Trans/formation

Events in the last couple of weeks or so, in the US, have moved almost too fast for me to talk about them. The dire situation doesn’t need stating right now – least of all by me, a British woman who’s not on the receiving end of any of it personally. But I know people who are, and many of them are terrified.

Amid the chaos and bloodshed, one of the latest steaming dumps to emanate from the nether regions of Washington DC is the suggestion that the law should be tweaked to deny the existence of trans and non-binary people. US citizens, it says, should be defined solely and always by the M or F on their birth certificate, even if that doesn’t correspond to the gender they are now. And that can only be changed subject to genetic testing. If you have an XX, you’re a girl; XY, you’re a boy. End of.

Except…it’s more complicated than that. A lot more complicated. Nature always is.

I sometimes tell people that I became a proper feminist at art college. In the library, poring through Gray’s Anatomy – that brick of a book beloved of medical students and life drawing classes – I came across the development of the genitalia. Here comes the science bit: Basically, every embryo, a couple of months into the process of becoming human, has at its back end a little opening, and above it, a little bump – which can become, respectively, a vaginal opening and a clitoris, or (closed over) a scrotum and a penis. Internally, it has two sets of tubes, one of which might become sperm ducts, the other which might join up to become a uterus.

Seeing that, it suddenly struck me how you couldn’t say women were inferior to men, or even substantially different from them – not if our bits came from the same source. Right? (Finding Monica Sjöo and Barbara Mor’s The Great Cosmic Mother in the same library helped too.)

What I didn’t realise back then is that you can also end up with various ‘in-between’ anatomical states. And hormonal states. You can be a chimera, made of two separate cell lines with different sex chromosomes. You can be born with genitals that don’t look completely ‘male’ or ‘female’. You can have glands that are part ovary and part testis. You can have a genetic quirk that gives you an X and a Y, but also makes you insensitive to male hormones. You can have an enzyme deficiency that means you go through childhood looking like a girl…until you hit puberty, when you suddenly grow a penis.

And then there are brains, and personalities, and the fact – which no reputable medical person now disputes – that there are people in this world who, while born with the bodies our culture attributes to one gender, actually feel and know themselves to be another. Or who feel they have traits of male and female. Or who don’t feel they belong to any particular gender at all.

I may not be the best person to talk about this. This Magpie has always known she was a hen bird, so to speak. I was assigned female at birth, and have never questioned that I was female. I have questioned a lot of the baggage attached to being female. I did get accused of ‘not being a proper girl’ because I didn’t have a ‘feminine’ obsession with appearance and grooming. But I never felt I wasn’t a girl.

Yeah, gender roles are a bunch of crap even for cis people. But trans and non-binary people have it way, way worse. I try to imagine what it would be like if I’d been told, from my earliest years, that I was, in fact, a boy, despite what I knew to be true. If I’d been called by a boy’s name, forbidden from doing ‘girls’ things’, punished for insisting I was a girl. If you imagine that happening to you, week after week, year after year…you may be able to picture a little of how trans people end up feeling. But they’re the ones who’ve actually lived this.

Most of the anti-trans people say that their stance has something to do with ‘God’. ‘God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!’ has been their cry during the whole gay marriage debate. Now, it’s ‘Male and female he created them!’

image

Someone has been posting a meme around the web pointing out that while God created pairs of apparent ‘opposites’, he also created the in-between states. Day and night, but also the glory of dawn and sunset. Land and sea, but also the beauty of coastlines. Male and female…but also a wide range of people who don’t fall into either category, and whom we should appreciate as divine creations in the same way.

Fair point. The creative Power of the universe doesn’t do stark opposites; most things in existence come in ranges of variation. But we humans do like categories – and while they do in some cases help us make sense of the world, we often use them a bit too much for our own good. We tend to regard things that are ‘neither one thing nor t’other’, liminal, as either sacred or suspicious. Dawn and dusk, and the turning-points of the seasons, are the times for supernatural shenanigans. People at in-between stages of life are either holy or taboo. And while ‘two-spirit’ people were sacred in many cultures, they were condemned in the mainstream Judaeo-Christian tradition, the one still most influential on our secular laws.

There’s something else going on with gender in our society. Patriarchy insists that men are superior to women. And to preserve any hierarchy, you have to forbid or exclude people who blur the boundaries. If you believe that women exist solely to bear children for men and to serve their needs, where do you put a woman who loves other women, or a woman who wasn’t born with a uterus, or someone who doesn’t think of themselves as male or female at all?

Answer: you don’t. And these people would indeed rather trans and non-binary (and gay, and bi) people didn’t exist. So much so, that they’re started the ball rolling to have their non-existence enshrined in law.

  1. I’ve said many times before that in a changing world, we need to update the mythologies we often use to justify attitudes. This is one instance where we might first go back to even older myths. Because very many of them don’t stick to a gender binary either, and they may have things to teach us today.

There’s the Greek story of Tiresias, the seer who struck the serpents of Hera and became a woman, then after some years was returned to a male form, and who was punished by Zeus for daring to state that women’s sexual pleasure was greater: Trans people can give us insights into how false notions of gender have negative effects on all of us.

There’s the Buddhist bodhisattva, or deity, Avalokiteśvara, who’s a male in Tibetan imagery, but whose cult travelled to China, where she manifested as the beloved goddess, Kuan Yin: Compassion and wisdom have no gender.

There’s the Norse myth in which the trickster god, Loki, turned himself into a mare, and in that form mated with a stallion, became pregnant, and gave birth to Sleipnir, the eight-legged horse who became the steed of Odin: Birth and parenting can happen in unconventional and unexpected ways.

There’s the Japanese transgender deity Ishikore-dome, who held up a mirror to transfix Amaterasu, the sun goddess, when she was finally lured out of her cave: People who defy gender stereotypes may force us to confront our own previously unknown selves.

And even in Eden…in Jewish tradition, there’s a rabbinical teaching that ‘Male and female he created them’ means exactly that – male and female, that G-d created one original, dual-sexed being, before later dividing them into separate male and female humans: We are all part of a common humanity that comes in a spectrum of different forms.

Of course, those are still old stories, and we need brand new ones. And those need to be created by the people who know, on every level, what it means to not fit neatly into society’s gender stereotypes – by trans and non-binary people themselves.

image

But that can’t happen unless we work for everyone’s right to exist. Unless we all fight to protect everyone, of every gender, sexuality, race, creed, ability, you name it – which takes real-world action. And I, for one, support, and will speak out for, those who are creating those stories, with their lives and bodies; not just for the sake of the stories, but for the people themselves.

Here, to finish, is a piece from the late, great Angela Morley. She transitioned back in the days when being an out trans person in the UK was extremely rare. And she was also a damn good composer of music for the movies; she worked with John Williams as an arranger on Star Wars – and given that she specialised in woodwind, she was almost certainly the main brain behind the Mos Eisley Cantina theme. But this is one of my favourite pieces from Watership Down. May everyone be free to be and become who they truly are.

.

…And justice for all.

What does Justice look like to you?

That’s a question I’ve been asking myself this week, while listening to the radio at work, or picking up the windfalls and the horse-chestnuts from Mr. Magpie’s mother’s driveway. It seems a good time of year to consider it, as the days and nights balance and we enter into the astrological sign of Libra, symbolised by the scales.

Humans are concrete creatures, and we like to symbolise, and indeed, personify, concepts that seem abstract to us. If I were to ask most adults in the Western world to depict what Justice would look like if Justice were a person, they might, with varying degrees of skill, come up with something like this:

image

This is Justice as she’s depicted at law courts worldwide, and as she was known to the Romans: Justitita. The scales are to weigh up the evidence; the blindfold is to show that she’s impartial; and she’s usually also shown with a sword, to punish the guilty.

She herself derived from the older Greek figure, Dike, who was also seen with scales. Dike was the daughter of Zeus and Themis, and her mother was also a goddess of justice; but where Themis represented divine justice, Dike was the kind humans used to judge one another’s behaviour. One suspects a lot of early court cases may have actually involved weights and measures, but it’s an apt symbol for the balancing of events and motives that happens over many different issues in law courts to this day.

In Egypt, it was the weighing of something even more serious: the soul, represented by the heart. Famously, papyri of the Book of Going Forth by Day – better known as the Book of the Dead – depict the dead person being led before Thoth, the ibis-headed god of measurement and writing, to have their heart weighed against a feather. If your heart was lighter, you passed the test and got to dwell with the gods; if it was weighed down by evil deeds, you were eaten by the monster Ammut.

That feather on the balance – specifically, an ostrich feather – was the insignia of another goddess, Ma’at. She was said to have been produced by Ra, the sun-God, at the beginning of time – or to have existed even before him – and she was what enabled him to make everything else; she represented cosmic order, the kind of law that held the universe together and regulated the passing of the seasons. She was the wife of Thoth, which makes sense, because wisdom and justice go together.

Is Justice always female? Not necessarily. Shamash was the Babylonian god who had charge of the scales, Mul Zibanu, that formed the original constellation of Libra. The Inuit have a god of justice called Issitoq, who’s basically a giant flying eye – not unlike the all-seeing eye of God that terrified the young Martin Scorsese, painted on the ceiling of his bedroom in New York. And Norse warriors relied on the powers of Forseti, the ‘stiller of strife’, who was especially good at mediation.

But they also had the goddess Syn, who had a rather different take on justice: she was the embodiment of No. She was all about telling you that This Stops Here And Now. She was originally one of the Disir, the collective goddesses of fate.

It may seem odd to our culture that the deities of justice tend to be female, and no soft touch either. Aren’t women all about mercy and compassion?  Sometimes.  But it’s mothers who have to keep tabs on unruly children, and the female collective who’d once have had to keep order when the males were off hunting.  And men (usually the more childish ones) tend to still be a bit wary, even as adults, of what might happen when Mom finds out what they’ve been up to.

We might remember that in the Middle East, before there was Shamash – also the Sun god – there was Inanna, or Ishtar. She’s supposed to have stolen the me – the clay tablets bearing the laws of civilisation, or sometimes the laws themselves – from the male gods. But did she, or were they originally hers anyway? It was Ishtar who’d descended to the underworld, so she knew all about the dark side of life. (Back in Greece, Praxidike, the more vengeful form of Dike, was also known as Perspehone, who’d not only gone there but ended up living there.) And she’d also, in one version of her story, been raped by the gardener, Shukaletuda, and wreaked terrible revenge on him.

Which is perhaps where I come to the point. Because for me, right now, and for millions of other women, I believe Justice may look a lot like this:

image

And we need Justice wearing the face and voice of Dr Christine Blasey Ford. And other women like her. Standing up and speaking the truth of their experience, in the face of sneering and hostility and victim-blaming and slut-shaming and all the other outrage the patriarchy puts on, when one of their supposed possessions dares to name what they really are.

Because too many men are still too much like Shukaletuda. Or like Zeus, grabbing at every female thing in sight without so much as a by-your-leave. Which is why Astraea, another Greek goddess of justice, fled back to the stars in disgust, because gods are no better than the men who create them.

Because the Negative Confession that dead Egyptians were supposed to speak to the assembled deities included the words:
I have not uttered lies.
I have made none to weep.
I am not a man of violence
.
…and this was the standard you had to pass to be worthy to live among the gods .

Because while the magician Aleister Crowley was no paragon of virtue, especially not in the context of gender politics, he did have the wisdom to rename the Justice card in his Tarot pack ‘Adjustment’. When the balance has swung too far one way, it needs to be pushed back. Re-centred. And perhaps those whose side it’s been stuck on will whine a little, but they’ve had it their way for too long.

That’s why.

So here’s a question. What does Justice look like…to you?

Human rites

Grayson Perry is a national treasure, and one of my favourite artists. From his initial winning of the Turner Prize back in 2003, he’s continued to be use and delight the art world with his classically shaped and glazed pots layered with images of modern life and pop culture; his branching out into tapestries depicting a contemporary Rake’s Progress of status and class; his fetishisation of his muse and travelling companion, his childhood teddy-bear Alan Measles; and (most enjoyably enraging to Daily Mail readers and their ilk) his sporting of a blonde bob and embroidered frocks as his female alter ego, Claire.

Recently, Grayson has been exploring a perennial fascination of his, the human need for rituals, in a series of programmes for Channel Four. The series ended last week, but you can still view it here. In the episodes, he looks at four of the most basic of rites of passage in human life – birth, coming of age, marriage and death.

First, he witnesses traditional examples of how those passages are handled in various cultures, from a raucous and rude puberty rite in an Amazon village, to a meticulously choreographed Shinto wedding. Then, he gets together with people in secular England facing those transitions, but in ways that are less than traditional: families with premature babies spending time in an NICU, a man with motor neurone disease contemplating ending his own life, a couple divorcing, an Alcoholics Anonymous circle finally facing sober adulthood. For each, he finds out what those transitions mean to them emotionally, helps to organise a ceremony that embodies those feelings, and creates a piece of art (mostly ceramic, since that’s his area) that’s incorporated into the ritual and serves as a lasting memento of the occasion. The process is fascinating, and some of the resulting rituals are deeply moving.

Ritual is one of my obsessions, too, and watching this started me thinking about how we could more widely apply the sort of method he uses.

Think about what rituals we actually have in our culture, if we’re not of any particular religious background. Before a birth, we have baby showers (which, OK, are a US thing, but they do seem to be catching on this side of the pond). After the baby’s born, we have, or used to have, a christening – or baptism – which was often treated as an excuse to ‘wet the baby’s head’ in quite another sense. Then, a ‘coming of age’ party when you reach eighteen or twenty-one (or fifteen, if you’re a Hispanic American and the Quinceañera is part of your cultural background). If you meet the right person, you might get married: in church, or in a secular venue. You and your partner might have parties to celebrate numerically significant wedding anniversaries. There’ll be another party when you retire. And then, at some point, a funeral. And between all these, there’s the annual ritual of birthdays.

Weddings – with tweaks to the law – are slowly becoming less stereotyped and more individual and meaningful to the couple than they maybe used to be. And of course, the opening of marriage to same-sex couples means the ritual has had to adjust itself. This is a good thing. Rituals that no longer mean anything to the people involved are pointless.

Funerals are going the same way; I’ve been to several Humanist funerals, and the freedom from religious strictures led to much more personal ceremonies. Baby namings are probably doing likewise, but I haven’t been to many in recent years. But coming of age still has little real acknowledgement (aside from your teenagers going out and ‘proving’ themselves by doing things you really would rather they didn’t do). Neither does ageing, birthday card jokes about wrinkles aside.

(We also have some new rituals appearing in our culture that we’d maybe be better off not celebrating. I’m thinking of things like purity balls in the conservative parts of the US. Or gender reveal parties, which not only help enforce the pink-blue, boy-girl stereotype of expectations before the poor fetus is even decanted, but lead to baked monstrosities like these. Rituals that enforce an agenda, be that of commerce, patriarchy or fundamentalism, are perhaps worse than those that no longer mean anything at all.)

But there’s also the first time you fall in love…or get dumped. For LGBT people, coming out and/or transition. Leaving home (a bigger, and later, deal for today’s young people). Not unusually these days, coming back home, and establishing a new relationship with your parents. Losses: redundancy, divorce, losing body parts to surgery, the loss of a wanted pregnancy. The choice not to bear children, right now or ever, by abortion or sterilisation. The decision to bear them by alternative means, by IVF or surrogacy or adoption. There’s a long list of life passages we don’t officially mark.

During a conversation about this subject on Facebook, I was reminded that it’s mainstream culture – meaning, largely, WASP culture – that doesn’t celebrate these things. Various Native American peoples have for centuries had ceremonies to celebrate ‘two-spirit’ people, to mourn the death of a little one lost before birth, or to honour elders – for example. Many non-Western cultures have rituals for other passages we overlook. We shouldn’t forget that.
But, neither should we be taking their rituals – which are theirs, and only really make sense within the context of the culture that created them.

Rituals – to use an analogy Mr Perry might understand – are containers for the emotional impact of the crucial points in our lives. If we steal other people’s pots, that’s colonialism. But what we can and should do, is look at their underlying form for inspiration, then take the raw clay of our own lives, and shape it into something that will hold our particular experience.

image

Try it yourself. Look at whether there’s any unfinished business around a transition in your life, past or present (because just as it’s never too late to have a happy childhood, as the AA folks showed, neither is it ever too late to celebrate your maturity – or anything else). Look at how that, or something like it, has been dealt with by other humans.

Then, working on that structure, ask yourself what you can make of it. Literally. We’re symbolic creatures, and we need to get our ‘stuff’ out – in the form of visible actions, or tangible objects – to deal with it properly. Ritual comes, as Grayson says, out of our bodies and emotions; it’s something we’ve been doing for a very long time. Let’s take it into our own hands and make it meaningful for us, today.

The power of No

In my last post, I touched on the basic, physical and mental aspects of self-care, and one thing I mentioned in passing was saying No. I wanted to look at this in a bit more detail.

We live in a culture where ‘No’ has a bad rap. We’re supposed to be all about acceptance, about positivity, about saying Yes to whatever life throws at us. There have even been books written around the notion of actually, practically saying Yes to any request or suggestion.

Ah, but sorry, folks, life isn’t like that.

Kabbalah, the esoteric Jewish mystical tradition, has an interesting take on how we came to exist. Initially, they say, God was everything there was. And he wanted to make a universe. But where could he make it, if he was all there was?

So in his infinite wisdom, God withdrew. He emptied a part of himself, made a space where there wasn’t God, and that was where he sent the divine spark of energy that eventually (after descending down through ten vessels, and shattering them en route, which is why nothing’s perfect) became the material universe we know and live in.

This process by which God emptied himself, made a boundary, said No to being Everything so that something else could be Something, is called in Hebrew tzimtzum, ‘contraction’. It’s not just a feature of Kabbalah. The regular creation story in the Torah has God drawing boundaries – light from dark, day from night, heaven from earth, sea from dry land – all the way through.

If you want something less mythological, consider how the human body forms. Every cell in our bodies contains the total DNA code to make all of us – and in early embryos, every cell is pluripotent: any cell can become any kind of tissue (which is why stem cell research is such a big deal). But if cells retained that ability, they couldn’t form a body with coherent parts. Instead, under the influence of chemical pathways, cells ‘switch off’ the genes they don’t need as they develop, so they end up only able to express themselves as skin, nerve, blood or whatever. They say No to being anything else.

Similarly, look at how hands form. An embryo’s hand at first looks more like a flipper, a little featureless nubbin of flesh. The cells that will become the fingers continue to grow and develop, but the ones in between, die off. So that we don’t end up looking like the Man from Atlantis, chemical signals say No to everything that isn’t ‘finger’, rather like Michelangelo cutting away every part of the marble block that wasn’t ‘angel’.

image

And so we get to our own creativity, where we also shade the background so the design can stand out, cut away the fabric so we can see the pattern pieces, leave spaces so that the notes can sound, cut out paragraphs so we can make sense of the words that remain. It’s the same process.

Saying No has another significance, though. That’s in making room for creativity itself.

Creating boundaries. Saying:

No, I can’t work late this week.
No, I cannot deal with one more dramatic phone call.
No, I don’t need to watch that toxic news channel.
No, I don’t want to date you right now.
No, I cannot bail you out again…

….so that we can do something better, something more fulfilling, with the space that’s left.

And it works the same way in the larger world, when we collectively say:

No, we will not be led into another pointless war.
No, we will not let you scapegoat these innocent people.
No, we refuse to countenance your lies.
No, you do not get to harm the people we love.
No, this planet is not yours to do what you will with.

That’s a bigger refusal. And we shouldn’t forget that not everyone has the privilege of saying No, personally or politically, and that consent (not just the sexual kind, although that’s pretty important) is still, for some people, fraught with issues of coercion and necessity and the least worst option. Not everyone has a free choice.

But where we can say No to whatever’s harmful or useless or (like God) just taking up too much room for anything else to exist…we should. Because that’s how we carve ourselves out a place for something better.

So if there’s a small No that needs saying in your life, say it. Remember that you don’t have to explain it, that No is a complete sentence. And then, see if the space left by that No doesn’t allow you the possibility of a more interesting Yes.

Self-care for the creative soul

We live, you may have noted, in troubled times. And when it seems we have no choice but to fight for our lives, in one way or another, it’s important not to forget to look after ourselves.

Self-care has become quite the buzzword these days. A quick search reveals a slew of books giving hints, tips and suggestions on how to look after your own needs, and every other magazine is full of articles on self-care.

The commercial world being what it is, however, a fair amount of this advice seem overly focused on a particular type of reader: female, and middle-class enough to be able to afford spa days, hot stone massages, chia seeds, spiralizers and other accoutrements that are either out of reach – in time or financial terms – for many of us. Or it places the words ‘glowing’ and ‘healthy’ alongside photos that suggest they really mean ‘young’ and ‘skinny’ (and not coincidentally, white and blonde – I blame Gwyneth Paltrow).

For most of us, there are rather more basic things we could benefit from. Making sure we’re properly hydrated, especially in the weather the UK has had recently (and yes, tea and coffee do count as hydration). Adding the odd fruit or veg to your intake. Remembering to floss your teeth. Getting to bed a little earlier. Getting out of doors at some point during the day. Saying No to yet one more demand on your energy. Stopping to take a few deep breaths. If you’re working long hours in a crappy job, dealing with parenthood, eldercare or chronic health conditions, short of money or in poor housing – or even if you’re not – you are much more likely to try and look after yourself if your goals are small and simple.

image

Beyond the basics, however, self-care isn’t just for the body and mind. It also encompasses the soul. As the union worker Rose Schneiderman pointed out, we need bread, but we must have roses too. Not just survival, but creativity, is what we need. More urgently than ever, when times are trying.

So here are my humble suggestions for fifty small ways to look after your creative soul…

1. Make a list of five things you’re grateful for.
2. Whack on your IPod, or turn up the radio, and dance till you’re out of breath.
3. Go to a pound shop (or dime store, in the US) and get a bunch of kids’ art supplies. Make a piece of art with them. Stick it on your fridge and admire it.
4. Speaking of kids’ art supplies…do some fingerpainting.
5. Bake something. If you don’t have the knack of baking from scratch, get one of those super simple cake mixes you just add water to. Instant (almost) gratification.
6. Watch birds – in the wild, or at the feeder in your yard. Bonus points if you have somewhere you can see squirrels, hedgehogs or other wee beasties.
7. Do something different to your appearance. Dye your hair, arrange it a different way, wear earrings or a scarf or tie you haven’t worn in a while.
8. Whether you believe in astrology or not, write yourself a horoscope for the week ahead. Make it a good one. Tall dark handsome strangers may or may not be involved.
9. Get a current affairs magazine. Let out your inner eight-year-old and go to town with a ballpoint pen, adding zits, vampire fangs and insulting speech balloons to photos of your least favourite public figures.
10. Light candles.
11. Grow something: cress on wet cotton wool, a bean in a jar with blotting paper, or try and keep a Venus flytrap alive. (If you succeed, tell me how. The Magpie does not have green fingers.)
12. Write a haiku and leave it in a public place.
13. Go to a kids’ play park and have a go on the swings.
14. Write encouraging slogans on sticky notes. Decorate them. Place them around your desk, on your bathroom mirror, and anywhere else you need to see them.
15. With only what you have in your house, improvise a superhero costume. (If you feel brave, go out in public wearing it.)
16. Get Plasticene or Play-doh and make something from it.
17. Go to your local library. If you’re a regular library-goer, strike out and try a library further afield that you haven’t been to lately. Get out books you’ve never read on subjects that catch your eye.
18. Tell someone a harmless lie about yourself. Make it good and elaborate, and try not to get caught out. (Introvert version: do it in an online forum where nobody knows you.)
19. Go to the pet section of your local garden centre, and spend some time watching the tropical fish.
20. Watch goofy cat videos online.
21. Blow bubbles.
22. Make a good thorough list of your accomplishments. Exams, work promotion, grade 3 viola, babies, prize-winning tomatoes, divorcing Mr Wrong, quilts, watercolours…it all counts.
23. Get some nice smooth flat rocks, paint them (or draw on them with marker pens), and leave them for people to find.
24. When you’re out and about, talk to someone you don’t normally talk to.
25. Memorise a poem.
26. Go to a DIY store, find the paint chips, pick out colours you love and take them home with you.
27. Cut up an old magazine or two and make a collage.
28. Alter a plain cheap pair of sneakers with paint and sparkles.
29. Make a random scribble on paper. Add features and try and turn it into a person or creature.
30. Invent and use a new swear word. See if it catches on.
31. Visit a sacred place: a church, temple, mosque, stone circle…Be respectful, sit and absorb the atmosphere. If there’s a place to light a candle, feel free.
32. Get a colouring book and spend some time filling it in.
33. Create playlists (mixtapes, if you want to get old school) for different moods and situations: Summer Afternoon, Outer Space, Road Trip, Halloween, TGIF…invent your own.
34. Put on your scruffiest old clothes, don a pair of shades, go out somewhere and pretend to be a rock star.
35. Eat dessert first. Hell, eat dessert instead of. Eat dessert for breakfast. Not all the time, maybe, but once in a while, it cannot possibly hurt.
36. Make a piece of jewellery out of (literal) junk.
37. Go and find where the interesting graffiti is in your town. Take photos.
38. Get a postcard of your location or a local tourist spot, write on it and send it to someone. If you don’t have anyone to send it to, post it to yourself.
39. Go to a department store and test any perfumes you like the sound of.
40. Draw a temporary tattoo on yourself with eye pencils.
41. Go out in nature (to a park, if you’re in town) and collect twigs, leaves and what have you. Arrange them into art pieces à la Andy Goldsworthy and leave them in situ.
42. Paint a slogan on a T-shirt and wear it.
43. Re-read a favourite childhood book.
44. Go and find a photo booth and take silly shots of yourself.
45. Sit in a café and sketch people.
46. Write yourself a fan letter. If you want, write it from the point of view of your secret celebrity crush. Be totally over-the-top.
47. Go online, find an artist you love, and leave a message of appreciation on their blog or social media.
48. Go to a charity shop and buy the most bedraggled soft toy animal you can find. Take it home and give it some love by blinging it up with beads, buttons, ribbons and miscellaneous Shiny Things.
49. Mime along to the whole of your favourite album. Hairbrush mike optional.
50. Make your bed into a tent, get cookies and a beverage of your choice, and read with a flashlight under the covers.

You should aim to fit in one of these at least once a week – once a day would be ideal. But don’t beat yourself up if you can’t. It’s not another ‘to-do’ list. Think of it as a ‘could-do’ list.

Do some of these sound silly? Hell, yes. But ‘silly’ comes from the same root as ‘holy’, and there is sacredness in the small, silly moments of life. Childish? There’s nothing at all wrong with being a kid, especially when you’re old enough to know better. Most importantly, they’re actions that nourish the parts of you that kale, Pilates and Su Doku alone cannot reach. And that part matters – perhaps, most of all.

Signs of the times

Symbols are powerful. Anyone who was at the Norwich Pride Parade last weekend – as I was – and witnessed a 50-metre rainbow banner being paraded through the streets, could tell you that. Anyone who’s been at a Trump rally and seen the sea of red baseball hats knows that that power can be used (and misused) in many ways.

But I’m also thinking here of more basic, graphic symbols.  We all use these every day,  You’re using them right now; the Roman alphabet, like its many fellow writing systems, is a series of symbols for vocal sounds, which in themselves are symbols for things or concepts. You use symbols in another form when you express your delight, disgust or disbelief on that Facebook post with an appropriate emoji. If you drive, you use the symbols on road signs to help you stay safe.  And again, there are some simple signs that have an immediate impact and power.  Think of the cross, the Star of David, the CND symbol.

Practitioners of magic, the esoteric art of changing reality, have long used symbols for their own purposes. One thing you can do to express an idea in a concise way is to make a sigil.

If you’ve ever tried to create a monogram, you already know what a sigil is. Basically, it turns a set of ideas, or a sequence of words (like your name), into one concrete, identifiable symbol. In magic, you do this with the letters of a phrase – like ‘find a new car’ or ‘smash the patriarchy’ – that represents your aim; you then remove duplicate letters and condense it down into a doodle-like design that embodies that aim.  You can then use the sigil as a focus for your mental and physical energy to bring it about.  The best known proponent of this method was the celebrated twentieth-century artist and occultist, Austin Osman Spare, but in recent times it’s been enthusiastically taken up and refined by the practitioners of the post-modern, eclectic field known as Chaos Magick.

You don’t have to use the regular alphabet. Prince, while not a magician in quite the usual sense, created a powerful sigil of his own philosophy on life and music in the symbol he used in place of his name.  Back in history, at a time when being able to write at all was esoteric, Norse and Saxon magic-makers combined the angular, incised letters of their own writing system, the runes, to create sigils – known as bindrunes – for various purposes. (In Iceland, where the most direct descendants of the Vikings live, they’re still popular – and still on a rock star theme, one Bjork Gudmundsdottir has a striking tattoo of one, a protective symbol known as the Vegvisir.)

You can also make sigils from basic symbolic shapes, and this is the method used by Laura Tempest Zakroff, a Pagan writer who blogs for the religious site Patheos. Zakroff recently created, with her workshop participants, a series of sigils designated to support the efforts of activists against the current US political regime and its abuses. She’s given permission for these sigils to be shared as widely as possible under a Creative Commons licence, and used in whatever ways anyone sees fit. This is her sigil for building community:

image

She describes here how it was created, and exactly what the different components mean. There are also links to the other symbols and the story behind the series. (If you can get hold of it, her book on the subject, Sigil Witchery, is well worth a read.)

And here’s a version I copied and filled in with my own doodles and colours. This is one good way to empower a symbol, and it’s the simplest method to try yourself. (If you draw it on a postcard, you can always leave it in a library book or in another public place for someone to pick up.)

image

There are lots of other ways to put the energy of a symbol out there. Here are some possibilities…

– Chalk it on a sidewalk or other flat public surface.
– Delineate it on the ground in flower petals (from the local area, and gathered, not plucked), twigs, or wild bird seed.
– If you have access to a garden or plot, sow flower seeds or bulbs in the shape of your symbol.
– Use makeup or body paint to draw it on your skin.
– If you’re near a beach, draw it on the sand and leave it for the waves to wash it away.
– Outline it in tea lights. (Never leave lit flames unattended! This one is more suitable for protests or other events where people will be constantly in attendance.)
– Get people to stand in the shape of the symbol. If you can, photograph this arrangement from a high vantage point and share it on social media.
– Cook food in the shape of the symbol – maybe ice it onto a cake or cookies. Then share it around so the energy can be consumed.

You can probably think of your own ideas.  Stay within the law, don’t harm the environment, but apart from that, use your imagination.   Because changing times demand new symbols, and new ways of expressing them.

A…country of one’s own?

So. We’re having one of the driest, hottest summers in living memory here in the UK. England got kicked out of the World Cup (kudos here to those lads, and to the dapper and personable Mr Gareth Southgate, who may have restored some of our collective faith in non-toxic masculinity).

And oh, yes, the political crud piles on in its monstrous, mostly orange with tinges of Russian red (which sounds like something you’d need to go to the ER with) and sometimes Brexit-coloured, viscosity. The sole relief being the scathing humour that the good people of Britain, and especially, of Scotland, put into their protests against the visit of the alleged POTUS the other week:

image

In recent months, your Magpie has been pondering whether there’s anywhere in the world the average person can now go that isn’t a hotbed of fascism, misery, misogyny and scapegoating of the poor and vulnerable. By ‘average person’, I mean someone who doesn’t have an advanced degree and/or any specialised in-demand job skills, which are common requirements for entry to many countries. There’s also the small matter of disability or chronic health issues, which disqualify one from, for example, Canada. There really are depressingly few options when you look into it.

I’m tempted to side with Emily Brontë, who knew a bit about freedom, and whose poem, ‘To Imagination’, contains these lines:

So hopeless is the world without,
The world within I doubly prize;
Thy world where guile and hate and doubt
And cold suspicion never rise;
Where thou and I and Liberty
Have undisputed sovereignty.

Emily, her sisters Charlotte and Anne, and her brother Branwell, were connoisseurs of the ‘world within’; they worked on their fictional realms of Gondal and Angria well into adulthood. Many writers have not just invented fantasy kingdoms in childhood, but grown up to invent further imaginary realms, and turned them into books that have given millions of others an escape route: think of Middle Earth, Narnia, Oz, Earthsea, Westeros, the Discworld…

We could create a country in our heads, of course, and do all the things people do with such countries: draw maps of it, give its people languages (perhaps Tolkien’s ultimate motive for his books, and something he recognised in other writers as ‘the secret vice’), invent a history for it, devise lists of kings and battles and…But short of tornadoes or magic wardrobes, we can only live in that kind of country in our imaginations. And, important as imagination is, for hope’s sake, we want a country we can also actually inhabit in the here and now.

We could claim a little portion of the planet as our own and form a micronation. It’s been done before. But if we all did that, we’d just end up with a lot of tiny isolated spots of land. All the Magpie has at her disposal, territorially speaking, is a small piece of Norfolk mostly filled with books, paint, fabric and dust bunnies, which isn’t much to go on.

However, you can be a nation, or tribe, or clan, call it what you will, without a territory. The Kurds are the largest and best known group in this situation. But as many nations with territories show, you don’t have to be ethnically related to constitute a nation; you just have to share a common ethos, a set of goals and principles.

So I am creating a nation, an imagi-nation maybe, but a tool for playing with the idea of belonging. Let’s call it a ubiquitous nation. Not so much a utopia, which means ‘nowhere’, but a pantopia, which can exist anywhere. Meaning, if you’re a citizen, its territory is wherever you are.

I thought long and hard about what to name it. Countries with land generally get named after the races or tribes who inhabit them, or their ‘discoverer’ (generally the first white person to stumble on a country that people with other skin colours have been inhabiting for thousands of years), or the monarch who paid for that person’s boat. Or they’re named after the local fauna or flora, rivers or mountains, or the valuable loot said discoverer finds there, or hopes to (which is where we got Côte d’Ivoire and Argentina).

I wanted to take a different tack. I did a bit of digging around in Greek and Latin roots, since those tend to be where a lot of our country names derive from, and came across the Greek word perithoria. It means borders or margins.

I was actually vaguely looking for something that meant ‘without borders’. But this works. Creative misfits do inhabit the margins, along with a lot of other people often neglected by the chasers of wealth and prestige. Liminality is an important skill – if they can’t categorise you as one thing or the Other, you’re winning.

So, welcome to the nation of Perithoria. If you choose to belong, you are now a Perithorian. There’s no oath of allegiance, although you can make up your own ceremony if you feel it helps.

Neither do we have a ruler. I’m certainly not putting myself forward for that role, as I’m somewhat lacking in Royal dignity (and suitable hats), and I don’t fancy being a politician either. Nor should anyone else claim any sort of title, or at least, not the kind that gives you any power over other Perithorians. If we need to make any decisions about how to run this setup, they should probably involve talking sticks, food fights, or the fine Inuit art of singing insults at each other (which is as near as dammit what happens in some parliaments anyway).

The card that affirms your Perithorian nationality is available freely to anyone who wants one. But since we’re not that other country, ours is a Purple Card. Print this out, add your photo and details, and feel free to decorate it with paints, pens, glitter (eco-friendly, please), or whatever else you like.

image

Are there laws you have to obey as citizens of this nation, then? Of course there are, because laws are essential to a civilised society. But Perithoria also recognises that if you’re a grown-up, you are capable of working out quite a lot of moral issues for yourself. So there are only two laws:
1. Do something creative every day. If it makes people smile or helps them feel better, that’s cool, but be creative anyway.
2. This one is best summed up by that fine Australian, comedian and disability advocate, Adam Hills:

image

The national bird of Perithoria is, of course, the magpie. The national animal, I think, ought to be the raccoon. This adorable masked bandito makes its living by going through other people’s trash, which isn’t too far from what the outsiders and misfits of human society have to do – or in some cases choose to do, since the mainstream culture is profligate in what it throws away. It’s discarded some pretty important moral principles in the last few years, so we might as well fish them out, dust them down and see if we can’t put them to better use.

I haven’t yet decided whether or not we have a national flower, but I’m open to suggestions. Neither am I quite sure when our national day ought to be, so I’d appreciate input on that. Also, if you have any contributions to our joint folklore, ceremony, postage stamps, or any other accoutrement of a collective identity, ideas are welcome.

We do, I thought, need a flag, and this is what I came up with. Blue for truth, and for the precious planet we live on; a fiery heart for the passion that’s necessary to change anything. Simple but effective, I hope.

image

I wasn’t sure what our national anthem should be, and then one night it was revealed to me. No, not by a man on a flaming pie, as John Lennon once said the name ‘Beatles’ came to him, but thanks to a long involved dream I can’t even remember, at the culmination of which I woke up with this 80s classic in my head. I was never sure of its meaning back in the day (apparently it’s a protest against anti-pogoing rules in clubs at the time), but I loved the song, and the rather jolly folk-pagan video. And I think it’s appropriate. Fascists don’t dance – they goose-step. And if they don’t dance, we probably should be suspicious of them.

So here is the national anthem of Perithoria – ‘The Safety Dance’, by Men Without Hats. You don’t have to stand for it, or even kneel, but dancing is of course encouraged. If you want to.

Tread softly…

Today is June 13th, which in ancient Greece was the festival of the Muses. Appropriately enough, it’s also the birthday of the poet, WIlliam Butler Yeats.

image

This Magpie has been an aficionado of Yeats since I first found a volume of his collected poems in my school library. He had a fascinating life: born in Ireland, living in England for some years, caught up in the tumultuous events of the birth of the Irish nation (in large part thanks to his long years of unrequited passion for the darling of the revolutionary movement, Maud Gonne), a linchpin of the Celtic Revival movement, and the co-founder of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre. While best known as a poet, he also wrote many plays, some of them combining ancient Irish folklore and his own mysticism with elements of Japanese Noh theatre, which he developed a fascination for; he collected and retold Irish folktales along with his long-time friend and patron, Lady Augusta Gregory. He was also a member of the Golden Dawn ritual magical order, under the title Frater D.E.D.I. – Deus Est Diabolus Inversus, ‘God is the Devil reversed’ – and knew, and was often at loggerheads with, the notorious Aleister Crowley. He wrote a book, A Vision, outlining a unique theory of history and spiritual revelation, based on channeling sessions with his wife, Georgie. Oh, and to top that off, in his later years he was a Senator in the Irish Parliament, and he won a Nobel Prize for literature.

(This is probably a good moment to mention that as a teenager, I had a massive crush on him. Hey, it’s better than my other dead poet crush of the time, Lord Byron…)

Naming my favourite Yeats poem is near impossible; there are just so many. But one that caught my eye back then, is the one I decided to treat appropriately and actually embroider….

image

A lot of Yeats’ poems feature imagery of embroidery, something I like to think may be down to his sisters, Lolly and Lily, and their involvement with the Arts and Crafts movement; there was a lot of needlepoint going on in the Yeats household (as well as painting; both his father and brother Jack were celebrated artists). The landscape below the poem here is of Ben Bulben, the mountain in Co. Sligo, Yeats’ mother’s ancestral home, which is the subject of one of his last poems, and under which he’s buried in the churchyard at Drumcliff. I’ve never been there, but it’s on my bucket list.

The dreams of Aedh, the archetypal speaker of the poem (really Yeats himself) are to do with the love of a lady. One gets the feeling that like Yeats himself, he’s going to get hurt, no matter how lightly the lady treads. (Maud rather strung Yeats along for many years, entering into a ‘sacred marriage’ with him which may or may not have involved sex, and finally letting him propose, rather creepily, to her teenage daughter – who also turned him down.) But there are other ways to trample on someone’s dreams, and they may be harsher and more blatant.

Not everyone appreciates embroidery. For part of the time I was stitching this – it took literally years, thanks to the procrastination we know and love – I was at art college. My tutor at the time was an odious little man who took an instant dislike to me. (I later found out, from a friend who’d known him at another college a few years previously, that there, they called him ‘Tripod’ because of his habit of sleeping with students. He wasn’t good-looking and had no other endearing personal qualities, so I can only conclude it was some sort of racket by which only the girls he deemed hot enough to approach could get decent marks from him.)

When, like an idiot, I brought this piece in to show him, at the time when I was putting my portfolio together, his response was a sneering: ‘Oh, yes, very nice. It’ll get you into the Women’s Institute, but it won’t get you onto a degree course.’

Yesterday, there was discussion on the radio of whether or not enough support is given to British university students with mental health issues. Back then, there was no such support – or if there was, I didn’t know about it. I was away from home for the first time, confused about how I was supposed to be deciding which degree to go on to (and not getting any help with that either), and my parents were fighting tooth and nail for me to give up this art nonsense and get a ‘proper’ job. Added to which, I was desperate to be in a relationship and, socially awkward as I was, failing miserably on that front.

I won’t say Tripod’s comment was the straw that broke the camel’s back…but it definitely didn’t do anything to give me any more confidence. Come the interviews I was due for, I couldn’t face getting out of bed. My parents, pretending not to be delighted, came to the college to argue with the head of Foundation that no, I really shouldn’t be ‘forced’ to complete the course.

It was over a decade before I got my artistic mojo back (and almost another decade before I got medicated for my depression and anxiety, but that’s another story).

The creative urge, especially in its first faint sparkings, is a fragile thing. It’s hard to kill completely; but it can too easily be crushed and stunted. I’ve lost count of the people I’ve met who were told as kids that they ‘couldn’t’ draw, paint, sing, dance, write, act…whatever, and who went through life hiding their supposedly mediocre abilities. Often, they’re actually very talented people, whose only crime was being made to sing in a key that didn’t suit their vocal range, being forced to work in paint when their skills were in fabric, dancing with a body that didn’t fit the classical appearance, or presenting their work to someone whose prejudices or jealousies or commercial interests made them oblivious to its value.

This is one reason why I don’t watch that bane of television these days, the talent show. They’re not your mother’s Opportunity Knocks (gosh, is anyone else old enough to remember that?) any more. There’s an awful relish in the way the contestants, especially the ones in the early stages, get picked to pieces.

A fringe director I knew used to tell the actors she yelled at – some of them tiny little children – that ‘This is how the world of theatre works – get used to it!’ It might work that way, but why the hell should it have to? We also tell kids they need to ‘toughen up’ to endure bullying, when what we should really be doing is creating a world in which they don’t have to be ‘tough’ in that way.

Do I think everyone’s brilliant at everything? Not by any means. But people can be taught to improve at whatever they’ve set their mind to do, without beating them down so hard they’ll never be able to drag themselves up again. Good teachers know how to do this. And just plain creating for the love of it shouldn’t be knocked. (Yeats himself used to hold salons where he chanted his poems to the music of a dulcimer, despite being notoriously tone-deaf.)
And while I don’t believe in hell, if such a destination existed, I think there’d be a special place in it for those who sneer at such efforts.

Of course, we can also be our own worst critics. So check if you haven’t been trampling any of your own creative dreams underfoot…and tread carefully.

Prince with a Thousand Enemies

(WARNING: This post contains spoilers for Watership Down. And references to animal suffering. Proceed with caution…)

Easter is almost here. And while this is most obviously a Christian festival (more about that later), it’s also – in the modern, small-p pagan sense – a celebration of the arrival of Spring, in the northern hemisphere. Which means imagery of eggs, chicks, lambs, and of course…bunnies.

As with so many folk customs, nobody’s really sure where the Easter Bunny originated. It seems to have Germanic roots, but beyond that, we can’t say. One thing worth mentioning is that the original ‘bunny’ probably wasn’t a rabbit, but a hare; rabbits were introduced to England by the Romans, but the hare was around before that. Legend has it that our own local Celtic queen, Boudicca, released a hare and watched its movements to predict the course of battle, in the name of her goddess, Andraste.

You can see hares out on the fields on these Spring mornings, usually alone or in pairs. They are beautiful things, rather bigger than rabbits, with those massive powerful back legs. (The ‘boxing’ you may witness at this time of year is actually the female making a likely male prove his strength, before they both get down to making baby hares.)

But the Magpie lives in a part of East Anglia where rabbits – which unlike hares, come in large quantities – are also very much in evidence, thanks to the local medieval nobility having kept their own warrens. We even have areas where there’s a tendency to black rabbits. People think they’re escaped pets, but they’re a natural genetic quirk. They don’t last long in the wild thanks to their high visibility, but it’s pleasantly startling to suddenly see them, against the greens and browns of the countryside that provide better camouflage for their more traditionally pigmented relatives.

British folks of a certain age may remember being traumatised as kids by a film called Watership Down, adapted from the novel by Richard Adams, which tells the story of a band of rabbits forced to find a new home when their warren is destroyed. I was nine when I went to see it. At the scene where the big bruiser rabbit, Bigwig, was struggling in a snare in a torrent of foam and blood, I fled. While my older and less squeamish cousin calmly sat munching Maltesers down the front, I watched the rest of the film peering round the toilet door at the back of the cinema.

It was around that time that I decided that going into the veterinary business, an ambition of mine up till then, probably wasn’t for me.

A bad joke of the time comes to mind: Watership Down: you’ve read the book, you’ve seen the film…now eat the cast. Jokes aside, I did later see the film under more comfortable circumstances, and read the book, and I’ve also been to the location, a real place in Hampshire. The movie is worth watching at any time of year, but especially now; the animation is stunning, the cast star-studded (I love Hazel, voiced by the late John Hurt), and it’s all set off with the music of the genius Angela Morley, who saved the day by composing all but a fragment of the score in three weeks. (Ms. Morley had a pretty amazing story of her own, which you can read more about here.

One of my favourite parts is the prologue telling the rabbits’ own origin myth. Their God is Lord Frith, the sun, which makes perfect sense if you’ve ever seen a warren at morning or evening when the sun is low and they all come out to graze (silflay, as Adams’ Lapine language calls it). Frith creates the world and its creatures, including the father of all rabbits, El-ahrairah. And while Frith makes the world a dangerous place for the rabbit and his descendants, he also gives gifts to help them live in it, and a promise:

All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies; and whenever they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you – listener, digger, runner, Prince with the swift warning. Be cunning, and full of tricks, and your people will never be destroyed.

image

 

Rabbits do have a great many natural predators, and we humans are perhaps the worst. We’ve used them for food for millennia; we’ve destroyed their warrens when we wanted land, as happens in the book; and when they interfered with our agricultural aims, we took devastating action.  Myxomatosis (don’t look at this link unless you have a strong stomach) exists in nature, but back in the 1950s – in Britain, Australia and other countries – we introduced it deliberately into rabbit populations to control them. It is a truly horrible disease, and if you look at what it does, you can’t help concluding that humans are a bit shit. We wiped out ninety per cent of the rabbits in the UK with this bacterium.  The fox and the weasel couldn’t hope to do anything as lethal.

But then there’s Frith’s promise. Rabbits are as plentiful today here as they ever were. They developed resistance, and they breed…well, like rabbits. (And rabbits have another trick up their sleeves, in that they don’t breed totally indiscriminately; when conditions are hard, the does can re-absorb embryos, so they don’t bear kittens they may not be able to support. We should maybe work on developing that skill.)

Here’s an interesting piece of symbolism, then. We have a creature that’s scapegoated as a troublemaker, that’s subjected to horrible torture and death…but which always manages to resurrect itself. Remind you of anyone? It’s perhaps surprising that rabbits haven’t cropped up in Christian imagery. (Their cousins, hares, have done so; some old churches include carvings of the triple hare, three hares joined by the ears, symbolising the Trinity.) But it’s maybe appropriate that they ended up as symbols of Easter anyway, whatever you see the festival as representing.

It’s been pointed out that there are elements of Watership Down that echo Old Testament narrative – notably, the Hebrews’ liberation from Egypt and journey to the Promised Land. And some have seen overtones, too, in the totalitarian nightmare of Efrafa, ruled by the iron paw of the tyrannical General Woundwort, of later Nazi persecution, although Adams denied that he ever had that allegory in mind. And Passover, that Jewish celebration of liberation, is also tied to this time of year.

For this Pagan, anyway, seeing rabbits out in the countryside always gives me a sense of hope. The very persistence of these small creatures – cute and fluffy, sure, but capable of clawing and biting, and as anyone who’s owned a pet rabbit and electrical equipment with cables will tell you, gnawing through practically anything – is a picture of life surviving in spite of the odds. Biologist Dougal Dixon, in his book After Man, even pictures rabbits surviving human extinction and evolving into deer-like animals; it is, he points out, the creatures we see as ‘vermin’ that are the truly successful ones.

At the end of Watership Down, the leader of the rabbits, Hazel, now old, is invited by El-ahrairah to join his Owsla, or warren council. The younger rabbits are by now being told stories of his exploits, and now he too becomes part of the mythology himself. We all become stories, eventually.  But the book ends as it began, with primroses and the return of Spring. The cycle continues. Life goes on. And that, after all, is what matters.

The mother of all relationships?

This weekend saw us celebrating Mothers’ Day in the UK. The Magpie hasn’t raised any fledglings of her own, and my mother passed over some years ago, so this was mainly an occasion for spoiling my mother-in-law (who’s a sweetie). But it’s not a bad time to look beyond the flowers, chocolates and cards with cute kittens on them. Because motherhood is a lot more complicated and messy than that.

While the US has its own version of this festival later in the year, ours is much older, and didn’t originally have its modern connotations. Mothering Sunday was, in Christian tradition, when you went to visit your ‘mother’ church, the one you were baptised at. While you were there, it was logical that since you didn’t get much time off work, you’d pop in on the woman who actually gave birth to you, if she was still around. It became traditional to take her a posy of flowers, or a cake – the Simnel cake, topped with marzipan and often eaten at Easter a few weeks later, became associated with Mothering Sunday in England. The greeting card industry didn’t get in on the act till a lot later, but here we are now, with floral sausage dog baskets and pink spa products coming out of our collective ears.

‘Mother Church’ – more often for Catholics, the organisation itself – is only one way motherhood has been used as a symbol. A Mother Superior heads a convent; a matron (from the Latin mater, mother) oversees (or used to) a hospital ward. Your Alma Mater, ‘dear mother’, is the school or university you attended (if it was a posh one). Your motherland is where you were born; your mother tongue is your native language. In biology, a mother cell splits to produce daughters; a mother culture is used to brew fermented products like kefir. Metals come from a mother lode, and precious stones are embedded in a matrix of base rock. Ideas of origin, containment and nurturing authority are all summed up in this way.

Human motherhood is often lauded as the pinnacle of relationships. After all, you can’t get more intimate than having literally grown inside someone. As mammals, and as primates, an intense physical and emotional mother-child bond was what enabled us to survive. We’re told that mother-love is pure, unconditional. We talk about a ‘face only a mother could love’. Our culture used to deify maternity in the form of Mary, the immaculate and ever-loving Mother of Jesus and by extension, of all believers. These days, we more often see perfect mother-and-baby shots in celebrity magazines: the babies contentedly snoozing, the mothers perfectly coiffed and beaming, the surroundings invariably spotless. You almost expect to see cherubs fluttering around with swags of flowers.

There are two snags to this idyllic picture, though. One is that motherhood is, as I’ve observed from watching many of the women I’ve known go through it, damned hard. Neither statues of the Blessed Virgin nor celeb photo shoots give any indication of stretch marks, vomiting, the literal bloody mess of childbirth itself, pacing up and down at 2 am desperately longing for sleep, screaming meltdowns in supermarkets, homework, puberty…and that’s in the best case scenario, assuming no complications like divorce or disability or extreme poverty or any of the other random shit life can throw at us.

And yet, she persisted…and the human race goes on. But painting a pretty, idealised picture of motherhood makes light of just what hard work it is.

And from the other side, idealising mothers themselves isn’t great either. It’s rightly been argued that we shouldn’t expect anyone to be a ‘perfect’ mother – such a thing does not exist, and couldn’t – but being a ‘good enough’ mother is a worthy goal. What does that mean? Hard to define, but if your kid has reached adulthood passably happy and reasonably healthy, is doing something good for society, and hasn’t taken up serial killing or eaten Tide pods, you probably did OK.

But there are mothers who fall short of ‘good enough’. The obvious ones, who beat their kids to a pulp, or look the other way when their partners abuse them, or scream at them non-stop. And the less obvious, who manipulate the child, who see them as a status symbol, or a carer, or a fan club, or a sticking-plaster for a bad relationship, or a burden, or…anything, really, except a small human being who’s utterly dependent on them for love and support. We don’t like to accept that there are mothers like this – so, every Mothers’ Day, we sweep them under the carpet and keep up the ideal. We forget that that maternal word matrix is also the name for a series of movies in which people were deceived into thinking their world was real. And that many mammals eat thir own young.

image

So, this day leaves out a lot of people. Kids, who were abused, who grew up in the dubiously named ‘care’ system, whose mothers died, or left, or were mentally ill, or addicted, or just assholes. Who were adopted, or raised by their grans or aunts or older siblings, or by their dad, on his own. And mothers, or not-mothers: those who couldn’t conceive, whose longed-for babies died in the womb, or were stillborn, who terminated pregnancies for whatever reason, who were forced to give babies up for adoption. Or whose versions of motherhood don’t fit society’s template: the woman who chooses to have a child by donor and raise them alone, the lesbian mums, the trans mum, the woman who chooses to be a surrogate. Not to mention women who consciously decide that having children just isn’t for them, thanks.

Paganism often sees the Goddess as having three aspects: Maiden, Mother and Crone. Letting aside that Goddesses, and women, have many more aspects than that, it’s perhaps significant that we don’t have the equivalent of a Maidens’ Day or a Crones’ Day anywhere in the calendar. Our culture loves young women as long as they’re cute and don’t act too liberated, and it fears and loathes powerful older women. In between, however, the only real role it has for us is the nurturing role, and heaven help us if we step outside that stereotype. They hate it when mothers get uppity and start asking for things like rights. But that, as anyone who knows anything about mammals knows, is part of the deal of motherhood: fighting like hell against anyone who wants to harm your cubs, whether that’s big business or rape culture. There have been more and more women on the recent protest marches toting babies or with kids in tow. They know it’s the future they’re marching for.

On the other side, what of those of us for whom the slew of cards praising those loving mothers we didn’t have, leaves a bad taste in our mouths? There are ways to cope. A counsellor said to me, a few years back: ‘You have to be your own best mother now.’ That’s sensible advice for anyone who feels the lack of good mothering.

So how do you mother yourself? You look at what good mothering involves, and do that for yourself.

Nurturing: Babies have to be selfish or they’d never survive, and a good mother knows she has to drop everything and attend to that wailing bundle. While our adult needs aren’t quite so urgent, they can be equally basic. Have you been eating regularly, something other than takeaways? Are you getting enough sleep? Staying hydrated? Taking any meds you need to take? Gently make sure you’re looking after those things before you attend to anyone else. (This also applies if you have kids of your own, on the oxygen mask principle: if you look after yourself, you’re more able to look after them.)

Protecting: Here’s the mother-bear stuff. You need and deserve boundaries. Good mums make sure let their kids don’t run out into the road; you, as an adult, can make sure you don’t do things that have a greater than average chance of actually harming you (and as an adult, you may be a better judge of what those things are). Where you can, learn to say no to the things (and people) you know aren’t good for you.

Loving: Do you actually love yourself? Many of us don’t show it often enough. Do mirror work – actually look into your own eyes in a mirror and tell yourself those loving things you want to hear. This takes practice; don’t be surprised if you laugh, or cry, when you first do this. It’s powerful stuff. It takes some of us a very long time to learn that we’re worthy of love; use any therapy or self-help techniques that help you towards this.

You might even consider – whether you normally receive Mothers’ Day cards or not – buying yourself one when it next comes round. Maybe some flowers. Or chocolates. Or whatever tells you that you’re someone special. Because if you’re taking the time, as an adult, to give yourself the mothering you didn’t receive earlier on, then, dammit, you are pretty special. And that’s also something worth celebrating, right?