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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Country child in the city

I was born in South London (pronounced “Saaarf Laarndun”), in the area of Lewisham. You can't get much more urban than that; I was raised in England's second largest city. And yet, since adolescence, I've felt ill at ease with city life.

My (limited) studies of French philosophy helped me see I wasn't alone in this experience. Durkheim had a word for my situation: l'anomie – the feeling that I lacked community. Sartre had a word for it, too: la nausée – the sense of despair I felt at the world's indifference to my existence.

I got the first intimations that a different life was possible at Glastonbury Festival in 1993. I was volunteering with West Midlands CND, holding fort at the left luggage tents around various of the fields along with my fellow activists. As a volunteer, I was on site for nearly an entire week. I was in a place where I could connect directly with the shape of the land, the state of the ground, the way earth became trees became sky. 

There was nothing but earth and grass on the ground, nothing taller than a sound stage on the horizon. Not only that, but the people...

Whether it was being released from the nine to five into a long weekend of free-wheeling festival living, or getting to hang out with their friends and enjoy their favourite music live, or the availability of the healing field, people were for the most part what I had always dreamed people could be -- what we should be: loving, generous, happy.

This was my first taste of feeling part of a place, being in relationship to a place -- and a community -- rather than being a disconnected dot, scurrying about a Tarmacked surface. It was an experience which shaped my ideas about how I wanted to live.

At first, my focus was on finding a humane, human community, based on reciprocity, mutuality and generosity. I found it for a while in workers' and housing co-operatives, but I had yet to develop the perspective and the personal resilience to deal with the conflicts of personality, perspective and priorities which inevitably arise when working and living in a group -- even a group whose members share ideals. And we were still part of the atomised city, still surrounded by l'anomie and la nausée.

I gave myself a break from idealism, and simply followed life where it led me for a few years. Where it led me in 2000 was to a wee cottage in an isolated rural parish in southern Scotland, along with my partner and our dogs. This was where that different life began to emerge: not from the people I surrounded myself with – there were precious few of those around! – but from the relationship I developed with this new land.

I spent a great deal of time outdoors in that first year in our new home, just noticing. My tools were a curious mind, open senses, and waterproofs. I came to know what rain looked like from a distance, and how to tell if it was coming our way. I learned the scent of clover and moist earth in sunshine. I thrilled at the sight of herons almost within arm's reach. I began to recognise wild plant and animal neighbours which were new to me: vetch, water avens, blueberry, St. John's wort; buzzard, sparrowhawk, hare, red squirrel.

And in coming to know the land and all of its living peoples, I also gradually came to know the spirit species which populated it, too: the devas, the sidhe, the very substantial elements. Above all else, I came to recognise the presence and actions of the Cailleach, of Angus, and of Bride, the legendary shapers of the land of Scotland.

Through this process I have found community with my fellow beings I have learned not only how to listen to and hear the non-human inhabitants of this land, but also how better to relate to the humans in my life. This is because being in relationship with the more-than-human has enabled me to land ever more fully into myself.

Being in relationship, I know that I am not alone, that I have a place, that I am at home, right here, right now. This takes the anxiety and the pressure out of every interaction I have with other humans, whether they are family, friends, neighbours, acquaintances or distant bureaucrats. Through knowing myself connected to the land and its all-species, more-than-human tribe, I also know myself connected to my human kin.

L'anomie and la nausée are gone. While I still experience seasonal depression, I'm hopeful I now have the skills and tools to ensure that, even if I find myself living in a city again, their kind of existential angst will never return.

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9th November, 1989

A West German man uses a hammer and chisel to chip off a piece of the Berlin Wall as a souvenir. A portion of the Wall has already been demolished at Potsdamer Platz.
A West German man uses a hammer and chisel to chip off a piece of the Berlin Wall as a souvenir.
A portion of the Wall has already been demolished at Potsdamer Platz.

It's a grey Thursday afternoon in November, 1989. 

I've finally got my college room organised to my satisfaction: single bed pushed lengthways against the window; side table at the foot, holding my hifi and a small lamp; big wooden desk and chair in front of the noticeboard on the adjacent wall.

I've got the radio of my hifi on, tuned to Radio 4, listening to the news. Amongst coverage of the ambulance crew strikes in London, and continued commentary on the vote at the Church of England Synod to allow the ordination of women, comes the news that the Berlin wall has fallen.

I'm immediately seized by wild joy. I get up on my bed and bounce up and down in front of my window, whooping. I've been part of the peace movement for the past seven years, marching and sitting and writing letters and praying. 

This is what we have been working towards, hoping for, for so long: the end of the cold war, the fall of the iron curtain, the cessation of pointless hostilities and the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction.

The sun comes out. I sit on my bed, breathless and grinning. In that moment, I am assured of the justification of hope: we shall overcome.

Looking back now, I love that 19 year old me, so joyful. And I grieve for them, for the disillusionment that was to come. 

Image credit: SSgt. F. Lee Corkran, DoD 

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“…their message of no message across the millennia…”

This remarkable, profound, and challenging piece of writing by Sam Kriss is well worth reading from beginning to end. 

Its fundamental point, at least as I understood it -- that our attempts to understand the distant past and its remnants, from our viewpoint as blip-in-human-history, are futile, and that listening is all we can do -- puts me in mind of a poem I wrote back in 2006, as a reflection on the experience of visiting Castlerigg stone circle in Cumbria. 

I'd visited Castlerigg a lot over the three years previously. It was only a short detour off my route home from team meetings in Ambleside, and after my first visit, I was hooked. 

I don't usually feel very much at stone circles. They are majestic, extraordinary, amazing achievements of human will and ingenuity, but most of them lack any kind of energetic or spiritual pull for me. Castlerigg is different, and I tried to capture some of the awe, inspiration, and loss I felt there in this poem:


We weave our way between the sheep --
trailing wool from their necks, as if a shepherd
had begun peeling it off in pieces, and then
given up -- and lean against this rock
among rocks resting on bedrock,

a titled circle, bringing earth to sky.
Smooth stone stands in for human
forms short, tall, moss- and lichen-cloaked,
volcanic glitter covered but not dulled.
Did it shine for those who placed it here?

How like a sunstruck fire then, or
a glistening dragon's spine,
curled around its horde.
But these many hues of green, the brown
of earth and dung, the mineral, the clouded greys,

these are no different: the shades
the nameless builders saw who cut
and placed this stone, I see

and my view tilts, a vertigo
of generations, footstep upon footstep,
massing under the empty hills. I feel:

their grief for those who breathe, that we
are not yet married to the land,
joined in union with the loam, communion
with the layers thick of lives
and deaths gone before;

the heart-soreness of living
that history cannot erase, only
remove to such distance, alone
the voices of stone can be heard,
and cannot be translated.

We hear only the wind around our hoods,
the bleating of sheep,
see only a curio, a wonder,
dry and bare: the bone
and blood and flesh are gone.

© 2006 Elinor Prędota

Image credit: photograph by Prof saxx

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My grandfather’s story

My grandfather's ID from 1945

My grandfather, Władislaw Zbegniew Prędota, was born in the tiny village of Bilcza, in southern Poland, on 18th October, 1921. He didn't complete school, but did join the Aviation School in Bydgoszcz in his teens. It was during a leave of absence for sickness that German forces invaded Poland.

What comes next is an incredible story of fortitude, persistence, and sheer bloody-mindedness. He joined the Polish Army, was captured by German forces, send to a labour camp, escaped, joined the Resistance, was captured and sent to several further labour camps twice more, and possibly escaped twice more, before at last sending the final months of the war in Dachau.

Liberated by the US Army in April, 1945, he eventually settled in England. The ID card above is from that period, detailing his time in the Polish forces under English command from 1945 to 1947.

I am working on a telling of his story, not just of his valour, but of the way in which he built an ordinary life after the war, yet never forgot his family in Poland. If you'd like to hear about my progress, about the joys and challenges of turning a real life into a storytelling performance, and of how working on it is changing my relationship with my grandfather, become a patron:


Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is

A fat dog lying on its back, smiling.

John Scalzi is a film critic, a columnist, and a multi award winning author of science fiction.

He also blogs.

A blogpost he wrote in May 2012 has been my go to ever since for explaining straight, white, male privilege to people who don't want to think about it.

I’ve been thinking of a way to explain to straight white men how life works for them, without invoking the dreaded word “privilege,” to which they react like vampires being fed a garlic tart at high noon. It’s not that the word “privilege” is incorrect, it’s that it’s not their word. When confronted with “privilege,” they fiddle with the word itself, and haul out the dictionaries and find every possible way to talk about the word but not any of the things the word signifies.

So, the challenge: how to get across the ideas bound up in the word “privilege,” in a way that your average straight white man will get, without freaking out about it?

If you have straight, white, male, or otherwise privileged friends who refuse to contemplate their own privilege -- or if privilege is a new or difficult term for you yourself -- please read it. Seriously: it's brilliant.


Intersectional Feminist Spaces 101 and 201

Crossknit is the online moniker of a "calligrapher, crossfitter, editor, graphic designer, knitter, lawyer, seamstress and spinner" who has written two amazing posts guiding the new (and not so new) to navigating the pitfalls and subtleties of intersectional feminist spaces -- that is, feminist spaces that recognise that racism is always present alongside misogyny, as well as other systems of oppression based around dis/ability, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, etc., etc.

How to survive in intersectional feminist spaces 101 was written in January 2017, and covers:

  • Getting corrected.
  • It's not about you.
  • Derailing.
  • Being called out.
  • Lived experience > theoretical knowledge.
  • Do your own research.
  • Privilege.
  • Racists with black friends.
  • Listening / being with discomfort.
  • Dis/courtesy.
  • Useful vocabulary

So you think you know a thing: Feministing 201 was written a few weeks later, and covers:

  • Some things are not for you.
  • Don't say this!
  • Burden of education.
  • Centering marginalised voices.
  • Shame.
  • Ally cookies.
  • Being the teachable moment.

They are both awesome -- not only informative, but also sassy and amusing. If you are looking for an introduction or a refresher on being involved in the struggle for social justice, I highly recommend them.


Confronting Whiteness with Rachael Rice

One of the most important things that white people can do to end racism, is to face whiteness head on. That's what Rachael Rice does in this series of conversations with other white women, which range across:

  • international community work, capitalism and intersectional economics
  • colonialism, appropriation, trauma and sustainability
  • awkward family conversations about racism
  • white fragility, especially from white women

and more.

You can access them here.