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Miles To Go

I like lists. In fact I love lists. Creating. Updating. Interacting. To Think About becomes To Do becomes Done. To Read becomes Read.

Right up until the point where they get completely out of hand. The repetition of tasks and events that come up every week, every month doesn’t leave a lot of space for new ad hoc items so that a few cropping up at once can suddenly turn the mundane into the overwhelming. You carry items over once, twice, a third time. It starts to feel like an insidious little accusation, something that should have been dealt with ages ago. Obviously it should have been tackled back when; now it just smacks of laziness, lack of commitment, insufficient resolve. So you stop bothering. After all, you already know it needs to be done. But once it’s off the list it’s, well, off the list, which has plenty to keep you going. So it just doesn’t happen…

And (usually!) the world doesn’t end. Most of the commitments and obligations we set up for ourselves (and a fair few that are set up by others) are not ‘do or die’. Our priorities and prerogatives are dictated by a myriad of influences, and it’s often surprising how many of them are internal, related to the messages that we send ourselves about what it is to be a good, constructive person, or friend, or family member. We expect things of ourselves that others don’t (or shouldn’t). We drive ourselves to distraction trying to meet ephemeral objectives without stopping to think where they come from, or why they’re important, or what the consequences will be if they are not met. We become overwhelmed, stressed, distressed. And that super-efficient, constructive, helpful to do list becomes a monster reminding us of all the bits and pieces we’ve failed to complete.

Don’t blame the list, but don’t blame yourself either. The list is a tool, a guide, a reference. If it starts to look like an insurmountable mountain it’s an indication that you’ve taken too much on, not that you’re failing to keep up. Cull the list. Have other lists. ‘Things to do if I ever get more than 10 minutes to myself’ lists. ‘Things I’d quite like to think about but don’t have the energy for now’ lists. ‘Things that would be nice to have but books are more important’ lists (feel free to come up with snappier titles of course).
Don’t lose sight of the journey by focussing on everything that’s between yourself and the endpoint. It’s important to consider where you’ve been and where you are; where you’re going and how you’ll get there are mutable.

(For the avoidance of doubt, things like paying your rent, eating, sleeping and taking out the bins do not fall into this category. Some requirements really are requirements. There’s a strong argument that reading falls into this classification too)

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Dream A Little Dream

This is my second shot at writing the blog this week. Kind of. Maybe. I remember going through the process of typing it all up, and being really proud of it. Some of the phrases are still tickling at the edges of my mind, but I can’t now remember what the actual subject was. This is because it happened the other night, when I was mostly asleep.

Reality is a strange thing. I remember writing it out as clearly as I remember making my cup of tea this morning, but to a large degree it’s fair to say one happened and one didn’t. Although no-one witnessed me make my cup of tea, and if it came to it I couldn’t really prove I did that either. I could have a hallucinated it. I could have convinced myself that because I make a cup of tea every morning I must have done so this morning too. Maybe I dreamt that as well, and woke up with a memory so clear my waking mind interprets it as having been true.

It probably doesn’t help that I’ve been watching a lot about the potential applications and ramifications of virtual reality – it certainly seems to be the hot topic at the moment. If we rely on shared experience to substantiate our reality – which otherwise is largely subjective – but can manipulate a synthetic shared experience, how real is that reality? If all our senses, our emotion, our intellect can be ‘tricked’, how do we know when they are betraying us and when they are not? At what point does it cease to matter?

Of course there are individuals with circumstances that mean they have to deal with similar experiences as a matter of course. For most of us, the closest glimpse we get are confused fragments of dreams, almost-memories of never-happened, vague projections of might-have-been, garbled remembrances that surface in moments of déjà vu. Certain branches of study tell us that with the right tools and techniques we can sift and hone these experiences, gaining value and insight into realms locked away from the conscious mind.

Dreams, like books, can give us an enticing glimpse into alternate realities – tempting to say the least when there are already so many challenges in navigating this one! But there’s always a stinger – dreams can so easily become nightmares….

(See this month’s Dream On workshop for more on dream symbolism and navigation)

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The End of the World

I engage with a lot of sci-fi and fantasy content and I think it’s fair to say that a significant proportion of it, especially recently, is predicated on some kind of post-apocalyptic scenario, whether in the future or as alternate reality / history. Very rarely is it the projected ‘evolution’ of our current trajectory. This is understandable and, as a story-telling device, can be very effective as it allows for the exploration of ideas and challenging of norms within a relatable and accessible frame of reference i.e. the world as it was ‘before’.

But it struck me this week (when I was [probably inappropriately] joking that the recent drone attack could in fact be the start of the rise of the machines) that a post-apocalyptic world is technically an oxymoron. In the standard definition (although there are varying interpretations of course) the apocalypse is the end of everything. There can be no ‘after’, or at least nothing recognisable left to experience and relate it.

And yet there always is. In every instance there are those who survive and endure and regroup and rebuild, who not only carry on but aspire to a better world where we learn from the past to create a better future.

And in that way, we have our own individual and collective apocolypseseses (?) all the time – it sounds dramatic but it is dramatic when your whole world undergoes a massive, irreversible shift. Whether it is your health, your wealth, your environment or your community, most of us will have experiences at some point where we come through the other side but nothing is as it was, and we have to go through the painstaking process of recreating and redefining everything around us.

I was brought up to be fairly pragmatic and the phrase “it’s not the end of the world” came up quite a bit throughout my formative years. I don’t have a lot of patience for needless drama. But every once in a while it is the end of the world*, and when it does happen downplaying it or ignoring it or denying it is not as helpful as figuring out how you’re going to survive and what you want to build on the other side.

It seems to me that such tales are really stories of hope. Bring on the Apocalypse…

*Unless you can assemble an angel, a demon, a witch, four kids and a hellhound in time in which case you can probably get it called off

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Book Review: Shape-Shifters by Michael Berman

The book features a collection of folk tales from around the world covering not just ‘typical’ examples such as werewolves, selkies and godly manifestations but also encompassing stories of inanimate creations gaining consciousness, for instance golems and snow-children. There’s also a chapter on Lilith…

The scope and premise clearly sets out and allows for consideration of not just physical or visualised shapeshifting, but also the ability to shift by projecting consciousness into another entity. So far, so good. Objectively though, I can’t quite see how stories relating to entities that acquire consciousness fits in with the theme, and if there was a reason behind the inclusion either it wasn’t explicit in the commentary, or I completely missed it.

The author commentary overall seemed a little erratic to me. In some areas it simply relates the origins or summarises the themes of the stories themselves (which in large part is unnecessary when you’re just about to read the stories anyway). In others the author appears to be leading up to some sort of point but, to my mind, never seems to quite go – or get to – anywhere. One notable chunk relating to shamanistic journeying about half a page long is copied and pasted in two different sections with no apparent rhyme or reason for the repeat – it probably isn’t obvious if you’re dipping in and out but I tend to read cover to cover and found it awkward (and again, unnecessary). And then there’s the chapter on Lilith which, while definitely interesting, didn’t seem to have even a vague association to shapeshifting, altered consciousness, transferred consciousness or general shamanism (although it had demons…?)

I may need to revisit this one as, if there was a coherent or unifying point to the book as a whole I clearly missed it. However I LOVE folk tales, stories, myths and legends and it contains a wonderful selection, many of which I hadn’t come across before, so on those grounds alone I would be confident in recommending it if you are of a similar persuasion.

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Words Unspoken

Communication can be a tricky business, especially in sensitive circumstances. What to say, when, how… Get it wrong and you can open up a whole host of problems, for yourself, for others, for the situation. Sometimes it’s easier to say nothing. Sometimes it’s better. How do you tell?

I’m pretty much a latecomer to the social media frenzy, certainly as a communication tool although there have been channels I’ve used for a while as an information resource. At first I felt like all there was a whole swathe of rules, customs and conventions in place that I couldn’t understand and would never be able to catch up with. As time went on I started to see that, while to an extent some of that might be true, for the most part it was a platform for people to say whatever they want, whenever they want, however they want, with all the advantages and disadvantages that it entails. It both unifies and destroys, is concurrently freedom and manipulation, facilitates sharing and misunderstanding in equal measure.

Those who make magic have other outlets for expressing or expunging our thoughts and feelings. We whisper our will and wishes into the ether and hope they will be made manifest. We shout into the vacuum and wait for the echo of insight and inspiration to come back to us. This is a good thing, I think. It can satisfy our need for control, for action, for accountability while promoting acceptance of what is beyond our control, what we can do nothing about, what is beyond reason and understanding.

However it cannot be the whole of the story. Magical methods can never be a substitute for engaging with the issues in the real world, for communicating with others, for taking our thoughts and ideas into the debate and evolving them as part of the process.

Sometimes it’s easier to say nothing. Sometimes it’s better. But often it’s not, and unless I can be sure, I think I prefer to keep the lines of communication open, and take what comes.

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Worlds Within Worlds

It’s very easy, and very normal, to spend huge swathes of time within a few very specific, very defined communities. Some of these will be due to circumstances, such as the place you live, where you go to school or the people you work with, where you pretty much have little or no choice over who you engage with. Others will be due to interests or pursuits such as clubs, societies or peer groups, where you are drawn together by one shared thread but may have little else in common. Even in social situations we’re often not entirely at liberty to decide who we do or do not engage with – friends of friends, friends of partners, random people you end up sharing a table or bench with.

Each different community will have its own ecology – different hierarchies, different modes of language and different terminology, different ways of behaving and relating within them. There will be similarities and there may also be contradictions. What may be par for the course in one group (hugging, cussing, playing with candle wax) may be considered downright scandalous by another.

Navigating and juggling between different groups, and particularly entering new communities, can therefore be confusing, especially when you want to make a good impression but don’t know what the unwritten rules are. Within the pagan community we’re probably very fortunate because, overall, it’s more or less that we don’t have any, are generally all as confused and confounded as each other and therefore make everything up as we go on a case by case basis regardless. There’s a great deal more tolerance about what ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ looks like when (for better or worse) it’s impossible to get any clear consensus on the issue!

But limiting our interactions to only those that are safe and familiar and comfortable is, well, limiting. Even failed social experiments give us new insight, help our understanding and open us up to new worlds. And perhaps help us define, shape or even build our own…

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Everything in Moderation

Having listened to the ongoing lamentations during our harsh and protracted winter – not least my own! – I have to admit to slight bafflement that, having got the gloriously bedazzling hot summer everyone said they wanted, just about every other person is sick of it and begging for a little rain, a bit of cloud and a good stiff breeze.
I say slightly baffled, because I can’t pretend any kind of surprise. For one thing, complaining about the weather is pretty much a national pastime. For another, if I – with my below-standard circulation – am overheating a bit everyone else must be pretty much melting. And most importantly, well, we’re just not equipped for it! Melting tarmac aside, most places have never really had need of hardcore air-conditioning, we rarely allocate litres of freezer space to ice cream and cubes and as for summer clothing, well, I have to assume a substantial number of people have been unable to keep up with the wear’n’wash of their meagre shorts and t-shirt selections given the horrifying escalation in ‘taps aff’ encounters.
There’s the novelty element too – having what you wished for (even [especially?] when you don’t know you wished for it) is exciting. You throw yourself into appreciating it unreservedly (as increased sales in aloe vera products will no doubt attest to), you find yourself changing plans to accommodate, making decisions based on that one, limited factor, to the exclusion of all others. This happens a lot with magic, or even with a different path or practice in magic. When it’s new and exciting it’s easy to throw yourself in, to be governed by and immersed in it. Then the novelty wears off, sometimes with a side dish of disillusionment and discontent – the thing that had once brought joy is now an inconvenience, a hardship or a chore; something to complain about, or avoid, or disengage from.

I would be a complete hypocrite to even suggest not getting completely carried away with something (even if objectively I know it’s the wise course!) but if you can pull yourself back from complete saturation you’ll generally find it works out better in the long term. On the other hand, if like me you find that difficult, use the experience differently instead – commit to memory the way you feel, the happiness, the wonder, the contentment, the thrill of discovery. Build up a mental, emotional and sensory record of all the ‘good stuff’, so that you have something to latch onto when the novelty has started to wane – turning your initial fervour into technique for long term sustainability after all!

*And if you’re particularly interested in understanding and channelling all the crazy solar energies in play, this month’s Sunshine State workshop is aimed at just that!

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The Magic Pill

I saw an article the other week suggesting (recommending?) various things the magically inclined could be doing in response to illness (principally mental health related in this instance) that might not occur to, or be available to, the wider masses.
Aside with having serious concerns about some of the specifics of the article, it raised an interesting question for me as to whether, as magical practitioners, we are in a better or worse predicament than others are if we get poorly? I mean, after all, we know about what herbs are good for a sore throat and what crystals are good for a sore head and what meditations are good for depression so shouldn’t we just, like, be able to magic ourselves better? Even more, with an entire arsenal of spell-lore at our disposal, combined with our own brand of self-aware spirituality and continuous working toward balance, how do we even get sick in the first place, right?

It is perhaps ironic (?) that – based purely on personal experience and observation – a significantly large proportion of the magical population suffer from serious and chronic ailments of some sort of another (my view is that seekers looking for alternative solutions tend to be those who find magical paths rather than anything to do with paganism or esotericism per se!). And it also has a high proportion of people who want to be helpful. While I do mean that in the best possible way, it’s not therefore uncommon to hear ‘but if you just try this remedy…’ or ‘you just use that stone…’ or ‘you just cast this spell’ with the guarantee that all your woes will be behind you, or at least substantially improved.

As I say, while well-meant, this is usually not very helpful. Recommending people to take on new stuff while they’re in mire of any illness can be entirely counter-productive, especially if energy and concentration are issues. Most magical workings, even ‘fluffy magic’ can take up a great amount of both, and some may have already had to give up their ‘normal’ practices while their body and mind try to continue coping with basic functioning. I worry that it also creates an unfortunate (if unintended) pressure and suggestion along the lines of ‘if you just did this then you wouldn’t be having these problems’, as if the condition and / or its continuation is somehow the sufferer’s fault, and that they’re clearly not trying hard enough if they’re not doing all of the zillion things they’ve been recommended at various points to improve their own situation.

Now, all this is not to say you should not use magical means in the prevention, mitigation and cure of various ailments, or that A.N. Other should not recommend or suggest possibilities that may work in the circumstances. But issuing prescriptions may not be the sort of support and TLC that’s needed, and the best help is often to understand what the ‘patient’ feels like they need, even if it doesn’t accord with your own experience.

So next time someone shuffles up to you with the latest bout of Aussie flu, insufficient spoons or general lurgy, consider offering a tissue and some chocolate* before an edict of “magician, heal thyself”.

*Subject to individual preference, I speak for myself here!

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Book Review: Celtic Myth and Legend by Charles Squire

Continuing the mythology theme in line with this month’s featured books for this month’s review however, unlike some of the contemporary retellings highlighted, this title was originally published back in 1919. This is important to note because naturally it means the style, language and approach.

On the cautionary side, I would say this falls into the category of being fairly academic and therefore not always the most accessible. Squire steams through huge swathes of history, literature and analysis drawing from across his vast research, interpretation and conclusions. While it is utterly coherent throughout, it’s also a massive amount to digest all at once and there is no attempt to cut it into bitesize chunks and spoonfeed the reader. I suspect this is especially challenging for anyone not already familiar with the Celtic pantheon or stories as no sooner are you introduced to a particular deity or hero than you are given several other names and variations to compare and contrast them with or distinguish them from (and that’s just before you get into immediate and extended families, foster families, friendships, feuds and fates!)

On the other hand, I don’t think anyone can make a serious study of any mythology without getting caught up in the romance, adventure, symbolism and complexity of it and this more than comes through in the sheer poetry of the language used when discussing the great Celtic heroes and their deeds. This is the style in which I was used to reading mythology when I grew up and, as much as I have enjoyed some of the modern takes, experiencing them again in a ‘traditional’ (classical?) style only helped to add to the enchantment for me. There is a clear love and admiration that shines through and a desire to share these tales and their significance with the wider world.

Compared to more recent explorations this is a title that might take a little more effort in the reading, but I think the richness of both style and substance make it more than worth it.

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The Long and the Short of It

Another month, another excuse for a Pagan Party…
It can be a bit demanding, our calendar, between solar festivals and lunar festivals and extra bits on top of secular obligations. The whole basis of the Wheel of the Year of course is that it never stops turning. Not even when the sun stops in the sky, when day overcomes night and the light chases away the darkness. Any brief pause is temporary, illusory. There is no absolute, and the culmination of one aspect is the beginning of its own demise.

Put like that it possibly sounds a bit depressing, but somehow I find it comforting. There is no burden of now or never, of missing out, of failing to observe. Every single moment is an evolution of those before, and the commencement of those to follow, and it is possible to find nuance and significance in any and all – or just to watch in wonder as they stream by, filled with somethings and nothings and everythings.

The summer solstice*, the longest day of the year, gives us a shared pause, a common reference point, a clear and indisputable occurrence that is both visual and visceral to the magical and the mundane equally. It is a collective inhale, representing as it does the height of summer (symbolically anyway, such as it is) and, inextricably, the bittersweet acknowledgement that, from there on out, the darkness gains ground again – but only until the Wheel turns once more…

Enjoy your revels and reflections, whatever and whenever they may be!

*For those of us here in the Northern Hemisphere of course, although the same principles apply contextually to those for whom it is the shortest!