Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Happy Equinox

My daughter and I went to see Starhawk last night at St James’ Church, Piccadilly. I enjoyed and was grateful for how ordinary Starhawk was: she didn’t offer to Change My Life, she hadn’t seen angels as a child or been given Deep Teachings from otherworldly beings that compelled her to pass Ancient Wisdom ™ on to us. Instead she spoke about permaculture, paying young people to grow vegetables rather than sell drugs and finding people from their own communities to teach instead of parachuting in na├»ve idealists. She spoke about fungi and microorganisms that thrive on and neutralise pollutants.

My girl was mildly disappointed by the talk. In her own quiet, sceptical way she wanted to be immersed in magic and ritual, to hear a great leader speak about Goddesses and power, learning how to access internal authority and effect change both externally and in ones own essential nature.

Which was what Starhawk spoke about but in such grounded terms and in such an ordinary manner that a young person had to retune away from the hyperbolic ad-speak of so many ‘alternative’ presenters to tune into the regular, everyday voice of someone who has been doing something that works for them and for people who don’t share or care about their philosophy. Disenfranchised young men probably couldn’t give a stuff about theories of interconnectedness and would rather shoot themselves dead than invoke the Goddess but can see the practical value of making a profit from something legal and useful in which they have a personal investment.

My appreciation of Starhawks talk has grown during the night as the experience settled into me. I, too, love a peak experience but the more I see people manufacturing them – the desperate ‘shaman’ disinterested in everyone other than the person with power, the dreadlocked white woman who must howl, the catastrophically anxious Reiki flower essence practitioner – the more precious and illusive such experiences become. I didn’t experience euphoria last night and a small part of me was disappointed; I wanted to break my heart open in the company of my daughter who would simultaneously experience an awakening and homecoming into my own religion. It didn’t happen. 

But we walked through London arm in arm under the almost-full moon, she listened as I explained that Paganism is, if it is anything, about Being Here Now, becoming a grounded, practical person concerned with and part of the natural world. Any damn fool can buy a cheap fake turquoise bracelet and jump around under the title Earth Warrior, but it takes a different mindset to plan and grow a garden, a family, a home, and to be of use to people who don’t want to see divas but do want to eat. Sometimes, perhaps, pretending to see angels is an fledgling part of that mindset.

So this week contains both the autumnal equinox (let's just call it the autumnal equinox rather than impose a medieval boys name onto it for no good reason) and a full harvest moon. I wish you a good yield from this years work, a continued gathering of fruit and root and shelves filled with glowing preserves and stored abundance. I wish for us all an understanding of the vital importance of the mundane as well as a yearning for the transcendent, and a dark green appreciation of the immanence of the ordinary.

Friday, 10 September 2010

World Suicide Prevention Day

September 10th is World Suicide Prevention Day

Here's the main page for the event and here's the link for Maytree Respite Centre.

Maytree offers a short stay in a safe residential setting where you can talk, reflect and rest - and restore hope. Maytree is a place where you will be heard, respected and accepted, without judgement and in confidence.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

I've Got The Fear

NB - I'm really sorry about the irratic links. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't.
Old Woman made her presence known and the old woman, she mixed up some of the redstain soup powder stuff and the sacred sisters drank it and got a bit affected. They laughed and made a couple of bad jokes, and lay down on their beds and drank more. And people kept on talkin’ and singin’ and tellin’ stories and the sisters got dreamier and drank more of it, and soon we knew they were somewheres with bright colours and new music and good feelin’ air and then, almost all at the same time, they crossed over and left their meat behind on their beds.

Anne Cameron
Daughters of Copper Woman
The Woman’s Press p65

...Cleopatra sent to Caesar a letter which she had written and sealed; and, putting everybody out of the monument but her two women, she shut the doors. Caesar, opening her letter, and finding pathetic prayers and entreaties that she might be buried in the same tomb with Antony, soon guessed what was doing. At first he was going himself in all haste, but, changing his mind, he sent others to see. The thing had been quickly done. The messengers came at full speed, and found the guards apprehensive of nothing; but on opening the doors, they saw her stone-dead, lying upon a bed of gold, set out in all her royal ornaments. Iras, one of her women, lay dying at her feet, and Charmion, just ready to fall, scarce able to hold up her head, was adjusting her mistress's diadem. And when one that came in said angrily, 'Was this well done of your lady, Charmion?' 'Extremely well,' she answered, 'and as became the descendant of so many kings'; and as she said this, she fell down dead by the bedside.
Plutarch, Life of Antony (LXXXV.2-3, Dryden trans.)

When Crito heard, he signaled to the slave who was standing by. The boy went out, and returned after a few moments with the man who was to administer the poison which he brought ready mixed in a cup. When Socrates saw him, he said, 'Now, good sir, you understand these things. What must I do?'

'Just drink it and walk around until your legs begin to feel heavy, then lie down. It will soon act.' With that he offered Socrates the cup.

The latter took it quite cheerfully without a tremor, with no change of color or expression. He just gave the man his stolid look, and asked, 'How say you, is it permissible to pledge this drink to anyone? May I?'

The answer came, 'We allow reasonable time in which to drink it.'

'I understand', he said, 'we can and must pray to the gods that our sojourn on earth will continue happy beyond the grave. This is my prayer, and may it come to pass.' With these words, he stoically drank the potion, quite readily and cheerfully. Up till this moment most of us were able with some decency to hold back our tears, but when we saw him drinking the poison to the last drop, we could restrain ourselves no longer. In spite of myself, the tears came in floods, so that I covered my face and wept - not for him, but at my own misfortune at losing such a man as my friend. Crito, even before me, rose and went out when he could check his tears no longer.

Apollodorus was already steadily weeping, and by drying his eyes, crying again and sobbing, he affected everyone present except for Socrates himself.

Knowing that John would be in control of his death was a tremendous source of comfort for me as well as for John. Indeed at a stage when MND had almost totally eroded his dignity, knowing he would have that control gave some dignity back to him. John's death was sad but my grief at losing him was tempered by the control he had over the way he died. Having said our goodbyes, I held his hand as the barbiturate overdose took effect: he fell into a deep sleep which was followed by unconsciousness and, after 20 minutes, death.

"kaze sasofu / hana yori mo naho / ware wa mata / haru no nagori o / ika ni toyasen."

More than the cherry blossoms, Inviting a wind to blow them away, I am wondering what to do, With the remaining springtime.

I’ve been around an unusual number of deaths lately and it’s made me slightly panicky. I’m not afraid of death but the more deaths I come into contact with the more worried I become about my own and the people I love processes of dying.

You’ll know that I’m a supporter of voluntary euthanasia which has become better understood in recent years even if it remains an impossibility for most of us who don’t have the resources to arrange a trip to Switzerland. Now, rather than heavy-handed legislation preventing us from taking direct control of our lives it’s the dear old market economy. As voluntary euthanasia becomes more attractive so more centres will be created and the cost will come down. I hope that happens soon. The free market is much better respected than people’s basic needs.

What’s making me anxious is the way in which I’ve seen people die recently, in ways that have been described as natural, but which have not been so. Doctors getting the willies around analgesia and not giving enough so that a patient who is in the final stages of dying lingers around in pain for longer than necessary: the intent is clearly to keep doctors safe rather than to offer the dying person anything. Nurses who frankly detest patients, something I find so repulsive and disgraceful that I don’t know where to begin. Nursing in the UK changed out of all recognition as soon as it became professional, something that I was in strong support of when I was a nurse myself, but the results have altered my opinion 180 degrees.

There are many other sites that discuss the shameful attitude of too many people who are in a nursing role and it is a fact that you can starve, face a serious risk of acquired infection and are certain to be subjected to contempt if you’re unlucky enough to find yourself on a ward of any description but more likely if you’re on a long stay medical (low status) ward. Which is where many of us will die. There’s nothing you or I can do about it since the causes are numerous and beyond our individual control, but this is the way it is, and it frightens me. I do not want to be at the mercy of miserable, cruel people; to have my symptoms rather than my self treated; to spend my last weeks in pain that can be dealt with but isn’t, or surrounded by people who don’t speak English and who therefore can’t care for me. That basic communication is no longer considered necessary for health care professionals is a measure of how hospitals now function.

Bringing our dying home seems to be one way to ensure that they will at least be paid some attention, and in the UK there are groups that will support us. But this work disproportionately affects the elderly and it’s hard for a person in their 70’s or older to physically care for someone who’s ill. Some statutory help is available and, once again, of an almost universally poor standard but nevertheless if they can do the heavy stuff and then get out it relieves some of the burden from people least able to cope with it. Even this barely acceptable offering is threatened by government cuts.

In reply to my blog of July 09 Joseph offered the following:

Amongst the Heathen Norse, it was not unknown to kill someone with a weapon when they were too old and infirm to fight. Doing so would offer them the chance to enter into Valhalla (because they had been killed by a weapon) rather than dying the "straw death" (dying in their bed of straw) and being denied even the chance of such a hero's reward.

Now, I’m not proposing that we immediately run off and follow this example, but it does illustrate that there are different cultural attitudes to bringing and receiving death than those we’re familiar with. We live in Christian societies, we were brought up, knowingly or otherwise, as Christians and many of our attitudes remain Christian. Often that’s entirely fine but when it comes to this incredibly sacred event it’s not automatically good enough or appropriate for Pagans.

How can we make use of this research, which seems to demonstrate that a naturally occurring chemical in a plant well known for it’s shamanic properties, reduces misery? (The comments following the piece show just how dreadful palliative care in the US can be, when medicine and populist ideology collide.) Using LSD for similar purposes has a solid history. Our counter culture cousins may or may not be using psilocybin when they become terminally ill and Pagans with our dedication to the natural world, could discuss in practical terms if, how and why we would use it too.

We do so much work in the non-practical: envisioning this and that to release wandering souls, energy work, working with God-forms, and it seems clear that this helps distract us and give us the illusion of control. Just like non-Pagans few of us work with the dying and so can be unprepared. When we’re confronted by the reality of someone in extremis it’s very tempting to unleash a panoply of techniques to distance ourselves from them.  I can tell you that if anyone imposes Reiki on me when I’m dying I will haunt them for a good, long time.  Ditto if any crystal is brought near me. Neither do I want anyone singing over me or twanging a tuning fork in my ear when my heels are going black because I haven’t been moved for hours on end. What I want is to be touched with compassion and care, to have my skin cared for, to be looked in the eye, to be seen as a living, precious individual in the active process of dying.

I dearly want someone to be compassionate enough to hear me when I say I’ve had enough; to bring me the equivalent of hemlock when I ask for it, someone who knows how to source it, prepare it and administer it; someone who will stay with me fearlessly as the drug gets to work and who will care for my body when it’s over. That could be a nurse or doctor. A competent drug dealer would do. But how wonderful if it could be a priestess or priest.

Thursday, 2 September 2010


In 2007 Dave Mearns and Mick Cooper wrote a book called ‘Relational Depth’ a minute part of which covered Mearn’s counselling work with the client ‘Dominic’. One sentence between Means and Dominic went like this:

“Dom, be here, be here drunk, but don't play fucking games with me.”

and small bomb went of in the Person Centred counselling world. You can read the rationale for the opposition to this way of being here:

Objections were founded in theory and as such are sound and worthy of discussion but in the midst of the debate was the unspoken, something indefinable, and for me it came down to issues of who counsellors often are, who clients often are, the ways in which we define ourselves and most importantly, the terror that many counsellors have of actual connection. Connection is the primary concern of the book and the work of the counsellor.

In reply to my previous piece Amanda commented:
I found myself absolutely tongue tied when I spoke to her for the first time after the event. We do not share a spiritual path, but even if it were so I do not know what I could have said to her. I am not a mother, I cannot begin to know the pain of losing a child. This is one area that troubles me as I consider continuing on the path to fully involved pagan clergy... will I ever be able to find the "language of mystery" to help with this very particular kind of grief with no knowledge of that relationship myself?
which touches on an important aspect of counsellor or clergy training: how do we empathise with people who have had an experience that we have not?

The pat answer is that we all share similar experiences and can use them to empathise with the experience of the client. There’s some truth in this but the existence of specialist support groups speaks to the importance of the truly shared experience. People can communicate in intimate shorthand without having to explain or pull their punches for the sake of the listener, a shared journey with close companions, people who don’t need to be told everything for there to be a sense of kinship.

Connection has been categorised and simplified, codified and reduced to a technique. “You can empathise with a woman who’s lost her baby because your dog died.” Not really. One of my peers wanted to prove that online counselling was able to provide Buber’s I-Thou relationship between client and counsellor. That this person wanted to prove anything in research was a measure of her need. Despite discussions she went off and did the research which, astonishingly, showed that an I-Thou relationship was possible in online counselling.

Buber spoke of moments of I-Thou relationship, brief (but timeless) instances beyond speech touching the realm of mystery; fragile, unrehearsed, attuned to agape. This goes beyond empathy into the realms of perfect love and perfect trust, connection rather than relationship, existential meaning-making and life purpose.

Buber is wonderful to read: dense, rich and complicated it takes time to absorb his wisdom. There are many other authors who build on his work and create their own whose writing is accessible and not in the least mystical without losing any gravitas or wisdom. I entirely recommend Working at Relational Depth by Dave Mearns and Mick Cooper which brings together the philosophy and research into connection of many of the most important modern voices on the subject – and builds beautifully on their foundations. Try anything by Peggy Natiello, Brian Thorne and Irvin Yalom.

Immerse yourself in their writing, try feelings on for size, respectfully experiment with your friends – see how it is to truly attempt to move into their frame of reference, see what, if anything happens. But here’s the magic ingredient: expect nothing to happen.

A very respected Pagan leader recently expressed his disgust with someone we’ve known for many years: “I've tried for years to make her less miserable. I don’t care any more.” How awful of this woman to not do what he wants. Who knows what she needs to do, or why? One thing is certain, she doesn’t exist for people to change, to make her easier to be around, to heal and Paganism is veritably heaving up with healers. Physician, heal thyself. When I’m made queen of the world all counsellors and clergy shall be made to repeat this every month, and best it be when the moon is full: “I am attempting to heal myself when I work with clients.” For better or worse.

If we have an agenda it can only come down to “Let me do no harm and let me be truly of service to this individual.” Not to heal them. Not to make them feel better. Not to stop their pain. Not to make contact or do the I-Thou thing. But to be available and worthy of contact.

So much of the time I don’t know what I’m doing with clients and ironically if I can be comfortable in the not-knowing, trusting the process, then I know something is going well.