Who and what is a ‘woman’… and what does it mean for feminism?

a painting of a blonde woman wearing makeup, her face broken like a piece of china.

"The enigma that is woman will therefore constitute the target, the object, the stake, of a masculine discourse, of a debate among men, which would not consult her, would not concern her. Which, ultimately, she is not supposed to know anything about."

Luce Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman

"...either I don't have any "self," or else I have a multitude of "selves" appropriated by them, for them, according to their needs or desires... I'm completely lost. In fact, I've always been lost, but I didn't feel it before. I was busy conforming to their wishes. But I was more than half absent." 

Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One

Every year, International Women's Day is celebrated around the world. Community groups hold nice, family-friendly events. All female punk bands perform in raucous joy and fury. Corporations co-opt the intent of the day for marketing purposes. 

But very few ask the question, "What is womanhood?" or, indeed, "What is a woman?"

In childhood, most of us are taught at every turn by the culture which surrounds us that humans exist in a simple binary: an either/or of male/female, boy/girl, man/woman. But the reality of sex and gender is far more complex.

When I was first learning feminism in-depth, the generally agreed standpoint was that sex is biological and gender is socially and culturally constructed. Then Judith Butler troubled our assumptions, by making the (rather obvious in retrospect) claim that sex and gender are both socially constructed. We cannot know sexual distinction outside of our social and cultural context, which shapes our thinking about what exists, and therefore what things-that-exist we are alert to observing and noticing.

The detail of sexual biology bears out her argument. Matters are nowhere near as simple as 'penis = male, vagina = female'. Hormones, chromosomes, and brain structures all play a part in biological sex, and they vary dramatically, in both men and women, far beyond oestrogen/testosterone and XX/XY

Even the obvious shaping of the visible body is not as simple as the hegemonic notion of a simple sexual binary. The existence of intersex people was long hidden from sight by doctors who routinely surgically altered their genitals at birth to conform to a single sex, without their consent, and often without that of their parents, either. 

Thankfully, this practice has shifted in many places, and is being challenged in others, but the attitudes behind it remain: that the body of every person must conform to normative cultural and social conventions when it comes to sex, as well as gender.

So what is a woman?

I am not a woman. I have 'female' secondary sexual characteristics. I was assigned female at birth and raised as a girl. I accepted the categorisation of 'woman' until very recently. 

But now, I am not a woman. I have not changed much, except getting a bit older, a bit fatter, and a lot more unwell -- but the boundaries I experience around what a woman 'is', socially and culturally, have become narrower, to the extent that I can no longer find myself within them. 

In addition, many branches of feminism have once again been taken over by biological essentialism, even though such essentialism is utterly contradicted by current scientific evidence. 

There is clearly no direct line from biology to womanhood, to say nothing of all the variety and diversity in the range and content of gender categories in human cultures and societies across time and space -- especially in pre-colonial cultures and societies -- including many that go far beyond a binary of male and female. The continuing existence of non-binary, agender, genderqueer, and genderfluid people even in 'Western' cultures also demonstrates that a fixed or binary sex/gender identity is not by any means the rule. 

At the same time, the existence of trans people whose absolute certainty in their actual and experienced sex and gender as a man or a woman is directly at odds with the sex assigned them at birth and expected of them by society, points to some element of binary sex/gender identity being innate, at least for some people. 

How can it be possible, then, to say what "a woman" is?

Luce Irigaray, quotes from whose work began this piece, says that it is in fact, not possible. She claims that 'woman' has been a complete unknown in Western cultures, because she has never been known by herself, for herself, but always through the eyes of men -- male psychoanalysts and male-viewpoint psychoanalysis, male philosophers and male-viewpoint philosophy.

According to Irigaray, women exist in Western culture only as projections of male fantasies, or as objects for men to circulate between them -- both literally and in terms of ideas. Fundamentally, women are only allowed existence insofar as they serve men. 

One of Irigaray's solutions to this is strategic essentialism -- the stating of a female subject position based in the female body, despite all of the reasons why this is counter to reality. This is not a solution I can get behind. Indeed, it could be seen as one of the roots of the increasing adherence to biological essentialism within feminism.

Instead, my answer is to acknowledge that sex and gender both exist in many parallel contexts at once.

In addition to the latest biological research, which leads to the conclusion that biological sex itself is extremely varied and multifarious, there is internal sex/gender identity, which may or may not accord with that assigned to us at birth, or the one in which we are raised.

Secondly, there is sex/gender expression and presentation, i.e. how we express and present our gender in different settings, through dress, habits, mannerisms, speech patterns, bodily movement, etc.. Some of this is unconscious, based in the patterns, mannerisms, etc. that were expected and rewarded in our childhood; some of it is conscious, a deliberate act of choosing from the current cultural and social resources available to us, in clothing, adornment, colour, use of language, style of movement etc.

Then there is social sex/gender identity, i.e. what other people see when they look at us. All of us make sexed/gendered meaning from one another's sex/gender expression and presentation, as well as our interpretation of one another's visible sexed and gendered physical characteristics. This social sex/gender identity includes the sex/gender assigned to us at birth, based on the appearance of our bodies.

Woven through all of these are the variations in sexed and gendered identities and resources for expression that come with our race/ethnicity, class/income, dis/ability, religion, sexuality, nationality, and other sources or lacks of social capital. 

But where does that leave us with feminism?

If the reality is that sex and gender are so multifarious, so varied, so complex, why bother? If 'woman' cannot even be found, what sense does it make to engage politically around women and women's rights?

The answer, I hope, should be obvious: because people's lives are at stake.

When it comes to the crunch, in law, policy, and our behaviour to one another, social sex/gender identity trumps all others. 

A child assigned female and raised as a girl in cultures which practice female genital mutilation will be subjected to it regardless of her internal sex/gender identity. 

But this is not an argument for biological essentialism.

A woman who was assigned male at birth -- a trans woman -- is at much greater risk of gender-based violence than a woman who was assigned female at birth.

A woman who was assigned female at birth -- a cis woman -- is at much greater risk of gender-based violence than a man who was assigned male at birth -- a cis man.

Men assigned female at birth -- trans men -- also face increased risk of gender-based violence as compared to cis people, both men and women, as do 'effeminate' gay men of all sex/gender histories.

In all of these examples, the violence meted out to women and gay men of all sex/gender histories, and to people assigned female at birth, is motivated by particular ideas about social sex/gender identity. Other people look at a person, judge their social sex/gender by their presentation, then mete out violence to keep them in their place within the social order, whatever the assailant has decided that is.

This is why I reject gender essentialism of any kind, even strategic essentialism, as a part of my feminism. The roots of gender-based violence are absolutely in misogyny -- but that does not mean that it only affects cis girls and women. 

My feminism will always be about combatting misogyny, never about policing inclusion into the social and cultural sex/gender category of 'woman'.


Image credit: photo by Chris Barbalis on Unsplash 


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Full moon thoughts on feminisms and ontology

a hand holds a large sticker with 'FEMINIST' written in white text on a black background

I got into an Argument On The Internet last night about what feminism is, and isn't. A Person On Twitter (APOT) proposed that one feminism exists, and that it has core beliefs. I suggested that there are many feminisms, and that, as there is no one feminism, there can be no 'feminist' core beliefs. This upset APOT. They made some accusations at me, making false logic leaps. I got riled up. It wasn't pretty.

This morning, I did my best attempt at Unconditional Positive Regard with them (a skill I learned with Dr. Jenn McCabe). I also decided to post brief outlines of each feminism, to demonstrate how their fundamental, ontological differences meant that they didn't share any core beliefs, even though they are/were all feminisms.

It occurs to me now that our disagreement was actually about what constitutes a core belief. Ontology is belief about / position on what exists -- what could be more core, more fundamental than that? But for many, including many in academia, ontology appears to be an irrelevance, only for those prone to solipsistic navel gazing. 

Read below, and see what you think -- is there a common core belief between all of these feminisms? And if so, what makes it a core belief? Is ontology important or irrelevant?

1st Wave Feminism: 19th and 1st half of 20th centuries 

Votes for women!

Women are citizens in their own right, not just adjuncts to men.

2nd Wave Feminism: 1960s-1990s 

The personal is political!

The big burgeoning of the feminist movement, from bra-burning to Goddess spirituality to equal pay disputes to consciousness-raising groups to radical lesbian separatism. This wave largely fell into three camps:

Liberal feminism: there is nothing fundamentally wrong with society that can't be fixed by changing law and policy, breaking through the glass ceiling, and getting women into positions of power within existing structures.

Marxist feminism: women are structurally oppressed within capitalism, through property and economic relations, as well as through reproductive labour. Ideas such as wages for housework and rights for sex workers come from this strand of feminist thought.

Radical feminism: patriarchy is the foundation of all oppression, and male dominance and patriarchal gender relations must be fought and dismantled at every turn, including through resistance to compulsory heterosexuality: "A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle." 

Late on in 2nd wave, there was also...

Difference feminism: women and men are fundamentally different. Women need to develop their own, fundamentally feminine ways of being and means of expression.

Men also became involved in liberal and Marxist feminisms, and as allies in radical and difference feminisms. 

Failure to address different experiences

All of these strands of 2nd wave feminism failed to address the specific experience of black and minority ethnic women / women of color, liberal and radical feminism failed to address economic and class inequalities, and liberal and Marxist feminism often erased the experiences of lesbian, bisexual and other queer women. 

In the early 1980s Womanism arose, first named by the author and poet, Alice Walker, seeking to find a universal approach to human equality, rooted in the experience of black women. In a related move, in 1989, Kimberle Crenshaw coined the term "intersectionality" to refer to the way in which black women don't just experience racism, or sexism, but a combined experience of both at once. Black (Marxist) feminism was also strong in the USA (e.g. Angela Davis) and some parts of the UK (e.g. Southall Black Sisters). Womanism, Intersectionality theory, and Black feminism were counters to the overwhelming whiteness of 2nd wave feminism.

3rd Wave feminism: 1990s-present

Destabilise!

Rejecting the often essentialist notions of gender and universalist ideas of gendered experience found in 2nd wave feminisms, 3rd wave feminism is characterised by freedom and fluidity in gender identity and expression, and individual empowerment, often at the expense of collective organising. It plays with gender, and opens the way to great diversity of identity, expression, and presentation for all genders -- including genderqueer and nonbinary. Identity is seen as provisional and flexible. Trans people are included and, in some ways, central.

4th Wave feminism: late 2000s-???

???

Who knows?! Still developing. Online engagement and a greater focus on intersectionality (taken way beyond Kimberlé Crenshaw's original definition) are clear features, but beyond that... I guess we'll find out.


Image credit: photo by Allie Smith on Unsplash


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Some thoughts on seeking, learning, and initiation in Feri Witchcraft

Feri¹ makes powerful witches. 

It does not make healthy witches, kind witches, just witches, pleasant witches, compassionate witches, or any other sort of witches; just powerful ones. What the Feri witch is after initiation is what the Feri witch was before initiation, just with more oomph.

Becoming a Feri witch is not a gentle process. Choosing to become a Feri student with a view to initiation is not, therefore, an endeavour to be taken lightly. Even with a teacher who has concern for their students' safety, it is not an easy ride: I refer you to the text in the header image, which is an accurate, albeit metaphorical, description of my experience. Unless Feri has grabbed you by the scruff of the neck and refused to let go, find yourself a different path.

If Feri has grabbed you by the scruff of the neck, finding the right teacher isn't necessarily an easy task either. Those who are most publicly visible and accessible are not necessarily those who will best match your energy, personality, or needs. Do some research (and do not assume that the first website you find is the beginning and end of it). Ask around. Seek the views of any Feri initiates you know whose opinions you respect. There are a fair few of us around, nowadays.

We all think and practice and teach differently. There are almost as many different approaches, varietes of theology, and variations in basic practices in Feri as there are Feri initiates. The one thing we all share is the Feri current, which is passed at initiation. 

And no, you cannot become a member of the Feri tradition² except by initiation by an existing initiate. 

Can you become a Feri witch without initiation? The answer to that question is, it's complicated. 

You can be a non-initiated Feri witch in the sense of having relationships with the Gods and Guardians of Feri, and resonating with the Feri current (in my experience, it finds amusement in flirting with non-initiates that it likes). But that does not make you a Feri witch in the sense of being a member of the tradition, the human web of initiates.

I had a very strong relationship with the Feri current for a decade before I had even heard of Feri; it is how I knew that Feri was for me, and I for Feri when I did stumble across it. Even though, as I approached initiation, I knew myself to be a Feri witch, initiated or no, the initiation itself transformed my relationship with the current. In my case, it integrated the energy, and settled me. Life has been much more boring since (thank goodness... and *touches wood* long may it remain so).

On a similar note, I am not a fan of the term "Feri practitioner" which arose a few years ago. Using practices taught to you as 'Feri', either in a public workshop or found in a book or on the web, does not make you Feri. Feri is not a set of practices.

I am sometimes asked if it's possible to receive the Feri current directly, without human intervention; after all, someone had to at some point, right? 

Theoretically, it is possible, but it wouldn't be the same as receiving it via human agency, and you would not be part of the tradition, i.e. recognised as an initiate by existing Feri initiates. 

It would also be bloody dangerous. There is a safety factor in human to human initiation: the raw power of the current is somewhat mitigated. Again, I refer you to the words in the header image; and that was with a teacher.

Like looking directly at the sun, or at the Face of G_d, seeking direct initiation from the current itself is not advisable -- unless you actively want to completely lose touch with mundane reality, or (metaphorically or literally) die. 

(It would be an ecstatic death, but still: death.)

I do not say this to be dramatic, to posture, or to paint Feri as "Oooooh, so dangerous ZOMG!!!111!1!!1!". I say it simply to strongly suggest that those who seek Feri do so via a Feri initiate.

I am also not, nor have I ever been, one of the cool kids. I do not seek to keep Feri an exclusive club. But the fact remains that Feri is not for everyone. In a landscape of demanding and difficult paths of inner seeking and soul-shaping, it asks more than most, of both its students and its teachers.

It also, though, has much to give.

---------------------------------------------------

Notes:

¹ My use of the spelling 'Feri' here is for the sake of simplicity, and does not reflect any particular viewpoint or position on the schisms and splits that have occurred within Feri Witchcraft over the decades of its existence.

² 'Tradition' here means the sum total of the Witchcraft lineages which pass the Feri current from initiate to initiand, rather than any necessary commonality of practices, theology, lore, etc.

Image: An accurate description of becoming a Feri initiate by Elinor Prędota. Black text on white background reads: "Embodying Michael the Archangel by taking magic mushrooms while setting myself on fire."

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Not everything goes at the same speed; not everything goes in the same lane.

Image of a road tunnel at night: there are lights overhead, and a series of bollards on the right of the image directing traffic. The road is empty.

I recently went through a process of discernment around what I do, and if, when, and how I get paid for it. 

It began as a conversation with a friend about whether or not there was a fee if I took them on as a one-to-one magical/witchcraft mentor. Around that, I am very clear: I make no charge. If someone I am mentoring chooses, for their own reasons, to donate to me -- in money, in time, in energy, in skills, or in anything else -- that is up to them, and I will not say no, but it is never, ever a requirement.

That conversation started me thinking about how I feel about other things I do in relation to money. After a long process of mulling and pondering, it came down to three categories: things I do when people pay me, things I do when people ask me (where payment may or may not be involved), and things I do because they are part of who I am. 

The lists look a little like this:

Things I do when people pay me: training, organising, community development, research, facilitation, coaching, spiritual counselling, idea wrangling, planning.

Things I do when people ask me: funerals and other rituals, mentoring, being a listening ear, divination.

Things I do because they are part of who I am: storytelling, writing (poetry, fiction, non-fiction), making visual art, spiritual deepening, working for social change, yarn crafts, baking, connecting people, sharing information, teaching.

There is, obviously, some overlap between these categories. When does listening become spiritual counselling, or mentoring become coaching? What would I say to someone wanting to pay me for one of my paintings, or to hire me as a storyteller? But I have a sense of cleanness and clarity for having discerned, in general terms, what fits where in my world. 

It has also made clearer to me the ways in which, in the past, how and when I am willing to accept payment for my work has hindered my efforts to create a business. This has been mainly around the distinction between doing things because I'm asked, when I may or may not take payment, and doing things only when people pay me.

Why? What is the distinction here?

Receiving fair payment for my energy, experience, knowledge and skill is one thing; creating a business from or around that is another matter entirely. 

Let's take, for example, one-to-one magical/witchcraft mentoring. As I outlined above, I make no charge for it, but if someone I am mentoring chooses, for their own reasons, to donate to me, I usually accept. 

Let's take another example: visual art. I make visual art: for self-expression, for artistic and mystical exploration, for all kinds of reasons. Some (not all) of my artworks I make available for sale. 

In the case of both magical/witchcraft mentoring and visual art, I am willing to accept payment, either by donation (mentoring) or at a fixed price to purchase a piece (art), but I have made a deliberate decision not to build a business around either of these practices. 

The reason for that is simple: a business is an entity in its own right, with its own needs and requirements, its own structures and energies. I have a felt sense that these needs and requirements, these structures and energies, would add only interference to my mentoring and art-making, not benefit them in any way.

I could take a number of different approaches, here. If I want to make a business of magical mentoring or art-making, I could work on making the business aspects a benefit to and in alignment with the mentoring and art-making itself. But that is not where I am, right now.

In this time and place, there is a freedom for me in mentoring, art-making, and all the rest of the 'when people ask me' list not being tied to the framework of a business. Conversely, I resent doing the things in the 'when people pay me' list if I'm not getting paid for them, unless I have deliberately chosen to do that work in a voluntary capacity. 

Here and now, I am less interested in working out why I feel the way I do about these different kinds of work than I am in moving with the flow of my energy, and, when the time comes for me to build a business, doing so around the 'when people pay me' list, not around the other two; those can happily remain in the realm of one-off sales, donations, patronage... and me simply being me.


Image credit: Photo by 35mm on Unsplash


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Keeping up with the news? No thanks.

A man sits with one leg crossed over the other, holding a newspaper that is burning from the top down.

I wrote this piece, about my relationship to keeping up with current events, a year ago. Not much has changed since.


After the anti-Poll Tax demonstration of March 1990, I gave up on newspapers, after the sole accurate source on what happened, out of all the print media in the UK, was Spare Rib

After 9/11 I gave up on BBC radio news, as more and more coverage became about asking how people felt about events, deflecting attention from the events themselves, and as the years have gone by, veering further and further into government propaganda.

Over the past few years I have gathered my information about events around the world from social media. During the Arab Spring I received most of my news from individuals living in Egypt and Tunisia on Twitter. During 2016 especially, with the Brexit referendum and the US presidential elections, most of my news came from Facebook.

And it became overwhelming.

So now I don't watch or hear current events in the world, unless I choose to. I know this can only be a temporary measure -- although I've been keeping to it for a year so far. I know that in some ways it is cowardice: protecting my heart by abandoning the struggle. 

But I also firmly believe that creating the world I want to live in is the most important political work I can do, and I cannot do that if I feel overwhelmed and helpless.

Think global, act local has never been more needed, and nor has this quote from Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman:

"Don't ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive."

I have never known fully what that is for myself, but I know it has to do with cultivating a quality of spaciousness, of patience, and of acceptance of what is; deepening my roots, and bringing my awareness back to right here, right now. 

It has to do with doing things together: in mutuality, in solidarity, and in community -- with other humans, and in partnership and with regard for the more-than-human, all-species web of Life of which we are all part.

It has to do with looking to the future, and creating, not reacting in defence against current events.

Yes, we absolutely need to protect ourselves and one another from the bullshit that is coming at us right now, from so many directions. And we need to give our nervous systems a break, and be with our own feelings and thoughts. 

We need to discern what we want, now and for the future, and how we are going to create it, together.


Image credit: Photo by Elijah O'Donell on Unsplash


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Some opinions on empathy, compassion, and choice

An adult gently holds the hand of a newborn infant in their fingers.

Every now and again a discussion pops up about autistic people and empathy, often in the context of misunderstandings between autistic and allistic people, and sometimes, regrettably, used as an excuse for autistic men who sexually harass women of all neurological profiles.

The discussion usually descends into the familiar round of ad hominem attacks which seems to be the hallmark of internet 'debate'. But there are important points to unpack within it, all the same.

First of all, what is meant by 'empathy'? There are, in fact, two kinds of empathy: cognitive empathy -- the ability to imagine yourself into someone else's position, thoughts and feelings -- and emotional empathy, literally feeling with other people and getting upset when bad things happen to them.

As I hope is clear from my brief description of them here, there is a vast difference between the two types of empathy. It is also important to note that any individual, autistic or allistic, can have one, both, or neither of these types of empathy, to a lesser or greater degree.

When talking about whole populations, however, autistic people tend to have lower to no cognitive empathy and higher to extreme emotional empathy, and allistic people tend to have lower emotional empathy and higher cognitive empathy.

Let's think about those combinations. Someone who has a typical autistic profile can't work out why people respond to them the way they do, don't understand social cues, yet become distraught when another being is hurt, abused, oppressed or ridiculed -- the compassionate social pariah. Someone who has a typical allistic profile has some understanding of what other people are thinking and feeling, knows how to operate in social contexts, and finds jokes which rely on ridiculing, confusing or hurting other people funny -- the socially easeful asshole. 

Taken to their extremes, the typical autistic combination is frustrating, but the typical allistic combination is dangerous: high to extreme cognitive empathy combined with low or no emotional empathy is the profile of people who are able to engage in torture, effectively, efficiently, and without compunction -- they know intellectually what is likely to hurt someone else, without feeling with them in their pain.

However, none of these observations of tendencies and typicalities matters, because we are human being, with sovereignty, agency, and choice. Anyone, with any empathy profile, can choose to learn, and to behave compassionately and with consideration for others. That will look different in different people, but it is a capacity of all people.

The question that remains is, regardless of neurological type, why people do or do not choose that path.


Image credit: Photo by Aditya Romansa on Unsplash


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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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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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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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