A community of spirits: Anxiety

One of the essays in Engaging the Spirit World was a piece on Inner Alchemy, by Taylor Ellwood and it, combined with the Norse concept of a person having multiple souls, got me thinking about the self as an animistic community.

In the past, I’ve met parts of myself during trance – most notably as something like a soul retrieval and as a monster that I had to overcome – but until now, I’d not considered myself as a complex spiritual being made from the co-operation of discrete parts, physical, mental and spiritual.

Given that I’ve had more trouble than usual with this particular part of myself, I set out on a journey to meet my Anxiety and try to talk some sense into them (myself? Us?)

I settle into the trance and find myself on the beach that I usually start from. Instead of climbing the cliff or entering the cave, I stay on the beach and reach out, inviting Anxiety to meet me where I am. I take a step forward and she remains behind – she lives in my back and shoulders, after all.

I turn to face her and she looks much as I once did: chubby, hunched and quiet, hiding behind long dark hair and dark clothes. She is afraid. Of cruelty. Of punishment. Of me. She worries that I hate her. That I’m angry with her. That I might raise my voice and crush her beneath my rage. I remember these feelings so close and clear, and it breaks my heart to see her so scared.

I sit on the sand – cool and damp under my jeans – and invite her to sit with me, but she’s hesitant. The sand is unclean; it might have germs. I lay a blanket out for her and she sits next to me, looking out to sea. We don’t make eye contact.

I tell her I don’t hate her, that I’m grateful to her. She keeps me alive. She keeps me safe. She protects me and makes sure I shore myself up against an uncertain future. But her absence from my body make me taller, more confident. I like the way I feel when she isn’t there, and she knows it.

I lie down on the sand and she lies back on the blanket. We hold hands, our fingers entwined, and watch gulls wheel through the clear azure sky.
Thank you, I say, for helping me save money. “It’s not enough,” her face twists with worry. How much would be enough? She can’t answer me.

“I doesn’t want us to get hurt. I don’t want us to die,” she says, changing the subject. We must die eventually, I say. She starts crying and I wish I had the words to say what I need to without hurting her.

Eventually we’ll die, I say, but not now. Right now, we have friends who have proved – time and time again – that they love us. We have a home, a job, a career, a relationship. Things are good and we should enjoy them while they last.

“We will never find such a good job again,” she says. Maybe, but we can cope with less money, that’s why we’re saving – because you thought ahead and got us to save.

“Our friends are lying,” she says. Then they are world class actors.

“Our relationship will fall apart,” she says, “transitioning will destroy it. The future -” I interrupt: the future is never certain, that’s why it’s scary. But right now, we have warmth and sunshine, and friends and family. Just breathe, we’ll cope with whatever comes.

I don’t want to die.”

You won’t, I say, I need you. Every time I cross the road, every time I pull out into moving traffic. Every time I make a choice, I need to know what could go wrong. But you’re so powerful right now. It’s too much; it’s overwhelming. I need you to take a step back. I need you to give us space. You will always be there, but you don’t have to work so hard. I need you to trust me that I won’t kill us all. Please. How can I get you to trust me?

But she is gone. The blanket is empty and my fingers entwined with nothing. When I return to my body, my shoulders relax. For now, Anxiety is gone.

But I meant what I said – I love her and I need her. I trust her to keep me safe and I hope she can trust me to keep her safe. For now, though, I breathe deeply and relax into today.

Looking back, three weeks later, and my anxiety has been much more manageable. I don’t know if that’s a coincidence, but a lot of the stressors that had been getting to me really haven’t gone anywhere. I call that a resounding success!

I know I still have a lot of work to do in terms of finding a balance and I’m still prone to catastrophising, but I genuinely feel better since doing this. I think that, by meeting Anxiety and talking with her, we’re starting to forge something closer to a working relationship. We are all in this together, after all.


Rune casting

“how should I proceed this week?”

I have been working on destruction and regeneration recently, but the need for that work is beginning to pass.

The central focus of this week is cooperation and communication which, between them, lay the foundations for the future.

With both Ingwaz and Jera in this cast, the future looks bright: do the work, follow the process through to its logical end, and my labours will bear fruit – with the caveat that my success is only as great as my efforts.

Marie Kondo and animism

Having finished Marie Kondo’s book The Life-changing Magic of Tidying, I’m firmly of the opinion that it should be part of the required reading for anyone looking to start or expand an animist practice.

Cover of The Life-changing Magic of Tidying by Marie Kondo

You don’t have to do the tidying stuff – that’s up to you – but Kondo’s approach is unabashedly animistic and throughout the book she shows us how she goes about building and maintaining relationships with the spirits that surround us and fill our homes:

  • By thanking her shoes at the end of each day, for (for example) keeping her feet dry and warm.
  • By greeting each client’s home and asking for its help as she finds joy for its occupants.
  • By thanking even objects she’s discarding for teaching her what she doesn’t like (and wishing them well and that they come back to her soon, albeit in another guise).

In every stage of her tidying technique, Kondo acknowledges the worth of each item and the value of the relationship she has or had with it. It’s a key part of her method, as much as the “spark joy” part we’ve all heard about, but it’s the part I’ve seen come under the most ridicule. I don’t know enough about Japanese culture to know if this is a widely-held attitude or not, but it’s clearly important to Kondo.

Working through the method, getting rid of perfectly serviceable things because they don’t “spark joy” and things I’ve inherited after my grandparents passed away, the guilt that starts to rear its head is largely ameliorated once I thank it and wish it well. I still doubt whether I’m doing the right thing by getting rid of stuff I’ve held on to for over twenty years, but I don’t feel guilty or that I’m betraying the item, the people who willed it to me, or the memories it holds.

Building on that, I’ve started talking privately to everyday objects (my car, my jacket and shoes, my knife and fork), thanking them for helping me out, complimenting them, and letting them know I appreciate them as I clean and tidy them away. It’s made me more aware of the stuff in my life and helped me grok how fortunate I am to have them, and it compliments my Stoic practice. The ideal is that I desire what I already have and no longer lust after new and novel things for the sake of novelty; after all, why would I want new stuff, when I have a relationship with the stuff I already have?

I don’t know if this affects the detachment I’m trying to practice – building a relationship with an object seems like it would make it harder to get rid of it or to accept its loss – but it is an easier path than hoarding material possessions for the sake of having them. Maybe, if I know an item has been cared for, it might help when it’s time to let go.

After all, if a life well-lived and without regrets is good enough for humans, it’s got to work for a resin figurine.

Powerphenalia destash phase one: books

I have accumulated a few Pagan books in my time.

Stacks of books on a desk

Most of the are unread, some are functionally duplicates, and many of them are what I semi-affectionately call “woo-woo nonsense”. The trick is going to be filtering out the useful (woo or otherwise) from the stuff that is… let’s go with “not for me”.

I’ve already returned about half of this pile to the shelves, as it’s either historical/factual, or by an author I like(d) and trust(ed) – though that’s a broad filter and doesn’t guarantee I still want, like or need any given book – and the rest is still occupying my desk and giving me grief – in more ways that one.

I can see myself skimming a good number of the books, making notes and passing them on. Some are going to be easy – I don’t know how much use I’ll get from books on core shamanism, “Celtic” shamanism, books with dubious historical claims, or collections of blog posts – while others come with an emotional attachment: books bought by my grandparents, for example. Some scratch an itch to know all the things – traditions I don’t follow, divination techniques I don’t use, traditions and cultures from far-flung continents. They’re interesting but are they useful, do they bring me joy? Not really. Some of them are books I feel I should read, and maybe I will, but I don’t need to keep them afterwards. Some are books I feel I should read but don’t really want to. Those can go; guilt is the opposite of joy, and I’ve enough of the former and not enough of the latter.

But each book talks to me about the person I was when I bought it, the hope and dreams and ideas I had and how most of those are unrealised. I’ve started down many paths (vaguely-Celtic Pagan, shaman, druid, hedgewitch, chaote, atheist) and abandoned them all, and – while I’ve learned more about myself with every false start – the books hang around, reminding me of how much time, money and effort I’ve spent going nowhere.

Copping to that, addressing the lingering sense of failure, and coping with the tangible reminders of how I’ve frittered away my finite time is brutal.

But also.

The vast majority of books we bought for my old self. Before the split. Before I “died”. In some ways, I feel like I’m going through a dead sibling’s belongings and trying to process all those memories and regrets.

In other ways, I feel like I’m just getting rid of stuff I don’t need, and I guilty that I don’t feel anything for the old me. Like that self was a cocoon I’ve shed and moved past. I’m still processing that change and I genuinely don’t know if this is a healthy way to think or if it’s going to bite me on the arse in a couple of years.

So, yeah, getting rid of books is about as hard as I thought, but for totally different reasons.

Currently reading: Engaging the Spirit World

Engaging the Spirit World, an anthology of essays on animism edited by Lupa

Cover of Engaging the Spirit World, edited by Lupa

I’ve had this one since it was released (it’s signed!), but 2013 was the start of a catastrophic few years, and it just got put to the side.
Now I’m making the time to read again, I’m finding it hard to put down – the writers exploring the topic from so many different angles has been thought-provoking, especially the one or two essays I didn’t fully agree with. What more can you ask than for a book to make you think?
The only problem is that it’s not helping my aim of reading more books than I buy this year! Blasted authors and their bibliographies.

Read vs. Bought ratio


Machine spirits

CW for a possible claustrophobia trigger. Skip to after the picture if you’d prefer to avoid a description of an MRI scan.

Recently, I had cause to have an MRI scan. If you’ve never had one, it involves lying still on a bed that’s passed into the machine’s magnetic field as it images your intenals. You’re alone in the room – the sound of the machine is so loud it can cause hearing damage so the technicians decamp to a control room and communicate via intercom – almost completely inside by the machine, and cut off from the world by eardefenders on top of earplugs (and, in my case, being functionally blind without my glasses).

Just you and the great bulk of the machine surrounding and enclosing you.

An MRI machine

The scan took about 20 minutes and, as I lay there with nothing else to do, my thoughts drifted back to the essay I’d been reading on my way in, concerning the complex nature of the soul. All things have souls, goes the central tenet of animism, so why not machines? Everything machines are made of come from the natural world; perhaps their composite parts retain their souls. And, if a human can have a multifaceted soul, perhaps those parts come together to give the machine a soul, too. I wondered if I could communicate with the MRI machine.

I allowed myself to slip into a meditative state and reached out to feel the MRI, to touch the soul surrounding mine. There was definitely something there. Something solid and purposeful and alien. Attempts to anthropomorphise it skidded away. It was clearly its own being, and an alien one at that – not an animal, nor a human-like intellect.

Maybe there’s some spirit inherent in machines that I can build a connection with, or maybe machines and people are so removed that we can never connect. But how far removed from human is a mountain, or a storm, or an ocean? We can connect to those just fine, with some effort and humility.

The majority of us encounter computers more often than mountains, travel by car more than by horse, on roads more than on rivers. They don’t form part of an ecosystem, but they’re part of our everyday environment. Working in software development, jokes about using animal sacrifice and magic words to make the build system work abound.

I’d like to try. Despite my failure to connect with the MRI, I’m intrigued. I think I might have more luck with something smaller and more personal. My phone or my car; something I engage with daily and already have a relationship with. I wonder what it would be like to build a relationship with a pacemaker or other technical implant?

Who we are when we lie to ourselves

A recent blog post about vandals splashing paint over a WW2 war memorial in London has got me thinking about the way we treat our history as malleable for the purposes of propaganda, and how that plays into our relationship with our Ancestors when we lie to ourselves about who we are and where we come from. Please bear with me if this is even more rambling than usual.

The story we, the English, tell ourselves about our role in WW2 is… let’s say ‘skewed’. It goes like this:

We plucky Brits on our green and sceptred isle stood alone against the Nazi horde and gave Hitler a damn good thrashing. We did it with heroism and valour and a stiff upper lip, and we did it because standing up to tyranny is the right and decent thing. It’s what we as a people stand for and have always stood for. It was hard, on the home front as well as the front line, but we pulled together, Dug For Victory, and came through it with flying colours.

The Americans helped (a bit) and the Russians saw the light of reason and left the Axis to help fight the cause of Right and Good (but they were both late and their contributions barely worth mentioning), and every other European country either joined or got crushed by the Wehrmacht, or sat on the sidelines.

Anyone who hasn’t had this version of history crammed down their throats by gurning talking heads on TV and openly nationalist newspapers and politicians is likely howling with apoplexy.

I’m no history scholar, but even I know it bears no real relationship to what actually happened, and it erases the deaths and suffering of millions of our allies (never mind our enemies). Britain couldn’t have won the war alone; it was won by an alliance of resistance members across Europe, Americans, displaced Europeans (Polish airmen being of particular note), hundreds of thousands of soldiers from across the British Empire, and an unknowable number of other people I’ve never been formally taught about, but they’ve been almost entirely erased from the national narrative of “How Britain Won The War”.

All of this is bad enough in itself, but it continues in our media and informs our contemporary politics. Germany will always be the enemy, the French will always need saving, and Britain is big enough and bold enough that it doesn’t need anyone – it can face the world alone and win, because we beat the Nazis.

Pilot and Supermarine Spitfire
Pilot and Supermarine Spitfire

My grandfathers fought in the war, my grandmothers built aircraft (and knitted clothes when there wasn’t any material to build aircraft) and worked the land and lived through the Blitz, but they wouldn’t recognise the past I described up there because it wasn’t real.

The British media uses WW2 nostalgia – Spitfires, the White Cliffs of Dover, Blitz Spirit, the indomitable fighting Tommy alone against the evil Nazis – to tell a story about a past that never was and our politicians – knowingly or not – use that fiction as a foundation for our future.

I’m all for using pop culture and fictional character as paragons and ideals, but what does it do to us when we fictionalise our past?

Świerczewo cemetary
Świerczewo cemetary

When we lose touch with our Ancestors, the lessons we’re supposed to learn from their lives and deaths are forgotten in favour of a fantasy built on their bones. The future they hoped for gets smothered and replaced with one that might be directly counter to what they worked towards, and we may not even notice because we’ve been sold the idea that that’s the natural outcome of this revised version of history. We’re being denied our heritage and set up for a fall.

So we need to talk about our past. Our real past.
It’s going to be hard: we need to face up to the crimes our ancestors committed and do our best to make amends for the wrongs they did – if we even can. We need to talk about suffering and deprivation, not as “character building” but as a price paid in human lives. We need to humanise our enemies and stop deifying our leaders. We need to stop glorifying the tremendous loss of life on all sides. We need to put to bed the Old Lie: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

And that’s the entire point of the memorials. They were erected, in many cases by people with first-hand experience of the war, to give voice to their grief, to remind future generations of what happened – the human cost of war, what they did in the name of survival, what they endured – and to remind us that we mustn’t ever repeat it.

But the story we currently tell ourselves about history all but guarantees that we will.