectively owe/d a total of $30 million, and were in a better position to be able to pay.

Thankfully, through public pressure and protests, and through representation by organisations such as the UN, the water cut offs in Detroit City were suspended. But it remains an egregious example of how little control ordinary people have over their basic needs, and how easily fundamental human rights can be ignored.

2014 was also the year in which the Flint water crisis began. After state officials instructed the Flint city authorities to switch away from their existing water supply, and shift to a new regional system, to cover the delay between the two systems, the city began to draw water from the Flint River -- and began poisoning its citizens. It took the city 18 months to admit there was a problem, and it wasn't until August this year that anyone in the administration was held legally accountable. The citizens of Flint still don't have clean water.

And then there is the Dakota Access Pipe Line (DAPL), and the long-standing struggle of the Oceti Sakowin water protectors' camp -- more well-known as Standing Rock. From April 2016 to February 2017, when they were forcibly removed by armed and militarised police, this camp was home to over 4000 water protectors, seeking to prevent commercial and government actors from threatening the integrity, safety, and sanctity of burial grounds and water courses on Lakota Sioux land, against the planned oil pipeline from North Dakota to Illinois.

These are just a tiny sampling of the struggles going on around the world by ordinary people to gain or maintain their access to clean water. And all are connected by global systems and processes of economics, politics, social and environmental change.

A new way of calling the quarters

When I worked in development education, a tool which we used a lot when helping learners to come to grips with our interconnected world was the Development Compass Rose [PDF]. Each of the points of the compass is associated with a set of questions, beginning with its initial letter. So to the North we consider questions about Natural resources, to the East questions of Economics, to the South we look at Social questions and to the West we ask Who decides?

In my own practice and teaching, I add the central axis of Self: what is happening within me, in what am I rooted, and what am I branching towards: 

  • how am I in body, heart, mind, soul and spirit? 
  • what powers beyond myself am I connected to? 
  • in what do I ground myself? 
  • what goals, ambitions, desires or principles do I reach towards?

Although I have both the luxury and the necessity of acting for myself and my household alone — at least in regards to our water supply — the vast majority of people in the world do not. I think we would all do well to consider the questions of the Development Compass Rose when looking at the places where we live, and the ways in which we meet our basic human needs: to consider them together, and now. 

Only then can we gather together in knowledge and in solidarity, and take effective action.


A shorter version of this article was first published in 2014 on the blog 'A Sense of Place' at Patheos Pagan.

Image credit: Standing Rock by Dark Sevier used under license CC BY-NC 2.0 


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Today, I choose to grieve.

This picture is of one of my artworks, hanging in the Pride art exhibition at The Stove in Dumfries last week.

It's something to celebrate: my first art show; the first Pride event in Dumfries in a decade; a successful Bi+ Space stall. 

But my heart is heavy. 

This artwork, called What is important, is a triptych, reflecting on and expressing my experience of depression, and how deep connection with land, plants, and nature supports me with it.

On the left is the impotent rage that simmers deep in my heart and gut. The plant there is oakmoss, which soothes and calms. On the right is the dead despair that weighs on me and feels inescapable. The plant there is St. John's Wort, which lifts and brightens. In the centre is balance, me, embodied, both stretched beyond and deeply embedded within the material. The plant there is wild angelica, which blesses and protects.

I need this reminder today, the autumn equinox, when the sun enters the sign of Libra, and the daylight recedes into the darkness of winter. This annual shift is always hard for me. More than 35 years of experience tells me that I will now begin the descent into winter depression, and that nothing I or anyone else can do can stop it. 

I do not want this to be true. I want this year (as I do every year) to be different. I have already made my 'What Do I Need?' list, with fine grained specificity, and detailed instructions for how to get out of bed to get what I need, once I've identified it -- because yes, on some winter days, I do not have even that ability. 

I have been using my lightbox already for a month and a half. I have knitting and crochet projects in progress. I bathe in salts and essential oils at least once a week. Energising and restorative yoga are part of my morning and evening routine (as much as I have such things). I have online and offline friends with whom I meet regularly. I have so many rituals and practices that I know for definite will help.

But the fundamental despair that, regardless of anything I do, this will happen, this is happening again; the resentment and rage at the people and events that have contributed to, exacerbated, or even caused it: they rise and grow. 

Balance feels so, so far away. 

Even under the light of the sun; even under the glow of the moon and the stars. 

Even walking among the green and brown and blue of the land. 

Even in the arms of my partner; even cuddling our dog. 

Even sitting with my ancestors. 

This is what is, this rage, this despair. And being with what is, with myself, however difficult, and uncomfortable, and scary: that is what is important.

Today, I commit to creating space for what is important; to ritualising and embodying what that experience is, what these feelings are, where those memories live in me, here and now; to opening to the grief which I try to cover over with rage and despair.

It may not change anything, but I will be more whole for it, and more myself.


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Choosing an ancestor… or being chosen?

This picture is a photograph of part of my family, taken in 1927, somewhere near Presteigne in south Wales, by the border with England. I'm not entirely sure who all of them are, just that they are all related, by blood or marriage, to the two people seated at the centre: Jane Davies and Thomas Price -- my mother's mother's mother's parents. 

It's a picture that sits on my ancestor altar, and when I was thinking about an ancestor to work with, as part of the ROOTED programme, it was an image I turned to for inspiration. Oddly, despite my reverence for these ancestors of mine, I don't feel a strong (or any) sense of connection with them... except for one of them: the person sitting to the left of Jane Davies, with a child on her lap. 

She just strikes me as so... different. Her hair. Her face. Her expression. All of them say to me, "I'm the odd one out."

I relate to that so strongly. However odd my family is, I feel like I'm the weirdo. However marginal the communities are that I am part of, I feel like I'm on the edge of them. I have never felt that I fit. And that is the sense I get from that one person in this picture.

Some of the people in this picture are identified on the back. When I was making the decision to work with this person, I was under the impression that her name was Myra -- because I'd got the names on the left and right of the reverse mixed up. 

In fact her name is Florence, shortened to Flo. She is my Great Great Auntie Flo, and I actually remember her, just a little.

I think I was about 8 or 9 years old when we visited her for high tea, in the traditional Welsh style. We sat in the dark, formal sitting room. The coffee table was covered with a white linen tablecloth. The tea was served from a large tea pot, delicately decorated with colourful flowers over a white base, into a matching set of tea cups and saucers. And in the centre of the table was a three-tiered cake stand, piled high with small sandwiches, but mostly with scones, tea cakes, Victoria sponge, and much more, that Auntie Flo had baked from scratch that day.

I've never had a tea quite like it, before or since. It was one event, but it clearly made a deep impact on me. It impacted me to the extent that when, back in July, as part of my preparation for ROOTED, I was putting together a version of my family tree to print out and place on the wall of my office, I included Florence on it as the only person three or more generations back who is not in a direct line of ascent.

My Great Great Auntie Florence has been there, watching over me, through the whole process of ROOTED to date. So, did I choose her as the ancestor to work with, or had she already chosen me?

That question warms my heart. I feel wrapped in Auntie Flo's love and care, just as she offered me love and care through tea and cakes, nearly 40 years ago. I brighten, and my spirit lifts at the prospect before me of getting to know her and her story through the ROOTED process.


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Fears, hopes, courage: an exploration

My fears are nebulous, hard to picture, like seawrack under murky waters. I don't go looking at them often. I wade out to where the water's hip deep, and watch them under the current, feel them swirl in my gut. 

Usually, that's when I back off, but they make good eating, once they're cleaned off and cooked just right, and, well, I need all the energy I can get. 

So today, I'm going diving, harvesting my fears, tearing pieces off some, pulling others out by their roots. I'll bring them out of the murk, to where I can see them, clean them, trim them. I'll cook them with some tasty seasonings: a little pepper and lemon; perhaps some dill or tarragon. No salt. They already have minerals enough (from my tears, my sweat, my blood).

But first, I have to gather the courage to dive.


My hopes are nebulous, hard to picture, like whisps of cloud on a sunny day: shifting, dissolving, reforming from second to second. They're too high for me to reach, the sun too bright for me to gaze at them for long, but I can feel them, up there, feel my energy body reaching towards them.

It's a nice place to be, that reaching place; far more comfortable than this aching flesh, lighter and brighter than any day to day could ever maintain. 

But hope has always served me ill. It takes me away from reality, beyond what is actually possible. Hope leaps ahead of where I am to where I wish I could be, but am not -- and in the process trips me up for countless painful falls. I land, dissatisfied, depleted, dejected in failure: faced with all that I was not able to accomplish, not able to complete, not able even to begin -- all that I am not, cannot, and will not be.

So today, I'm bringing myself, all of myself, back into this body, where pain is, and where pleasure is; this place of agony and delight, where life actually happens, where I embrace what is.

But first I have to gather the courage to be here.


Image credit: Photo by Alexey Ruban on Unsplash


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Tending torn roots

Image by Evie Shaffer on Unsplash

Spirituality, colonialism, and ancestors

A few years ago now, the last of my grandparents died: my father's mother, Dora. 

The last of my grandparental bereavements, it was the least emotionally wearing. I had never met Dora, at least, not that I remember. I and my father and step-mother had talked off and on in the last years of Dora's life about me visiting her in her nursing home, but in the end, it seemed too odd, to introduce a new element into her ill-remembered world after nearly 100 years of life. 

The first time I met her, therefore, was at her funeral. It was a small service in a crematorium chapel. I learned more about her at the meal following the service than I had ever known about her during her life. She was not, by all accounts, an easy woman; she was deeply spiritual as well as religious; she was somewhat strange by ordinary social standards.

I commented at the time that it was nice to know that I came by those traits honestly.

The role of family and forebears can be a challenging one to grapple with for contemporary Pagans, New Agers, and those who are spiritual-but-not-religious. While many of us seek to honour and connect with ancestors as part of our spiritual and/or magical practice, those ancestors who are closest to us in time, and therefore most likely to be concerned with our personal well-being, are often also those most likely to be of a different religious and spiritual outlook to ourselves. 

We may have had a troubled relationship with them while they were alive, or conversely -- as in the case of my grandmother Dora -- we may know little or nothing about them, beyond the high probability that they would not have approved of our spiritual and religious choices.

Many of us look at spiritual traditions in which knowledge and practice is passed down from generation to generation -- indigenous traditions (such as those of the pre-Columbian and pre-colonial cultures of the Americas), African diaspora religions (such as Santeria and Vodoun), and Eastern spiritual traditions (like Buddhism and aspects of Hinduism) -- with awe and sometimes envy. Some of us attempt to emulate or take on those traditions wholesale, and in the process often appropriate and deeply disrespect both the traditions and their origins.

Yet as much as we long for the passing on of spiritual knowledge and tradition across generations in those traditions, we often find it hard to find or see the wisdom which our own grandparents may hold because they are part of a religious or philosophical tradition which has rejected us, or which we find politically, ethically, or theologically difficult.

As people following more-or-less reconstructed and/or inspired traditions at the beginning of the 21st century, we are spiritually displaced. Contemporary Pagans, New Agers, and spiritual-but-not-religious folks are often lucky to have even one generation of full continuity in the passing on of their spiritual tradition, and we do not, for the most part, have the kind of connection to place that tens or hundreds of generations of living in one geographical area gives. We are largely urban, disconnected from land as well as tradition.

I do not at all state this to elicit sympathy. On the contrary: most contemporary Pagans, New Agers, and spiritual-but-not-religious folks are white, middle class, and reasonably, if not very well off; those of us in the Americas and Australasia are largely descended from populations who have been directly and indirectly complicit in the oppression and murder of black, indigenous, and other people of colour for centuries, and continue to be so; and those of us in Europe are the beneficiaries of centuries of colonialist conquest and exploitation of those same black, indigenous, and people of colour. 

If I recall his argument correctly, in Triumph of the Moon: a history of modern Pagan witchcraft, Professor Ronald Hutton proposes that many of the roots of the creation and revival of Pagan movements -- not only Wicca, but also Druidry and other, more New Age movements -- lie in the British Romantic movement, which itself could be argued to have come out of the mass displacement of British people from country to city in the Industrial Revolution. 

This movement came hand in hand with the enclosure of the commons and the Lowland and Highland clearances, and were followed by the Irish Potato Famine -- the devastating effects of which were caused not by the potato blight, but by the deliberate actions of the Imperial British government. 

These factors in turn led some Scots, English, Irish and Welsh people to take their chances -- by choice or by force -- in the ‘New World’ of north America and Australasia, where they forged a new life for themselves in new lands, by participating, directly or indirectly, in taking land and life, often with geat brutality, from both indigenous populations, and from West African people kidnapped into slavery. 

Colonialism, white supremacy, and capitalism, hand in hand. 

It is our very displacement, combined with a mindset embedded still in colonialism, white supremacy, and capitalism, that leads us to oppress and exploit again and again, this time in the guise of spirituality and seeking to deepen our awareness. However unconscious the mindest may be, and however we may wish it away, there it is. 

The irony is deep. Our very attempts to mend our scattered spirits, our relationships with our fellow humans, and our world at large end up doing further harm to all three.

Facing this history, this reality head-on can be deeply painful. It can provoke feelings of anger, guilt, shame, and impotence. Often we fall into patterns of white fragility and denial. These are patterns that I believe we must move beyond if we are to have any hope of beginning to right the wrongs of history and of the present, and to develop a rooted spirituality in any meaningful way. 

Contemporary Pagans, New Agers, and spiritual-but-not-religious folks -- at least, those of us who are white -- do well to remember and accept our displacement in space, time and relationship, and to do what we can to reconnect ourselves, not based on what looks juicy in another's tradition, but based on exactly where we are. And where we are is always as the child of a child of a child.

I still know very, very little about my father’s mother. Yet still, Anglican Grandma Dora and Grandad Alan (her husband) are remembered on my Ancestor altar, along with the Welsh and Scottish non-conformists and Polish Catholics of my mother's ancestry, and assorted step-family members. 

Taken all together, they are something of a mixed bag: 

  • a postman and conductor of a Welsh Male Voice Choir, who served the British Imperial Government in India in the early 20th century; 
  • a country lad and hero of the Polish WWII Resistance, who escaped from Nazi work and prison camps at least twice, and later built a business as a silver-plater in Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter; 
  • a ceramics expert from the Potteries, who in his retirement regularly visited China to advise on porcelain production; 
  • a schoolteacher from the hills of south Wales, who defended my teen Goth style from familial scorn;
  • a headmistress from rural Norfolk, whose question at the end of every meal she cooked was, "Have you had sufficient?" (to which the only proper reply, of course, was, "Yes, I've had ample thank you.").

Those are just a small selection. The criss-crossing of class, gender and nationality, war, racism and colonialism, creativity, resilience and rigidity in their lives is dense and many layered. They are not always an easy bunch, either as individuals, or in the junction points of historical realities which they embody. 

Yet despite this, or rather because of it, engaging with my ancestors is one of the richest and most important parts of my spiritual practice. It not only connects me to the past, but to the living present. These dead people still live in me -- both in my DNA and in how I have developed as a human being. The movements of history which produced them, and their ancestors before them, are moving in the world and in all of our lives still. 

In my 20s and 30s, I focused on finding and accepting my place in the more-than-human, all-species web of life, my current geographical and ecological place in the world. This was important work, vital to my ability to be present in my life, but for me it was not in itself complete. Finding and accepting my place in relation to my ancestors, however challenging and painful it can be at times, also means finding and accepting my place within humanity, re-rooting myself not only in the earth itself, but also in the rich and strengthening soil of human life and human relating. 

Through this re-rooting, I am able to take responsibility for both celebrating my ancestors, and for repairing what they, through acts of commission or omission, took part in breaking. That taking of responsibility itself becomes part of how I honour them, strengthening my bond with them, which in turns strengthens me, as I engage with the world.

It is no easy task, but it is so very worth it.


Image credit: photo by Evie Shaffer on Unsplash


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A story of gender

January and February have, as usual, been a difficult time in my brain. I'm emerging a little, though, now that the days are longer and we've had a couple of sunny days. 

Yesterday, I even took myself on a story walk -- a short wander outside, during which I tell a story or a part of a story I'm working on to the trees and water and rocks and sky. It's useful practice for story performance, as well as being grounding and integrating for me. 

The story I began work on yesterday is one that's been in my head for at least a decade, with the seeds having been planted far back in my young adulthood: the telling of the tales of women made from, by, and for men. 

Starting with the story of Eve, moving through those of Galatea and Blodeuwedd, and ending with Coppélia, my aim is not just to tell their stories, but to provoke questions about the construction and maintenance of gender norms and power imbalances, and our possibilities for agency within, around, and against that.

The fascination I have for these women began in poems I wrote in the voice of each of them. Despite all of my backups and Cloud services, I have only so far been able to find the one I wrote for Eve (below). Perhaps more will emerge in time.

What would happen if...

I think, when They asked you to name me,
you convinced yourself you’d made me
all by yourself, that I belonged
at your side, forever
under your arm,
under your hand,
under your thumb.

The serpent,
even lower to the ground than I,
spoke to me as an equal,
which was rather refreshing,
like the fruit he offered me.

The bite I took, crisp, sharp,
sweet juice dripping from my chin,
filled me with such wonder
I desired to share it;
I shared it with you

and what did you do, mister
“I named it, so I own it”?
You called it ‘apple’ and ate
the whole damned thing,
pips and all, leaving only

a stalk
and what earthly use was that
to man or beast
or woman either?

What would have happened if
you had taken your bite, joy
dissolving on your tongue,
then pressed our apple
to the creature nearest you,
and they in turn had done the same,
until all of us who had tasted, joined

to plant the core,
nurture the leaves,
breathe in the scent of blossom,

watch and guard each fruit throughout
each swell of form,
each swirling colour change,
and shared each one again
and planted
and shared
until all beings could know?

We cannot know,
but perhaps the serpent can be convinced
to start anew;
a fresh experiment.


Image credit: Bartolomeu Rubio, "The Lord Reprimanding Adam and Eve", ca. 1362 -- photo by Sharon Mollerus, used under license CC BY 2.0.


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Ursula le Guin: 21st October, 1929 – 22nd January, 2018

24th January, 2018

Dear Ursula

I've been meaning to write this letter to you for a long time -- years, in fact. This morning, I found out that I am too late: you are dead. 

It's not a surprise; you were eighty-eight years old, and you had been experiencing poor health for some time. Yet still the news of your death is a shock to my system. You are... were one of those intellectual, creative, and ethical giants whose existence has stood as a reassuring fact throughout my life. (And now you are gone, just when we need you most.)

From Earthsea to Gethen to Omelas, from a journey in a wooden boat on stormy waters, to wanderings between distant stars, you have taken me on many journeys: journeys of the imagination, yes, but also of the heart, and the intellect, and of deep ethical and moral formation. The beautiful distillations of human and more-than-human truth in your writings are far too numerous to quote back to you here, but I do want to reflect on what it is I have learned from you over the years, from just the small selection of your lifetime's work that I have read.

The first book of yours that I read, like so many of my friends, was A Wizard of Earthsea. I learned two vital lessons from this book that I have rarely found elsewhere, and certainly not so beautifully, clearly and poetically transmitted.

Firstly, to do only what is mine to do. Ogion, Ged's master, sums this up: "...the truth is that as a man's real power grows and his knowledge widens, ever the way he can follow grows narrower: until at last he chooses nothing, but does only and wholly what he must do..."

The second thing that I learned from this book, and more deeply that from any other external source, was the vital task and power of bringing our shadows home: of owning all parts of ourself, of naming and welcoming them as us.

From so many of your books, I absorbed the importance of compassion; not syrupy sympathy, nor a forgiving others of their responsibility for their actions, but a depth of being, of attention, and a reaching out in connection, heart to heart, with another being. It is, in many ways, the golden thread that for me runs through all of your work. I found it in The Left Hand of Darkness, in The Dispossessed, in Tehanu, in Changing Planes: an aching resonance with the life that you and I and all beings share.

I did not always find myself in agreement with your premise or your conclusions; one place I found myself at variance with you was in The Telling. It is a beautiful tale, and the idea that stories must be told, that they must not be lost, is one with which I wholeheartedly agree. But not all stories are to be found in books, and stories beyond books and written words have a life of their own, breathing and moving and subtly changing with every telling. That your focus in The Telling was only on stories that are fixed (trapped) in books saddened me.

But that is a minor niggle to place against the storehouse of beauty and passion and wisdom you shared with us, your readers, over the course of your life. I am glad that there are still so many of your works that I have yet to read for the first time, as well as those I have already read and can return to with ever new eyes, mind and experience.

Thank you, from the depths of me. I shall miss your presence in the world. Long may your name be remembered, and your legacy bear fruit.

Yours sincerely

Elinor xx


Image credit: photograph by The Nerd Patrol, used under license CC BY 2.0 

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