Thursday, 22 July 2021

Avoiding Pagan Posturing in the Age of the Insta-Witch

I mean to tread lightly with this post; it's not my intent to offend anyone, and it's important to remember that I don't actually know the thoughts or intentions of other individuals and therefore can only pass conjecture on what I have observed. However, as someone with a (disturbingly) deep-rooted interest in style, personal image and how the above manifest in our bizarre social-media-driven consumer society, this topic is of great interest to me!

I was musing recently on how I'd managed to go from the relatively simple concept of a shopping ban to finding myself interested in Earth-based spirituality and considering a course in Druidry over the space of two years. But actually when I looked back it was quite easy to track the progression, a sort of spiralling journey from needing to do something to take my mind off shopping and get out of my own noggin; spending more time outside; falling back in love with the Earth and trying to live greener; taking up foraging and gardening, as well as environmental campaigning, which made me feel more and more connected to the Earth. This sense of connectedness then led me to start exploring Paganism - and here we are. Adding a spiritual or philosophical element to the green(ish) life, for me, helps to make it even more meaningful and fulfilling. The mythopoetic worldview (Sharon Blackie describes the mythic imagination here) ties into my lifelong love of the imagination and the liminal, and my staunch belief that all we can perceive with our limited human senses is far from being all there is.

However, knowing my tendency to cling to labels, not to mention my propensity for theatricality (I was goth for the better part of a decade - being at least a little bit theatrical is practically a job description), I determined to be slow and methodical about my studies, to make sure that what I was doing felt right for me and aligned with my actual lived experience (you can tell me all you want that amethyst and clear quartz are good for headaches, for example, and maybe for some people they are, but I might as well rub a custard cream on my forehead for all the good it does. Just because something is written in a book doesn't make it true for me). 

I also didn't want to do what I often do and believe everything I read without question, especially on the internet. Accepting an animistic worldview is an easy step for me - hello, I am a person who, as a child, brought home sticks that 'looked lonely' - I'm pretty much there already. However, I'm not going to go 'full Glastonbury' as Dai calls it and start thinking I'm a starseed. Reminder to brain: believing some stuff that makes sense to you and fits with what you know and have experienced does not equal believing everything ever espoused by anyone who owns a pentacle necklace. In the age of self-publishing on Kindle, one must have a pinch of salt ever at the ready.

But it's that theatrical tendency I'm particularly on guard against. I've mentioned before that my previous forays into Paganism have been accompanied by much swishing of velvet and esoteric jewellery. I love the look, and I'm really only ever a heartbeat away from putting on elf ears and a flower crown and flouncing into the sunset in a flutter of tie dye and a jingle of silvery bells. What I didn't want to do this time around was buy into a Pagan 'image' without doing any real work, confusing witchcraft with shopping (to paraphrase Terry Pratchett); or worse, spend time on social media showing all my friends how earthy and spiritual I am... 

This is where I need to watch my step. I understand that for many people, online communities, based around social media or otherwise, are very valuable. This is just as true within the Pagan community (the Resistance Witches with the 'Hex Trump' campaign are a memorable recent example!). And by no means does enjoying fashion (of any kind) or posting a selfie mean that someone is not participating in something real or valuable or meaningful. 

But I have found that for me personally, it detracts. Maintaining an image, whether through fashion or an Instagram feed, takes energy, time and work. Energy, time and work that I could better use studying, or writing, improving my focus, tending my herbs (or my son), or just going down to the river and spending some time in nature. If I break away from that to craft a good photo, my focus is split; I am not as peaceful, the connection falters; some of the benefit is lost. Likewise if I am worrying about my hair, or concerned about snagging my skirt.

Dai and I also saw, on our last trip to Glastonbury, a fair amount of what Dai describes as 'Insta-witches' - a lot of the more 'mystical' areas in the village, such as the beautiful Chalice Well, were surrounded by people taking photos for social media - we couldn't actually get near the Well on that particular visit as two women had colonised the area to set up a jewellery display which they were photographing. And we queued for half an hour to drink from the Red Spring as we had to wait for another bevy of phone-clutching mystics to finish setting up crystal grids and photographing their bare feet. (Please see my opening remarks about not actually knowing what other people are doing. I don't intend to cast aspersions or be snarky! But from an observer's perspective, it seemed... like posturing?)

It certainly got me thinking about my own approach - I really want to avoid taking a sort of Anne Gwish approach to spirituality ('being myself, as long as it looks good and people are watching'). 

I've been reading a book by Penny Billington called The Path of Druidry, and when I read some online reviews I noted that some people were irritated by a remark she makes in one of the early chapters: "A Druid should fit in, should be able to be invisible; that's what gives us the freedom to get on with our work. [...] Being self-consciously eccentric as a way of life is like trying to appear wise - it takes too much energy away from what Druid life and work are all about."

Now, I can totally see why some people found this irritating - 'fitting in' isn't really something I'm big on either. But my daily nature-walking wear of jeans and t-shirts is, well, pretty invisible. And for me, this was such a refreshing thing to read - an instant antidote to the itchy eBay bidding finger (step away from the Jordash dresses). 

I am someone who was recently described by a dear friend as "a New Age hippy... I think of you like one of those paper dolls, you mix it up and try different things, but your base setting is hippy fairy". (Naturally I'm delighted by this description.) So, believe me when I say, I can EASILY devote my time to being 'self-consciously eccentric'. I could start my own IG account of woodland selfies where I never look directly at the camera because I'm very mysterious and bohemian, or rip up flowers and fungi so I can take a photo of my hand holding them (I found a great post about this on an old blog by Grace Nuth - totally worth a read). Or, I can dress in a way that's pleasing enough, comfortable, and still allows me to tromp through muddy fields, and just get on with it! It was a RELIEF to have it spelt out for me that clothes do not maketh the Druid. It may not be even vaguely an issue for those who do not have my preoccupation with style and shopping, but it was a huge deal for me.

I've decided that balance is, as it often is, the key. My dramatic skirts have their place - when we visit our favourite canalside Pagan pub for a pint of ale, or roaming the streets of Burley or Glastonbury. But when I want to be able to crawl into hedges, cross streams or move through woodland, it's sensible coat and shoes all the way. This probably seems really obvious to you! But I, for whatever reason (gothy theatrical tendencies?) benefit from a reminder.

Thursday, 15 July 2021

The Bizarre World of Other People's Stuff

I really love other people's discarded stuff. I grew up wearing charity shop clothes, and generally still do. What you can find second-hand is generally much more interesting than what you can buy new, especially in this era of bland mass-produced fast fashion. 

It never ceases to amaze me what people throw away. I often think that we, as a society, have entirely lost our sense of perspective, of the value of things. We expect our new clothes to cost next to nothing - how can a T-shirt cost £1.50? The material to make it, the wages of the person who stitched it, the cost of shipping it halfway around the world to a store near you, let alone the livelihood of the farmer who grew the cotton or the weaver who formed the fabric, are not reflected in the price tag any more, as big stores sell individual items at a loss to achieve more sales and swell their overall profits (for the CEOs, naturally, not the workers actually producing the garments). 

But at the same time as we consumers hunt out our wear-me-once disposable bargains, those who are more affluent are also buying and disposing. I once worked in the rag bin at a recycling centre. Literally in the bin, which I don't think is allowed any more. It was a shipping container with open doors for people to throw in their bags of old clothing. My job was to go through that clothing by hand and rescue any that could be resold in the sales shed or on eBay. The remainder (all those £1.50 T-shirts) was exported to developing countries, to be sold on their markets, recycled into fire blankets and insulation, or - just as likely - end up in their landfills.

I was not paid money for this. Instead I was allowed to take away any clothes that I wanted, which I could then resell to make a living. If this was still allowed, I'd still be doing it, but, at least locally, there are now no more rag bin workers. The shipping container has been replaced by charity shop bins, which essentially perform the same function except the stock is sorted in a shop or warehouse instead of by unpaid workers crawling over precarious mountains of stuff. It wasn't the most well-regulated or ethical job, but I enjoyed it, I wore my protective gear religiously (needles and nappies abounded), and if I was doing it now I could make a mint, what with all the resale sites springing up such as Shpock, Vinted and Depop. I know it wasn't ideal and I can see that there was great potential for exploitation, but for me it worked - I set my own hours, I was never bored, and my own wardrobe was in great shape.

And the finds! Gucci shoes, unworn, still in their box with the eye-watering three figure price tag. Two pairs of New Rock boots (one pair of which I still have, twelve years later, and I can report they are still going strong). A Victorian top hat. Just thrown away!

It was the Gucci shoes I often thought of in later years. Who would buy something that expensive and throw it away? This was the tip, remember, not a charity shop. I couldn't comprehend that kind of waste. I've been on a week's holiday for less than the cost of those shoes.

I thought of them again when I was checking out a resale site I'd never heard of before, and came across the following:

Fifteen thousand pounds! For a skateboard!!! Who even are these people?! 

Truly, the inequity in our society is exemplified by what we can afford to discard.

Thursday, 8 July 2021

Walking the Wild Edges

Since I realised the calming, uplifting effect that walking in nature has on me, I've been spending more and more time outside. The Spud is benefiting from this too - he loves to be out in the fresh air. As well as our everyday walks, when the weather is good we pack a picnic into my backpack and head out on a longer expedition. 

In recent years I've moved from the country village where I grew up to a council estate in the suburbs (by way of a few people's spare rooms, after splitting with my ex shortly before we were due to go travelling). There was a bit of adjustment required when we arrived in this grey terrace, but soon I discovered there was a nature reserve behind the estate with a river running through it. Now the Spud is bigger and can walk further, we hike across the fields to the woodlands I used to walk in when I was growing up. 

Each year more land is sold to the developers, and more of the fields I used to play in are swallowed by the urban sprawl, but it's still relatively easy to scratch off the thin veneer of civilisation and find ourselves far from anywhere, between Roman roads and Old Straight Tracks, copses and hedgerows and sun-dappled glades of celandine and primrose. You can still see the progress of mankind in the ploughed fields and tumbledown barns, the glint of a beer bottle in the nettles, the pylon stalking unexpectedly across the horizon like an invader from another time. But it feels for all the world as though we're alone on the edges of things, where something magical might still happen.

I grew up here, I found myself thinking, as the Spud and I shared a sandwich and a drink of water in the shade of a hedge. Looking out over the fields I could see the straight, tree-lined cut of a Roman road. I'd walked that road with my mother as a child, and for years after I'd had a recurring dream about it, a cloaked rider on a dark horse pounding down the hill towards me. 

The Spud and I followed the footpath across the centre of the field. Vast clouds sailed across the sky like zeppelins, sending shadows chasing over the ploughed earth. I felt like Tiffany Aching walking on the Chalk. Perhaps, I thought idly, if I were ever to set up an altar again, I might do better to have some of these flints than some fancy shiny foreign crystals, no matter how pretty. After all, this ground here is what I'm made of. This chalk and flint may as well be my bones. My mother's maiden name comes from "Free", and there have been Frees here, and in the surrounding area, since records began. (I did some digging into my ancestry recently, and other than my paternal grandmother who was from Bornholm - and her ancestors, back to the 1700s at least, adding a strain of Norse to my makeup that I'm quite proud of - my family looks to be of Anglo-Saxon descent on both sides.)

Just as I was musing about flints on my altar, the Spud caught hold of my jeans and offered me a huge flattish oval specimen that he had prised out of the dirt of the path. Crouching beside him, I turned it over in my hands, and caught my breath. The underside of the flint was covered in sparkling crystal that glittered in the sunlight. Wow, I thought. Okay. I can take a hint.

My sparkling flint

This is far from the most strange thing that has happened to me out on the wild edges of this land. Nor am I the only one who can tell stories about this area. (Britain on the whole is a strange country with an equally strange history, which is why I love it so much.) For example, a few years ago I was working in one of the last independent shops on my local high street. The owner was (is) a fairly well-to-do bohemian-ish lady who lived in the next town over. To get home from work she had to drive through several villages (including mine) and along an old, but well-travelled, road overlooked on both sides by woodlands and open fields. One night she had passed through my village and was heading through moonlit farmland when something dashed into the road in front of her, paused in the headlights for a moment, and disappeared into the hedge on the other side.

But in that frozen moment she saw it quite clearly. "I can only describe it as a goblin," was what she said, and though the shop staff speculated that it may have been a flashback from an acid trip in her misspent youth, she was quite shaken, and it was a while before she drove that way at night again.

The street I grew up on was at the edge of the village and ended in farmland. There was a big pasture at the end of the road, which was bordered on the far side by a very old narrow footpath known locally as the cinder track.

One evening when I was about eight or nine, my friend Alec and I were sitting with our backs against someone's garage door on the edge of the pasture, talking rubbish and looking out over the fields as the sun went down. We both saw, at the same moment, a figure striding along the cinder track towards the village.

I remember looking at Alec to make sure he was seeing it too, and my own fear was reflected in his eyes. The dark figure - a black silhouette - was taller than the straggly trees that bordered the footpath, making it ten, eleven feet tall or more. Its arms were unnaturally long, reaching past its knees. And even from this distance, impossibly, we could both see its eyes, which were deep red, glowing like hot coals. And there was this... feeling, seeping from it like mist, a malevolence.

Without a word to each other we both bolted, ran for our houses, leaving dust in our wake.

Sometimes, walking in the woods with my little boy, I feel like I've stepped sideways out of the flow of what is deemed to be 'normal life'. There are days when I'm so enmeshed in the System -  earn your money, pay your bills, check your emails, go to the supermarket, watch telly, work work, rush rush, veg out, repeat - that getting out of it seems impossible. I look at those I know who live in vans and on boats, who drift on the wind and the tide at whim, and I can no longer figure out a way to join them. 

But I'm not sold on the other way of living either, and I feel that keenly when we're wandering on the edges. I feel this gulf between me and the world of Friends re-runs and hair straighteners, Love Island and eyelash curlers and Primark... Suddenly none of that has any meaning. I feel more and more like I'm looking at that world from somewhere else, and it's a language that I don't understand any more.

Sometimes it's alienating to believe in magic and monsters when most of those around you are existing in a different reality. But I've seen what I've seen and felt what I've felt, and the flint of the land, thousands of years old, is in my bones. Strange things still happen on the Old Straight Tracks, even as the sound of traffic encroaches and the pylons march on across the landscape. The weird and the wild are still out there, beyond this 'civilised' existence we've trapped ourselves in, if you know where to look.

Thursday, 1 July 2021

Decluttering Regret and Charity Shop Rules

I mentioned once before that my rusty 'joy antennae' have meant that when I have had clearouts in the past I've gotten rid of the wrong things. My biggest regret in particular is letting go of a pair of skirts I bought ten-years-ish ago in a seaside hippie shop called Rainbow's End. They were by a brand called Dark Star, and they were both tulle maxi skirts, made from dozens and dozens of overlapping layers like petals. One was in all the colours of the rainbow with raw edges, the other was in my favourite rich purples, blues and indigo, and every 'petal' had a lace trim. They were, hands down, the most beautiful garments I'd ever seen in my life.

I have trawled eBay ever since I got rid of them hoping to find replacements, but so far no joy. Whoever bought them from the charity shop I donated them to is a lucky duck. I've even been back to Rainbow's End and asked about them, but while they had skirts that were sort of similar they weren't half as gorgeous. (I haven't given up, though! I'll check every time I'm in that neck of the woods.)

Why did I get rid of them? Fear. Shame. A desire to conform. After my teens and early twenties had been characterised by wild and unconventional clothing choices, I hit an awkward stage after some online bullying and felt like people were judging me everywhere I went. I adopted a palette of sensible neutrals and started shopping in the 'trendy' shops, trying to blend in with everyone else. 

All my strange and colourful clothes went to the charity shops, except my stompy goth boots and one velvet medieval gown I couldn't bear to part with (for which I am now extremely grateful - I intend wearing it on my 30th birthday. It has been worn in such diverse places as a goth night in York and a crazy golf course in Kent). I've forgotten most of the other garments that disappeared in this first big purge - most of them wouldn't fit me now anyway - but I bitterly regret ever parting with my beautiful faerie skirts!

In mid-April, my hunt for replacement skirts led to a bit of an eBay splurge. I hadn't bought on eBay for years other than essential items for the Spud, but within a few days I became the proud owner of: a steampunk-ish pinstriped waistcoat (for the bargain price of 99p!); a purple satin bullet bra, vintage but pristine (a fiver); a tie-dye fishtail skirt in shades of blue with a barbed wire motif (£7.99); a stunning purple and black velvet and lace skirt with pixie-esque pointed layers and mirrored embroidery (£22.50); and a tiered tulle skirt in blue, indigo and green (similar-ish to my long lost Dark Star skirts but not quite as exquisite. £14.50). 

I realised I was getting carried away one night when I was still on eBay at one a.m. (those shopaholic tendencies just don't die). I was starting back as a volunteer at the charity shop the following weekend, and my sudden enthusiasm for second-hand clothes made me a bit nervous. It was much more sustainable than my previous shopping habits, but it wasn't exactly free. However, at least I now had a handful of exciting and unusual pieces to mix with my more mundane t-shirts, jeans and jumpers. But before returning to the charity shop I knew I was going to have to set myself some limits... and crucially, actually stick to them.

Based on my previous stint as a charity shop staff member, I set myself the following rules:

Thou Shalt Not Buy Anything Which Doesn't Make You Go "Wow"

(otherwise you end up with a wardrobe full of "all right"s and "nice enough"s, which is one thing if you're really short on clothes but a bit unhelpful if you're me and want to avoid repeating the declutter/refill cycle for another ten years)

Thou Shalt Not Buy Anything Which Doesn't Go With What You Already Have

(again, been down this road before, and it's super annoying. If it doesn't work with my existing favourites it's essentially pointless. No garment can stand alone)

Thou Shalt Not Spend Silly Money

(the category of 'silly money' varies depending on what the item is - e.g. I have enough t-shirts that any money spent on t-shirts is 'silly' - what else is going on that month, and whether the money could be better spent. For example, a pair of walking boots or a nice lightweight summer top would be really useful for me, but any more tie-dye anythings borders on excessive and sets me back a bit further from being able to do the courses I'm interested in.)

I've told myself since my teens that it didn't matter what mistakes I made with regards to personal style in my twenties, because no one really knows themselves when they are young, and through all my experimentation I would have my shit together by the time I hit thirty. 

Well, I'm staring down the barrel of that date now, and though it's a little bit more complex than 'ta-da, I am now a finished person', it seems I wasn't actually too far off with that estimation. I've rediscovered some of the confidence I used to have with regards to clothes and I no longer worry about other people's opinions of my outfits, but I've also learned more about what I like and will actually wear rather than just buying stuff 'because it's different'. And I'm happy that I've learned to source things second-hand (with a very occasional item new from small ethical and sustainable brands)  - it means that my wardrobe won't be cookie cutter, but it's also more responsible and less wasteful. 

I don't think I can commit to not buying anything at all at the charity shop, because I know from experience that all kinds of gorgeous things will turn up right under my nose. (And I suck at resisting a bargain, as recently discovered when I got an email to say that Dresden Dolls merchandise was up to 80% off. I managed to snag an art nouveau-style  t-shirt before they sold out, with equal parts guilt - another black band tee - and glee - a DOLLS black band tee!) I find it amazing how some people just... stop shopping. Even after two years of analysing and navel-gazing, I still struggle. Honestly, I've considered professional help! I don't expect perfection, but it's so frustrating, and at times I feel spoiled, greedy, embarrassed, entitled.

But I can do my best not to overdo it, and make the right choices. Right now, my new eBay items seem to have plugged the obvious wardrobe gaps (a waistcoat for layering and because waistcoats are funky, some long skirts for the summer), so I can't think what might tempt me to stray! But I know there will be something!

Just please, keep your fingers crossed for me that a pair of rainbow layered Dark Star faerie skirts come my way.

Thursday, 24 June 2021

Let's Get Metaphysical

I suppose you could say I'm a lapsed Pagan. I've dabbled (the most accurate term in my case, I'm afraid) in assorted branches of Pagan religion since my pre-teens. Recently, due to my increased interest in and connection with nature, history, folklore and more, I've been taking another look at these faiths and traditions. My intuition suggests that introducing a spiritual aspect into my life will help to fill the void inside that I've previously papered over with excessive shopping.

This void is not the gaping darkness it once was. These last couple of years have done me good - I've picked up a variety of creative hobbies, renewed connections with family and friends, and even with the wider world through activism, and disconnected somewhat from my gadgets. I'm not as painfully self-conscious, not as distracted, and not as prone to constant comparison. Lately I've picked up my long-neglected yoga and meditation practice too. It's a bit sporadic, but it helps. Looking deeper into the spiritual now feels like a natural next step - one I've avoided for a long time, for fear of looking or sounding 'woo-woo', upsetting the die-hard sceptics amongst my family and friends (admittedly there are some people I just won't discuss anything of this nature with), or simply feeling worried that I don't know what I'm doing, and might not find what I've always felt I'm looking for.

(Do you ever have the feeling that you're following a trail of breadcrumbs through life? Since childhood I've felt 'nudges' or seen signs that I do my best to follow, trying to piece together a bizarre map of coincidences, hunches, feelings, and notes from a plethora of old books. More and more lately I find myself musing on the saying, "That which you seek is seeking you.")

Why Paganism? Because it feels right to me. I grew up with remedies from the herb garden and food from the hedgerows. When I walk on the land, I feel part of a huge and intricate web. The more I see and come to know of nature, the more it feels miraculous, magical. I feel my ancestors, my history, my connection to the soil and the chalk and the bones of the land. In our home, this year we have begun to celebrate the turning of the seasons by marking the solstices and traditional fire festivals - I think it's a good way for all of us to feel connected to nature, and the little one enjoys gathering greenery and blossoms to decorate the table for our feasts.

Our table for Beltane (May Eve)

Once when I was young, I stayed up all night reading poetry, and the dawn chorus and the breaking light seemed like such a gift, such a wondrous and incredible thing, that for a short time I thought I had found God, and became a devoted churchgoer. I can still feel that sense of awe and joy, of reverence, for the natural world, but I no longer feel it fits within the framework of patriarchal religion. That was just the only frame of reference I had at the time, the only hook on which I could hang such emotions and experience (having attended C of E school).

I'm also psychic. Or perhaps that's a bit strong - intuitive, or sensitive, might be a better term. In really small ways usually - dreams that come true being the most common. I also briefly had a sideline in telling fortunes at secondary school for fifty pence a pop, until my accuracy was denounced as 'creepy' and one girl spread a rumour that I could tell you when you were going to die (spoiler: no I can't). I've never made any real effort to work with it or hone it - in fact I've generally suppressed it (that fear of being too woo-woo, again) - but every now and again I get something a bit more dramatic and difficult to explain, such as the way I met my second boyfriend. I woke up one Saturday morning, and could 'see', in my head, exactly what was going to happen that day. Not as a vision, but the knowledge was just THERE, whole and complete.

I got into action before my rational mind could talk me out of it. I got up and dressed, tidied my room, took my guitar out of the cupboard and stood it in the corner. I wrote my phone number on a slip of card and put it in my pocket. I walked to my friend Ana's house down the street, and together we walked to a house we'd never visited before. My now-ex was in the garden. We looked at each other. Ana and I walked away. In my head, I was counting down - and on cue, he came running after us. I gave him my number.

An hour or so later we were all hanging out in my conspicuously tidy room. Ana was stroking my pet rat. The new guy was playing Basket Case by Green Day on my guitar. We were together for over a decade. In fact, part of the reason I stuck out the relationship was so long was because of the circumstances in which we met - I felt perhaps we were capital-F Fated. Now I suspect I simply wanted a boyfriend so much that I accidentally manifested one.

It's not that I think this kind of experience is a prerequisite for choosing a Pagan path, but I do feel that these traditions provide a good structure for learning how to use and channel this 'ability', so that - I hope - it can become something I can work with and direct rather than being something that just happens to me.

I've had other weird experiences - both in similar vein, and very much not - which I may talk about at some point, as some of them have shaped my world view in a big way. I don't often discuss any of this, as I know even my most supportive friends might be disbelieving, and I don't want to feel I have to excuse or justify what I have felt and experienced. But I'm done with pretending that such experiences and feelings don't have a huge influence on who I am. I don't want to suppress this part of myself any more - I want to embrace it, and go deeper.

As a teenage Wiccan, I very much followed a Pagan-by-numbers approach. I bought a book that told me the names of some deities, and the right words to say for this or that ritual, and which herbs or coloured candles to buy. I dutifully followed the steps, but I never FELT anything. It was like shouting into an abyss.

Now I am a bit older, it's obvious why this approach didn't work. You can't just read a name in a book and tell yourself to believe in it. This time around, I intend to listen to my intuition, read widely, get my hands muddy, and find a path based on what I know, feel, experience and believe.

It's time to get my woo-woo on.

Thursday, 17 June 2021

I Suck at Being Green (But I'm Still Trying)

There are a number of reasons why I'm not very good at being green. I've been trying to 'go greener' since late 2019, when I learned about the climate crisis and went into panic mode. And whilst I do my best, I still often feel like a beginner at these lifestyle changes, and I've made more than a handful of bad decisions along the way. I console myself with the fact that I alone won't make any huge difference one way or the other, but as someone who cares about nature and the environment, and who wants to leave a safe and thriving planet for future generations, I still feel that it's worth trying to bring my lifestyle in line with my values.

In some areas, I feel like I'm doing okay. I've hosted a successful clothing swap party (pre-COVID!) and look forward to doing so again one day. We clean our house with reusable cloths and white vinegar, we use cloth wipes for the little one's bum (he doesn't like wearing the reusable nappies, though, which I wish I could have predicted before I bought them as they're hardly cheap. And I don't know if the staff at his nursery next year will be willing to use cloth wipes, but I'll certainly ask), and I continue to volunteer for Greenpeace. I use an eco friendly natural deodorant, and it took a long time to find one that was natural, effective, and doesn't contain baking soda, to which I'm sensitive (I use Space Cat by Awake Organics; it lasts absolutely ages - one tin lasts me six months - comes in recyclable packaging, I smell faintly citrussy, and I don't need to worry about aluminium in my breast milk). My hair dye is henna; for laundry I use an eco ball with a touch of Dr Bronner's if it's Dai's work gear or baby poop; I have a safety razor so I don't use disposables. We have a sustainable loo roll subscription. I'm on a green energy tariff (I use USwitch to get the best deals). So it's not all bad!

But there are still a lot of changes I'm struggling with. My biggest weakness - and this won't surprise you! - is that I still find it really hard not to shop for new clothes. Even though I don't need any! It's a problem. I've noticed that I have a big splurge around every third month (September, December, March). So gotta watch myself this month. And yes, I'm buying from much better companies, and I no longer spend my entire bank account every month (hooray) so things have distinctly improved. Fashion is such a polluting industry, though, that I really want to stop shopping when I don't actually need to be. (Even as I'm typing this, my brain is like "oh but when you go away for your birthday weekend you might see something you like," but I must try harder to be a bit more ruthless if I don't want to end up back at square one.) 

I find it hugely frustrating that others find it comparatively easy not to clothes shop. My friend Topaz has only bought a handful of second-hand items on eBay since her last big clearout, which was last year. Whereas I seem to be convinced that I'll miss out on some magical item that will, I dunno, round out my personality and give my life meaning? 

Food is another bone of contention for me. We did try switching our weekly grocery shop to an organic delivery company last year, but in the end we had to accept that although the quality was great, the cost just wasn't realistic for us. I also don't do all the grocery shopping for the family, and those who do don't necessarily share my concerns about excess packaging and imported foods. I did put my foot down over blackberries in January flown from South America, but when somebody else is buying your food you can only do so much whingeing before you start sounding seriously ungrateful. We also do eat meat, although we have cut down a lot, but I can't honestly picture Dai ever going veggie.

I have also found that frugality and environmentalism don't always go hand in hand. Often they do, such as with our kitchen cloths and baby bum wipes, but sometimes the price of an eco alternative puts it well out of my reach. Sometimes I accept paying more for an item which is better for me and better for the environment, for example I only use cosmetics without a whole host of toxic ingredients (except the batch of seriously colourful make-up I recently bought off a goth friend - she wasn't using it, so it's recycling, and although I'm ambivalent about make-up on occasion I've been enjoying playing with things like upsettingly orange eyeshadow and swamp-witch-green mascara. I dread to think what's in it, though). And since I switched us all to natural bath products, the Spud's eczema has cleared up, which is telling. It means that my spend on cosmetics is a lot higher than some people's - what's a body lotion cost in Aldi? 70p? The last one I bought was from Luna Levitas and cost about a tenner. But I use what I buy, only buy what I need, and my skin does actually seem to benefit. And we save on eczema creams, so there's that.

I had a bit of a problem with shampoo, though. I tried switching to natural shampoo last year, but I didn't know that in a hard water area, shampoo needs to have a surfactant to actually work. Many shampoo bars and natural shampoos are just made with oils, so for several months I went around with greasy hair and a horrible grey waxy build-up that even the strongest apple cider vinegar rinse wouldn't shift. I couldn't understand what was going on and thought I was just going through the worst detox phase of all time. Then just when I was ready to give up, I found a post on a blog called Sustainably Lazy that explained the whole thing. I immediately switched to a shampoo bar from Lush and have never looked back! 

I've made the mistake of trying to buy my way to sustainability, spending a fortune on organic veg boxes and reusable nappies and fancy matching cloths and zero waste bras (okay, I actually really recommend these, they're from Pethau Bach on Etsy and they're brilliant and gorgeous. They also come in a breastfeeding style, which is what I currently wear) and jute washing up cloths and organic toothpaste and so on and so on, which blew a chunk of my finances and turned out to be completely unnecessary in a lot of cases. You can use old cotton t-shirts for cleaning rags, you don't actually need a colour coordinated set. I've also tried to do the opposite and stop spending any unnecessary moneys ever, but I went too far in my Eco Thrift Crusade and felt like a right joyless old frump; in the end it was a relief to run out and buy some nail polish. So as usual, extremes are counter-productive, at least for me. I push myself too far in one direction or the other and then tend to burn out. 

For a while recently I felt tired of the whole thing - I'd lost any sense of what the point was, and the ever-present temptation of shopping my way to fulfilment (or at least a sort of pleasant-ish numbness) was starting to seem a far more tantalising prospect. Funnily enough, it was my rekindled interest in Paganism (more about this later!) which has revived my interest in green and simple living. I say funnily enough because my previous forays into various Pagan paths have involved purchasing a lot of fancy implements and setting up elaborate altars only to feel disheartened and move on after a couple of months. This time I've bought no athames, pentacles, incense, altar cloths, crystals, divination decks, Goddess statues, wands, runes, singing bowls, ritual robes, goofer dust, crystal balls, besoms, black mirrors, candles or anything else! Instead I've taken my own advice - spent time daily in nature, kept up my meditation practice and done a bit of online research. I came across a description of Druidry that stopped me in my tracks, as it seemed very close to what I've been feeling and experiencing myself. 

I'll need to know more about Druidry before I say for sure, so I need to get my hands on some books and look into it further, but it really seems like a down-to-earth philosophy of living that could add meaningfulness to my environmentally-based choices and depth to my experience of the world. The Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids offers a highly recommended correspondence course that I'm intrigued by, not least because you're assigned a mentor whom you can plague with questions (Dai can attest to the fact that I'm full of annoying spiritual questions right now). I've also been reading some Druid blogs (Druid blogs!) and, well, isn't it great when you find someone else articulating things you've been thinking and feeling

So that's where I'm at right now. Imperfectly green but doing my best, intrigued by Druidry, excited by possibilities (and overfond of parentheses). 

Thursday, 10 June 2021

Ways I'd Like To Rejig Society (or, Unfucking A Couple of Things That Are Fucked)

I had a strange and memorable conversation with a dear friend a few years ago. We were talking about cosmetic companies testing their products on animals. Awful, she said, disgusting. Shouldn't be allowed. 

So, you check the labels when you buy make-up, then? To make sure it's cruelty free?

Oh no, she said with a brisk shake of the head. Can't be bothered with all that.

I think this illustrates the way a lot of people feel about this and other related issues - animal testing, food production, sweatshop factories, poverty and hunger, forced labour and modern slavery, climate change, mass extinction. Sure, we know there's a problem, and in general we think this stuff shouldn't be happening. But... the way we live is so easy. So comfy. Let's just draw a discreet veil over all the stuff we wish wasn't happening so that we can just carry on the way we are.

This is why I believe that, unlike economics, sustainability needs to apply from the top down. If new standards for businesses, new legislation, were to exist, the choices available to the everyday consumer could be made less damaging. It's easy to choose cruelty free when all of the options are cruelty free. You don't need to check your labels for the leaping bunny when cruelty free and sustainable is simply the default

I'm not really sure why FairTrade, cruelty free, organic and eco friendly options are still considered a bit niche, and items made by desperate people in horrific conditions using toxic chemicals are the acceptable norm. I hope to see this change - really change - within my lifetime.

Some people may feel a sense of resistance to the idea of having their options for consumption limited. We are used to choosing from a vast menu of options for everything - from wedding dresses to peanut butter - and we don't really want this to change. But who would knowingly choose children's toys containing lead and mercury, or a plastic lunch box that potentially releases carcinogens into your food? To say nothing of the hazards for the people who have to make such things. In his book Consumed, Benjamin Barber writes, "We are seduced into thinking that the right to choose from a menu is the essence of liberty, but with respect to relevant outcomes the real power, and hence the real freedom, is in the determination of what is on the menu."

Businesses and governments love to put the onus for change on the individual consumer, rather than accepting any limitations on their greed and rapacious behaviour. But no one individual can do everything, even if they felt inclined, when as we have seen, many simply aren't interested in doing things that aren't easy. In a world where we still have to employ people to pick up litter thrown on the ground, we can't expect every individual to make every choice for the good of the whole planet. And adding more and more green choices to the smorgasbord of options already available can't be the answer on its own - as Annie Leonard notes in The Story of Stuff, "It's simply not possible to get 100 percent agreement from nearly 7 billion people on any issue, and our ecological systems are on such overload, that we simply don't have time to try. Imagine if we had had to wait for 100 percent consensus before getting women the vote or ending slavery: we'd still be waiting."

I believe that we can build a less environmentally destructive, more equitable society. I also believe that as things currently stand, we need legislation to help us do so. 

Similarly, when we talk about sustainability - or, more to the point, when our so-called leaders talk about sustainability - the emphasis is always on preserving the status quo. As John Michael Greer demonstrates in the introduction to his book Green Wizardry, "Consider the endless bickering over the potential of renewable energy in the media and the internet. Most of that bickering assumes that the only way a society can or should use energy is the way today's industrial nations use energy. Thus you see one side insisting that windpower, say, can provide the same sort of instantly accessible and abundant energy supply we're used to having [...], while the other side - generally with better evidence - insists that it cannot. 

"What inevitably gets missed in these debates is the fact that it's entirely possible to have a technologically advanced and humane society without having electricity on demand from sockets on every wall across the length and breadth of a continent. [...] What stands in the way of this recognition is the emotional power of today's ideology of progress, with its implicit assumption that the way we happen to do things must be the best, or even the only, possible way to do them."

Imagining other ways of living can be uncomfortable, even scary. This, I suspect, is how a lot of people feel with regards to the idea of buying less. It's a limitation. A sacrifice. A loss of freedom. Naturally, we chafe against even the idea of restraint. We are so used to having whatever we want, preferably immediately, that alternatives seem dismal, frightening, unpatriotic. Certainly I have felt that way, even though my attempts to buy less have increased my resilience, self-esteem, appreciation and contentment almost from day one.

Ultimately, however, these are the changes we need to make - as a society, we must learn to consume less, waste less, and cooperate more. Because we have already done damage to the Earth, our home, through our current mode of living, and as this century wears on and the results of that damage become ever more apparent, we will need to adapt if we wish to survive. 

Up until fairly recently, I've been frightened of these changes. Dreading them. I couldn't picture what a society might look like that could weather the future and the crisis we face. However, John Michael Greer's Green Wizardry, with its discussion of appropriate tech, made me feel far more hopeful. And if you'll forgive me referring once again to The Story of Stuff, I found much to be optimistic about in Annie Leonard's description of her living situation, which I would very much like to emulate:

 "It's really just a bunch of good friends who chose to live near one another - really near, like next door. We find life easier and more rewarding because we focus more on building community than on buying Stuff. We share a big yard; we often eat meals together; but each family has its own self-contained home into which we can retreat when we want to be alone."

In Leonard's community, even watching TV is something that people generally do together. Stuff is shared between families so less resources are used on buying new items. Services are shared too - plumbing, cooking, babysitting, repairs, carpooling. (I WISH I had had this as a new mum.) If someone is sick, the community steps in again for rides to the doctor, childcare, even bringing flowers. 

If we could shift to a society set up like this, we could buy less and lose nothing.